PT here, with another reason to be mad in the comments!
The concept of Allies in Warhammer 40k isn’t exactly a new implementation. Introduced in ye olde dayes of 6th Edition, the advent of the Alliance system has brought a lot of controversy. On one hand it’s a kind of cool way to play narrative games by bringing in elements of friendly factions to augment one’s list (not to mention an excellent marketing strategy by which GW can sell out-of-faction models to consumers who might not otherwise buy them); on the other hand it’s a disruptive piece of crap that screws up competitive play because it’s never been dialed back or balanced.
While I understand the intuitive marketing strategy behind the introduction and promulgation of Allies in Warhammer 40k and agree that it can create imaginative narrative fun, it’s time to bring the dog to heel. I didn’t play 6th Edition, so I can’t speak to that, but 7th Edition was a nightmare in this regard, and in some ways, 8th is even worse. This is primarily due to GW’s seeming unwillingness to develop a balance for it as a game mechanic.
The simple problem with Allies – or “Soup” armies, if you will – is that the concept isn’t even remotely balanced, mechanically speaking. Some factions get Allies and some don’t, which creates an inequity in game balance and fairness. And while life isn’t always fair, the rules of a game that we all pay lots and lots of our hard-earned money to play should be. Can you imagine the outrage in the Magic: The Gathering community if only White and Blue decks could take out-of-color cards and everyone else was forced to play with mono-color decks? And it would be justified, because there is no good reason to create arbitrary rules that specifically target some players with a distinct disadvantage. Especially, if the only real gains are a few more dollars for the manufacturer.
Arguably, some factions have no narrative reason to ally themselves with other factions, but competitive 40k isn’t exactly about telling a story. Typically, we get a 2.5 hour window of time to play an often intensely competitive game against another random person at an event. Often enough, we won’t even get to finish our game, much less divert our valuable brainpower to the deliberate chore of cooperative storytelling. Again, this is a fine and interesting thing to do among friends engaging in casual play, but for the sake of competition, it tends to simply become disruptive and unfair to the folks playing factions with no Allies.
The gathered, if outdated, data on the subject (the disparity is actually larger now that more Soup codices have dropped) illustrates the statistical advantage of playing a Soup army. Simply put, you have more options available for list building by choosing a faction with sister factions. The math just works out in your favor. Hypothetically, let’s say that 30% of the units in any given codex/index is top meta for that faction. For the non-Soup player, that yields about 15 units; however, for the <Chaos> keyword, we’re looking at 34 units, <Aeldari> has 30, and <Imperium> yields a whopping 97 units. The disparity is pretty clear. It’s hard to argue that having less strategical/tactical options is equal to or better than having more.
Now, I’m not claiming to have a rock-solid solution to this issue. I think there are many creative ways that GW could handle this. They’ve recently shown us some very imaginative and elegant solutions to mechanical problems within the game system, so I have faith that they could do something if they wanted to.
Dear 8 pound, 6 ounce, newborn baby Jesus…
An easy solution would be to go the Age of Sigmar route, which allows faction Allies, but places a limitation on how many out-of-faction units can be brought to a game. For those who don’t play AoS, it’s 20% of your total list value, which comes out to 400 points worth of allies in a 2000 point game. And it works, from what I can understand (I’m admittedly fairly new to AoS). It’s fluffy insofar as it allows your faction to bring in narratively logical allies, it’s sensible in that it allows you to bridge a gap over some of your chosen faction’s weak points, but most importantly it’s not game-breaking since you’re only allowed around 1-3 units from another faction.
Such a solution would rely on another AoS mechanic: Grand Alliances. This would call for all of the factions to fall under the umbrella of a larger alliance. Narratively, I don’t like this but story narrative typically takes a backseat at most tournaments, anyway. I guess it’s a matter of what’s more or less annoying: certain factions having access to hundreds more units than everyone else, or Genestealer cults teaming up with a Necron dynasty to give some Dark Angels a reason to be angsty. And I guess there’s not an easy answer, there.
This much space crying has to be heresy, right?
Another alternative is to simply balance the game around Soup armies. This would essentially involve taking the fact that some “factions” are just going to have access to more units into account and buffing everyone else’s unit’s accordingly. In such a scenario, the <Imperium> strength would lie in its vast stable of units and the inherent tactical and strategical advantage of having more options, while Necrons would be able to draw more strength from the 50 or so units they have in their single codex. To be fair, this could actually be what we’re seeing develop in the game as the new codices are slowly being released, though it’s entirely too early to make a call like that.
GW could also incentivize playing pure factions by throwing out some bonuses to detachments that don’t mix factions. Nothing silly or intrinsically time-consuming like giving a bunch of free points (thereby effectively increasing the size of a list and the game beyond 2000 points) like the old Space Marine Battle Companies. Lots of tactically interesting game mechanics could be implemented this way, which would also steer the typical game fix away from simply being a points increase on the current units upsetting our community’s angry mob.
Literally, the last place game developers should be harvesting actionable data.
While I don’t have all the answers, I do think something should be done to curb the advantages of Soup lists, or at least dissuade players from using them. Certain factions having hundreds of more unit options than others without access to Allies is a striking disparity that I’m actually a little surprised made it into the published version of the game. Outside of a marketing advantage, I’m not really sure what building such a mechanic into the game brings to the table. Narrative fun, perhaps, but even the current core rules make a distinction between narrative games and matched play as GW moves back into the role of a “gaming company” and is actively pursuing the path of community support and interaction. So, why are we sacrificing game balance in matched play for the sake of narrative fun and marginally higher model sales? It seems like the wrong trade to make if the whole point of matched play is to create a fair and balanced atmosphere for competitive Warhammer 40k.
As always, thanks for reading and responding. The comments and discussions have been mostly excellent. If you have any ideas, or suggestions for topics, please post it in the comments section.
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