Monday, August 10, 2015

Isengard Strategies: Ballista Crews

Hey Reader!

As we prepare for October's THRO tournament (woot!), I'll be releasing a number of tactical posts alongside the battle reports I usually produce, talking about different elements of the Isengard lists that I'm tinkering with for my force for THRO.  In today's post, we'll be touching on ballista crews, and some of the thought into why you'd take them, what they are designed to do (as well as what they are not designed to do), and how to get the most out of them in your games.

Over the past few months I've heard a number of players complain (and rightly so) that ballistas don't really work because gamers in our gaming group put down a boat-load of terrain, making the range, line of sight, etc. substantially worse than the stats in the book.  I'll note upfront that I disagree with a reduction of their effectiveness (though I grant the point on how this limits line of sight), and in my next few battle reports I'll be playing urban games just to prove this point, :)  It definitely limits range, but as you'll notice in Section II below, limitations from terrain can be used to our advantage, and we actually embrace this.  But we are getting ahead of ourselves, :)  To begin, let's start at the beginning: why would you ever take a ballista crew.

I.  Why Take a Ballista Crew?

For starters, there are three things that gamers should remember about games in Lord of the Rings Miniatures:

1) All games end at 25% of your starting force,
2) Most games reward you for breaking the enemy force, and
3) Ranged weapons are weaker in LOTR than they are in other Warhammer games

All three of these things need to be kept in mind before you ask the question, "Should I pay 65-150 pts for this unit?"  So, very quickly, let's walk through the basics of taking a ballista crew.

First, for at least 65 pts, you get three warriors (each of which is an Uruk-Hai warrior with heavy armor), who have the F4/4+ and S4 that we like about uruks, coupled with a healthy D5 for protection.  They sport a weapon that is D9 with 3 Batter Points, and does a S9 hit to its target, throwing it back 2D6" and knocking it prone at its final resting place.  This movement is only interrupted if the target hits a battlefield target (like a piece of terrain) or a character of S6+, which would cause them to stop.  In addition any target that is overlapped by the base as it flies back that is under S6 is knocked prone and suffers a S6 hit (by the by, that also means that if a horseman's base is overlapped both the rider and the horse are knocked be careful when approaching a ballista with cavalry).

Ballistas can take a few upgrades: you can increase their range from 48" to 60" (which would be useful if using a Citadel tabletop that is 4' x 6'), you can re-roll to-wound rolls against buildings and targets with Batter Points if you purchase flaming ammunition, you can add an Uruk Siege Captain (a basic Uruk Captain with heavy armor that can spend his Might to promote the rolls involving the ballista) for 85 pts, or you can add extra crew for +10 pts/model.  On the whole the upgrades are decent (it would be really nice to have upgrades that would enhance to-hit and scatter rolls like in Warhammer 40k, but alas, too much to ask I guess, :P ), and the most common by far are the latter two upgrades.  I have come to take the captain upgrade basically every time I run a ballista, but more on that in the next section.

Ballistas are usually selected by armies that want to have a ranged option but don't want to run a host of uruk scout archers (who have limited range, a 4+ Shoot Value, and keep F4/S4 warriors far away from melee combat where they really shine), uruk crossbows (which have to remain stationary to fire), Ruffians (who have better range with a 4+ Shoot, but are much worse in close combat than uruk archers), or orc bowmen (even worse than the uruk scout archers for only marginally cheaper cost, and all around worse than the Ruffians with the exception of the  Defense stat).  Ballistas offer a 4+ Shoot (on par with the best that Isengard has to offer) at 48" (which is basically the whole board) with substantially higher firepower (150-225% of the next strongest archery option).  In addition, anyone who is knocked over will spend half their movement standing up, slowing down the model's ability to get into combat, limiting their range for shooting ranged attacks (or eliminating the ranged attack ability for a turn for anyone with a crossbow), etc.

