Doomed Encounters; How to Lose at 40k

Have you ever shown up to a game of 40K knowing you were going to lose?

I certainly have.

Maybe you are that rare special unicorn who genuinely does not care who wins or loses because you just love watching a narrative unfold on the table. Perhaps you only make game-time decisions as though you were role-playing. (i.e. “I fix bayonets and charge the titan because my commissar is a maniac.”) If so, I think the way you play 40k is super cool, and by all means keep reading if you have an anthropological interest in the psychology of competitive players, but this post isn’t really for you. This post is for my fellow 40K enthusiasts who find it disheartening to know that in certain match-ups, total crushing defeat is as inevitable as the heat death of the universe and your weird uncle talking about conspiracy theories during a holiday dinner.

These kinds of match ups are a fact of the hobby. Unless you only play with a small number of people who are equally or less skilled and/or play equivalent or poorly performing factions, there are going to be times when you know before a game begins that you can’t win, especially if you are running an underpowered faction against a top-tier list piloted by a skilled opponent.

In this post, I am going to talk about how to make the most of these types of match ups and how and why they can be beneficial. (If you are instead interested in how to avoid these types of games altogether, click here.) Warhammer is supposed to be fun, and even when games don’t go your way, the experience of playing should still be satisfying in some way.

Doomed Encounters

There are two possible reasons that a particular game might be a doomed encounter. The first is that your opponent is much better than you are at 40k, is showing up with an optimized list from a competitive faction, and is going to play to win. If this is the case, you are very lucky. Far from being a wasted evening or a pointless endeavor, these types of contests are the best possible opportunities we have as competitive players to get better at the game we love.

The second possibility is a bad match up. Sometimes bad match ups occur when players gamble. Maybe you decided to double down on anti-tank units and your opponent surprised you by showing up with a horde army, (in which case the solution is to stop gambling and build balanced lists.) More often though, bad match ups occur because of an imbalance in game design. There has never been an edition of 40K in which all of the factions had anything resembling an even chance of beating one another, and there are always particularly brutal match ups, especially for factions in the bottom tier of the competitive rankings, (which is where Craftworlds are at the time of writing.) Even if you are the best living Craftworlds player, there might be times when you come up against lists that your faction simply cannot beat if those lists are being piloted by veteran players who don’t make significant mistakes. Although this can be enormously frustrating, these games can be beneficial and enjoyable if you approach them with useful goals.

Step one is to have enough humility and self-awareness to know the difference between situation two and situation one. Sometimes we tell ourselves that the reason that the neck beard at the game store is kicking our asses is that his My-Little-Pony themed custom Space Marine chapter is totally OP, when in fact he is just a better player. This might be especially hard to admit if he also has an annoying laugh or is tragically wrong about which Star Wars movies are good.

If you find yourself in this situation, the first possibility you need to consider is that you are in fact the villain of the story, depriving your worthy opponent of the respect he has rightfully earned with his tactical prowess. Just because you can’t see a way that your faction can beat his list doesn’t mean there isn’t one. And just because you might not agree with his facial hair or objectively insane preferences about science fiction movies, doesn’t mean he is not playing 40k more skillfully that you are.

Before you commit to the narrative that your rival is unfairly advantaged, do a little research. Popular 40k sites like Goonhammer have up-to-date information about the win rates between various factions in tournament play. Alternatively, Google around to find out whether top players of your faction are running into the same problems you are. Be persistent; don’t stop reading the first time you find a Reddit comment confirming that your faction can’t beat the type of list the neck beard is running. Also, even if you do determine that his faction has an advantage against yours, is it really so great as to explain away 5 losses in a row? (Maybe.)

Also, consider your opponent’s broader record. Does he consistently beat a variety of other players running a variety of lists? Does he run multiple factions and win pretty consistently with all of them? If so, as much as you might not want to admit it, beardy guy might just be better at the game than you are. If so, you are in luck.

Having a local player who is solidly better at 40K is an invaluable resource. Although every game of Warhammer you play will improve your familiarity the units and rules, it’s playing against stronger opponents that forces you to develop new tactics and show you where you might be making mistakes that less skillful opponents would overlook and so never expose. There is a reason why many of the most highly ranked players in 40k primarily play one another: challenging games improve our level of play.

