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Theory: The Tao of the Empire

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Holy Hand Grenade:
The Tao of the Empire

The genesis of The Tao of the Empire was a new poster’s idea (FriscoEmpire) on starting a Tactica for the Warhammer Empire.  The Tactica would be a collection of our best tactics, maneuvers, and formations- basically the tricks of our trade.

So it got me to thinking about the things I do and the way I play and how I could describe that to other people.  Unfortunately, being a good General is less about taking certain forces and playing a certain way, it is more about understanding what is happening “above” the game, the mechanics, the flow, and the application of power.  This is usually gained by experience-  and honestly by playing people better than you.

However, there are a few things I have learned in my studies that can be directly applied to strategies and tactics in Warhammer.  And if someone took the time to think about them, it may open up their mind to look at the game in an entirely new light.  I fully understand that some people reading this will have no idea what I am taking about.  I also understand that only a subset of the Warhammer population really cares about strategy and tactics and are more interested in painting models and enhancing the fluff. 

But for those of you that care, and want to potentially raise your game, read on. 


     --Getting Started-  Making the link between Tao and Warhammer (below)
     --Shih- The Art of War and Relationships
     --Space and Movement
     --Formlessness and Wu Wei
     --The Way Forward

Other Related Resources

     --The Principle of Balance & Infantry Based Armies
     --The Griffon Formations

Let me make this statement right off the bat-  I am not claiming (and never will) that these thoughts and theories are anything more than thoughts and theories.  It is not the “end all and be all” of Warhammer.  My goal is to generate DISCUSSION so that your thoughts and ideas can be added to mine to enhance the larger body of knowledge. 

If you read many Warhammer army forums, I think you will notice that most of the skilled Generals out there do not give up their “tricks of the trade.”  Calisson, Seredain, and a few others are the exceptions to the rule on other sites.  It is unfortunate.  I think most of the good Generals are so competitive that they want to keep their edge in tournaments and against newbs.  And a few that do post, do so out of arrogance.   

The net result-  instead of thought-provoking discussions filling up our tactics forums…what you normally see are posts from new people on “spears or swords?” or “what kit should my Saurus Oldblood take?” etc and then everyone and their brother chimes in.  These conversations are on the surface.  Most are not asking the right questions and we are not providing the right answers.  I would like to see our site go deeper.  FriscoEmpire has received very little input on his Tactica.  Hopefully we can change that.   

A couple more disclaimers before we begin. 

--This is not going to be a religious discussion.  Much of Sun Tzu’s Art of War was based upon the philosophy of Tao (usually pronounced DAO)-  so the references to it are from a military mindset, not a religious one. 

--Also, I am far from an expert in Eastern thought.  My interest lies primarily in the military and sociological truths that it exposes.  I think it is especially pertinent to linear thinkers born in the West (insert most of us) who can’t see the world above and beyond logic and reason.  West and East both have something to offer.

--I borrow heavily from books and internet sources, especially from the Denma translation of The Art of War, and the intro to one of the chapters titled Taking Whole (starts on page 65 for those that want to buy the book-  it is about $11 bucks on Amazon).  I will annotate text when I directly quote something.  The only thing that I can claim as my own is the connection of these principles to Warhammer and how I think they apply.  Color coding is all me.

Getting Started-  making the link between Tao and Warhammer

To start off, let me quote Lao-Tzu’s first two lines in Tao Te Ching, which is regarded as the founding text of Taoism:

          “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.”

Therefore, everything I am going to attempt to explain is going to fall short of the mark.  Actually, words cannot express it.  My examples will be weak comparisons to the actual concepts.  Why try this impossible task then?  Because if we can even catch a glimpse of it, or gain a small amount of understanding, then our game will be raised.  While it cannot be fully defined or expressed, it can be known or experienced and its principles can be practiced.

Tao, in the most basic terms, it known as “the way,” “the channel,” or “the path.”  Everyone probably has seen the Yin and Yang symbol that symbolizes two sides, intertwined, action and counter-action.  In ancient China, most philosophers and religious schools shared a set of assumptions about how the world worked.  Different schools of thought emphasized different aspects but the foundation was the same.  For instance, Confucians sought to seek order through ritual and virtue while Taoists attempted to go with its flow.  For the purposes of our discussion, “using Tao” means entering into the moment and accepting or conforming to these realities and working within them, not against them. 