And for 65 pts it's really hard to match the firepower: for 65 pts you can almost get 6 crossbowmen, 7 uruk archers (with a bit left over), almost 11 orc bowmen, and 13 ruffians (ergo why I speak highly of ruffians in my post on them, which you can find here).  In all of these cases you'll have to volley fire for the first few turns to have a chance at doing damage (so already you're spending more points to get a volleyline with anyone other than the ruffians, and crossbows can't volley), and in all of those cases you're unlikely to get more than 1-2 hits, each of which will be wounding on 6s, randomly determined by your opponent, so it's not reliable for damage count.

With a ballista, you have a 50% chance of hitting (higher chance if you have an uruk captain using Might), and when you hit the target you almost always (read: anyone who is not D8+) wound on a 3s, so even if you miss every other turn, the chance that you wound the guy (especially if you have Might from the uruk captain - see why we take this guy?) is extremely high - upwards of 66%.  And if the target hits a building or S6+ model, it takes an additional S6 hit - which in most cases is 50% or better chance at wounding.  So the likelihood that you wound the model is extremely high, even if it's every other round.

Now some will say, "But Centaur: once you succeed on the to-hit roll you still have to roll a Scatter to see whether you hit the intended target (on a 6), a different opposing target (on a 2-5), or one of your own models (on a 1).  Doesn't that make it harder to wound people?"

Well, if you don't have a strategy for choosing the initial target, yes.

And this is why we write tactica posts, :)  There's a strategy for picking targets (which we'll talk about in the next section), but suffice it to say for now, it doesn't decrease the killing output of the ballista, even though it will feel like it because you don't knock over/roll to wound as many targets as you might have if it hit the initial target.  Because at the end of the day, we follow the Ballista Rule of One:

Ballista Rule of One: We need to kill one model every turn to pay for ourselves.

I'm not even joking: whether that's a hobbit militia (the cheapest model in the game) or a dragon, we only need to kill one model every turn with a ballista.  Everything else is gravy.  And that's because of what ballista crews should and should not do, which is where we turn next.

II.  What Ballista Crews Should (and Should Not) Do

I think that the reason people are afraid to use ballistas is because they are afraid that either a) they won't do what they want the ballista to do, or b) they will not kill a lot of models in a single turn.  And when you are passing up 6-7 uruks for the cost of a ballista (or 15-17 uruks if you buy the captain upgrade), this makes sense.  So I understand where they're coming from.  So I think we need to start with a reorienting of our understanding of the role of the ballista in our force.

1) Ballistas are Built for Crowd Control, not Damage

Ballistas force opposing armies to split their forces: mass too many warriors or heroes in one place, and you're guaranteeing that the ballista kills a few models in a given round.  Ballistas also knock over models, making it virtually impossible to rank up, and keeping spear support (who tend to be the chosen targets on a 2-5 on the Scatter roll, as it means your army takes less hits) from helping the frontline infantry.  This is extremely helpful considering the fact that Isengard's strength is in infantry formations, as berserkers, ferals, and uruk warriors will wreck enemy lines that are disrupted.

While ballistas can do damage (as we'll see in the next point), they are primarily built for crowd control: a good ballista commander will use his ballista to force his opponent to play the way he wants his opponent to play, either letting him send bolts through his opponent's army (which is bad for the army), or splitting up and giving his army to the uruks in small, bite-sized pieces (which is also bad for the army).  Thus the ballista is more of a psychological drain than it is a physical drain (though it can remove a fair share of models, which is where we turn next).

2) Ballistas Deal Damage, but are not the Primary Damage Dealer for the Army

Ballistas can inflict a lot of pain: according to the rule for the ballista, whoever the primary target is (even if he is S6+) is knocked 2D6" backwards, meaning that even if you scatter off of your initial target, your opponent is very unlikely to take the hit on a model that is S6+ in fear of both the large base knocking over his army (which is bad) and having to run the model back into position (which is inconvenient).  What this also means, though, is that unless he takes the hit on a hero (insert same commentary on why they rarely choose heroes), the chance likelihood that the models has more than 1 Wound is very low, so we're already at 66% chance of wounding and removing that model, with a higher chance if we hit a barrier/terrain feature (mathematically it's closer to 80%).

