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1. Introduction: Why Theory, and Why Should I Care?

Lemon Knuckles

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There is a surprising dearth of theory regarding Age of Sigmar.  I’m not sure why that is exactly.  There’s certainly a lot of effort spent on list building.  There’s a lot of effort spent on finding combos and unlocking synergies.  There’s time spent on “creating a plan.”  There’s time invested on computation aimed at solving very specific problems (aka math-hammer).  There’s even a good amount of discussion about actual tactics and tactical play.  But there’s next to nothing about theory.  I suspect that’s one of the reasons that some people think that AoS is a game without any strategic depth.  I disagree.  I think the depth is there.  What’s missing is the theory (the concepts and the framework) that makes thinking and talking about it easier, more accessible and more fruitful.

I’m going to use this blog to try and build some momentum on this topic.

I don’t know right now how it will turn out.  It could be that the naysayers are correct and the game lacks substance.  Or it could be that this will help map out some uncharted conceptual space “beneath the surface” from which we players can engage each other and the game in productive new ways.

The endeavor will kick off in earnest with the next post.  For now, I’ll just lay down some definitions for anyone who might not be completely comfortable with what we mean when we talk about theory, and how theory relates with strategy, tactics and having a plan.

  • Theory is about the creation of concepts that have explanatory power.  These theoretical concepts provide a clarifying lens through which we can look at the game in a way that helps us to understand it better.   
  • Strategy is about deciding on the best use of the resources available to us in order to win.
  • Tactics are about how we specifically do each action we make in order to maximize the benefit of each decision made.  

Or simply, we can say:  theory explains, strategy evaluates, and tactics execute.  Or even simpler:  Why, what, how.

Considered this way, it’s perhaps a bit easier to understand why theory is a neglected part of AoS discourse, and to understand the implication of this neglect.

Imagine your typical newcomer to the game.  They are drawn in by a specific faction, by its lore or its look.  They have some fun painting and modeling, but don’t have much success on the table-top.  So they plug into the community and ask for help.  Here’s my current list, help me make it better.  Lots of people chime in with advice that helps the newcomer solidify a better plan.  Drop this unit, add that unit, take this artefact, combo this thing with that thing and you will be able to do this really cool thing.  The newcomer gets a few more models, makes these changes, and enjoys a bit more success on the table.  Soon they are back asking for more help:  I can’t beat army X, help!  Again the community jumps in, and now their advice is more tactical.  Make sure you screen like this and deploy like that, etc.  And again, the newcomer takes the advice and applies it and enjoys a bit more success.  And then the meta shifts, new armies are released, and the process starts all over.

The point here is that the player is getting better with each step.  They are learning what to do, and how to do it.  And the rate of change across the surface of the game has sufficient velocity that the sense of learning and improvement can seem to go on indefinitely.  If we can keep iterating on what to do (through list design), and how to do it (through improving tactical play), why do would we ever need to step back and think about why we’re doing it?  

The hope with this blog is that by exploring the why we allow for less imitating and more innovating.  We flush out a strategic depth that persists across armies, and battleplans, and other superficial game changes.  We improve our gameplay by expanding from just learning how to make a good plan better, to being able to ascertain, at any point, whether a given plan is still optimal, or even viable, and to successfully pivot to a new plan, to make different choices, in the moment, in the context of what’s most important right now.  That’s the strategic depth that lies below the surface.  That’s what I’d like us to explore.
 



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I've read it, and honestly, it was one of the reasons I actually decided to start this.  I LOVE Rob and think he's brilliant, but imo this book is emblematic of the problem I am talking about.  I don't think the book, in its current form, is the book that Rob actually wants to write.  There is much, much more that he wants to say but struggles to actually articulate because the language and concepts don't really exist yet.  I'm also guessing that one of the reasons he's doing what he's doing and trying to standardize the language we use.  He wants to build it up as well.  Read the sections on Clausewitz or Who's the Beatdown?  These are probably the two most theoretical parts of the book, and not incidentally also the weakest and least developed.  They are seeds he is planting because I think he wants the community to have these conversations, in order to develop this perspective.  That is exactly what I want to.      

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I look forward to your post.  I also think the workbook is rushed.  I also don't like the standardized terms they have chosen and find a lot of things in the book misleading.  The workbook does not seem to differentiate between strategic intent and tactical execution or discuss dynamic or static advantages or about power projection and threats effecting the position of the board or how to value pieces and trades.  There's a lot of vagueness that can be developed further and needs some rigor.  

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You got me really interested. What will your approach be? Rather top-down or bottom-up? 

