The Dreaded Empire State Formation
So I’m a bit of an old skool gamer. I’ve played many a wargame, spanning many an era, and seen many an argument get made over and over and over. One of the longest run arguments I’ve seen was/is for a game called Starfire. Fleets in starfire tended to run in one massive stack, with only minimal scouts detached. This was the dreaded Empire State Formation (ESF). It has been a problem in Starfire from the beginning, and it continues to be one today as far as I know.
What does this have to do with 40k you ask? Everything. I’m going to take an extreme example, but it’s one I’ve already put into play on the tabletop. Azrael. Azrael is on about a 1″ base. This makes his 6″ auras actually about 6 1/2 inches. One of his auras covers whole units with even one model in the area. This is the re rolls on to-hit rolls. He also has a 6″ 4+ invuln aura for every model in that area. So you want to pile a bunch of important models in super close to the Supreme Master of the Dark Angels. Meanwhile you want as many units as possible to have at least one model in 6″ of him. In previous editions the solution to this was pie-plates. Big templates of high damage weapons that would murder the shit out of an Empire State formation.
Pie plates are no longer a thing. The formation remains. What makes it crazier is you can layer them. I can take a Lieutenant, which allows re-rolls on to-wound rolls, I can add a Darkshroud which gives a -1 on to-hit rolls aimed at me, and layer ALL of this (although the base of the Dark Shroud will be a problem) on a couple units, while still getting at least Azrael and the Lieutenant on a wide area, with a smaller, more important set of units getting potentially all four bonuses, two from Azrael, one from the LT, one from the Darkshroud. This tends to mean that battles that don’t feature large numbers of objectives, requiring the army to spread apart, devolve into death stars like this dominating the battlefield.
As previously hinted at, objectives are the major deterrent to the ESF. This matters far more in claim and count objectives where you have to get there first to get the points, and rather less when objectives go to whoever holds them at the end of the game. Unless there’s an element of “sudden death” to claiming objectives to create urgency in getting there first, there really isn’t a lot of discouragement to towering up and dominating the first 3 or 4 turns, before the tower shatters to chase objectives at the end, or hangs together in order to finish tabling the enemy.
The downside of this is with enough terrain on the table, someone who doesn’t tower up will risk defeat in detail by having a small portion of their army getting dakka’d to death, while other elements can’t even get effective fire on the small footprint the other army takes up. This forces you to look very hard at how you can build your own Tower of Power, and dueling ESFs is just dull, dull, dull.
The nice thing so far is that it’s hard to bubble wrap these. You want vehicles and infantry with lots of firepower, but they are vulnerable to assault. Even weak melee units can tie up vehicles that don’t have an effective ablative layer of troops screening them from close assaults. Were I to try to crack one of these formations I would put a good bit of effort into getting troops in melee with vehicles to degrade the shooting coming out while eliminating vehicles as best as I could, or anything that has fallen out of protective auras.
All in all it’s interesting to see that GW has fallen into a trap that has been plaguing other games for decades. It’s not as prevalent a problem as it was in Starfire; because there are mitigating factors inherent in 40k. You do still have a balance being sought, and I expect to see a lot of updates trying to pry apart the formation through rules changes to make the game more tactical rather than just building a better wrecking ball.