Here are three pieces of advice for making the most of games against a more skilled opponent.

1) Ask Questions
If it turns out that a significant factor in your losses is that you are getting outplayed, treat the experience like you would any other learning opportunity: Ask questions. Some of these questions might be internal, like: “how is my opponent choosing what targets to prioritize”? But many of these questions are best asked aloud at the end of the game like:
“what would you have done in my situation?”
or, “Did I make any big mistakes?”
or, “Was there was something you were afraid I might do that I didn’t do?”

Your opponent will almost certainly be happy to give honest feedback because
a) it is flattering to be asked, and
b) most people aren’t jerks.

It can be also good to ask about tactics. “What was your overall strategy at the beginning of the game?” is a good one, as is “what made you decide on those particular secondary objectives?”

If you are fortunate enough to also be playing against someone highly familiar with your own sub faction, you might even ask your opponent to suggest changes to your list. Obviously, you don’t need to take their advice just because they beat you, but it can be useful to have another perspective.

2) Consider and Army Swap

If you play this person often enough to feel comfortable requesting it, you might even suggest swapping armies for a game. Getting to see beardy guy wreck his own list with your army is likely to teach you some important lessons about how to play more effectively with what you have, and this request isn’t as weird as it might sound. Switching armies is a common and well-known convention.

On the other hand, even a more skillful player might struggle to play your army if he or she is unfamiliar with the stratagems, psychic powers, and unit abilities your faction relies on, so don’t take it personally if an opponent is not interested in bumbling through a game with unfamiliar units- but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

3) Consider Re-racking

Re-racking is stopping a game and starting over when it is absolutely obvious who is going to win. This can be a big-ask for someone who is not already a friend, as it is much more emotionally satisfying to finish one game in an evening than it is to start three.

That said, if your goal is learning to be a better player, replaying the first turn three times can be almost as instructive as playing three full games in some instances, especially if you ask questions as you go.

I would discourage you from suggesting this to anyone you do not already know well and play often- but if you do know someone who is a stronger player and willing to go through this exercise, you are likely to find it beneficial.

What if the other player isn’t better? What if my faction just sucks against a particular list?

In some cases, certain factions are so weak against particular lists that player-skill is not a significant factor in the outcome of games, (assuming both people are at least competent at competitive 40k.) If this is your situation and it is seriously detracting from your enjoyment of the hobby, you have three options as I see it:
-Run a different faction or at least splash in some allies from a more competitive sub faction
-Ask your opponent to run a different list
-Set reasonable goals that will help you improve

As the first two of these are about avoiding the match-up, (which is not what this post is about,) I am only going to talk about the third one.

Setting Reasonable Goals that Will Help You Improve

Okay, so maybe you are unlikely to win, but see if you can max out your secondary objective score, or get to at least 30 primary objective points, or control your opponent’s movement by creating log-jams in her deployment zone on turn one. Even if you can’t win, you can still set an achievable goal that will help you develop skills that will make you a better player, so that when your sub faction finally gets that new codex or FAQ or whatever, you will be ready to dominate the battlefields of the 41st millennium with tactical skills forged in the fires of lost causes. You too can learn to be a special unicorn, and if you prepare for it, someday your time will come.

A word of caution though: if you or your opponent care about competitive play, don’t set a silly goal unrelated to the competitive outcome. It isn’t much fun for your opponent if you don’t at least try to win, nor does it help you improve as a player to focus on something goofy like making sure all of your guardsmen perform a bayonet charge. These sorts of objectives, (while occasionally narratively amusing,) undermine the tactical aspect of the game and prevent skill development.

So there it is.

Losing at 40k can be a solid learning opportunity and even hopeless match-ups offer options for thoughtful play in which the decisions you make matter to whether you achieve specific goals. We can’t all be that narrative player living in a perpetual state of story-driven zen, indifferent to the capricious whims game imbalance, but we can all find ways to make the games we play enrich our experience of the hobby we love.


If you have thoughts, questions, or ideas about how to lose at 40k, feel free to drop me an email using the Contact link. Also, if you enjoy this blog, please click the “follow” button in the margin to the right if you haven’t already done so.

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