5th Edition introduced a new method of handling missions to the game- rather than a suite of different missions, each with its own set of deployment rules, special rules, and victory conditions, the game instead simplified things down. There are now simply three missions and three deployments, yielding nine effective scenarios that the game can take. This was a step up from earlier game types, as the standardized game types made it much easier to balance the different armies against each other and provided two competing mechanics (kill points and scoring objectives) to consider when designing a list.
This did, however, create a small issue; of the three missions, one (Capture and Control) is… not actually a lot of fun most of the time. Moreover, despite having a pretty reasonable selection of different options to roll up, it isn’t hard for things to end up being a little bit too much the same if one plays the game regularly, and many players end up yearning for some different options. This led to two main solutions.
The first solution was GW’s: buy our Battle Missions book! And, all in all, it is actually not that bad of a purchase, but unfortunately the missions in it vary wildly in usability- some of them are excellent, worthy of being “promoted” into standard features of the next main rulebook; others are such utter trash that even the most casual of players will recognize the inherent imbalances in them. For this reason the book has not gained a lot of popularity, although the Kill Team scenario presented has a quiet following amongst those that want to try out smaller, skirmish-sized games.
The second was something that has been happening all along: make up one’s own scenarios. This is particularly common for tournaments, where additional deployments, mission types, etc, are almost always present at least in some degree; often these are combined with the normal mission in one way or another to produce scenarios that fit the mold of 5E’s system, but are different enough to be interesting. NOVA and many other big events, for example, are moving to hybrid missions where objectives, kill points, table quarters, and/or victory points are all used simultaneously, with their relative importance varying from game to game.
In some cases, these solutions work just fine- indeed, NOVA’s system is probably better than GW’s, if a little more complicated (and thus less likely to be part of the main rules.) However, in many others, the alternate missions created do not function well for use in tournaments- they are imbalanced, unfair, random, or don’t determine a winner effectively. These are all factors that TO’s should strive to avoid when choosing scenarios, because one wants, as much as possible, for every player entering the tournament to have an equal opportunity to win, insomuch as their luck, choice of list, and skill as a general allow.
Imbalance, though it is used to mean many different things, in this case we are using to mean “not fair across all armies.” A mission that has Night Fighting for the entire game unfairly punishes shooting armies, for example; likewise, one where all units move as though in Difficult Terrain is greatly detrimental to melee armies (who naturally have to move more to accomplish their goals.) Imbalance can be more specific than that- a mission that prohibits Deep Striking, for example, is majorly detrimental to most Blood Angels armies, whereas one where psykers suffer from Perils on 2, 3, 11, and 12 will be crushing to Grey Knights. Whatever you may think about the relative balance between the codices as they stand, it is important to realize that being the one designing the missions should not be interpreted as free rein to alter the balance of the game as one pleases- anyone would be angry if they showed up for a game to find their army had been singled out for punishment, so best not to inflict this on them, as it will make your event unpopular and create bad sentiment amongst the player base. If the books are imbalanced, so be it- it’s not as though this wasn’t true in the past as well. Leave things as they are and let the world keep turning.
Unfairness, to contrast, has nothing to do with which army you bring and everything to do with which player you are. If one player gets to deploy second and act first most or all of the time, that player has an unfair advantage. If one player’s objectives are drastically easier to achieve than the other’s, that player has an unfair advantage. If deployment types, terrain effects, etc, are different between the two players, those are all cases of unfairness in scenarios. There are natural cases of “unfairness” due to the differences between 1st and 2nd player, of course, but stepping beyond that is often getting into a very dangerous realm of trying to keep things even between two non-symmetrical sets of rules. My advice would be not to try.
