Wargaming Tradecraft: Beginners Guide to Creating an Army List


Beginners Guide to Creating an Army List

Last week, I outlined some of the reasons that people choose armies. This week I'll talk about some tips to help you design a list.

My suggestion for getting started is take a look at some of the styles in the following article, read your rule book and do something that interests you. Play the game, learn how things work, and tweak your list. This could mean buying models you later decide you won't use... ever... but sometimes that happens.


But as a starting point, there's no harm in reading gaming books and magazines, talk to and watch other gamers, and browse the internet. (Just be aware that any of those sources, especially the internet and sometimes even the game books, could have bad information) Reading about and trying out strategies that work for other people is certainly one way to learn how an army works. As you begin to understand how that strategy works, you might even decide to change around the army list some.

Geographical Differences

The geography I mention here could be as small as the armies you and your friends play compared to the local store, or how your city plays compared to one hours away. Here's what throws a monkey wrench in all tactical planning:

A list or strategy that works in one place, might not work somewhere else. There are a few reasons for this - the biggest one being the lists you're playing against. If most of the people you play use certain types of armies, and you end up making a list that works well against them, you might end up playing strangers somewhere who play completely different lists that you're just not ready for. Terrain is another factor - some places use lots of terrain, other places use much less.

For this reason, creating generic lists are better if you don't know what you'll be up against, while specialized lists can be more reliable if you know your opponents.

For example: Playing against Nids, Khorne, Orcs, Necrons and close combat Marines a lot taught me to rely on my Footdar, an often laughed at strategy. We played big games, so there wasn't room to run away... (4 player 2000 + 2000 vs 2000 + 2000 on an 8' x 4' table) this meant instead of going mobile, I built a very shooty army with a mix of long, medium and short range weapons. However, the same list didn't perform nearly as well when up against Imperials or Tau.

Game Size

Relative strength in the trained men of the armies of Europe [1914]
Armies tend to be built using a point system with every model having an assigned point value. This is how you can have even matches using completely different troops. Games are usually played at certain point ranges for smaller skirmish battles to larger ones.

It's best to start with a smaller army while you learn the game, then slowly add models. This way you won't get overwhelmed by all the rules and having to remember too many things at once.

For example, Warhammer 40,000 sizes tend to start at 500pts and go up to 1000, 1500 and 2000pts. Meanwhile, Warmachine and Hordes battles are around 15, 25, 35 and 50pts.

Aspects of an Army


Range is worth talking about, because it affects how you choose your troops. I always liked to think of it this way:
  • Long range troops are IMMEDIATELY useful.
    • The moment the game starts, they're doing their job. (Unless there's enough terrain on the table to block lines of sight)
  • Short range troops only get used around turn 3. (Unless they're meant to die)
    • They better be really useful, to make up for all the time they're not doing anything.

Army Size

As with all things, for every up there is a down. Larger armies tend to be able to overwhelm the enemy and there's so many of them, it's hard to get to or shoot targets you'd want to. You can easily cover the table and reach objectives and there are so many troops you barely notice when they die. But, large armies are usually filled with weaker troops, there's a lot more to keep track of, things take longer, and template weapons (explosions, flame throwers, etc) tend to hit more guys at once.

For a newer player, smaller armies can be much more manageable. Models tend to be stronger, so they last a little while longer as you learn to play. There's also less to worry about, allowing you to learn what you have sooner.

Model Size

Something to keep in mind as you're building an army is the physical size of your models. People tend to all be the same size, but there are smaller creatures as well as larger monsters, robots and vehicles. Taller models can see over smaller ones and some terrain, allowing them to shoot (and be shot at by!) more targets. Smaller models are able to avoid being shot easier. The base size also affects how many models can be in close combat at once - smaller bases being able to swarm larger ones. Vehicles can also have problems trying to get through lots of terrain.

