Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Kroq-Gar’s The Art of War

Part One: A Treatise On The Cavalry Star

Pizarro erased an entire civilization from existence with the ruthless application of 62 horses

The “Cavalry Star” (or Bus as it is sometimes (affectionately I’m sure) called) is something, rather like fascism, yeast-based condiments and beetroot, where most people’s love or dislike are well established and immutable.

It is either the ultimate cinematic embodiment of the shock assault in the Warhammer “era” of warfare, or it is a push-forward-and-snore-fest, ruining the game for everyone, and often not that good in the first place.

The primary principle for the correct use of the CavStar are as old as war itself, Force Concentration. This is the practice of concentrating a military force so as to bring to bear such overwhelming force against a portion of an enemy force that the disparity between the two forces alone acts as a force multiplier.

Tomes have been written on the subject, and Force Concentration was an integral part of the operational doctrine of the Prussian military machine. As noted by von Clausewitz:

“… it is very difficult … for the most talented general to gain a victory over an enemy double his strength. Now if we see double numbers prove such a weight in the scale against the greatest generals, we may be sure, that in ordinary cases… an important superiority in numbers… will be sufficient to ensure the victory, however disadvantageous other circumstances maybe

A tad dry, perhaps – so, how do we utilize this on the rolling fields (well… table flat more often, but still) of the Warhammer battlefield?

There are two primary reasons for taking the CavStar:

1 - Safety 

A central tenet of any “Death Star” type list (and this is indeed what a CavStar is – albeit a faster, more elegant, better-dressed and perfumed version with a much better class of hangers-on) is the simple concept of points denial. A true CavStar starts off by applying this principle. Often over 60% of the army’s points (dependent on comp factors) can be tied up into one heavily armoured block. If your opponent cannot take this out, the chances are they cannot force a win (and definitely not a big one). With a heavy density of Lords and Heroes in the unit they can also cheaply share the likes of Magic Resistance to protect from Death Magic – and whilst characters are vulnerable to the likes of Dwellers, they tend to have a better than average chance of surviving – and between dispel dice, dispel scrolls and ideally being in combat for most of the game, the unit should be relatively safe from such skillzspellz (technical term, that). Careful placement of survivable “tank” characters keeps the unit (and squishier characters) safe from return attacks (Bretonnians excel at this).

Thus, a well-designed (there really is no accounting for badly designed ones) CavStar ticks the most important point in power list writing – it keeps its own points safe.

2 - Hammer

A little-known French chap in the late 1700s was convinced that it was not possible to fight anything but a defensive war without effective cavalry – and invested vast sums and efforts into ensuring this military branch became a feared striking force throughout Europe. He was later crowned Emperor, which really is as much backing as the idea needs. (Ok, he died alone on an island in the middle of absolutely nowhere, but that really is despite the point. Who invades Russia? I mean really?!)

The longer reach of the CavStar (both in basic movement and charging with swiftstride) allows you to force the issue in a way infantry blocks will struggle to do. This means that, having pushed forward initially, on the second turn you get to apply the epitome of Force Concentration, picking a point on your opponent’s battle line and overwhelming it with an often 3-1 (if not more) superiority in numbers. Swifstride helps here again, with the increased chance of catching those pesky fleeing units.

The introduction of 8th edition was accompanied (once the sound of the loudest, most prolonged and tedious RageQuit ™ in history had died down) by wailing moans along the lines of Cavalry being “dead” now that steadfast was on the scene, for no longer would 5 Empire knights be able to break vast blocks of infantry on the charge. Sometimes (it’s wise to keep it down to sometimes) you have to love the internet. What they did not realise is that this was a whole new arms race. If infantry units were getting bigger then, by golly, cavalry had to keep up! With the concentrated combat potential of up to 1200pts of characters in this one unit, you should be able to grind through the faceless, nameless ranks of footslogging infantry backed up with a decent number of ranks yourself. Brettonians obviously excel at steadfast breaking (and yet the internet keeps telling me, in no uncertain terms, that in the land of steadfast they simply suck).

So, you have a unit with an average charge range in and around the 17” mark, able to bring overwhelming concentration of force to bear on a single point of your opponent’s lines before proceeding to roll the flanks/hit the ever vulnerable bunkers or high value targets.