By which I mean, using existing theories (maybe in different fields, Art of War etc.) and finding ways to make them more relevant to our game, or try to start from a really broad and in depth understanding of the current state of the game and drawing theories from it?

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@tolstedt, I agree that the book seems rushed, and given everything they are doing right now that's pretty understandable.  I do think it's the right approach, though, to just get it out there and start crowdsourcing the work.  Also from the sounds of it, you should start writing up some of your thoughts as well.  From some of the hints you've dropped, I'd definitely be interested in reading more!

@Ninelives, I think bottom-up, but I might be mixing the metaphor 🤔.  I want to try and rip it down to the studs and start over, making sure each new step maintains a clear, logical connection with the previous.  I don't know ahead of time how it will turn out.  My guess it will reaffirm a lot of what we already know, scuttle some of what we think we know, and hopefully open a couple of new peep-holes into things we don't know but should start thinking about.

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I feel I want to chime in on this. In terms of Grand Strategy, the Why component of any faction (real or fictitious) is normally related to National Interests and the leveraging of power in whatever form that takes, to achieve the outcomes of the strategy and protect or further national interest.

To shift this into a fantasy role, each factions grand purpose could be discerned readily, e.g. Stormcast to purge Chaos, rebuild the realms etc. These are broad, simple statements with huge ramifications from the top down i.e. Sigmar makes the calls, but his poor old Liberators have to build the latrines in order for this strategy to have a chance at success. This is only further complicated when allies and adversaries have similar and/or conflicting strategies.

This is the source of tension of the types seen in the news at the political and diplomatic levels, a battle of ideology and who is the more capable of achieving their strategy and ergo the more "powerful". Seen through this lens, the why component becomes more apparent. The What is then developed in the campaigns and initiatives that will allow a ruler (gods I guess in this case) to exercise their levers of power (in the Age of Sigmar context, we are talking almost purely military, although occasionally it could be argued some diplomacy is in order... (pun intended...)).

Further, the machinations of the senior military leaders can be more easily discerned to the tactical level by the use of battle plans in the realms and the small vignettes that play out all over the world for the different factions that, ultimately, are attempting, through military might, to achieve the outcomes laid out in the Grand Strategy at the beginning. 

Was that helpful? I do enjoy a good high level strategic discussion. 

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On 12/3/2018 at 9:09 PM, kaaras said:

Was that helpful? I do enjoy a good high level strategic discussion. 

I have to switch gears a bit to follow, but I can tell you that the image of Liberators building latrines was worth the price of admission alone.

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You are most welcome. That is the reality of a long term campaign. Much is made about tales of conquest and fantastical battles, but the reality is that once the military component ends and one side has achieved the necessary concessions from the other, be it defeat, withdrawal etc. then the mundane tasks of nation building begin. But I digress. I look forward to your next instalment.

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1. I’ve never heard anyone use the word “dearth” in conversation in my thirty years of life, and yet this is the third time I’ve read it in a week.

2. I think too often newcomers (myself included in this group) are too overwhelmed by the number of rules we are trying to keep straight, that we miss a lot of the theory portion. Ex: we have put out an army with 3xfreeguild Guard, only to realize at the start of the battle that they are effective en made.

3. List making is Step One to playing well. Playing with a better list than a better player with a weaker list may give me a game early, building my confidence in playing. Playing a bad list will lose me games because while I make bad matchups, i may be misappropriating my loss to bad memories models instead of becaus of our poor play.

4. Often I could use two things:

-A quick synopsis on how to get the most out of a unit (ex, Bestigors are supposed to charge the enemy)

-A list of counters for my army against others 

-Knowing which unit will be most effective against certain enemy unist 

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@SuperHappyTime

I just posted entry 4 and used "dearth" again.  I guess I've unofficially started a campaign to bring that word back in circulation.

Your point #2 is interesting, and resonates with my own experiences trying to get into the game.  There is so much benefit from simply learning the rules, learning the units, etc.  You will be overwhelmed and out of sorts if you don't do all of that work.  But I'm hanging on to the belief that there are theoretical principles that subsist across all of these surface differences.  I make analogies to MtG a lot, so here's another one.  In MtG, there are way more possible cards and sets than in AoS with units and factions.  But despite all of that, there are really only 9 fundamental deck archetypes that get recycled over and over again.  Someone that has a grasp of MtG theory can quickly acclimate and understand an entirely new MtG environment.  I'd love to see if we could replicate something like that for AoS.

I'll probably be working toward your point #3.  I just want to get there naturally on pace with the ideas that I'm trying to develop.

There's lots out there available to help on #4.  The Honest Wargamer and Just Saying are two AoS podcasts that are really great for that, and there are many other resources out there.   

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