Randomness is another sore spot for tournament players. The dice will fall where they may, but there is no need to exaggerate this; objectives that move at the end of each turn based on the scatter die, ones that are worth a random number of points, etc, all add additional, uncontrollable factors to the game, and usually this is not fun. If you have four objectives and your opponent has two, you feel like you should be winning- and if a die roll at the game end says his two are worth more than your four, you feel gypped, not outplayed. The game is already plenty complicated and dice-dependent enough; rolls to end the game, rolls on the vehicle damage table, for saves, to hit, to wound, for special abilities, etc, can all fall one way or another; bringing even MORE dice rolls into the game doesn’t make it more fun. (Some players like this sort of thing, and more power to them if they do- feel free to paint up an Ork or Daemons army and have some fun with it. But for most of the rest of us, it isn’t really the case, so I hope you’ll understand.)
The last factor to consider is whether the mission (and this one, unlike the others, is specific to missions) is good at determining a winner. This is the failure of Capture and Control in most cases- it is far too easy for the game to end in a 0-0 or 1-1 tie thanks to the small number of objectives and conservative placements. Other examples of this are rarer, but it often happens with “wacky” missions that use a non-standard (i.e. not some sort of objectives or measure of total killed units) determinant. 5E books are balanced heavily around the considerations of scoring objectives and keeping units alive and mobile; when you go outside the normal bounds of how to measure victory, you may quickly find that it will often happen that someone will “win” while clearly having lost, or that wins may be rare at all- a mission that constantly produces ties is a poorly-designed mission, bad for tournament results and no fun to play.
Of course, with all this in mind, it’s important to note that even the 5E book missions are not perfect in this regard- in fact, intentionally so. They are NOT perfectly balanced or fair, though they are also not random (and, bar C&C, do a good job of determining a winner.) It is acceptable for there to be some degree of imbalance or unfairness, as this adds to the interest of the game and making decisions- generally one wants to go second in objective games, but not always, especially in Dawn of War- the potential to put out a powerful alpha strike can outweigh losing that final chance to take/contest objectives. The important thing is that no scenario should be too weighted against anyone, as an unwinnable game is no fun, and the overall suite of scenarios should strive to be even across different armies. If two of your missions favor shooting, two should favor melee armies. If one of your missions gives and advantage to armies with large numbers of troops, another should have this be a potential disadvantage. Look to the basic missions offered by Games Workshop as your guidelines for how far this should go; Spearhead, while clearly favoring shooting armies, is not a complete death sentence for melee armies thanks to coming in on the long board edge as well.
Pitfalls to Avoid in Mission-Writing
Missions (that is, victory conditions) are one of the most common “I have a good idea” areas. Unfortunately, most of the time the “good idea” is something atrocious and game-changing. The easiest way to keep from screwing up missions is to stick to objectives and kill-measurements, as these are the two important metrics of winning a 40K battle in 5th edition. If you want to mess with objectives, have some other ways of setting them out- this has plenty of potential to be interesting without completely upsetting the way the game works. One in each quarter, placing objectives in the opponent’s zone that only you can score, allowing specific other slots (FA/EL/HS/HQ) to also score objectives, terrain as objectives- all of these can be interesting variations on the theme, but the important thing is to keep the theme the same. Once you’ve cast the scoring system to the winds in favor of something new, you will quickly find that the codices are not balanced against each other anymore.
Measuring units destroyed/routed is also an important part of the current 40K edition; Kill Points is the most common way, but Victory Points are still lurking in the background and see more extensive use at tournaments, either as a tie-breaker or as a primary mission objective. The common stumbling-block here is proportionality; as an example of this failure, we need look no further than the 2010 ‘Ard Boyz scenarios, where “fast” units (anything that could move more than 6″ in any phase) were worth three KP instead of the normal one. This is a case of rather blatant imbalance- an attempt to punish certain types of armies and reward others. Again, it is important to avoid this temptation, strong as it may sometimes be; chances are whichever internet-famous list that is seemingly dominating everything will fade in a few months, taking its place in the sad parade of never-were contenders like Nob Bikerz, Leafblower, Lash-Oblits, etc, etc. Unlike objectives, there are not a lot of easy twists to put on units killed, as most specifics will be list-dependent; KP and VP are really the only two easy variations to invoke.