So… The “why’s” seem simple enough – there are a couple of further things you need to consider at the list building stage though.

Support elements.

A list that is purely one unit will not win (by any notable degree) anything against an opponent of any skill. It is too simple to gently feed the mounted behemoth a trickle of cheap chaff, or double flee both armies into a sleepy stupor. You need elements in your army that apply pressure other areas, and that clear charge lanes for the killing strike. This could be an abundance of chaff that gets in the way of opponents, isolating aspects you do not want to engage, or other fast threats to the opponent’s exposed underbelly, amongst many other examples.

Threatening at range.

The very best CavStar include a degree of ranged threat. This means that, even if not engaged in combat and racking up points that way, the unit can still keep the VPs ticking over with ranged (often magical) damage, all the time keeping the CavStar’s points relatively safe. With Brettonians this will come in the form of Dwellers/Amber Spear or a number of Heavens spells from their protected ladies; for VC this is most often seen in Death magic snipes from the hero-level characters in the unit, etc.

Countering the Counter.

As with every non-balanced smash list, you are in the position of greatest power when your opponent is not used to what your army does. As that averagely-heighted French chap once declared (one assumes it was a declaration, he could have mumbled… well someone wrote it down anyway)

“You must not fight too often with one enemy, or you will teach him all your art of war”

Familiarity with your gambits is your greatest weaknesses. Armies that thought they could fight you realise they cannot. Ones that thought they could magic you off at range realise the error of their ways. Opponents that were scared of you learn they possess the lizard to your Spock.

This is especially the case as the wielders of the CavStar tend to be terrible in adapting their tactical approach to the game. This means they will tend to keep the Star intact, despite the situation at times (often against Lizardmen cloud lists, for example) suggesting that having multiple characters by themselves would be far more advantageous.

A good CavStar list needs to be able to deal with the counters to your unit. This tends to come in one 3 forms:

  • Double Flee/Chaff – your army needs to be able to clear the field of chaff. This could be by tying them down in combat, or killing them outright. For the double flee shenanigans you want to have either flying threats, reliable BS shooting or an ungodly number of charges that can push fleeing units out of commission for most of the game.

  • Uber-solo characters – things that are stubborn/unbreakable and can kill your best combat characters are a real danger. Bloodthirsters are the prime example, to a lesser degree a Dreadlord can do much the same. Your list needs to either be able to keep a bloodthirster away from your lines (careful unit design can allow you to feed it chaff for an entire game) and/or your Star unit needs to be designed so that a tank character WILL die in a round or two.

  • Killing Blow – the bane of the CavStar. With fewer and fewer opportunities in the game now to be immune to killing blow it is a massive risk/reward calculation to allow yourself to be engaged by killing blow troops. Your army needs to be able to isolate killing blow units whilst the Star destroys the rest of the army. Thankfully with the new DoC book bloodletter spam is less common, so this issue arises less often than it used to – though beware DEs!

Wielding the Hammer.

So, you have a CavStar. Loads of relatively safe points, packing one hell of a punch. Now push forward and win right? Well, no. Ok, ok, sometimes yes. But often no.

Know your target

You need to be very spot on with your target priority. Ideally you want to engage targets that you either break them on the charge, potentially allowing a juicy overrun, or, more often, you want to charge, decimate unit, and break them in the following turn – keeping you safe from incoming shooting/direct damage magic, allowing you to reform and charge new target in your turn

Depending on the nature of your CavStar there will be units you do not want to engage. If faced with a unit of 60 High Elf Spearmen in an army running Mindrazor, you do not want to be engaged with that unit for any length of time, as one successful forcing through of that spell could lead to a game loss. Having a good understanding of what on average you will kill per turn depending on your target will allow you to more comfortably engage the select targets. For example, I knew my VC CavStar list had nothing to fear from any unbuffed DE unit in and around the 30 strong mark. I would kill enough in my turn, and before they struck in their turn, that most buffs would be of limited/no used (assuming there were any left to fight). Units of 50 spearmen though, give you very serious pause. Defensive Mindrazor/Killing Blow buffs were the DEs’ best defence against my unit.

