Conquest Tactics: First and Last Activations
Tactics: The Art of Deck Management: First and Last Activations
So you’ve purchased your Conquest miniatures. You saw them looking so beautiful on the table, met a couple of friendly players, dove into a few games and had tons of fun. But how do you improve your game? Your first few games, it can be hard to see exactly what is happening, and difficult to determine what went wrong, and how the game could have played out differently. But even after ten games, where is the break-down between chances and “real” strategic analysis? This is the first in a series of articles on the strategy and tactics in the game of Conquest. In fact, the goal of this article is to discuss the overarching strategical principles of Conquest. While builds and power combinations tend to be the talk of many games, and perhaps the source of the greatest number of articles on any kind of strategy games, most games still have a set of key principles that operate above and beyond the combinations. Much of the beauty and balance of Conquest is the fact that all factions have access to some good abilities and combinations, but if you don’t play them well on the field, you’re still going to lose. It is my belief that what I articulate here will prove timeless because it is based on how Para Bellum has fundamentally designed the game of Conquest. Power combinations will be nerfed. The magic system may be revised. New factions and new unit releases will shake up the current faction balance, but understanding the activation sequence in Conquest will significantly improve your long-term ability to play Conquest well. The skills you develop with your activation sequence and command stack will outlast any changes to the game.
One of the most distinct features of Conquest is the command deck. You create this deck at the beginning of your turn, and once you have set your cards, that’s the order that you activate your units for the turn (outside of a few abilities or draw events that allow you to manipulate your deck). While you will have particular decision points throughout your turn, one of the most consequential decisions for the game occurs at the beginning of every turn.
Today, I’d like to talk about one of the most powerful activation tips that is relevant in any game in which players alternate activations. If you’ve never played a game in which players alternate activations, let me explain. Both players will have a number of activations per turn. One player will always be first, by some mechanic. In Conquest, the players roll for first player. The player with fewer cards will have the option of taking a +1 or -1 to their die roll. Ties are rerolled, so they effectively have a 2/3 chance of their desired goal of going first or second. One player will also have the last activation on a given turn, and perhaps several activations after the opponent has already acted. The power of the first activation is that you have the first opportunity to act in the round. The power of the last or latter activations is that you will act while the opponent is simply forced to watch your units activate and can make no response until the next turn.
Before I get any further, I need to introduce a few other concepts that will inform our later discussions. Not all activations are created equal, so let me talk briefly about three more concepts:
Activation Quality is the principle of having stronger and more powerful activations. A powerful unit like a Dragonslayer has the ability to significantly change board state, as it will generate a lot of hits and negate the opponent’s armor). This doesn’t have to be a big block of units, as sometimes a unit that is weaker and tasked with holding an objective such as Men-at-Arms may appear in 9 trays, but actually not change the board state very much. Adding trays does not change activation quality. Generally, you need a more powerful unit. Keep in mind that a unit like Hold Warriors with an embedded Hold Raegh can be a very powerful activation. If you’ve been following along with Auticus’ series on unit statistics and analysis (https://www.underspire.net/tactics-analysis/stats-and-probabilities-series-1-3/), activation quality will usually improve the further a unit is to the right hand side of the chart.
Activation Quantity is the principle of having more activations than your opponent. You change board state by being able to make several weaker activations than your opponent, but eventually reach activations that they cannot answer. This is the principle behind any MSU list (Multiple-Small-Units).
The usual idea is that you trade-off on Activation Quality for Quantity, and most lists are trying to find that balancing point in which they have enough activations and quality activations, but remain effective on the game board.
Consequential versus Inconsequential Activations: Activations can be either consequential or inconsequential, or they can be more consequential or less consequential. This is an important concept to get down because it directly affects when the best times are to activate a particular unit. So what makes an activation consequential or inconsequential?
- First, it depends upon timing. I’m going to divide the game into an Early, Middle, and Late Game. The early game concerns itself with deployment and how players establish the shape of the battlefield. The game starts with no units on the table, and as units hit the table, their positions are generally locked in place, only moving in very fixed ways. At some point, the game transitions into a middle game. In the early game, ranged units may be taking long range obscured shots and may start chipping at the opponent’s units. The early contest over any objectives is established. The Middlegame starts when both armies have come to blows. The vast majority of the units are on the table and the battle commences. The Endgame is the point at which the armies have become disorganized as a result of the battle, and it remains to mop up and end the fight. Not all games progress to a true endgame. Sometimes, a good middle game is enough to end the game. So what do I mean by it depends upon the timing?