There are, of course, innumerable other possible mission objectives, but the vast majority of the time these end up being merely awkward and imbalanced- remember, you goal is to have a mission that is fair to all armies and resolves a clear and fair winner. If the entire point of the game is to kill, say, a single enemy model, then shooting armies have a gross advantage over melee ones, because they can simply focus all their fire on that one target. If the objective is to cross the board from one side to the other without dying, Dark Eldar, Bikes, Jump Packs, etc, will likely be all but unstoppable. While these problems may be specific to these particular scenarios, all “wacky” alternate missions end up having similar problems, because the codices are balanced around achieving particular objectives; when these things are tossed out the window, the balance of the game similarly goes away.
Pitfalls to Avoid in Deployment Types
The balance between melee and shooting in 40K has always been a tricky one, and from edition to edition it has tilted back and forth in various ways, with deployment types, cover, LOS, consolidation rules, etc, all playing important factors. When designing tournament scenarios, however, only one of these factors is really under your control (aside from the board setup, which is an entirely different article): deployment distances.
The basic 5E missions define a relatively narrow band of distances that units can start at. In Pitched Battle (the “even” deployment), units start no closer than 24″ and have a 12″ “back-off” zone where they can get some extra room. If deploying second, additional space can be gained by utilizing diagonals, but of course this allows the enemy an additional turn of movement, largely compensating for such an advantage. Spearhead favors shooting armies and has a 24″ minimum (technically not correct, but good enough for purposes here) and approximately a 30″ “back-off,” but makes reserves (including normal and outflanking) much more effective. Dawn of War, slightly favoring assault, has an 18″ minimum and roughly a 24″ maximum, for the lead units at least.
As we can see, all of the normal missions basically give us a 24″ gap between the main army lines and approximately 12″-24″ of additional space behind that for deployment; in making deployment types of our own, we probably want to be following these same guidelines. For this reason, short table edges ends up being a highly punishing deployment for melee armies, as even if you split the board down the center that still leaves nearly 36″ of field that must be walked across to get to the enemy if they deploy on the backline. A diagonal split can likewise be pretty harsh- 43″ is the distance to the back table corner from the center of the map, and while you can get a bit closer than this, it will still be a long, hard slog.
Night Fight and other special rules, though they are sometimes part of the mission (as opposed to the deployment), can also be considered here. In moderation, these can be used to compensate for deployment setups- Dawn of War, for example, starts (most) units quite far back on the board, but denies shooting armies the use of the first turn by virtue of having to move on and roll Night Fighting, giving melee something of a leg up. However, the use of long-lasting (or even game-long) limiters like this is generally a bad idea, as they lead to a decrease of interactivity; no one likes just sitting and watching as the enemy gets closer and closer because you aren’t allowed to shoot at anything over 24″ away. As a rule, such modifiers should last for a fixed period (only the first turn, only the last turn, etc) and inhibit, but not completely disable, a strategy.
However, one of the worst offenders for deployments is forcing the player to deploy particular ways, such as forcing units into reserve (or preventing them from being placed in reserve), making them deploy in particular parts of the table, etc. All of these are bad news because they affect different armies in such drastically different ways- even different “builds” within a particular codex. Being impossible to have such forced choices be even, it is generally better to avoid any drastic changes of the type. Dawn of War, for example, limits what can start on the table significantly- but insures that all of a player’s units will quickly be able to take part in the battle even if they can’t start on the board. Any kind of forced deployment scenario should take a cue from this and insure that players have at least SOME options for what to do with their units, as opposed to simply “where do I start these two models.” By the same token, if units are forced to start in reserve, they should be arriving first turn, or second at the latest (and that means “consistently arriving,” not “roll a 4+ or better”). Nothing is less fun than a battle where you don’t get to use your units because you were forced into reserve and failed many/most of your rolls to arrive the first chance you got- don’t push this scenario on a player, let them choose what they want to do. It is a very different thing if you decide to stay in reserve and roll poorly than if the mission makes you do so.