This also applies to receiving charges. For the most part, a true CavStar should not be afraid of receiving the charge from most things. However, allowing your opponent to charge means they get a chance to buff their troops (or hex yours). You have to have a thorough understanding of what your opponent’s troops are capable of, and be prepared to take the punishment. If the situation is too dangerous, you have to make sure that you have blocked off said charge.

Know what not to use

Using my VC CavStar list as an example, you sometimes end up with 800pts of chaff that is there primarily to block charges and clear chaff. You do not want to lose these points cheaply however. If losing them allows you to smash into the meat of your opponent, fantastic, go for it. Against armies with limited units numbers (such as some Ogre builds for example) there is a limit to how much they can do to avoid you. In these situations it takes a disciplined mind to decide to not use half the units in your army – keeping them safely out of way – ideally positioned to be able to chase fleeing units from the board.

Ignore the movement tray!

No sin is greater than he who limits himself to his movement tray. So sayeth the Raf.
Steadfast breaking is only relevant against some units. When facing a skink Zulu list, keeping your ranks is simply silly. You want to go wide, stops them getting behind you, and allows you to sweep more of the table. This also means you can use sacrificed chaff to significantly advance your unit with good use of reforms.

Careful character positioning is king

Some units you will only be able to take with careful positioning of characters within units. This involves not only knowing exactly what is in your opponent’s unit, and what it is capable of, but also how they are going to place their characters that make way into combat. This can get highly complex. The classic example here is the Johnson-Bell Unit (as it is known in the UK tournament scene). With various characters including 2 assassins and 5/6 points of static combat rest it is possible for a good player to not only pick on some of your more valuable characters, but potentially stop your guys from attacking at all. Pre-empting all this takes a lot of thought, and has to be done a turn in advance to position the front rank characters in the correct places to counter act naughty shenanigans.

Know who the biggest kid on the block is

Your CavStar has to be able to bully the hell out of all the other kids, steal their dinner money and drive home in a Ferrari. At the list design stage you have to consider what rock can an opponent bring, and can your rock utterly smash theirs in a display of manliness? There will be things you cannot touch with impunity, and you have to know this at the start of each game. Armies with an utterly dominant magic phase (Beastmen or Dark Elves for example) with big combat units are VERY dangerous.
You have to know your meta. Can you deal with 1+ armour save monstrous Cav? If no… then you need to reassess.

Lady Luck

An army built around combat can punch face, but it is also by far the most susceptible to twists in Lady Luck’s affections. Countless hilarious (given an extremely long period for the heartache to diminish) stories could be told of Vampire Lords being killed by something stupid, or a last surviving model double 1ing a break test and pinning your glorious unit in place for certain death. These things will happen. If you do not like the idea of luck sometimes slapping you around… this is the wrong style for you.

An example CavStar:

There are many types and degrees to this. Some are massive, other smaller with high impact support. All have their weaknesses, all have their strengths.

Below is an example, along the veins of the #wooftime that caught on for a while in 2012. This is by no means the perfect example (or even a top tier one), but gives the general idea

Vampire Lord (553) Level 4 Wizard; Lore of the Vampires; shield; heavy armour; Ogre Blade; Talisman Of Preservation; The Other Trickster's Shard; Red Fury; Quickblood; Beguile. Barded Nightmare1

Vampire (213) Level 1 Wizard; Lore of the Vampires; lance; heavy armour; Obsidian Amulet; Scroll Of Shielding; Enchanted Shield; Quickblood. Barded Nightmare 2
Necromancer (105) Level 1 Wizard; Lore of the Vampires; hand weapon; Dispel Scroll. Nightmare 3          
Necromancer (105) Level 1 Wizard; Book of Arkhan. Nightmare Core 3
Wight King (176) lance; shield; heavy armour; Battle Standard; Nightshroud; Luckstone. Skeletal Steed 4

Core 5
10 Dire Wolves (90) Doom Wolf
10 Dire Wolves (90) Doom Wolf
10 Dire Wolves (90) Doom Wolf
8 Dire Wolves (74) Doom Wolf  
7 Dire Wolves (66) Doom Wolf  
7 Dire Wolves (66) Doom Wolf  
7 Dire Wolves (66) Doom Wolf  
7 Dire Wolves (66) Doom Wolf  

