Why do I theme so happy?

[Advance warning: Wall of text incoming]

One thing I enjoy doing is nattering with Losties around the world via social media, and recently there was a faint suggestion in a discussion thread that just maybe Garryth was a poor choice for someone interested in, ya know, actually winning games with their Retribution models. Now, I generally maintain the viewpoint that every model has its place, it’s just not always immediately obvious and may take some work to find it. I fully acknowledge that some models only have a very specific set of circumstances where they’ll shine, while other models are tossing glitter all over the place, but they all have their place. That, combined with my occasionally feeling rather contrarian, has been the motivation for my championing so-called “sub par” lists and models, like Amon Ad Raza and his Allegiants, so I posted on the Tweeters about this slight on Garryth’s good name with the suggestion that the urge to prove the naysayer wrong was rising.

In response, Lost Pal Chappy asked a rather interesting question: How do I keep my spirits up when committing to playing theme forces?

Huh, thought I, interesting question, and I thought I’d post a stream-of-consciousness ramble to perhaps give a deeper response than just “I play for fun!”.

First, I think the premise of the question is flawed. The implication in the question is that theme forces are somehow an emotional sinkhole, that by playing theme forces you’re at risk of having your enthusiasm flag, and thus there’s a need to have some sort of plan in place to bouy your spirits. I don’t think this is the case at all. Yes, some theme forces are rough as nails when it comes to trying to compete in the Masters circuit, but at the same time we see things like Doomshaper’s Runes Of War and Xerxis’ Fist Of Halaak doing rather well. Some theme forces are frighteningly efficient and capable of running the tables in your next Steamroller…

… but not necessarily all. You know what? That’s okay. I don’t usually sink into the casual vs competitive debate, but it’s relevant here. Some theme forces? Simply not destined to find themselves in the top 8. Others? They simply have too many bad matchups to be a strong contender for the top tables at a large event.

A prime example of this is the High Reclaimer’s Flames of Reclamation theme force. It can really make a lot of lists sad by virtue of being able to put down a 23” wall of cloud effects without even really trying. You’re a gunline? Sorry, you can’t see anything to shoot. You’re an alpha strike list? Sorry, you can’t see any charge targets. I’ll tell you now, there’s little more satisfying than watching a wall of Bane Thralls knowing that they can’t even walk into the smoke to engage the ranks of Cleansers back there without taking automatic damage from the Soulstorms mixed into the front lines. I know most folks have eschewed it, but it’s a fun theme force…

… that loses the vast majority of its effectiveness if your opponent can negate the cloud effects. Eyeless Sight, Phantom Seeker, even things that simply have high mobility that can run around the edges of the walls – almost every faction has a means of messing with the theme’s schtick, if your opponent knows what’s coming. I’ve won more games with it than I’ve lost, but only in casual play, and frankly, never against the Legion of Everblight.

So it’s not a competitive list… but damn if I don’t take some sort of sadistic pleasure in watching my opponents squirm as they try to figure out how to cope with a Protectorate of Menoth list that doesn’t have any Choir… not a single weapon master to be brought back with the feat… with Reclaimer solos competing with the High Reclaimer for souls… heck, there’s Castigators in there! Who uses Castigators?? What the heck is this guy doing??

In a global meta where every other Legion player has at least looked over that Jake Van Meter has run in recently, where every Circle player is well versed with the ways of Goatvana, where every Khadoran owns a Winter Guard Death Star, sometimes being a rogue element is fun in and of itself.

That, I think, is one part of why I enjoy playing theme forces so much – with a few notable exceptions, no-one really expects them.

Okay, but what if you’re not into the competitive scene? What if  it’s just you playing with a few buddies and there’s no tournaments on your radar? Why look at theme forces?

1. Waffles.

To answer this one I need to clarify some details about myself. First, I’m the Waffle King. Waffle waffle waffle. I’m not talking food here, I’m talking about my being as indecisive as something that’s really indecisive when it comes to listbuilding. Unless I hit that “Ah, what the heck!” moment, I look at the models in my collection and I just start to boggle. Do I really want Stormfall, or should I bring two Mage Hunter Assassins? I love me some Amon Ad Raza, but there’s Vindictus sitting right there… Hey, it’s Warmachine night! I should bring Khador… or Circle… or or or.