Final Thoughts: Evaluating the Battle Missions Scenarios
So maybe you want to mix things up some and try out Battle Missions. That’s a good thing. But maybe you aren’t sure how to judge all of the missions in there- well, aside from reading the above, here’s a quick tour through my opinions of them all. Everything in the “Good” category are things I would be happy to see played; they may not be absolutely perfect, but they’re entirely servicable. “Meh” scenarios are ones I probably wouldn’t complain too hard about, but that definitely have things that irk me- probably you are better off without them, but they might be useful to get some inspiration for writing a mission of your own. “Ugly” scenarios should not be used. Ever. For any reason except maybe for a theme battle between you and a friend. They’re badly-written and probably not much fun, either; even casual players will find them unpleasant to deal with.
Nothing funky for deployment, objectives, no wacky rules; this is one of the best missions in the book. It forces both players to stick on objectives rather than just arriving there turn 5; the only downside is that contesting doesn’t work the same way, but that’s an exceedingly easy change.
Terrain is randomly dangerous or gives effective Stealth, otherwise spearhead with objectives. While it may punish shooting armies somewhat, it’s not excessive and the terrain issues counterbalance it somewhat. The random nature of the terrain is a downside, but other than that it’s good.
Table halves with a bit of standoff distance, three objectives, everyone in the “Eldar” army can outflank. Pretty simple, with the outflanking being a sort of compensation for the uneven objective placement. Definitely the “worst” of these, but still very playable.
Well, it’s unfair, that’s a definite strike against it- one player has easier access to the objectives, the other gets an extra barrage each turn. The barrages themselves could very easily be a source of problems as players try and cheat the system. Despite that, it manages to be not too bad otherwise, with an 18″ standoff distance and objective-based victory. You can probably have some fun with this one most of the time.
FIGHT TO THE DEATH
Aside from the shitty “deploy like Daemons” thing, this one is… okay. Rather than a set game length, you fight until someone is wiped out; cute. However, it’s still essentially like KP or VP, there’s just only one possible result: massacre for one side. Play fast, though, as the time limit will be relevant here.
GW loves missions where things come back for another round, but hates tanks. This mission is kinda their dreamboat, since it does both. Handing out Preferred Enemy to non-Fearless units is also a weird choice. If you just give the USR to everybody then the mission ends up… acceptable, if not impressive.
Forced deployment is a big strike against it, but it does at least let you start coming in Turn 1. At least it’s an objective mission.
More forced deployment, although less limiting this time. Lengthwise deployment is a big no-no, though, which is really what takes this one down below being good. If you allow reserves to come in off of a long edge rather than a short this gets bumped up a category.
Aaaaaand another mission where you don’t get to pick how you deploy. The imbalanced KP (“Eldar” player is normal, other player gives up 1KP for troops, 3 KP for HQs, 2 for everything else) means that some armies, like IG and BA, can really just roll over the enemy.
RECONNAISSANCE IN FORCE
Almost good- the Necrons come in DoW style, arriving either first turn or normal, but the enemy is forced to start on-table. So close, GW. The “choose a table edge secretly” is amusing, but would be very awkward in many stores. For the most part surprisingly fun, though.
CUT AND RUN
Uneven kill points (just like the Eldar mission above) and free Hit and Run USR for one side, Stubborn for the other. Whether any of that matters is up in the air, but more importantly it forces you to deploy forward, which is a huge red flag.
Uneven objectives and a niche USR again; whose idea was it to give an army with I2 across the board Hit and Run? Playable, but there isn’t a strong reason to do this over one of the normal scenarios.
Oh geez. This scenario should probably be rated higher, but it has a couple huge flaws that make me dislike it. First of all, it tries to be cute by giving everyone else a shitty version of the Waaaagh that Orks usually get. Second of all, it makes it so that Orks lose the ability to make cover saves ones they call a Waaaaagh. That is horribad. So we mark a big, fat D- in red ink on this one and tell the designers to see us after class.
Forces most of the units off the table and doesn’t allow for them to easily come on- that’s basically the start of this mission’s problems. Add in a bunch of random Night Fighting and you have a mess that you’re better off avoiding.
Guess what, we still love that rule, let’s use it some more! It’s dark out the whole mission long, which is hugely crippling, but also you have to deploy randomly and you can’t go in reserves and jesus this whole mission is just a clusterfuck of rolling dice to see what stupid thing happens. Randomness is not inherently fun, okay GW? We know your game uses dice, but that’s not the part we like.
