Tactica: The elements of chaff

Photo by Sam Barker. Used with permission.

You’ll often see players talking about “Chaff” units, but what are chaff units and how do you use them?

Broadly speaking, a chaff unit is any unit that’s considered expendable but can be used to blunt the enemies attacks. This can be by stripping cavalry of their Thunderous Charge, forcing your opponent to split their charges amongst different targets rather than concentrating on one or simply standing in front of your most expensive units to either give them cover from shooting or block it altogether.

Chaff units tend to be different to tarpit units, which are designed to pin an enemy in place for multiple turns. For example, most of the Undead army list could be considered tarpit units because they have high nerve, but you want chaff to have fairly low nerve so they will rout easily. Most of the Undead list is also too slow to really use as chaff due to shambling. The two roles are both sacrificial roles, however the key difference is that you want chaff to break, but you don’t want tarpits to break.

Below are some of the attributes to look for in an ideal chaff unit. They won’t always tick all of these points, sometimes they’re not completely necessary (no need for fast units to protect slow ones – they just need to be able to keep up) but the more they tick the better.

  • Low points cost – the cheaper the better so you don’t lose much of your army when they rout.
  • Low nerve – you ideally want them to rout. If the nerve is too high then they might not rout when you want them to, leaving you roadblocked and unable to pull off the charges you want.
  • They’re a threat – they don’t have to be threatening in a frontal charge, but they’re much stronger if they can significantly threaten something in the flank.
  • Fast – one of the best tactics with chaff is to get right up in the enemies face so they can’t be ignored. The faster you are, the easier this is.
Goblin Fleabags - the idea chaff. Photo by Mantic Games.
Goblin Fleabags – the idea chaff. Photo by Mantic Games.

Here are some examples for some of the armies in the core rulebook;

  • Abyssals; Fleshlings, Gargoyles
  • Abyssal Dwarfs; Slave Orcs, Gargoyles, Slave Orc Gore Riders
  • Basileans; Men-at-arms (sword), Sisterhood Panther Lancers
  • Goblins; EVERYTHING! In particular, regiments of goblins and fleabag riders.
  • Kingdoms of Men; Militia Mob, Mounted Scouts or Sergeants
  • Ogres; Red Goblins (ish – they can’t really keep up with the Ogre units though), Red Goblin Scouts
  • Orcs; Orclings, Skulks
  • Undead; Ghouls

Some armies, such as Elves and Dwarfs don’t really have chaff units in their lists. Both armies have some units that could potentially be used as chaff, but are too expensive to be really sacrificial. That’s not to say that neither army could use chaff units from their allies, but you don’t really want to sacrifice even the cheapest Elf and Dwarf units.

The general gist of using chaff…

Simply put, there are three basic tactics to using chaff effectively;

  • Protect you from enemy charges
  • Provide cover from enemy shooting
  • Project battlefield control

Protection from enemy charges

Enemy charges can hurt. The last thing you want is to lose your elite, heavy hitting and very expensive unit before it even gets to strike. Except the enemy has faster units – so how do you stop them from wiping you out?

Chaff.

If you run your chaff, either directly in front of your expensive unit or aggressively getting it right up in your opponents face, then you can force them to charge the chaff first. Yes, they’ll likely charge and yes they’ll likely wipe out the chaff but then your uber elite unit is sat right behind ready to go in.

Take a real world example – Undead Soul Reavers. Soul Reavers are extremely expensive and extremely hard hitting. They probably have the best melee infantry attacks in the game, but equally they’re only speed 6 and only slightly higher defensive stats than normal. Anything speed 7 or higher will be able to hit them first and if they’re as hard hitting as Heavy Cavalry, then your Soul Reavers may well be wiped out before you get to strike. However, if you run a unit of Ghouls (or even two) directly in front of the Soul Reavers then suddenly the enemy is forced to charge the Ghouls first. When the Ghouls are wiped out then your Soul Reavers can charge in having not taken a single point of damage.

These Knights have no option but to charge (if they want to charge) the Ghouls. And when they do wipe out the ghouls, guess who's sat right behind...
These Knights have no option but to charge (if they want to charge) the Ghouls. And when they do wipe out the Ghouls, guess who’s sat right behind… Picture from UniversalBattle.

This type of chaff where you simply run the chaff in front of your units and bait the enemy into charging them first is what I call passive chaff. You can also do what I call aggressive chaff, where you get right up in the enemies face. As long as you block the charge to your heavy hitting unit then the effect is the same. You can, of course, charge your chaff unit into the enemy. Any extra points of damage are welcome of course!

In this case, the Knights (right) and Gore Riders (left) are the same speed so neither player would want to get into charge range first. However, the KoM player also had a unit of Sergeants which can outpace the Gore Riders, so charged them in first. When the Gore Riders break the Sergeants, the Knights will be able to get a clean charge off on the Gore Riders.
In this case, the Knights (right) and Gore Riders (left) are the same speed so neither player would want to get into charge range first. However, the KoM player also had a unit of Sergeants (in front of the Gores) which can outpace the Gore Riders, so charged them in first. When the Gore Riders break the Sergeants, the Knights will be able to get a clean charge off on the Gore Riders.

Note that you want to make sure that your heavy hitting unit is within charge range-3″ of the front of your chaff unit. For example, a unit of Knights has a charge range of 16″, so you want to make sure that they’re within 13″ of the front of your chaff. When the chaff unit breaks, the enemy could choose to do a regroup move backwards of D3″. This could put them outside your charge range, but if those knights are within 13″ of the front of the chaff then even backing up the full 3″ won’t be enough to get out of your charge range.

