One of my favorite writers is Malcolm Gladwell.  If you’re not familiar with his work, he writes columns for The New Yorker and has had several, bite-sized books up on the Best Seller’s List (best one being Blink IMO).

Gladwell specializes in finding things that are counter-intuitive and showing why those things work the way they do.  He’s not a scientist, but he’s smart and he relies on other’s research and composes it all in a manner that I find extremely interesting and compelling.

One of his best articles is this one below.

The premise of the article is that the standard David vs Goliath story where the underdog wins out is actually more common than we’d think.  He goes on to give serveral examples of WHY being an underdog can be advantageous; and one of those examples is in the exerpt below.  I highly recommend you read the entire article as it is pretty fascinating (especially if you like basketball and war!).

In 1981, a computer scientist from Stanford University named Doug Lenat entered the Traveller Trillion Credit Squadron tournament, in San Mateo, California. It was a war game. The contestants had been given several volumes of rules, well beforehand, and had been asked to design their own fleet of warships with a mythical budget of a trillion dollars. The fleets then squared off against one another in the course of a weekend. “Imagine this enormous auditorium area with tables, and at each table people are paired off,” Lenat said. “The winners go on and advance. The losers get eliminated, and the field gets smaller and smaller, and the audience gets larger and larger.”

Lenat had developed an artificial-intelligence program that he called Eurisko, and he decided to feed his program the rules of the tournament. Lenat did not give Eurisko any advice or steer the program in any particular strategic direction. He was not a war-gamer. He simply let Eurisko figure things out for itself. For about a month, for ten hours every night on a hundred computers at Xerox PARC, in Palo Alto, Eurisko ground away at the problem, until it came out with an answer. Most teams fielded some version of a traditional naval fleet—an array of ships of various sizes, each well defended against enemy attack. Eurisko thought differently. “The program came up with a strategy of spending the trillion on an astronomical number of small ships like P.T. boats, with powerful weapons but absolutely no defense and no mobility,” Lenat said. “They just sat there. Basically, if they were hit once they would sink. And what happened is that the enemy would take its shots, and every one of those shots would sink our ships. But it didn’t matter, because we had so many.” Lenat won the tournament in a runaway.

The next year, Lenat entered once more, only this time the rules had changed. Fleets could no longer just sit there. Now one of the criteria of success in battle was fleet “agility.” Eurisko went back to work. “What Eurisko did was said that if any of our ships got damaged it would sink itself—and that would raise fleet agility back up again,” Lenat said. Eurisko won again.

Eurisko was an underdog. The other gamers were people steeped in military strategy and history. They were the sort who could tell you how Wellington had outfoxed Napoleon at Waterloo, or what exactly happened at Antietam. They had been raised on Dungeons and Dragons. They were insiders. Eurisko, on the other hand, knew nothing but the rule book. It had no common sense. As Lenat points out, a human being understands the meaning of the sentences “Johnny robbed a bank. He is now serving twenty years in prison,” but Eurisko could not, because as a computer it was perfectly literal; it could not fill in the missing step—”Johnny was caught, tried, and convicted.” Eurisko was an outsider. But it was precisely that outsiderness that led to Eurisko’s victory: not knowing the conventions of the game turned out to be an advantage.

“Eurisko was exposing the fact that any finite set of rules is going to be a very incomplete approximation of reality,” Lenat explained. “What the other entrants were doing was filling in the holes in the rules with real-world, realistic answers. But Eurisko didn’t have that kind of preconception, partly because it didn’t know enough about the world.” So it found solutions that were, as Lenat freely admits, “socially horrifying”: send a thousand defenseless and immobile ships into battle; sink your own ships the moment they get damaged.

“In the beginning, everyone laughed at our fleet,” Lenat said. “It was really embarrassing. People felt sorry for us. But somewhere around the third round they stopped laughing, and some time around the fourth round they started complaining to the judges. When we won again, some people got very angry, and the tournament directors basically said that it was not really in the spirit of the tournament to have these weird computer-designed fleets winning. They said that if we entered again they would stop having the tournament. I decided the best thing to do was to graciously bow out.”

It isn’t surprising that the tournament directors found Eurisko’s strategies beyond the pale. It’s wrong to sink your own ships, they believed.

Now, I’ve never seen a better description of the clash between “competitive” players and “casual” players.  The “casual” player fills in the gaps that aren’t in the rules to abide by standards of conduct that they believe are important.  The “competitive” gamer looks at the rules as they are and designs the best force.

You can look at the above story from either perspective and “get” the position of either person (or, at least, I can).  Lenat wanted to win the event and went about trying to do so outside the box; the rest of the gamerse were incensed by his flagrant disregard for the ethos of the tournament.

Beyond that segment; there’s a lot of very interesting factoids in the article; the biggest nugget is one I’ve proposed numerous times; not just in 40k, but in many games:  being unorthodox in how you fight makes you a tougher opponent for most people.  Trying to use things that are seen as weak and making them useful is possible; it just takes more work.  You have to work your butt off to get good using some units; but if you can take your opponent by surprise, you might topple Goliath.

My advice is, instead of trying to play the game like everyone else; try to find ways to play 40k differently that give you a competitive edge.  Instead of dismissing certain marginal units as less-effective than other options; try to find ways to make them useful.  Having a pyschological edge by playing an army in a way that your opponent isn’t expecting really helps you win the game above the table and gives you some tempo by forcing your opponent to think about problems they haven’t encountered before.

I’m not saying that certain units aren’t for all intents and purposes useless on the battlefield (I’m looking at you, Chaos Spawn!); but some units that might not be the “optimal” choice can shine if you learn to use them right.  Just buckle down and get ready for a lot of hard work to make that happen.