While the ballista won't be the primary damage dealer of the army (mostly due to the random nature of who takes the hit), it can deal damage to enemies if it has the three things that all ranged models need (and we talk about this a bit in our posts on Grey Company on this blog):
  • Proper Firing Lanes: When deploying your ballista, find which portion of the map you want the ballista to cover.  This will be your "firing lane."  It will likely not reach all the way across the board, but that's okay - we'll force the enemy into the firing lane during the game (more on that in Section III).  The important thing to note here is the thing that you as the commander can control: don't clog the firing lane with your own models.  Since you are not guaranteed to have a hill/higher vantage point for your ballista, you'll want to keep your infantry out of the firing lane so that you don't obscure line of sight.
  • Group Targets: Ballistas are not designed to fire at solo models.  Make sure that you are picking models that are grouped up (at least within 6" of each other) so that you have a variety of options for your shots.  Even if it means you take an In the Way roll, on a 4+ you still have a good chance at hitting the model, and with Might from the Captain you have still better odds.
  • Prepare for Melee: Some people may think that their primary goal is to keep their ballista from being engaged in melee combat.  Here I reiterate my longstanding maxim that "archers are swordsmen," and this is especially true for ballista crews.  Since we have F4 D5 models for the crewmen, they are extremely defensible and can hold their own against most warriors (albeit with some support if there are more than 3-4 enemy combatants).  And at S4, should they win combat they can actually rack up the kills quite quickly (even quicker if you purchase the captain, as you'll have a F5 S5 D6 model with 2A to assist them).  This allows you to pump out even higher amounts of damage in close combat, giving a chance at multiple kills that you would not have gotten had you been firing in a straight line after a Scatter roll.  So don't think that if you're not firing the ballista bolt that you aren't doing damage - you can actually increase your damage by being in melee combat.
So trust your ballista: give it a solid firing lane, pick a target so that you're still hitting someone if the Scatter roll isn't a 6, and let your archers be what they are: swordsmen.  Most of the frustration with ballistas comes from people trying to make them do things they are not built to do: kill droves of guys, put wounds on trolls - stuff that they can do, but we don't need them to do it for us, so long as we maximize their utility in our armies.  Which brings us to the final section.

III.  How to Maximize Ballista Crews in Your Force

To maximize a ballista's damage output (and crowd control), the intended target matters a lot.  To begin, we'll take a moment to review how you measure Line of Sight (LoS) for the ballista.

Every siege weapon requires two things in order to fire: 1) not moving that turn, and 2) having two friendly models in base contact who also did not move this turn.  This means that we can move the other models to gain LoS, and as long as they are part of the siege crew, they can grant LoS for the ballista.  While no "maximum movement range from the siege weapon" is specified in the ORB or The Hobbit Rulebook, the rule for Bard the Bowman from The Hobbit series seems to indicate that crew are allowed to move 6" away from the siege weapon, and we see no reason to deviate from that rule here.  This means, though, that when selecting the target we can use any of the siege crew models to measure LoS, giving us a reason to both add extra crewmen as well as to deploy our crewmen tactfully.

Once we have our LoS established, we choose an advantageous target for our ballista.  To demonstrate how to best choose your target, consider the following:

You'll notice that there are eight targets we could pick, and there are three that are ideal: the Rohan Royal Guard in the front, Eomer, and the Rohan Warrior with throwing spear near Eomer.  If our mindset is, "knock over as many people as possible," we'd likely pick Eomer, as he has the highest potential for knocking enemies prone and wounding on 4s (with both him and Firefoot being wounded on 3s).