Providing cover from enemy shooting

Much like protection from charging, this just means running your chaff in front of your heavy hitters so the heavy hitters don’t get killed before striking. Depending on how you position your chaff, you could either provide cover (-1 to hit) or block shooting altogether by blocking line of sight. If you do provide cover then the damage from enemy shooting is often halved, since most ranged units hit on a 5+, and going to 6+ halves the amount of hits they’ll get. The enemy can, of course, choose to shoot your chaff units instead. Great. They’re not shooting your expensive units!

This regiment of Orclings is enough to provide cover to the horde of Orc Ax behind them. The Ironwatch now have the difficult choice of either shooting the Orclings, who aren't worth much and aren't much of a threat, or shoot the Orcs at -1 to hit.
This regiment of Orclings is enough to provide cover to the horde of Orc Ax behind them. The Ironwatch now have the difficult choice of either shooting the Orclings, who aren’t worth much and aren’t much of a threat, or shoot the Orcs at -1 to hit.

Don’t forget that you only need to either block or provide cover to 50% of your unit to get the cover bonus.

Like charge protection, you can be passive by having your chaff sat just in front of your units, or you can aggressively get up in the enemies face. Obviously if you can charge a ranged unit then great – if you do a point of damage then they’re not able to shoot at all. You’re not always able to charge though because they’re just a bit too far away, so getting right up in their face can be enough to stop them shooting your expensive units.

Projecting battlefield control

This one’s a little more touchy-feely without many diagrams.

Giants, screen by "Orclings". Photo by Sam Barker, used with permission.
Giants, screen by “Orclings”. Photo by Sam Barker, used with permission.

I find one of the big mistakes that players make in their tactical thinking is to just get locked into what a unit actually physically does, rather than the effect that its presence had on the game. I’ve seen players complain that their big Zombie Legion with the Crystal Pendant of Retribution didn’t get charged, survived the game and was therefore useless. Not true. The intimidating presence of such a unit did have an effect on their opponent, even if the zombies didn’t kill anything themselves. The other army probably went out of their way to avoid engaging that legion, which if played aggressively could have pushed the enemy forces back and away from objectives.

Well screened units with chaff in front of them can have a similar intangible but significant effect on the game.

You have your big, heavy hitting unit screened by some chaff. Seeing this, your opponent elects to shoot at a different unit. You might say that the chaff unit was useless because it didn’t get shot, but it still protected your main unit.

If you have a well screened cavalry unit, like in the Knights example above, your opponent will be extremely reluctant to move their heavy cavalry forwards to engage your chaff. They’ll be well aware of what your screen is there for so they (probably) won’t fall for it. They’ll back off instead. Well every turn that their cavalry unit is backing off is another turn that you’re advancing on them and pushing them back. This can be key for objectives, but also once you’re close enough there’s nothing to say that your chaff unit can’t run forward to tie up the enemy cavalry while your knights go to town on a flank. Without your chaff unit you wouldn’t have been able to get your knights close enough to do that, and certainly not without taking damage on the way in.

“Threat projection” is a common tactic that’s used in Warmachine but it’s something that I’ve noticed players play down in KoW (often missed completely by people who rely purely on crunched numbers). You might have a unit that never charges all game, but if it stopped your opponent from hitting you hard or kept them back and away from objectives then it was a critical unit. Even though it didn’t kill anything. Threat projection and battlefield control is less about pure killing ability, but the ability to force your opponent to back off from a certain area. Chaff units backed up with heavy hitters are ideal for this.

Summary

Chaff units are a great addition to most armies, particularly those that use large amounts of Thunderous Charge or glass hammer units (high damage output, low defensive stats). They can allow you to break stalemates between two units of equal speeds and even get the jump on a faster unit. They can effectively screen you from shooting damage and their combination with glass hammer units can give you great battlefield control. Using chaff at their simplest level by running them in front of your units can give you a huge tactical step up.

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About Daedle 33 Articles
I'm Nick Williams, member of the Rules Committee and avid Kings of War player all the way through first and second edition.

4 Comments on Tactica: The elements of chaff

  1. First of all: Great article! I hope there are more to come. 😀
    What I don’t understand is that dwarf don’t have chaff unit becaue they’re too expensive. Basilean Man at arms (which you suggested) cost 80 points, a troop of Ironclads 75. It’s even 5 point cheaper! If this is still too expensive, what would you suggest for dwarfs?

    • That’s true, but in honesty I still don’t think it’s too suitable for chaff 😉 The Basilean men at arms have a lower defence, so are more likely to break and they’re also slightly faster. The Ironclad will work to an extent, but their lower speed means they’ll struggle to get right up in enemies faces, and when they do they might not break when you want them to…

  2. Very interesting an useful article, particularly as I’m starting an army which has chaff options (Abyssals) after five years of playing an army with none (Elves).

    My question is this; when building an army, how should you build the chaff elements into the force? Should I ‘assign’ a chaff troop to protect each of my more powerful units? Should I look to spend a certain percentage of my overall points on chaff? How much is *too* much?

    • I assign chaff to protect my heavy hitters when I build my list. For example, when I take a couple of regiments of heavy cavalry then I’ll also take 1-2 troops of light cavalry, knowing that I’ll deploy them with each other.

      I don’t think there’s an overall percentage to aim to spend, just building in response to your local meta (e.g. lots of shooting, flyers or cavalry = more chaff) and your own experience. I just go based off what I’m actually taking elsewhere in the army. If I’ve got more glass hammer units then I’ll take more chaff. If I’m going for pure weight of numbers, such as with my Undead, then I won’t take any chaff units.

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