- In the early game, consequential activations are usually a question of what kind of knowledge you are giving your opponent. It is completely inconsequential on the first turn to put a character on the very top of the draw deck, because that effectively says, “I pass.” It forces the opponent to activate a unit. Ranged units are usually less consequential on the first turn precisely because if they deploy where they can cover two objectives, they’ll perform well. If an opponent deliberately deploys away from your powerful light melee units, those units can be out of the game. So the more information you give the opponent and the more you glean from them, the better. Naturally, the nuances of this will vary from faction to faction and list to list. Get to know your list and you’ll start to get a feel for what is consequential and should be delayed until late in the round, and what is inconsequential and can be done early.
- In the middle game, a consequential activation becomes any activation that has the possibility of significantly changing board state. Generally, the more powerful the unit, the more of a necessity it becomes to activate that unit timely, often as a last activation followed by a first activation.
- Finally, it depends upon your list construction: Draw Events like Bastion go away every round, and for the best effect, need to be established early. Bastion tends to work best on large units tasked with holding objectives, so even if the unit itself doesn’t do a lot of damage, it often wants to activate early to trigger Bastion.
The Power of a Last/First
Since the normal activation sequence alternates players, the only way that you’re going to get unanswered attacks is because you the player created it! One of the most powerful of these is the Last/First. This often occurs at the transition of the early game to the mid-game. Basically, you hold back your most consequential activation on one turn until you see what the opponent has done, and then you activate it. It may charge, it may move and shoot, or it may simply march to a threatening spot, but it does so with the knowledge that the opponent has no remaining answers that round. This is the last activation of the round. It then turns around and becomes your first activation in the next round. If you charge at the end of one round and inspire/clash at the beginning of the next round, you might very well delete a unit without it having a good chance to respond. It also doesn’t take a powerful unit to be able to pull off this tactic. For example, I had a three tray Hold Warriors that destroyed five trays of Household Knights. My opponent let me activate last at the end of a round, charge their flank. I then activated them early in the subsequent round. They didn’t quite whittle the Knights down completely, but they destroyed them as a fighting force and finished them off the next round. The only thing that made this viable was the fact that two attacks went off unanswered.
So how do you create more unanswered attacks? This is largely done by limiting the number of consequential activations for your opponent, and by giving yourself a couple of good ones, but not too many. One of the worst situations to be in is when each of you has four really good choices, because the end result there is very drawish, and it might come down to the luck of who gets first player to determine a winner.
Multiple-Small-Unit (MSU) and the Power of Last Activation
If you’ve played any competitive miniatures game like Conquest, you’ve probably encountered the term MSU before. This is not the same as a swarm. In a swarm, you are bringing a ton of units, generally of very low quality, and simply overwhelming the opponent by sheer dint of numbers. The idea behind Multiple-Small-Unit is that the units are kept small (in Conquest, this would be three stands). But the units are specifically chosen for their quality. So taking 16 3 tray regiments of Men-at-Arms with 4 Imperial Officers is not an MSU, but taking a bunch of 3 tray Vanguard Clones and Vanguard Clone Infiltrators is. In most games like Conquest, the idea of swarm has fallen off the table as something that is not even viable, outside of a few players that decide to get cute with one. But some form of MSU is often very viable.
Because the tray sizes are kept at minimum effective level, you have the opportunity to outnumber your opponent. What this gives you a chance to do is to wait out his list, and leave your most consequential activations in the early game until after your opponent has moved. Because these are powerful activations, they have the potential to alter the game state without your opponent being able to answer. Having two or three activations after your opponent can be extremely powerful. At least some of the time, you’ll also have a first activation that will then help you eliminate key regiments.
However, all of this focus on having last activations comes at a cost. In Conquest, players roll for initiative. If you outnumber your opponent’s cards, your opponent is very likely to take a +1 to their roll and go for the first activation. You still have about a 33% chance of winning the first player, which means that some of the time, your last/first activation sequence is going to be even more powerful. You also have one small advantage in that in your MSU list, you’ll likely lose regiments and therefore cards over the course of the game, and by late middle-game, you may find that your remaining powerful regiments are still getting quality activations off.
You can see from the article the power of particular activations in your Command Stack. My goal has been to start us along on the path to thinking about how to structure our lists and then play the activations contained in that list. In future articles, I’ll look at deployment. Games are won and lost in deployment, and while the power combos and units that form the flavor-of-the-week may change, the principles behind deploying well and intelligently will change only slightly as we shift from scenario to scenario. I’ll look at the effective use of Light, Medium, and Heavy regiments in list construction, what options we have in list-building with them, and how deployment, scenarios, and deck management interact with your list-building. Finally, I’ll look at rhythm. We’ve all had those games where every move we made seemed to flow effortlessly and naturally out of the preceding ones. We’ve all had those games where exactly the opposite happened. In one game, we had a clear rhythm, and in the second, we felt that rhythm fade away. But what is rhythm? How can you give yourself more chances to find a rhythm? These are all questions that we’ll explore as we develop our series on Conquest’s Strategic Fundamentals.