What does this have to do with Warhammer?  While not real, miniature games are based upon military strategy and tactics.  Soldiers fighting side by side as a unit, mobile cavalry, archers, war machines, terrain, morale, leadership, etc all combine together to give a General options on the battlefield.  Because strategy games are an abstract of real war does not take away their direct connection to it.  In fact, because most of the principles I am going to talk about are also abstract, it even enhances the connection.  These principles probably help non-military game strategists as well, especially popular games like Chess and Go (a game I will reference below).   

Seeing things as a whole, as Tao, with many shifting, interrelated aspects we can start to sense their form.  If we can dive into the details and our actions become united with the Tao in any given situation, we can enhance our understanding and our control.  “Being connected to the details, moving with their shapes and conformation, we can find victory.”

As Taking Whole points out: 

Each one (detail or element) is relevant, everything that is part of that world all have weight in situations of combat…  Everyone one of them also effects all the others.  Altering a single piece, the movement of the whole also shifts.  Everything is in touch with everything else, always in movement.  Because all things are interconnected, you must know each one, and how each one affects and effects every other…  Only then can you plan effectively.

Holy Hand Grenade:
Shih-  The Art of War and Relationships

How do we enter into the Tao? 

As Taking Whole points out, we must measure it first from where we ourselves are standing.  We are not separate from the Tao- i.e. from the game Warhammer or our army while we are playing it, but we are part of it.  When playing the game, we can embrace Tao. 

From Taking Whole: 

“if we take advantage of certain qualities of the environment, our power greatly increases.  To do so, we must appraise not just the object, but how it will interact with other objects and situations.  (Basically) its relationships.  Qualities and characteristics are relative.  (For instance, “short” is a relative term, depending on what the object deemed “short” is being compared to and the viewpoint from which it is viewed).

The text gives a quote from Hsun Tzu of how qualities or characteristics are situation and environment dependant:
          There is a plant in the western regions called the blackberry lily. 
          It is stem is 4 inches long, but because it grows atop tall mountains,
          It looks down into a thousand-foot abyss.

A Greatsword horde has its own set of characteristics.  Put it on the tabletop, surrounded by friendly and enemy forces and terrain, and what it can or cannot do and what it can affect or not affect changes.  And from moment to moment, this will also change.

Again, from Taking Whole: 

“So what our army is, what it can or cannot do, is not fixed, is not its unchanging essence. Rather it is dependent on the conditions in which our troops will be put.  We are not "objects"; we're in a process of trajectory through space and time, always reacting with others.

…As we seek to discern such patterns or clusters of events, it's crucial to note the tendency things have, their natural propensities.  The ever-changing nature of things doesn't undercut its sense of reality or its logic, nor is it a threat to its worldview. On the contrary, these things are central to it.”

If you use a Greatsword horde time and time again, you will find the natural tendencies of it.  It stats and the “math-hammer” that go with it play a part, but you will gain an understanding of how the Greatswords fit into the greater whole of your army and how they can be used in any given terrain to dance with an opponent on the field.

Sun Tzu in the Art of War uses the concept of shih (pronounced SHIR, almost without a vowel) to describe this web of relationships.

To make another analogy that you will probably recognize and grasp from Taking Whole:

Shih, then, is like looking at a chessboard: the effectiveness of a position is read in terms of the relative power of certain pieces, the strength of their formation, their relationship to the opponent and also their potential to turn into something else.  To these we might add the particular psychological disposition of our opponent, all are aspects of shih. They are analytically distinguishable, but a chess player sees all of them at once.

For Warhammer, it is looking at the tabletop, with its terrain and armies on it, and sizing up our opponent to find the shih.  Chess has lots of neat little movement squares, while we have a board with terrain that can serve as obstacles or resources.   Chess pieces gain their power from their ability to move, and while our units have movement rules and movement characteristics, Warhammer models also have their own stats that relate directly to combat power and defense. 


One of the problems in utilizing these concepts is fixation.  If you focus on only the objects, you miss the importance of the relationships between these objects.  Touching briefly on fixation (from Taking Whole):

“The chief impediment to knowing Tao is fixation. Instead of being the water cascading through the ravine, we are our own enemy, impeding its flow. We hold to a diminished view, a small part within the larger movement, rather than moving fluidly through it. We can become fixated in many ways.  One is a matter of habit, ancient patterns of thought, like rivulets in the sand through which our thoughts always run. Good habits can be as limiting as bad.”

I believe this is how many people play Warhammer.  They are fixated.  Fixated on using units like other people, fixated on setting up a certain way, fixated on their own army and not their opponents, fixated on the units on the battlefield on not the interaction and synergy between them. 

How can two people use the same army list and come out with two completely different results (besides luck)?  A tournament player, using a list he built and understands, can perform at a completely different level than someone else pulling his list off the internet and trying to duplicate its success.  One understands the shih, the other is moving plastic and metal pieces across a board.