Gaming Style

To do a quick recap from last week's topic of Choosing an Army, every force has certain things it's good and bad at. The following was an example list of some of these things:

Stronger troopsHigh point value (Smaller armies)
Low point values (Larger armies)Weaker troops
Agile, hard to hitEasy to kill when hit
Armour, difficult to killSlower, easier to hit
Extremely powerful weaponsShorter range
Long Range FirepowerPerform poorly at close range
Excellent in close combatFewer shooting weapons
Lots of attacks / shotsDo less damage
Extremely useful modelLimited amount per army

Once again, positives and negatives don't necessarily match up.

Stereotypical Armies

Here's a bunch of ways that armies often work with descriptions of their strengths (+) and weaknesses. (-) Armies can usually be built to different stereotypes, and good armies usually have a mix.
  • Barbarians
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    • + "Wind up, point at enemy, and... that's it really." - Mike
    • + These armies are easy to learn and play, often relying on Bricks, Swarms and/or Super Soldiers to get the job done. Just go full force at your opponent.
    • + Either target their dangerous stuff first then cleanup the weaker things, or cripple the weak stuff fast and clean up the dangerous stuff last.
    • + Change your list up and/or set units up in different orders to be as unpredictable as you can.
    • - While strong, there's very little strategy and are very predictable.
    • - You might lose a few times against them, but pay attention to how it works and you should be able to figure out a way to beat it.
  • Bricks
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    • + These armies are hard to kill and either do lots of damage or a smaller amount of damage while being especially hard to kill.
    • + Use cover to your advantage while trying to slowly cross a battlefield. Hide your higher damage units behind your harder to kill ones.
    • - They tend to be short range or close combat only and tend to move slowly.
    • - Shoot them and stay on the move. You can usually move quicker than them and can try getting behind their tougher units to attack their weaker but higher damage ones.
  • Glass Cannon
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    • + These armies can dish out TONS of damage to almost anything they face, often but not always from long range.
    • + Prioritize your targets and kill whatever's going to hurt you first. Use cover to your advantage and tricks to keep the enemy away from you.
    • - They usually die easily when they're attacked back.
    • - Use cover so they can't see you, use longer range weapons or those that don't need line of sight, get on them as soon as you can, use mass numbers as their shots tend to be limited.
  • Invisible Enemy
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    • + A large portion of your army starts off the field, allowing you to know where your opponent is setup and surprise them when your army actually shows up. Strike from the air, underground or enter the table from the sides or rear.
    • + It's hard for enemies to make a plan when they don't know where you are. Concentrate your troops when they do come in so they're not picked off.
    • - Kill as much as you can each turn, like a gauntlet. If you have range, manoeuvrability and line of sight, your 2000 points should easily kill 250-500 points per turn.
    • - Keep your army out of striking distance of the flanks and get to the centre of the table. (If a unit moves 6", runs up to another 6" and can charge 6", be 20" in from each table edge.)
  • Long Range
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    • + They can deal lots of damage, usually to anywhere on the table.
    • + Weapons usually do blast damage and are good at taking out groups of enemies, and negating cover saves. Often excel defensively, having stronger armour than others or tougher to hit in cover or fortified locations. Vehicles usually have strong secondary weapons to use when the enemy gets in close.
    • + Never stop damaging the enemy. Your fire tends to be random, so shoot clumps of enemies, keeping shorter ranged stuff to pick off what's left.
    • - Once you reach them, your chances for winning often go up.
    • - Shots tend to be explosions and inaccurate, so spread your army out. Be aggressive and get on them as soon as you can so they risk shooting their own troops. If there a large enemy models like tanks, use them to block each others view.
  • Short Range or Stationary
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    • + Excellent at defence, close combat and short range attacks. Let the enemy come to you, then destroy them.
    • + You'll have to either cautiously advance, use cover effectively and/or entice the enemy to come to you using some form of medium or long range weapons. (Either a bunch of light attacks to slowly wear them down, or a couple very dangerous ones.)
    • - Keep line of sight on them; Short range armies can easily be destroyed by medium to long range attacks, especially if you kill their ranged attackers first and force them to come to you.
    • - Concentrate your forces and punch a hole in the middle of their army, or destroy a flank (side)... now your whole army can focus on destroying a little bit of theirs a little at a time as you move sideways across the field. Being short ranged means one side of the army can't defend the other side.
  • Super Soldiers
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    • + Every soldier is strong and excels in many areas. Both hard to kill and able to deal lots of damage.
    • + Cover will help protect you, as will units that "appear" scary whose only purpose is to be attacked and not die. Be the aggressor, you don't have time to let your troops slowly die.
    • + Often easier to manage due to their lack of numbers.
    • - These are usually smaller armies, so you'll have less troops to split between objectives and enemy units. You'll notice the loss of each model, because every death could potentially impact your plan.
    • - If you concentrate fire and wipe out a squad at a time, you can impact their overall strategy. Because these troops are so powerful, a few stragglers in a squad who are allowed to live could still complete the objective that your opponent is trying to complete.
  • Swarms
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    • + Overrun the enemy with sheer force of number... like, 4-6x as many troops as the enemy.
    • + These are usually fast moving, so get in the enemy's face as quick as you can. Since these troops are usually weaker, try not to worry about what's killed while you're advancing. Put the weakest in front to die, shielding your troops behind them. Make use of fear rules if you have any.
    • - These are usually close range and individually weak armies.
    • - Too much terrain can trip these armies up due to there being too many models to get around easily. Also can be tricky for players to keep track of everything.
    • - Shoot them with lots of attacks from long range, use template weapons (explosions, fire, etc) and attack the closest targets to try to keep as much distance between you and them as you can.
  • Ultra-Mobile
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    • + Very fast vehicles and troops who are able to move around the board quickly.
    • + Don't hold objectives, steal them as the game ends. Move out of the enemy's range, and quickly change positions on the table.
    • + Attack weak spots like stragglers, flanks and rears. This chaos and potential damage can be enough to throw off your opponents plans.
    • - These armies tend to be weaker and will die if the enemy catches up to them. 
    • - Long range weapons and destroying transports negate their ability to move around. Capture objectives and dig in. If you're going to chase them, spread out and push them into the corner of the table.
    • - Tighten your forces up, so they're covering each other better.
(Thanks to Mike for his suggestions on Facebook)