Problem: if we target Eomer, there is another warrior behind the building that is now within 6" of the target, making him a viable scatter target (and would require an In the Way roll from the wall he is next to).  Now while you cannot always avoid getting a target who will have an In the Way roll, if we can avoid it, it is almost always worth it for us to avoid it (because it's another roll that may require a Might Point, and we only have 2 of those, if any).

Regardless of which target you end up firing at, something critical should be mentioned here: take 5 seconds or less to pick your target.  Ideally you'll be thinking about which target to take during the Move Phase to save time, but we want to avoid taking too long to pick a target.  There's nothing more frustrating for an opponent than a slow player, and we want to keep the game as engaging and exciting as possible for everyone, even if it means we don't get "the perfect target" for our shot.

The better target here is either the Royal Guard or one of the warriors, since there is less margin for error, and the ballista does what it is designed to do: redirect the enemy forces.  If Eomer wants to charge the ballista crew, he can - and he'll find himself matched on the dice (and Fight Value) and trapped if he faces the crew.  Alternatively he can hold back for a turn while his infantry move up, which buys the ballista another turn (which means we have a chance to pick his men off, perhaps aim for him if it's advantageous, etc.).

This also brings up another question: "What if I have models within 6" of the target?  If I hit one of my own models with the ballista, doesn't the firepower of the ballista mean I have a good chance of killing my own model(s)?"

Short answer: yes.  
Other short answer: that's okay.

This leads us to an important rule for ballistas, known as The Other Ballista Rule of One:

Your chance of rolling a 1 on the Scatter Roll is just as high as your chance of rolling a 6.

I've seen players shy away from a good shot (and I've been one of them) because we were afraid of friendly fire.  But I've never seen a player shy away from a roll because he had a chance of getting a 6 and hitting the target he was aiming at.  Reason being?  I have no idea - the odds are exactly the same, and in the event that our model is engaged in combat, we will get to wound his model in that combat as well (in addition to knocking him prone), so while there are a few circumstances where we might exercise caution (like if we have an army leader with no Fate remaining and only 1 Wound left), but on the whole, don't worry about it.  Especially if you have a siege captain who has a Might point left.  Take the best shot - even if it means you get to live dangerously for a bit, ;)

Now some are going to say, "Centaur, this is all well and good, but what if my opponent never moves into my firing lane?  What if he stays out of range and I just spent 65-150 pts for nothing?"  An excellent question - a few thoughts for you:

1) Firing Lanes: When we discussed the importance of firing lanes in Section II, you'll notice that I was intentional in referring to "proper" firing lanes.  There are a host of possible firing lanes on any board from any particular vantage point, so picking the right firing lane is important.  A few examples, based on the type of game you are playing:
  • Domination: Pick a firing lane that helps to cover both your starting objective (as you should place the ballista near an objective so that you claim it from the outset) and in range to put fire on either another objective or the approach to another objective (and if possible, two objectives).  This gives your opponent a choice: come into the firing lane, or give up on the objective.  Either way, this is a win for Isengard.  Even if this means an In the Way roll, that's fine - a 4+ (especially with Might from the captain) is good odds, and usually enough to deter a power hero or monster from entering.
  • Hold Ground: Pick a firing lane that covers the approach to the central scoring point.  Since we won't be moving the models from the crew into range of the scoring objective, we want them to contribute by removing enemy models from scoring range (not even necessarily from the board - the joy of a crowd control weapon) to help our boys in the center.
  • Reconnoiter: Putting enemy models on the ground is extremely helpful in this scenario.  Choose a firing lane that forces the opponent to run wide (which we can cover with crossbows, cavalry, monsters, "hit squads" of infantry around a hero, etc.), and make them take a long time to cross the board, using time and distance as our ally.
  • To the Death: Best case scenario, we remove a decent number of models from the board and/or put models prone on the ground for our infantry to engage.  Worse case scenario, we just kept back 3 or more of our models safely in the rear, making it harder to break our force.
And the list goes on.  Regardless of the scenario, ballistas can help - we choose our firing lane to reflect what scores points for the scenario.