One of the purposes of this thread is to get you to take a fresh look at Warhammer, Empire, and your units in order to break your fixations.

Shih & Warhammer

Understanding the relationship concept here cannot be underscored enough, especially when talking about the fixation on objects.  In our case for Warhammer:  this is our units.  They are a collection of solid objects, so our eyes and brains naturally move to them.

Take my Griffon Formation.  It is several units and detachments that sit near each other on the table.  Looking at them as “objects,” only a certain amount of value and understanding can be gained.

However, if you look at each unit, not just as a single object, but as an object involved in a “web of relationships…”  now you are getting closer at seeing the shih.  Their web of relationships has many lines connecting them to each other.  These relationships expand to other friendly units around them too, as well as the terrain, and of course, the enemy.

With the danger of belaboring the point, let me try to drive the point home.  A Greatsword horde is a Greatsword horde.  Put it on the table in some terrain and it now its possibilities are different.  Same horde; different relationships.  Add some friendly units and you have more change.  Add the enemy army-  more relationships.  Add in your opponent-  more change.  Add in you-  your current mood, aggressiveness, experience, etc and a new web of relationships emerge.  Now the game starts-  every movement, position and change effects the web of relationships surrounding the Greatswords.  Toss in a spell or two, lose some models in the horde, your mood changes because your girlfriend/wife just called to tell you to hurry up…  I can’t even count all the variables.  The better you feel the shih of your Greatswords and how they fit into the Tao or whole, however, the better “tuned-in” you are to their status, position, and power.

What I am trying to emphasize this section:  learn the shih of your various forces.  Learn the relationships you can build between the forces.  Play with different formations.  Find what works for your playstyle, since you are part of the Tao of your army.  Break your fixations.  Build synergy.  The over-quoted Sun Tzu edict of “know yourself and know your enemy” plays a part here.  If you know your army well enough, you can adapt to any terrain and any opponent to give yourself greater odds of victory.

Holy Hand Grenade:
Space & Movement

Now I am going to break the spirit of Tao “wholeness” in order to attempt to explain a few concepts and Warhammer applications, one by one.  They are all part of the whole and are interrelated, but it would be confusing to not separate them and analyze them. 


Starting with “space.”  An important aspect of Warhammer is the size and shape of your army.  It is rarely talked about.  Horde armies fill up space with models, MSU armies do not (in the reverse-  MSU armies leave more empty space, horde armies do not).  Horde formations are wide, busses are deep.  One factor when creating your army is to think about what kind of space you are filling up-  both WITH your models and IN BETWEEN your models.

How are these shapes going to work in harmony together (their shih)?   What are the strengths of your shapes?  What are the weaknesses?  How can they be combined to increase the strength and hide the weaknesses?  (these concepts are one of the reasons I started using the Griffon Formations).

Before deploying, look at the terrain.  Visualize your forces, your shapes, flowing over it.  Where is there harmony and a good use of shih?  Where is there disharmony?  What are the obstacles?  How are your opponent’s forces (shapes) going to flow over the battlefield?  Where is his harmony and proper use of shih?  Where will he find disharmony?  What would you do in his shoes?

Where are the obstacles?  Where do you see the engagement points?  How do you envision your forces dancing against each other on the field?  Where might you press?  Where might you fade?

Your shapes will change too.  Models are lost and units can reform.  Always keep in the back of your mind-  how can I use the space I am filling up (and the gaps and space between both friendly and enemy forces) to my advantage?   What has changed and how can I adapt to it?  In other words, what are the current paths available to me and how can I work within them instead of against them?  The terrain and movement values of your troops play a big part in this.

Understanding shih at a given place and time could be termed as situational awareness.  If you maintain situational awareness you are present in the moment and are aware of everything happening around you.  When danger develops you can recognize the signs (called indications and warning in the intel community) and respond accordingly.


The game Go is an excellent example of occupying territory and filling up space to gain an advantage instead of attacking an opponent directly.  Unlike chess, Go pieces all have the same power.  Their only purpose is to take space up on the board-  and if they create a line (“circuit” or a full connection together), they remove pieces they surround off the board.  Most novice Go players immediately try to surround enemy pieces to remove them.  This is a strategy for failure-  usually the best placement is several squares away from an enemy, not right next to them.  Experts will occupy terrain in the right places instead of trying for quick connections to remove pieces.  In the end, they create complicated connections (and webs of relationships) that dominate terrain and control the board and win. 

