Friday 17 February 2017

Warhammer 40k - Building an Army - Formations and Detachments

This article is partially a response to Nick's discussion over at The Burning Eye and partially a continuation of the thoughts I expressed in my Better Know a Blogger article over at St Andrews Wargaming. As Nick correctly says, the use of formations in army construction is a very polarizing issue within the 40k community. They are kind of like the marmite of 40k with players either using them regularly or shunning them entirely; very few of us are sitting on the fence.

In particular I'd like to take a look at the Necron Decurion Detachment. The reason I'm choosing to look at this in detail is threefold. Firstly, it is a detachment that a lot of people are familiar with so the majority should be able to follow along with my reasoning. Secondly, it is one of the more complex methods of building an army, being a detachment that is made up of formations. Finally, it includes pretty much all of the problems that I have with formations.

Behold! The tome of many sins!
First off, let me say that I'm not opposed to the concept of formations, just the way Games Workshop has chosen to execute them. In my mind, a formation should be used to restrict a player into building a list with a certain background in mind. Offering a player certain rewards for cutting down their list choices and fielding an army with a particular character. This is something that a few (a very few) of the available formations and detachments have managed to do. The realspace raiders detachment from Codex: Dark Eldar for example forces you to take a fast attack choice is addition to the usual CAD and gives you some minor benefits for doing so. It's as though the author is saying "Ok, you're playing in character with the army, here's a little bonus." I have no problem with this kind of thing, it's forcing a player to field a more fluffy army and it doesn't provide any game breaking special rules that an unwary opponent will find frustrating. Furthermore, the restrictions and bonuses suit the character of the army. From a fluff perspective you're fielding a lightning fast raiding force attacking under cover of darkness. The rules reflect this, you're using additional fast attack and you get some minor cover bonuses in the early game.

Moving on to Codex: Necrons and the Decurion detachment. The first problem I have found is that players (particularly those new to the game) find the construction of a Decurion list confusing. More than once I have set up opposite a Necron player who has proudly announced "I'm fielding a Decurion!" and when the models are placed on the table it turns out to be a Reclamation Legion with a couple of random units bolted on the side. Or even worse, they have neglected the Reclamation Legion entirely and tried to make a Decurion out of different formations. I think the confusion here arises from the double stacking restrictions used in the Decurion ie. you must take certain units to make a formation and you must take certain different formations to form the detachment. This isn't my main problem with the Decurion, just something I've observed from across the table.

The main problem I have with the Decurion and the Necron formations in general is the special rules they offer for seemingly no reason. For example, the Reclamation Legion is potentially a very large formation (it has many non-compulsory choices) with comparatively few restrictions (you must take a few units of necrons, an HQ and some jetbikes). As a reward for adhering to this loose structure the entire formation gains relentless, move through cover and a bonus to reanimation protocols. The question I have to ask is why? Why are these rules given to this formation? Essentially the army is a standard CAD plus some jetbikes, why do they now have move through cover? Have their feet been replaced with hoverboards? (note: if somebody converted this I would be totally ok with them using this formation.) Are the jetbikes somehow magnetically towing the warriors through cover? They also have relentless, again, why? What makes them able to fire heavy weapons on the move? Or able to rapid fire and then charge? Personally I can see no narrative reason for these special rules to be granted. The army isn't particularly characterful, it's little more than a regular CAD (why the jetbikes are included I will never understand) so there is no fluffy reason for additional special rules to be granted.

This problem occurs time and time again in the various formations that make up a Decurion. The Canoptek Harvest has similar issues, plus some rather nasty additional bonuses. The Royal Court falls into the same boat as the above. But that aside, let's look at the Decurion as a whole. In order to field a Decurion you must include one Reclamation Legion (see rant above) and one other formation or unit from a choice of nine. For doing this, the army is granted yet more reanimation bonuses (above those already offered by the Reclamation Legion). The question once again is why? I can see the justification for the reanimation bonus within the Legion itself, you are fielding a powerful warlord whose abilities allow his warriors to rise from the grave time and again. Personally I think that's pretty cool, it fits from a fluff perspective (if you ignore the jetbikes, relentless and MTC). But why, oh why, should adding a single unit of flayed ones or deathmarks to the army suddenly increase their reanimation ability? What is that extra unit doing to justify the extra reanimation? Do the flayed ones have spanners and greasy overalls to rebuild their fallen comrades? Are the deathmarks somehow cobbling together additional warriors from battlefield salvage? I don't know, and it's questions like this that spoil my immersion in the game and ultimately become annoying.

I feel like I've rambled enough (kudos if you're still reading.) I know I've picked very specific examples above and there are several detachments and formations that don't have these failings. But there are a great many that seem to grant powerful special rules with only the flimsiest of pretexts.


Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I'm bound to have raised a few hackles with this (particularly amongst you Necron players) but it's an interesting topic for the community and one that provokes strong feelings on both sides.


