Wargaming Tradecraft: Beginners Guide to Strategy and Tactics


Beginners Guide to Strategy and Tactics

In the last "Beginners Guide" article, I discussed list building. Now all that's fine and dandy, but what are you supposed to do once you step up to a table, ready to play a game? Today, I'll tell you.

This isn't an end-all-be-all of tactics, and it won't be a playbook you can print off to bring to games as a way to win in any scenario. I'm going to talk about some of the theory on strategy and tactics, then show some basic tactics when moving around the field and finish with a bunch of specific examples of plans you can try to pull off in your own games. I don't presume to know all there is about tactics; I never gamed in tournament circuits and usually stuck to playing against the same people, which often makes things predictable... but I hope that by the end, you'll have some idea of what to do on the table and how to come up with your own schemes.

Next week I'll look into some more specific examples of how these methods can play out in a battle. Feel free to send your own rough pictures in with descriptions.

If people suggest other plans of attack and defence, maybe I'll add them to this page and build it into a larger tactical database.

Strategy vs Tactics
"In military usage, a distinction is made between strategy  and tactics. Strategy  is the utilization, during both peace and war, of all of a nation's forces, through large-scale, long range planning and development, to ensure security or victory. Tactics  deals with the use and deployment of troops in actual combat." - Dictionary.com
So lets look at how that applies to wargaming. When I use the term "strategy", I'm talking about the general plan you're bringing to the table. Lists like "Bricks" and "Glass Cannons" are rough strategies, as are whatever other list you might invent - these terms describe the things that your army is capable of and the idea of how you want to beat your opponent.

"Tactics", however, focuses on the execution of your army's strategy. "These troops will guard this firing lane" or "these monsters will work their way through the woods to surprise the enemy" are examples of tactics. It's difficult to have your tactics ready before a game because they'll depend on three main unknown factors: Your Army, Terrain and the Enemy. You can still certainly plan tactics in advance, it's just you might not get a chance to use them until you're faced with certain circumstances.

Essentially, strategy takes place while you're building your list and tactics take place while you're playing the game.

Your Army

When you're building your list, you'll be strategizing about what sort of army you want to field. Hop back to my List Building post to get an idea of some of the options available to you, but remember that you're going to need to tweak the stereotypes to give you more options on the battlefield. There are also blogs out there that focus on game play, who will usually be more than happy to respond to questions you email them. One such blog is 3++ is the new black from Kirby and his crew.

Like a football coach keeps a play book, you can too. You might not know how the terrain will be setup or where your enemy will be, but this will allow you to create some rough tactics about how you're going to set up your own troops and what you're going to try to do with them once the game starts.

If you're playing an army that will be getting in your enemy's face, this can be helpful to consider. An army that's close range or stands back and prefers to be away from the enemy is harder to plan ahead for. These armies will usually depend more on the battlefield setup.

Terrain and Setup

Terrain will change from one game to the next. You can have general strategies in mind because you'll have an idea of what terrain there might be. Forests, buildings, ruins, walls, trenches and hills are pretty common examples of terrain and if you play with the same people, you'll all know what terrain could be on the field and can plan tactics accordingly.

Different pieces of terrain will facilitate different tactics. Like all things, there are ups and downs to all terrain. When setting up the battlefield, just create a diverse layout and play your game.

Slowing Movement

In any game system, terrain is usually classified as some form of "difficult" or "impassable" and sometimes "dangerous".

  • Difficult terrain slows down troops that try to cross it
    • Thinner things like walls, fences and bushes won't delay things too much, while larger areas like forests and rivers delay troops longer.
    • Sometimes, vehicles can also be damaged if they try to cross this type of terrain.
  • Impassable terrain [usually] can't be crossed at all.
    • Most troops and vehicles are forced to go around things like buildings.
    • There may be entry points such as doors or ladders for cover, window or roof access.
  • Dangerous terrain usually acts like difficult terrain, but there's a chance troops entering will die.
    • Lava, fast moving or deep rivers, ice, mine fields, etc. should be treated as impassable, unless you feel like taking a risk.
    • This is often represented by a dice roll for every model, who will die on a "1".

Funnelling Troops

When you're up against a larger or superior force, find any way you can to use terrain to your advantage. Terrain can make their numbers count for nothing and buy yourself some time. (If you've seen the movie 300, this is exactly the theory.) Earlier in the game, you can keep troops alive with this method. Later in the game, when you're already lost a bunch of your army, this can make your army last longer.