Warhammer units occupy space.  They hold ground and protect territory, flanks, and rear areas.  Like Go novices, Warhammer newbs push their units directly toward enemy units, clash them, and hope their dice rolls are better than their opponents.  This is a strategy for failure.  Expert Generals occupy space with their units and use them in conjunction and in harmony with the terrain to remove enemy units at the time and place of their choosing.  Sometimes the best move for a unit is to NOT attack and occupy the right space. 

The deployment phase is one of the most critical phases in the game.  This is where all the combats to follow are born.  Use the terrain as your ally, line up the forces of yours against the forces you want them to fight of your opponent, and visualize how your forces are going to flow and move to do it.  Identify the avenues of approach and movement lanes.

The space between your forces is just as important as the space they take up.  Unit relationships are important to think about (remember the web).  After you place your army, how is it, as a whole, going to do the man-dance?

Units only have a limited movement span in a 6 turn game.  Even if they face no opposition, they can only travel so far, so fast.  In the graph below, I outline the possibilities of my Greatsword horde at the beginning of a battle (I don’t take into account all the possibilities, like moving backwards or directly sideways).  You get a sense of the terrain the Greatswords can affect, and after how many turns.  This can be visualized for all your key units.

Once the game begins, take the time to look at the battlefield every time before you start your movement phase.  Find the shih.  Look at the shapes, look at the flows, look at the possibilities.  What has changed?  What can you exploit?  What needs to be protected?

These questions and ideas only scratch the surface.  A whole Tactica could be flushed out with great tips on shapes, formations, relationships, and movement.

Holy Hand Grenade:

Sun Tzu has a few more gems for us.  One is the concept of node.  It is not enough to understand your forces well and move them into quality positions, if you don’t identify and pick the right moment to strike.  Warhammer newbs are a charge-happy bunch.  It is not only about the charge, it is about the kill…at the right time, place, and target.

Sun Tzu explains it for us:

        The strike of a hawk, at the killing snap.
        This is the node.

Taking Whole describes another example:

“The crossbow is a device for storing one's strength in the form of potential energy.  Pulling the trigger sends off the bolt, releasing it all at once.  This is shih in action.  Power is accumulated, then focused perfectly.  It's not that the bolt possesses power nor that it “borrows” the power of the bow.  Power happens only when all the elements are present… at the right moment, i.e. node, the bolt is released, striking a distant enemy.

Achieving the node is showing mastery of shih.

It is not enough to have a Greatsword horde.  Its combat power needs to be applied at the right place and time to cause destruction.  Your opponent can disturb your shih by throwing diverters in its path, tarpits to lock it up, maneuver to get its flank or rear, or create mis-matches against his units with superior combat power.  To get the most out of your Greatswords, they rely on you to put their shih in action and achieve node. 

Remember, it is not just about your Greatswords.  Looking at it from the whole- your army needs you to achieve node.  Sometimes there are multiple moments when this can be achieved.  In my experience, there usually is one turn where a superior node is achieved.  When it happens (to you or your opponent) the throat is ripped out and all that is left is the bleeding.

I looked through my Battle Reports and tried to find node.  In the following graph, I achieved node by getting my Greatsword horde 1v1 against a Ghoul horde.  My detachments Stubbornly held off a Terrorgheist and a Zombie unit on the flanks.  The Ghouls were decimated and the heart was ripped out of my opponent.  Only the bleeding and death throes remained.

In the next example, one node was created when I was able to team up on a Swordmaster unit with Inner Circle Knights and a Steam Tank because my opponent failed his charge on a previous turn.

In this case, all it did was start the bleeding.  The coup de grace came a few turns later when his Spearmen and Silver Helms charged my Greatswords without their nasty Prince General.  Notice-  a node doesn’t always happen when you charge…it can also be achieved when your opponent charges you.  More on this later when we discuss the concept of Wu Wei.

Holy Hand Grenade:
Formlessness and Wu Wei

Water and Formlessness

Sun Tzu and others used the analogy of flowing water to help describe how shih and node can be achieved with otherwise harmless elements.

The full quote about the hawk I mentioned earlier is:

          The rush of water, to the point of tossing rocks about.
          This is shih.

          The strike of a hawk, at the killing snap.
          This is the node.

From Taking Whole’s description of it- 

Water is soft but in great volume and motion it can toss rocks about.  The power comes from the intense movement of an otherwise harmless element.  It is not evoked by changing the basic nature of water, only by amassing it and setting it in motion. The striking hawk, used here to characterize the node, also recalls the power of shih, suggesting how closely intertwined the two ideas are.