  1. I agree with this; especially from the standpoint of things just getting plain confusing. If people can't make the lists themselves correctly, how are their opponents supposed to keep track of things!

    1. I don't think the method of construction of this type of list is particularly complicated, it's just that in general the people that get it wrong haven't read the rules properly. GW perhaps didn't explain it in the simplest terms, but the concept is pretty simple.

      In my experience, the kind of person that can't construct a list using a nested detachment after reading the explanation of how they work is the kind of person that 'accidentally' forgets to bring the codex, or their army list, to the game as well.

  2. I'm sort of in between with formations. I do field them from time to time, but most times I stick with the CAD.

    The Decurion gets a lot of hate (and rightly so in my opinion) as it was the first of its kind and is very powerful. If I show up at a tournament and find I am playing a Decurion in a kill points mission, I am pretty much resigned to losing the game.

    If they went back to the old apocalypse style formations where you have to pay for the bonuses of the formation, that might level things a bit.

    1. Oh, I'm also glad that the article has been causing so much discussion and a variety of point-counter point articles!

  3. I believe the original idea behind decurions was to "increase sales, while increasing an armys power level".

    By requiring a number of items that individuals may have not taken, they now have to purchase them to get those special rules.

    Honestly a lot of the rules belonged in the army to begin with. Why shouldn't necrons be relentless? They are freaking robots!

    There has been a massive shift in GW of late, especially if you pay attention to AOS. Now they are using the edition releases to adjust points and power army wide, instead of relying on all the books to do that. If faqs continue to be updated, and 8th is reset in a way like AOS, it will solve a lot of problems, but will invalidate tons of armies relying on the crazy formations.

    One thing to note. I have been attending tournaments for around the past 3 years. Never have I seen such variety in army makeup as I do now. It is amazing. You rarely encounter the same army makeup twice. So one thing you have to give 7th is the amount of diversity it brought the table.

    1. I have to say Greg, seeing more diversity in lists should always be applauded. Although I'm not a tournament player it's good to hear that people are trying out different combinations in their forces.

    2. When I first started playing, it was basically just a bunch of grey knight players fighting each other. Now its all sorts of crazy concoctions, and it is constantly shifting and changing from event to event.

      That being said, I still just participate in the narrative and friendly events. I like to drink and move my armies around :)

  4. With hackles firmly locked down, here's a few of my thoughts in response (do I get extra kudos for reading the article twice to crystallise my thoughts?).

    With regard to the Dark Eldar detachment you mentioned, I think it suffered from being a precursor to the Decurion and the Eldar Warhost that followed. Having been a Dark Eldar player at the time, I can honestly say that any Dark Eldar player not taking that Fast Attack choice was playing the army in an extremely unusual way (unless they were using the coven supplement) because the Fast Attack units are some of the most effective in the whole book. Even so, I rarely if ever saw an army list from a serious player using the realspace raiders detachment - the bonus was so minor it wasn't worth taking instead of obsec.

    As for the matter of the rules relating to the decurion, it's not an area I have direct experience of as I've never had the codex, but I think there's no doubt that the rules and the background are separate things that GW are trying to bring together (ie they're trying to make the fluffy lists the effective ones too). I have a post of my own coming up on Wednesday where I decry some of the formation bonuses that are given because they make no sense. I understand however that GW want to sell the full range of their miniatures and the formation and detachment bonuses encourage just that. Some players will still take obsec over a formation bonus, min maxing their lists around the most 'efficient' units and as Mike proves on a regular basis, winning the missions game is more likely to result in you winning the overall game as well, even if you do only have one model left (I myself have beaten a decurion in just this fashion, holding a single objective with an objective secured unit whilst the necron army controlled the table in terms of numbers).

    I totally get that if you mentally need the command benefits to relate to the troops in question that you'd have difficulty liking them as many don't seem to relate to each other. For me however, it's enough to see a necron army that is based around a core of warriors - if it includes flayed ones or deathmarks then great, they're both very fluffy, less effective units on the table and I'm always happy to see players taking a less effective choice if it means the army theme works better - I still bring terminators to my games despite knowing full well that they will get massacred without achieving anything worthwhile (seriously, I don't think I've ever been proud of anything a terminator unit has achieved on the tabletop). That's not to say I like it because the game will be easier, but the Necron fluff describes hordes of warriors advancing implacably across the table, never slowing down or stopping for anything (including claiming objectives). Oh hang on, that's relentless isn't it? And move through cover. If you like you can then always justify the additional reanimation protocols as being a result of the critical mass of troops boosting the abilities of the warlord. Flayed ones or deathmarks could indicate the presence within the Necron forces of advanced teleportation technologies that are used to resurrect or replenish warrior units as they cross the battlefield? Just a few ideas.

    1. Thanks for reading Nick (twice!) and for the extensive comment! For now, I'll just say I look forward to reading your article on Wednesday.