This works with both close combat and shooting.

Horizontal Line of Sight

1. Large Objects

Buildings, mountains, and anything else your troops couldn't see past will block the line of sight. Staying out of the line of sight will allow your troops to cross the battlefield without getting shot. If you're the shooter, you'll need to position your troops in places to ensure that you can actually see paths the enemy will be moving up and see most of the battlefield.

2. Objects at least the height of your troops (walls, hedges, etc)

These are basically just like large objects, except since it's just a wall (or hedge, rubble, etc) there's less to hide behind.

3. Objects around waist height (Short walls, low hills, etc)

These go both ways. Troops hiding behind them can still be shot, but usually gain some sort of defensive bonus. However, those troops can also shoot back.

4. Area terrain (Forests, rubble, etc)

While they may slow you down, they also act as great cover. Models around the edges can usually still be shot at, while those in the middle can't be seen at all. Troops moving around them tend to be out of site.

5. Regular Terrain

Other pieces of terrain might not block line of sight at all. Rivers affect movement, but other things might just be aesthetic like fields, small fences, etc.

Vertical Line of Sight

While troops are able to run around safely by using buildings, walls, forests and so on as cover, it's different when models are higher up. If you've got models in a high position or larger vehicles, walkers, etc, with weapons higher up, you'll be able to shoot over lower terrain.


Some games allow for different qualities of cover, providing better bonuses for more secure locations. Waist high walls are pretty standard, while bunkers and other heavy fortifications will offer more. Just don't expect things like wheat fields, chain-link or white-picket fences and such to give much defence.

Night Fighting

Some scenarios use rules that force the game to take place during the night. The effect of this is usually to reduce how far units can see. This means that while you might have Line of Sight to something, your ranges are seriously limited. Armies that rely on shooting run in to a lot of problems with these sorts of rules, while close combat armies get a turn or two of free time to advance.

Some models even have special rules on them that limit how far away a model can be to shoot them...


Movement Distance

By knowing the size of the board and limiting how much you move, you can ensure the enemy can't reach you. This is easier to figure out at the beginning of the game - once everyone's troops have moved around a bunch, you can't really rely on this any more.

If you do a little math-hammer, look at it this way:

2' = 24" between you and the enemy
6" (move) + 6" (run) = 12" max move without charging.
If your troops move 6" up, the distance between you and the enemy is 18", allowing them you charge you...
If you move 5" up, then the enemy cannot reach you right away.

The other up side, is that if the enemy does try to charge you, you can insist that since you only moved 5", there's no mathematical way they could reach you.

Something to keep in mind are angles, which are obviously faster than moving just horizontal and vertical. However, they also making guess and judging ranges much more difficult.

Moving in Rows vs Columns

This applies more to Swarm armies, but can probably help others... it'll also help you when you're playing against people doing these sorts of things. When you're deploying your troops, watch how you set them up.

When you setup in rows, you can put weaker units in front so they'll be killed while more important units advance behind them. Or, if you can spread your army across the battlefield in rows, more of your army will impact the enemy's front lines at once, dealing more damage overall.

But, in certain conditions, these troops can be killed without reaching the other side of the field. If there's not enough room to spread out (lots of terrain, choke points, etc) this forces squads to line up in rows. With enough attacks and firepower, this can be taken advantage of. Multiple rows of enemies means only the front squad is a threat. All attacks can be concentrated on this squad, wiping it out faster. This means that when the enemy moves again, they're just filling the space of the squad that was wiped out. Next, you kill them all again.

By using columns, the enemy makes more of their squads a threat right away. This means you have to split your firepower between all the squads. If you have the numbers, this can be very difficult to deal with. Columns are slowed a little bit as front models are killed, but usually move faster than they have deaths.

In some systems, the person being shot gets to choose which models die. This makes the column approach much more deadly.

It means that you pick the models at the back to die, and your front ranks are always getting closer to the enemy.

Advancing to the Rear

If you have troops with guns, consider starting them on the edge of your deployment zone, then shoot the enemy while moving backwards. It will save you time as the enemy moves forward, and should get you an extra turn or two of shooting.

Using an example from Warhammer 40k

Flanking and Blocking Line of Sight

Getting beside the enemy is a move called "Flanking." It's an effective tactic at any time, especially earlier on when there are more troops still alive to get in the way, but you need to move quickly to pull it off - either with fast moving troops or ones that can enter the field from other places. The idea is that by attacking an army's side, you use their own troops, terrain, forts, etc... to block line of sight.