This mission is unplayable, I’m just straight-up saying it. There’s four objectives halfway between the center of the table and the edges, and the very middle is a “portal” that one player’s units can come through. Oh and if the other guy ever gets within 6″ of the portal, the unit dies instantly. So right away we can see how a shooting army can pretty much just say “Oh, I’m immune to assaults now? Sweet.” and win the game. But assault armies coming from the portal will also realize that they will be starting 12″-24″ away from the enemy (usually more the former than the latter), which is basically perfect for them- lots of T1/T2 charges. So in the end, whoever gets 1st player pretty much wins this one straight out; you would have to actively try to design a worse mission than this.
A step up, but still bad. You “capture slaves” every time you win CC or kill a unit when you have something within 18″ of it- obviously a massive advantage for melee armies over shooting. Oh, and vehicles count for jack and HQs count for d6 (rolled at game end), just to be annoying. So this mission is random, unbalanced, and pretty much just has nothing going for it. I guess if you want to square off with two CC armies it could be fun, though.
Hey you know what isn’t fun or fair? Getting stuck in an ambush. GW replicated this by making you deploy in the middle of the table and then surrounding you with enemies and letting them get 12.1″ away from you. Thankfully there are no units which can move or charge extra-far, have Fleet, or come in transpo- wait, what’s that, there totally are and they’re incredibly commong? Well then, this mission is shit.
Long deployment, three objectives. One of these things is good, the other is not. Not nearly as horrible as the others on this list, but still likely to see shooting armies eradicate most others. Once you touch an objective it’s yours until someone comes to take it from you, though, which is an interesting mechanic that could easily be used in another scenario.
Everything but FA starts off the table, and the objectives are moderately distant. This means there will be some games where it is literally impossible for you to ever get to the objectives with a scoring unit. Not exactly a great plan.
Oh, I see, another uneven-deployments thing with Space Marines and… A Thunderhawk. The “Marines” player can bring a fucking Thunderhawk. No.
No, it’s totally cool to force my army to spread out all over the table and not be near each other and then have the other army pour in from every quarter. Maybe we can also have a rule that says I suck and I’m a big dumb stupidhead who cries and wets his pants?
And, contrawise, let’s have a mission where it says you’re gonna die right in the tagline. Starting 6″ from the enemy is FUN!! Also there is only one objective so that the game is either a tie or a massacre.
At a certain point, there fails to be anything more witty you can say about missions, so instead I’ll leave you with this little tidbit: the “Tau” units in transports enter from the ENEMY long board edge so that they have to fight through the entire enemy army in order to get to their fire support.
More forced deployment that isn’t fun for anyone. While it can’t compare to the shitfests above, it’s still not good.
Like Night Fight, but there are SIX places to randomly come in at! And your enemy doesn’t have to deploy randomly and everything is scoring not just troops. It’s a great big derpfest.
We know you paid points for your whole army, but you only get to use 1/3 of it at a time. (The other guy gets his whole army.) It’s only fair, since you’re entering from the board edges and have to run across 24″ or 36″ of ground to get to them.
This mission is very confused. It gives Tyranids the Stealth USR, but makes all terrain Dangerous. Also they get Preferred Enemy, but you get 3/4 of the board to deploy in. So the whole thing is really, really weird and unbalanced and unfair. If they hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t even know what this was supposed to represent.
So this has been quite a lot of words, but I hope some people have found them useful. Writing missions for a tournament you’re organizing or a scenario you’re running can be fun, but it’s important to keep in mind that people will be playing the game you write and expect their army to be treated fairly; they want an even-handed battle that gives both sides a chance of winning it. Doing that is never easy and, it’s true, some people will complain no matter what you do, but by following the templates that the basic missions lay out, it becomes a lot easier to get a good feel for what is and isn’t acceptable and how different factors influence the way the game plays out. If your group is getting bored, give it a shot- you may be pleasantly surprised.