I’m a creature of whim, and sometimes that whim is just too whimsical for my own good. One helpful solution is theme forces. If I can determine a caster, I can determine a theme force. If I determine a theme force, I can immediately eliminate a whole bunch of model options, making my listbuilding experience that much easier. Considering that each theme force has been tested and its tier benefits have been factored to try to make the theme worth considering, I can look at the end result and not immediately feel like I’ve shot myself in the foot by not bringing Daughters of the Flame because they’re not allowed in-theme; instead, I’ve got a bonus of some sort that, if I’ve interpreted the theme correctly, I’ll be able to use to my advantage.

Sidebar: Interpreting the theme is a key component of winning games with them. Many themes are designed to lead you into a different playstyle than you may be used to with a specific warcaster; trying to play them how they’re “supposed to be played” per conventional forum wisdom will likely result in losses. Open yourself up to other roads to victory.

2. Fluff

Let’s look at this part from a Menite perspective. Yes, the High Reclaimer likes to be the only model in his army collecting the souls of the fallen. They fuel his smoke clouds, after all. But… he’s the head of the Reclaimant order. Doesn’t it seem a reasonable assumption that there’d be another Reclaimer or two around the place? Amon’s the High Allegiant, so again, shouldn’t there be Allegiants? Running Exemplars with Feora may be very effective, but shouldn’t her army be 90% Flameguard? What if you’re just that much into Kreoss and the concept of the Exemplars that you want to run ALL EXEMPLARS ALL THE TIME !!!11!11!!

Why should I be punished as a player for preferring a thematic army? Sure, Kreoss might be able to  make good use of, well, almost the entirety of the Protectorate model range, but given the animosity between the Exemplar orders and the Order of the Wall, where’s the storyline justification in including Dartan Vilmon in a Kreoss list? Vilmon’s awesome, but as a non-Exemplar he doesn’t fit my mental image of the army, so if I want to appease the fluff bunny in me I need to eschew the Paladins en masse.

Theme forces are all built around either their warcaster/warlock’s primary concept or some moment in their history, and thanks to the tier benefits I can eliminate models that don’t fit the fluff image I have in my head, and be compensated for the loss of competitive model options by anything ranging from free models to extra terrain.

3. Budget

Back in the day, I used to own so much the GW stuff. I sold it when I immigrated to Canada. There was simply too much both in term of volume and weight to consider bringing it with me, and if I couldn’t bring it all, why bring any? That, and immigration isn’t cheap and I needed funds. Years passs, I consider getting back into gaming and there’s the GW stuff with $2-300 price tags on starter armies… and then there’s Warmachine, with $50 and 3-6 models, meaning less space taken up and less model count to paint. I was sold.

With the amount of available funds being a factor in why I started playing Warmachine at all, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it factors into theme forces as well. I decided earlier this year, for example, that I was going to put together the Invisible Army, Old Witch’s theme force. I’ve never played Khador, and there’s some really neat models out there both in terms of aesthetics and rules… but because I’m playing a theme force, just as with the listbuilding, I can rule out purchases from the start. I don’t *need* to look at Iron Fang Pikeman, they’re not in the theme. I can resist the temptation to purchase Drago (and man, the temptation’s there) because it’s not in the theme. Thus, I can put together a list that theoretically works (per 1. Waffles) and not have to worry about buying models that don’t fit in (per 2. Fluff), and I can continue to pay my mortgage, car payment, and heck, kids are expensive too.

Being able to restrict the purchases means I can build the list on a much smaller budget than if I was building loosely and conducting trial and error experiments to figure out which models I wanted to use in the end.

4. Challenge

I alluded to this earlier; do you have any idea how much fun it is when you play an army everyone else has written off, and you win with it against lists that are allegedly so much more competent and capable? I played a game last Thursday night against a Goreshade player with plenty of Banes (multiple varieties), Bile Thralls, and other such unpleasantries. Before the game he’d looked my models sitting on the table and “Are those Kossites??” was heard. Yes, they’re Kossites. Yes, they’re ambushing, in your base, and shooting your Bane Knights in the back.

