Why I Don’t Like Highlander

Instead of feeding into the Eldar Codex rumors/lamenting/wailing and gnashing of teeth that are currently making their way across the internet, I thought I’d talk about something entirely while I wait for the physical codex to actually drop.

Specifically Highlander-style games, and why I really, really don’t like the format.

That is, of course, not to say that if you like playing Highlander games you shouldn’t play them. You should play whatever you like. Highlander, Combat Patrol, Unbound MultiCAD NOVA-style Face Stomping Lists…do what you like.

That being said, Highlander seems to be gaining a lot of traction as the “fluffy” format of choice, and the default assumption if you don’t like it is that you’re looking for something more actively competitive. And given a previous post or two one would think I was down with most less than hyper-competitve modes of play.

But I really don’t like Highlander.

I suppose the first question is: What is Highlander?

Basically, Highlander is referring to the famous line from the film of the same name: “There can be only one.” Essentially, every army is a 0-1 unique unit, but you can take redundant troops if you’ve already taken one of every other troop type.

Which brings me to the first thing I don’t like about Highlander. It’s not a standard format, which means there aren’t universal rules for it. And while “There can only be one” makes for an excellent sound bite, it doesn’t fully describe the composition. What do you do about Knight armies? What about dedicated transports? Formations that involve redundant units? For Inquisitorial and Harlequin armies, do elites count as troops?

I’m an academic, I move a lot, which means I really value portability in my gaming. Highlander…isn’t that.

The second reason is that one of the ways I like to play is basically, well, the opposite of Highlander. As you might have noticed from my post on themed armies, I favor a lot of redundancy in units in pursuit of that theme. I’m not taking Wrath* units in an Eldar army, or Scouts in my Space Marine force. If I’m doing Air Mobile Guard, there are going to be Valkyries and Vendettas. Highlander, while an interesting way to play, is essentially the anti-theme – it’s entirely a contextless way to build your force.

The third issue is that I don’t think people have critically asked whether or not Highlander games meet the theoretical objective of negating some of the spammy/hardcore lists in a way that will necessarily result in a more “balanced” game. Fortunately, there are some Highlander tournament results coming out that may be amendable to finding this out, but whenever you shift the way the game is played, all you actually do is shift the meta. For example, Maelstrom missions promote highly mobile, objective secured armies over those that are just relentlessly aggressive. Similarly, there are some armies with extremely flexible, diverse and powerful Troops selections that were only really supposed to have 0-1 choices for a lot of things (the Eldar come to mind). Other armies are essentially flat for troops choices – Sisters of Battle – and some don’t necessarily want to dwell on some of their troops choices much, and do want to build up some strength from other sources.

Highlander changes the meta toward armies with strong, diverse Troop selections, and away from armies built on redundancy. While definitely a new way to play the game, think there’s some unspoken – and as yet unverified – assumptions about what it brings to the game.

The third is definitely something that might be true, and I’m looking forward to doing some number crunching to see if it is, but even if it alters the meta perfectly toward what folks want Highlander to accomplish, it still isn’t portable, and is basically the opposite of playing to a theme, or even the pretense of one.


  1. The correct quotation is “There can be only one.”


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