The follow-up to a flanking attack is that you can then come up behind the enemy, trapping him between the flankers and the rest of your army.

Armies are meant to attack across the field, not left to right... Flanking throws off this plan, and any troops you can plan to hit their side with will be facing just a smaller portion of their army, unprepared for this attack. This usually has the effect of their further away troops rushing to reposition, opening up their rear on the other side of the map and throwing their plans off.

Larger units can still be attacked, so you need to stay tight to keep the enemy's troops between you and their other units. If you're being flanked, spread out your models and use thinner rows of troops to create line of sight through your squads.

Moving to Augment Short Range Weapons

There are a lot of powerful short range weapons, but they're not any use if you can't get in range.

Try to equip these weapons on units with jump packs, vehicles, and such.

This can be dangerous to your troops however, because it means getting them very close to the enemy.

Template Weapons and Spreading Out

Template weapons are great, be they exploding missiles, flame throwers, magic, etc. What they'll do is kill groups of enemies quickly - dangerous to small groups but devastating to large ones. Often, they'll even negate cover saves. Multiple template shots can even overlap, increasing the chance of killing troops.

The counter is to keep your models spread out as much as you can, preventing templates from doing their damage. Large armies have trouble with this because it means filling

Keep in mind that fired templates will usually scatter.

Target Priority

This takes a little while to get used to, as you need to know what the enemy is capable of to figure it out. This'll take a little while for a new player to remember and you need to avoid your first instincts, which are usually to kill the closest or biggest enemies. Some of the things to consider when you're deciding what to attack are as follows, in no particular order:

  • What will do the most damage to you?
    • ex: powerful shooting or close combat
  • What will be the most inconveniencing?
    • ex: snipers, indirect fire, knock down, flanking, psychological attacks (fear/terror)
  • How soon will it be able to do those things?
    • ex: When will a gun be in range or how soon will close combat troops reach you?
  • Can I afford to let the enemy hold an objective this turn?
    • ex: In some games, you get points every round for having models on an objective.
  • How difficult will it be to remove from an objective?
    • ex: You might not have time near the end of the game to try and whittle down a large or powerful unit sitting on an objective.
  • Is this my last chance to kill a unit before they become stronger or tougher?
    • ex: A unit out in the open that's heading for a forest to safely cross, terrain to walk around out of line of sight, or a bunker to enter.

Yeah, that's a lot to keep track of, so don't stress over these decisions. Just try to remember that even though some enemies are closer or bigger, you don't have to try to kill them first.

Indirect Fire

Indirect fire can be a scary thing. Wargames rely heavily on line of sight, so the scales really tip when the enemy can attack you without requiring line of sight, meaning you can't attack them back. These are usually fired from tanks, do lots of damage and scatter a little.

If you're up against someone using them... well, cross your fingers and use fast moving troops or drop pods. No, really, these are hard to deal with if they're out of sight. You can run your fastest troops at them to try to take them out, but they can setup their own troops to protect these targets. Being able to deploy troops next to these tanks (such as Deep Strike in 40k) and surprise the enemy is also helpful.

Psychology and Denial

There's an aspect to some games that's often overlooked, and it's using psych stats or other methods to stall the enemy. Leadership values, Fear or Terror checks, shaking up vehicles, etc can be useful things to exploit that aren't used too often and can be effective.

The effect of causing troops to fail a leadership test usually involves forcing a squad to run away, prevent them from moving, prevent them from firing, trapping them in a transport or temporarily damaging vehicles. Basically, it's a single attack that has a chance to cause a squad to be useless on their next turn. It doesn't eliminate your problems, but it does delay when you have to deal with them.

These types of attacks are usually caused by using sniper weapons, killing a percentage of a squad, running them over with tanks or monsters, shooting transports, shooting vehicles with lots of light weapons, etc. They're best used sooner in the turn, as since they're a gamble, you might need to follow up with real bullets if your psych attack fails.

Eliminating Dice

This is a particular favourite tactic of mine. Dice are the random chances that work against you during a game - anything you can do to eliminate the need for them goes miles to a successful battle. Sure, rerolling dice is nice, but nothing beats strategies that include units that will flat out ignore having to roll dice at all.