I won that game, and my victory is in  no small part thanks to the efforts of the “craptacular” Kossite Woodsmen and the “Overpriced” Greylord Ternion (4pts for three single-wound models? Yeah, it’s a  thing). There’a a real sense of self satisfaction when you can take models no-one loves and do well with them. I would imagine this is how many Merc players feel with their lists – when they win games, when they perform well, there’s a real sense of having *earned* the win by virtue of their not playing a cookie-cutter list.

Even if I had lost that game (almost happened to a turn four assassination), I had obliterated his Bane Thralls and Bane Knights with Kossites, Greylords, and a rampaging Scrapjack. I could have walked away with a loss, but still had that cool sense of having done something noteworthy, having achieved some sort of achievement regardless of how the game ended. I will guarantee you, that Cryxian player will not be so quick to dismiss Kossites and Greylords in his next game.

Part of this mentality ties back to my learning to play Warmachine using Gorten Grundback. Spend six months playing with a 10″ control area. Learn t work within it, play well, win games. Then play someone with a 14″ control area and you’ll be that much better for the experience because you haven’t trained yourself to need that full 14″ to be effective.


So how do I keep upbeat about playing theme forces? Simple. They appeal to my fluffbunny side, they don’t break the  budget, they help me with both my purchase priorities and listbuilding, and help me do cool things on the tabletop. I don’t have to win games if I’m having fun, and after all, that’s supposed to the the point, isn’t it? Winning is the goal, but having fun is the point. I don’t win every game, but I don’t go into every game expecting victory. If I successfully do something nifty, then that’s a small victory in and of itself, and I can take pleasure in that. I’m happy not playing theme forces, but when I do they both make my listbuilding easier and help me build the story if the army in my imagination.

Tho thometimes, it’th okay to thtop beating yourthelf  up over comptetitive play, and jutht thpend thome time with a theme forthe. 🙂

2 Responses to Why do I theme so happy?

  1. Avatar Not_that_one
    Not_that_one says:

    I certainly agree that fluff can and should sometimes trump purely competitive impulses. As a Trollblood player I frequently see suggestions for lists including Mulg the Ancient as a big beatstick with a whole range of Warlocks. In those cases I find myself asking “where is Doomshaper?”. Mulg and Doomshaper go together like peanut butter and jelly (or sausage and mash for us in the UK) so I limit myself to only using one with the other. Similarly in Cygnar you will only ever see me field Ol’ Rowdy with Stryker. Why on Caen would Ol’ Rowdy follow the mental commands of Alistair Caine? This probably puts me at a competitive disadvantage, but it means I’m happy with the fluffiness of my lists.

    When it comes to Theme forces, I do enjoy those that grant something that you can’t otherwise obtain. Extra models are all well and good but free walls? Forests? +1 to starting roll? Sounds good to me! No amount of points can buy these things outside of Janissa etc. The Hunters Grim theme force gives Scout the ambush ability – brilliant! That adds an extra dimension to the game that is otherwise impossible to get, and that really interests me.

    On the budget issue there are some theme forces that potentially cost quite a pretty penny, especially those that require multiple copies of units that you wouldn’t otherwise use. For example, I own 4 units of Runeshapers but only have one list to use them in! Things are improving however. A couple of Trollblood theme forces use multiple units of Kriel Warriors. I’ve steered clear of those so far but with the advent of plastic Kriels I think you’ll see a lot more Trollblood players use these tier lists. Watch this space!

    Wow, bit of a rant there. TL:DR version – Theme forces can be fun!

  2. “How do I keep my spirits up when committing to playing theme forces?”

    By enjoying the playing the game, the socialising with the other player(s) and the cool looking models and scenery, and not pinning all of my enjoyment solely on winning the game. Just like I do with every other game I play. Winning is good, but it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.

    Now I think about it, I’ve gone with both Waffles, Fluff and Challenge when I made the decision to play pretty much all-tier-all-the-time. And I’ve made it “harder” by playing pretty much just Minions the last 2-3 years.

    Reckon I might play tiered Skarre until the ETC in the summer though. Many Satyxis? A bonus UA if I go with eSkarre? The Challenge side definitely went down a notch…