2) Army Model Count: If you think of the 3-4 (or more) models in the ballista crew as being part of your army's total model count, having a handful of models tucked away in the back makes it harder to break your force, harder to bring your force to 25%, and harder to pick a "soft target" to remove models.  Since most of the strongest models for Isengard (trolls, uruk-hai warriors, and berserkers) are D6+, being able to remove D5 models is much easier (unless you're up against a Shire force who doesn't care, ;) ), so people will naturally want to polish them off first.  By keeping them in the back, we force them to face our D6 frontline, or run for a while to get to us (in which case we still fight well in close combat).

3) "Free" Captains: Do you know what I really like in my Move Phases?  Having a captain who is not engaged in combat yet.  You see, captains are nice: they have a good number of attacks, usually pretty solid defense, good Fight Value, and they can call Stand Fasts if you need it.  They give you lots of versatility - and if you purchase a Siege Captain for your ballista, you're almost guaranteed to have a free captain at the start of your Move Phase.  Granted he's not on the frontlines, but this means if you need to hold an objective you can leave a captain there to call Stand Fast and keep your forces at that objective in scoring position.  If you need a shot off before your opponent opens up in the Shoot Phase you can call a Heroic Shoot, which could be with both the ballista and any other archers that are within 6" of him (great way to get some extra power out of a 50-pt Ruffian volley line, crossbows for point defense, etc.).  Lots of options here, all because you kept your captain free.

I am becoming more and more convinced that it is worthwhile to have a ballista, even if it only kills 2-4 models in a given game (usually it's more than that, but that's standard fare for the minimum threshold).  Which preempts the final question that will end this post.

Final Assessment: Is It Worth the Cost?

It's also worth asking the question, "How many points worth of models do I need to kill in order for the ballista to be worth the cost?"  For starters, I'll make a very controversial claim:

You don't need it to pay for itself.

Conventional wisdom says that if the model is not getting its point value back, it's a bad investment.  But consider: when was the last time Aragorn got his points back (175-260 pts)?  When was the last time any 100+ cost model got its points back?  In most games high-cost models (read: 70+ pts) don't make their points back in kills unless they are the dedicated damage dealer of the army (Eomer, for example, but even then it doesn't always happen).  So why do they still seem to "pull their weight" in the army?

Well, frankly, because the game doesn't require you to remove 100% of the enemy's army - you only need to remove 75% of their force, and since leaves 25% of the models in the starting force, this often equates to more than 25% of the points still being on the table.  So if a ballista doesn't get its points back, it's not failing the army - it's contributing to the damage total, which the non-primary damage dealers are expected to do.

Instead, I recommend the following metric: "Did it disrupt the enemy formations, and/or did it force the opponent to play by your rules on your turf?"  If the answer is yes, then you have a working siege ballista.  If the answer is no, we may need to rethink the use (or place) of the ballista in the army.

And that's where the rubber meets the road.  That's something that you'll need to figure out on your own, and can't be written in broad strokes in a blog post.  So practice with the ballista, see how it goes, and remember to see it for what it is designed to do: disrupt, do some damage, and scare the lights out of an oncoming horde.


In the next few battle reports I'll be showcasing some of this in a series of urban maps built to reflect the typical amount of terrain we usually have on the field for tournaments here at TMAT (and I'd imagine is standard, or a few degrees upwards, of typical tournament boards), so keep watching this space!  Until then, you'll know where to find me,

Watching the stars,


"I know that you have learned the names of the planets and their moons in Astronomy...and that you have mapped the stars' progress through the heavens.  Centaurs have unraveled the mysteries of these movements over centuries.  Our findings teach us that the future may be glimpsed in the sky above us." ~ Firenze, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

1 comment:

  1. My god, you guys just keep doing it, posting great game-analyses. Or as the tag says: "Informative" ;)