  • In Warhammer 40k, these are things like using weapons with low AP values to ignore armour - meaning once you wound someone, they don't get a saving throw. This includes sniper weapons that even have a chance of becoming low AP. If you know your opponent, this can include high AP weapons to destroy their poorly armoured troops.
  • Also in 40k, you can use high strength weapons to instant kill troops with multiple wounds. (Instant Kill if Str = 2x base Tough) Very effective against larger creatures and pesky HQ's.
  • In WarmaHordes, I latched right on to Knockdown - being able to hit stuff without having to roll is awesome.

Basically just pay attention while reading game rules and army rules. Make a note of anything that negates having to roll dice, causes instant kills, auto hits, etc.


A Deathstar is a unit that usually costs a lot of points, is often maxed out, can do a lot of damage and is really hard to kill. Using them is pretty transparent - people tend to know what they do, and there's often not a lot to them besides pointing them at the enemy and letting them do their damage. This makes them predictable and easier to plan for.

To be fair, they have their reputation for a reason - they're hard to kill and they do a lot of damage. You can often even just walk them down the center of the field and they'll do ok.


Essentially these are the same as a regular Deathstar unit, except you're causing the enemy to look in Alderaan places. Create a minimally sized squad so you're not wasting too many points on them. Place the unit first so the enemy knows wher it'll be, hang the unit back, place it on one of the sides of the field, don't run it somewhere dangerous, stay in cover, and attack something less important. Since powerful weapons are often required to kill a Deathstar, the enemy will be faced with the choice of using tank busting type weapons to kill them - place your Deathstar and tanks away from each other so that when they realize they're wasting firepower on your Deathstar, your tank is too far away.

What this does is cause the enemy to exhaust resources on what they think is going to be a serious threat. Troops will be redirected to attack them, firepower wasted shooting them, whole plans can go to ruin. The whole time this is going on, your regular troops are being left alone and objectives aren't being guarded as well. Yes, this can be done with a squad that's just hard to kill, but if it's not threatening, the enemy won't waste time trying to kill it.

The great thing is that if they call your bluff and choose to let your Deathstar live, you still might be able to get them in to position to do some serious damage.

Vehicles, Robots and Monsters

Using these is almost like playing a game within a game. They're strong, they're tough, and they often operate on rules different to your normal troops. Adding a couple to an army adds a serious offence and defence boost. Some armies have to add them to counter their opponents large things, though other armies will have infantry armed with weapons that can take them down.

Compare apples to apples, and they're usually on par - vehicles and robots don't do a ton of damage to each other, but the don't last long either... kind of like using regular troops to shoot regular troops. But facing them against regular sized troops is what tips the scales - their weapons usually WRECK stuff, cutting armour like butter, firing lots of weapons at once, and they usually take a lot of powerful shots before dying or blowing up, often just having weapons remove before becoming fully destroyed.

Because of the difference between these and regular troops, you'll find there are a lot infantry that just flat out can't harm them. (Though a sacrificial squad can sometimes tie up these things in close combat for a few turns) You should always have some sort of weapon that's designed to kill things with high armour, otherwise you could find yourself against a single model that's wiping the field with you. This usually means either long range weapons or deadly short range ones.

Due to their size, you also end up with mobile cover.

You can also use minimally armed vehicles, robots and beasts to act like a fake Deathstar. People usually assume big = scary, and can go to all sorts of lengths to try and stop them.


If you have troops that are slow or important, a transport is a great way to keep them safe until they reach their destination. The primary things a transport gives you are speed of protection. Often they can move 2-3x times faster than troops on foot, and while they're not as well armoured as tanks, they'll probably take a few decent hits before blowing up and could negate all sorts of weaker weapons.

Transports are usually armed in some way, but it's not necessarily a good weapon, though some have firing points, for where passengers can shoot from. Like vehicles, you can shield your own troops from line of sight, though if they're moving with the pedal to the metal, your troops might not be able to keep up.


  1. That's a lot of little dots and arrows. And splodey things.


  2. Thanks guys :)
    Since I don't normally write these sorts of articles, I'm rather curious what people on the gaming side of things think.

  3. Great post! I especially like the fake deathstar bit. I did something like that by accident and it worked really well. I just didn't recognize that's what happened until I read what you wrote. Being a new player I totally mis-deployed a Defiler (all by itself, but behinde pretty good cover) and my oppenent just couldn't take his eyes off it. The thing did nothing but the whole game but look big and scary, but that was enough!


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