The water analogy also helps us to imagine the flow of energy and forces against each other.  To paraphrase an internet resource-  our opponents are positioned as obstacles against us.  They must expend resources and energy fighting our shih.  The world consists not of solid things but of flows of forces and movements of energy-  shifting configurations of shih.  All of this are Tao.

From Taking Whole:

Water's Tao is to flow downward.  That's both what it is and what it does. The military is similar.  Neither has a necessary shape, form, essence, self nor state of mind.  They simply respond to the conditions around them.

To be able to transform with the enemy is what is meant by “spirtlike” (or formlessness).  Spirits are without substance, unfathomable. 

From Sun Tzu: 

          Subtle! Subtle!  To the point of formlessness.
          Spiritlike! Spiritlike!  To the point of soundlessness.
          Thus one can be the enemy’s fate star.

This is not a matter of belief in strange forces. Rather, it is about how things work. It is also about our human capacity to work with the world-to see, hear and know it and to find appropriate action there.

More from Sun Tzu:

          Military tactics are like unto water; for water in its natural course
          runs away from high places and hastens downward so in war,
          the way to win is to avoid what is strong and to attack what is weak.

From an internet pdf on Tao Te Ching:

Bruce Lee often discussed the metaphor of water (“Be water, my friend”) when discussing the martial arts.

“One of the best examples of gung fu is a glass of water.  Why?  Because it is capable of adapting itself to any situation.  If you pour it into a cup, it becomes the cup; if you pour it into a bottle, it becomes the bottle; if you pour it into a glass, it becomes the glass.  Water is the softest substance in the world, yet it can penetrate the hardest rock. Water is also unsubstantial; by that I mean, you cannot grasp hold of it, you cannot punch it and hurt it. So every gung fu man is trying to do that; to be soft like water, to be flexible and able to adapt to the opponent.”

Trying to describe how to apply these concepts to Warhammer is difficult.  The best thing I can think of is to see your army as a whole.  Use it not as separate units, but as a whole.  Like Sun Tzu states: “therefore good warriors seek effectiveness in battle from the force of momentum, not from individual persons.”   Flow like water into your opponent, pushing where you need to push and bending where you need to bend.  Like water, adapt to your opponent and what he is presenting you.  Like a martial arts battle, hide your weaknesses from your opponent and push your strong points.   

From the same source as above: 

Understand trust and utilize the strategy of Yin and Yang.  Avoid your opponent’s strengths and capitalize on his weakness.  Entice him to overextend and take advantage of his imbalance.  Don’t let the opponent choose the time and place of confrontation.  Pick the time and place most advantageous to yourself and your situation. 

As the Tai Chi classics advise, “if the opponent does not move, you do not move, when the opponent makes the slightest move, you move first”.

Wu Wei

If you thought the last part was mind-blowing, I saved the hardest concept to describe for last.  Wu Wei is closely related to the formlessness. 

Wu Wei is the art of fighting without fighting.  Sun Tzu devotes a lot of time in The Art of War outlining how to achieve victory without fighting-  through diplomacy, manipulation and maneuvering. 

With Warhammer, conflict is nigh unavoidable because you have already painted your models, put together an army list, and brought them to a war table… with the expressed intent of opening a can o whoopass on your opponent…but Wu Wei also applies when the arrows and spells start flying.  The concept is sometimes emphasized by using the paradox "wei wu wei" or action without action.

From the article on Tao Te Ching:

Some of the key concepts found in the Tao Te Ching include the following: "The importance of yielding. It is said that a reed that is not rigid and bends will not break and in so doing endure…"  What the TTC advocates is less forceful or precipitous action or overreaction which his may to backfire on itself and bring about the opposite consequence of what was intended.

In Warhammer, this means being patient.  Don’t overextend your forces or try to attempt something which goes against their shih.  It means that not moving is a form of action.   

An example I can give is a recent battle I had with High Elves.  I was up on the opponent and could have easily pushed forward to “seal the deal.”  I decided to hold back (for reasons I discuss later in my battle thread).  I liked the shih my forces had at the moment and didn’t see a need to press.

Pushing forward with my Greatswords and detachments could have been a solid tactical move.  I just didn’t “feel it” and went with my gut.  Boxers can go an entire fight dancing around an opponent, be ahead on points, and decide in the final round to go toe-to-toe and fight the opponent’s way.  They open themselves up to eating the mat.  Who knows what would have happened in my case (we will never know!). 

I think the best advice is to go with your gut in any situation, learn your forces shih, even if an experienced General is watching the battle and advising you to do otherwise (especially if the enemy General is trying to goad you into something!) 

Think about the principles of Wu Wei during your games and show some tactical patience.


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