Diversity within an Army

Some armies may have enough unit options that they're good at lots of different builds. These are handy armies to choose because it means you can switch your style of playing without buying a whole new army.

Remember: "Jack of All, Master of None." Often if an army has a lot of diverse options, it's meant to be fielded that way... a single "generic" list that's not great in any one area, but can adapt during a battle to different situations. These armies can be trickier for a new player to learn as they often require you to know strategy and tricks to deploy on the battlefield.


Just choosing what you think are strong units won't be enough. Synergy is about making your army a single force to be reckoned with. It's about choosing units that support each other. The following two sentences say roughly the same thing, but concentrate on different factors.

  1. All models have flaws, you need to add things to your army to make up for its drawbacks.
  2. Figure out what you can add to your list that will make other things work better.

The first one asks you to look at what your army might be missing and try to make up for that. If you have a lot of low strength attacks, you'll probably do fine against basic infantry - now choose some things that will destroy heavy infantry and vehicles. If you've chosen a lot of close-range units, consider some long range fire  or quick moving transports.

The second sentence is about adding cherries and whipping cream to the top of your lists. Take something a unit is good at and try to make them even better at it. You're not adding a new angle, but you're certainly making their current skills much more powerful and less likely to fail when rolling the dice. Add units that make hitting the enemy easier, or you troops harder to kill. Upgrade armour values to make things even tougher.

You can approach this multiple ways, and a balance between the two concepts is usually the way to handle it. Be good enough at something while still being able to watch some of your flaws.

If you spend too much time creating a diverse army that has very few flaws, odds are it also doesn't excel at anything either. You've got some fast moving troops, but they'll be out-paced when you face an army that's actually fast. You've got some long-ranged troops, but real artillery armies take them out pretty quick. You've got some tough troops, but once they die the rest of your units fold pretty quick.