15 Black Knights (405) musician; standard bearer; Hell Knight; barding; Banner Of Swiftness. 6
2 Fell Bats (32)   7
2 Fell Bats (32)   7
2 Fell Bats (32)   7
1 Spirit Host (45) 7
1 Spirit Host (45) 7           
1 Spirit Host (45) 7           

1 The Vampire Lord is the main source of damage output, so no piece of kit could be dropped. This does mean no Necromancer Lord, which does add significant danger to casting. However, the level 4 in this unit has to be in the CavStar – getting 5 Black Knights back with every casting of Invocation is key. The spells you want are Invocation, Vanhels and Hellish Vigor. None of these spells will need to be cast on more than 2 dice (3 if you REALLY need it). And you won’t need them for most of the game, so safe enough really. OTS means he can take on other warded up characters.

Obsidian amulet gives some passive protection, and the scroll of shielding buys you another turn (after the scroll) against magic heavy Banishment lists (or Death Magic). Amulet also makes sure Lord has a 2++ Death.
Both these will be on Death. Most of the time they will take Spirit leech, using the Lord’s Ld10 to target juicy units. As the unit is advancing toward the enemy, you will reach short range early. This is a good way of drawing our dice to allow the use of the Book of Arkhan/spells from the Lord. The Book allows for two castings of Vanhels – making the unit incredibly quick (technically can move the unit 32 inches in a turn)

The Nightshroud is key in ensuring the Lord remains the ultimate close combat machine. Correct positioning against an opponent’s beat stick character not only makes sure they go last, but also negates any weapon strength bonuses. Priceless. The BSB is not strictly needed, but useful

The #wooftime component. Enough drops to pick your target. Big enough to pick on skink skirmishers. The units of 7 are designed to tank solo characters, challenging out and surviving until your opponent’s turn, locking them in place. If playing scenarios, can drop some for some cheap zombie banner holders.

The weight behind the cavalry charge. These have not taken lances to instead invest in numbers, but it’s a choice – can drop some fellbats etc. for them. This unit provides 3 ranks to the characters, and the full command keeps 3 characters in second rank. The fact champion is always first brought back helps keep characters safer for longer. Have gone with movement banner here for extra speed – used to run Flaming banner to deal with abominations etc., but with the amount of HEs/other flame retardant options I dropped it. Still an option though.

7  Some more cheap chaff here. Extremely cheap flying chaff is great, spirit hosts are the bane of Hydras/Steam tanks/non magical monstrous cav. These can be dropped however (due to large amount of chaff in Core) for something along the lines of a unit of 5 Vargheists, adding an extremely fast threat your opponent has to deal with as well as the bus.


  1. Interesting read, thanks for posting.

    In the CavStar how many characters are too many? You can get a Warrior Priest with a 2+ armour save for 85 points in an Empire Army or a Captain with a 1+ for 84. This does allow a fair amount of spamming and support item caddies, but are not exactly stellar in combat.

    Giving the Empire as an example may not be the most helpful choice, but as I recall a lot of human/elf statline heroes will run you under 100 points with mundane items.

    Is there merit in having redundancy, or do the costs outweight the benefits?

    1. Cheers!

      That is the age old debate - and the answer is there is no obvious answer - it comes down to opportunity cost really.
      What could you get in exchange for the spare characters?

      With empire specifically you can still get a decent combat output - 1+ armour save is utterly incredible, even if we all accept it as part of the game. Redundancy here is great - be it a couple of priests so you have a couple of shots at getting the prayers off, or if it a few captains to soak up the incoming damage/dish some back.

      The beauty of empire is that their cav is from their Core (unless you want to go special). This means you can buy steadfast breaking out of your core tax. Characters in the front soaking up damage, and you can break most combat infantry units on the charge (unless you encounter a lot of 60+ strong units).

      People who possess 1+ armour often dont realise quite how good it is. Even a s7 Vampire Lord regularly bounces vs a 1+ when combined with additional defensive kit.

      The other good thing with the empire is that the knights being core allows you to have hard hitting support elements (be it DGK or the Steam Tank)