TL;DR: They’re good at injecting flavor into the game, are fun in small quantities, but when deployed en masse break the game.
This started as what was just going to be a flippant post to the Variance Hammer Facebook page, but on the drive home things…took a turn. So here we are, talking about how Command Points, and the problems with them, run pretty parallel to the problems 7th edition had with the Psychic phase.
But What About Formations?
“Wait!” You say. “Command Points and Stratagems replaced formations, everyone knows this!”
From a gameplay and source of mechanics perspective, this is correct. Command Points and Stratagems replaced Formations as “The expandable way to inject army-specific feel and special rules into the game”. But it’s not the intent of a mechanic, or what role it fills, that is often problematic. Sometimes, it’s the mechanic itself – and that’s where we hit the 7th edition psychic phase.
Looking back on my 7th edition retrospective, I had this to say about the Psychic phase:
I get what GW was trying to do with the psychic phase. Turning it into a mini-game with interaction on both sides and a little more strategy than it just being a “buff up and occasionally attack” phase. And with two or three Mastery Levels per side, it was enjoyable enough.
The problem was that it did not scale. As the number of warp charges goes up, powers become cumbersome to generate and to case. Everything slowed down, and because of the sheer volume of psykers on the field, the interaction of being able to try to Deny the Witch fades away under the avalanche of things being cast. And on the defense, there comes a point where, with enough dice being thrown, even needing 6’s doesn’t provide an obstruction to shutting down an opponent’s phase if they only have a caster or two.
Whether or not that’s “balanced” it’s anti-fun – you sit there while your opponent rolls dice, and with two, three, or four Mastery Levels being functionally equivalent to none, you sit there staring at your Librarian going “Why did I even bother?”
When it comes to it, the psychic phase when it was a Librarian vs. a Farseer, or a Chaos Sorcerer throwing down against a Rune Priest, was fun. It added a twist, it could push or pull units in particular directions, and allowed a player to concentrate a bit of force multiplying power on a particular unit.
But certain armies had access to lots of power dice, and that’s when things got bad. I asserted at the time that the psychic phase wasn’t fun for three reasons:
- Having access to lots of powers boosted units well past their “standard” strength
- There was no interaction with your opponent – this was just something that happened to you
- There were few/no counters available
Do those elements seem…a little familiar?
The Problem with Command Points
There’s two problems, as I see it, with Command Points as a game mechanic: 1) They’re deterministic. 2) They don’t involve interaction. Let’s talk about each of these in turn:
Deterministic: As opposed to stochastic (or random), deterministic processes have a predictable outcome. Most of Warhammer 40K is random – you can say what should happen, but not what will happen. Indeed, the entire existence of this blog is predicated on that fact. But by and large, Stratagems are not – you spend your points, you get your effect. Sure, some of these effects are themselves random, but many of them are not. The units hiding in the Webway show up. Your lone surviving Space Wolf goes on a rampage. You get your extra artifact. Your dying Knight can make that last shooting attack…you get the idea.
Now this isn’t, inherently, a problem.
But it does make other problems worse.
Because deterministic elements of the game are easy to optimize against. A long, long time ago in a Forge the Narrative episode, Paul Murphy talked about anything you can do to make the game less random is good for a competitive player. Which means Stratagems are particularly useful for the competitive scene, because, by and large, they will work. This is especially true of deployment and movement related Stratagems.
This is also, incidentally, why Agents of Vect is so disruptive – it makes other Stratagems that should be deterministic not reliable. And that’s a really big deal.
No Interaction: The fastest way to “anti-fun” mechanics in 40K, in my experience, is the removal of interaction between players. Mechanics where one side is doing things, and the other side is taking models off the table. This was true for the psychic phase in 7th, and I think it was also true for a lot of the hatred the Tau got, despite being an objectively middling army. With many Stratagems, there’s a similar pattern – things just happen. There’s no meaningful way to counter them, and there’s no amount of clever game-play that will save you. And even when there is, it’s often not what people play 40K for. Even people who are good at board control seldom think back on the games of years past and go “Man, I screened those units really well…” as the story they tell with friends.
I think this aspect plays particularly poorly with the ability to front-load your CP expenditures if you so desire, and the already alpha-strike heavy nature of the game.
Did the Big FAQ II Do Enough?
Maybe. We’ll see. It dialed down the ability to generate nigh unlimited Command Points, which is definitely a start, and which did put the damper on some particular builds – but there’s still definitely armies that are awash in Command Points, and others that still treat them as precious resources. And it’s pretty clear from the new Knights that GW hasn’t quite found the happy medium between viable single-army builds using stratagems and the current preponderance of ways to cram cheap, high-CP detachments into many tournament builds (and indeed, I’d argue the ability to do that being one of the defining features of most tournament builds).
With a number of tournaments coming up, I suspect we’ll know soon.
Where Does This Leave Us?
In many ways, unfortunately, the cat is already out of the bag as far as Command Points and 8th Edition are concerned. There are a few armies with access to either massively cheap (Imperial Guard) or remarkably effective (Dark Eldar). The changes to Command Points, thus far, have made these generators better, not worse.
But there are, I think, a few interesting changes that could be considered in the future:
- Army-wide vs. Faction Specific CPs. A battle forged army has some CPs that can move around and use for anything, but other CPs are locked into the same keyword that made them. Bring some cheap IG detachments? You’ve got plenty of CPs to make your guardsmen better.
- Moving toward a Kill Team-style CP system, where they’re generated per turn, rather than available all at once. That at least spreads out the problem a little, and makes the expensive CP stratagems feel a little more precious since they’re all you might get this turn.
Personally, I’d like to see them changed because, as is, they put a huge amount of pressure to structure things as Brigade/Battalions, which I think shoehorns the other detachments into inherently gimmicky roles, rather than providing a number of different foundations to build an army off of. At the end of the day, CPs and stratagems are an interesting aspect of the game – but one that’s proven vulnerable to uneven scaling and the ease at which multiple-Codex armies can be built to exploit them.
Enjoy what you read? Enjoyed that it was ad free? Both of those things are courtesy of our generous Patreon supporters. If you’d like more quantitatively driven thoughts on 40K and miniatures wargaming, and a hand in deciding what we cover, please consider joining them.