Deeper Strategy: The Role of Chance in Wargaming

Back when I first started this blog, I intended to go through the United States Marine Corps Doctrine Manuals in an attempt to relate real-world strategic and tactical thinking with the tabletop, to further augment each reader as a tabletop general. Admittedly, some of the considerations in the manuals have little correlation with the tabletop, but many of the principles give us a sound look into the mechanics of warfare, beyond what is immediately apparent.

Today I am reposting an article from earlier in the blog’s life, which discusses how even chance can be used to gain a battlefield advantage (or mitigate that of the enemy). If all goes to plan we will pursue this series well into the future, as we look deeper into the mechanics of the tabletop battlefield.

"We should remember that chance favors neither belligerent exclusively. Consequently, we must view chance not only as a threat but also an opportunity which we must be ever ready to exploit."
-Marine Corps Doctrine Manual on Warfighting, p. 9.

This may be a stand-alone article or it may become a weekly/monthly/whenever-I-feel like it feature on the forum. At any rate, the purpose of this piece is to highlight areas of thinking within the game that need to be modified of thrown out entirely.

The psychological term that relates to my subject matter today is cognitive dissonance. The definition for cognitive dissonance is "psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously" ... dissonance

What follows is an everyday example of cognitive dissonance. While it will take a bit to read, please follow through. I promise this will make you a better 40k gamer! 

Most people simply accept that more children are born during the full moon. This is even accepted within hospitals by the nursing staff that help deliver the babies. However, actual research has shown that this is simply not the case. There is actually a 1% rise before and after a full moon. And yet somehow, even when presented with this data, delivery room staff will scoff and claim their empirical data is more accurate than printed facts of births from previous years. The following quote was from an anonymous user on an article I read regarding this subject:

"This is very true!! I am a labor and delivery nurse in a large hospital and we always know it will be crazy busy when there is a full moon!!! This holds true of course for the ER and other units in the hospital that I've worked on-you always see more action with a full moon!"

The comment does not match the data, but the staff genuinely believe that what they have observed is the truth. So how can this be? COGNITIVE DISSONANCE.

When there is a quiet night in the birthing area, no one is going to stop and look at the moon. It might be a full moon that night, and if questioned the staff is likely to shrug their shoulders and say, "There are exceptions to every rule." However, when the delivery area gets busy they will peek out the window; if there is no full moon, again, this is simply an exception. But if the full moon is out, you better believe they will file that one in the "Evidence of Full Moon Causing Labor" file. It doesn't matter that more than half the time the labor area is at normal capacity on full moons; their brain has been trained to reject evidence that defies their conclusion, and file away anything that supports their claim, no matter how rare.

With all that waxing philosophic behind us, how does it apply to a game of 40k, and how can we modify our thinking to become better players? I submit the following quote for your consideration:

"I never get good dice."

We have all heard it, and I would say we have all used it. It is difficult to pinpoint how our list construction or our tactics have failed us in a game, but when the chips are down and we are having a bad game, it is easy to focus on the time we rolled 5 saves, needing 3+, and failed four of the saves, clearing our Troops choice from the objective. It doesn't matter how many times in the game we made 4 out of 4 saves, and it definitely doesn't matter that the other choices we took in the game led us to that moment where we needed to make at least two of those saves. No, it is easier to simply look to the random number generators as the source of our failure.

Before you say, "But I didn't make any mistakes, IT WAS THE DICE!", remember the nursing staff and their adamant stance that the statistics were wrong. Admittedly, dice do play a larger role in some games than others. But they are not even close to the determining factor on our success as a player.

The quote that I began this article with now comes into play. Risk is a part of the nature of warfare, just like it is a part of the nature of 40k. Sometimes it hurts us, and sometimes it hurts our enemy. There is nothing we can do to change the facts of a bad handful of dice, but we CAN work to mitigate the impact they have on our chances at victory. Likewise, we can work to make sure our opponent takes as much damage as possible as a result of their poor luck in a given turn.

For an extreme example, suppose my opponent has a Rhino loaded with Tactical Marines, with only one Hull Point remaining. I fire Markerlights into this Rhino and buff Longstrike's Hammerhead to BS10. All I need to do is roll a 2+ with a reroll, and the Rhino is destroyed, leaving the Space Marines with much less maneuverability. However, I roll a 1, followed by another 1. The shot has missed.

What has happened to this point is simple fact. I engaged significant support elements and a pricey mainline battle tank in an attempt to wreck a cheap transport, and I failed. At this juncture I am given three options, and only one of them gives me the best chances at victory.

1. I can quit playing the game; my dice have clearly decided I can't win.
2. I can continue playing, but remain frustrated by events that have occurred that are beyond my control to change.
3. I can put the bad roll behind me, potentially joking about the failure, and focus on what else can be done to leverage my chances at victory.

Obviously, only one of those results makes any sense. The ultimate goal of 40k is to have fun, but we're lying if we say we don't desire to win. Option 1 leaves me no chance to win, and also sucks any fun out of my playing experience as I end on a terribly frustrating note. Option 2 takes away the fun, and also makes it more likely I will make mistakes as my turns go on. Only option 3 makes logical sense, and preserves the fun aspect as a bonus.

Make the attempt to step outside your mode of thinking and consider these thoughts. The dice are not only random for you, but for your opponent as well. Chance opens when your opponent fails; in the above example, the Space Marines have potentially been given another turn to advance and impose their will. Each benefit gained from working around the fortunes of battle will be far more significant to victory or defeat than the simple, random dice that fall as the game progresses. Make an effort to remove excuses from your gameplay vernacular; look at every dice roll as an opportunity, either as a chance to mitigate losses or a chance to capitalize on poor fortune for your adversary.


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