Meanwhile, if you concentrate too much on beefing up your army, then you'll have a powerful one trick pony - think rock / paper / scissors... you're Rock. Good ol' rock, nothing beats rock. This could be an army that's REALLY good at killing infantry, so good that you're practically guaranteed a win whenever you face infantry heavy armies. This can work if you always play the same opponents and they always use the same lists... but when you start playing other people or they start using other lists, you're going to find yourself in trouble when they start fielding tanks, walkers, beasts, heavy infantry, etc.

Balance in all Things (A practical example)

Using all that was just talked about, lets apply it to the Glass Cannon army.

sources: top, bottom
To review: A Glass Cannon can do LOTS of damage, but dies easily. This is an army that starts out as a one trick pony and you'll have to decide which direction to take it.

If you decide to highly specialize, then you need to maximize:
  • your range, to get as many turns of shooting the enemy as you can.
  • your firepower, to deal as much damage as you can.
  • your ability to hit, to help guarantee your shots are useful.
  • your ability to wound, preventing the enemy from getting saving throws or the benefit of multiple wounds
  • your movement, so if you have guns that can't reach right away, move your troops as close to the enemy as you can, then begin running away while still shooting back.
When things go according to plan, the specialized Glass Cannon utterly destroys things before they have a chance to hurt you. Your number of shots are often limited though, especially if you have higher strength weapons to destroy tougher opponents, so even your own dice can turn against you.

The counter to this is an army with high numbers (swarm), a battlefield with lots of terrain (cover), things that make your shots poorer, a fast army that can move out of sight / range of your weapons. (Basically, more targets than you have guns, and staying out of sight from your guns)

When things don't go according to plan, it's useful to have a few cards up your sleeve. These tricks mean your glass cannon might not be doing as much damage as you like, but "No plan survives contact with the enemy." Be prepared with:
  • Mobility, to run when the enemy gets close and be able to reposition to take out other targets.
  • Bricks, Swarms, Super Soldiers, etc, to soak some damage and tie up the enemy as they're advancing.
  • Tricks, to slow down the enemy's advance.
  • Infantry killers, so you're not wasting limited powerful attacks on mass numbers of troops.

Learn Your Army

Read your rule book multiple times, make notes, create quick reference sheets. Make yourself gaming aids, so you can keep track of damage on troops and vehicles easier, to mark what special effects like spells are affecting what unit, and to keep track of what units have already had their turn.

NEVER assume you know the rules. Reference the rule book A LOT when you're learning. A repeated mistake can easily become normal, and it could cheat your friends or even you. Admin mistakes when you catch them, and don't freak out when your friends do the same.

If someone questions a rule of yours, don't be offended. Mistakes happen, and there are some rules that are just plain crazy enough to make people question them. Look the rule up, read it out loud as it's written (don't paraphrase) and make a determination. If it's still vague, roll a dice to see how to use the rule for now, then after your game check online for a FAQ or email the game manufacturer.

Play Test

Play your list and try it out. This is really the only way to see if something works for you. Don't mind losing as that's part of the learning process and don't give up. Don't make changes to your list right away... if you made some mistakes, your list could still be solid. When you do make changes to adjust your list, only make small ones, because when you make big changes it's hard to figure out what change made the difference.


  1. Wish I'd had this info when I started 40k last year. This is the best 'for noobs' I've read!

  2. Thanks, both of you. I'm curious to see how opinions on these suggestions may vary by region, or from those who might game more competitively.

  3. Not sure on the time for other game systems, but it should apply to all of them. For 40K, playing regularly, you should expect to spend about a year shaking out the n00b mistakes. Like having so much playing "kill them all" that you forget to move back to objectives on the last turn or block your opponent's route to objectives.

    This cost me a trip to the second round of 'Ard Boyz this year, since if I had moved one of three units, I would have won a marginal victory (instead of my opponent) and if I'd moved all three units (like I should have) I'd have scored a massacre in the second game. Which would have put me on a board that had lower terrain coverage for the third game so there wouldn't have been so much BLOS killing my 48" shooting.

  4. And about the time you get used to it, a new edition of the rules will come along ;)

    These are things even vets can make mistakes with. Get used to playing one way for too long, and it becomes hard to change.

  5. Wow, nice article, really summed up the basics for people to get started. Must read for anyone starting a new army.


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