Back to Battle: Regaining your edge post lockdown

Part of the Sports Psychology for Competitive Wargaming series

It’s been a long wait, but wargames are finally coming back to a gaming table near you! There are a lucky few who’ve been able to keep gaming through lockdown, but for most of us the last time we had a chance to roll some dice was back when masks were just for fancy parties (and the occasional enthusiastic Drukhari player). Lockdown has hit our competitive edge in a lot of ways; we’ve had no events, little chance to practice and to top it all off a host of new releases – even 9th edition hit us between rule changes for gathering in the UK, let alone the new codex releases. There’s a lot of new material to get through, and not many events to help learn it all. Social interaction is also going to change as playing safe in the COVID era brings its own new challenges. We now have to implement masks, social distancing, hand hygiene throughout , and even the previous fair-play proving staple of being able to use your opponents dice to prove they’re not loaded might well vanish to reduce transmission risk.

The challenges are pretty obvious, but it begs the key questions: how do I overcome this, and how can I compete at a high level despite this? Let’s break down what’s actually happening so we can understand how to get our edge back. We’re assuming your primary focus is going to be how to push your competitive play to the next level – so hang on, and let’s start this deep dive to get you back to battle.

Levels of Competence

To get to grips with the meat of this article, I think it’s key to have an understanding of Competence in the psychological sense. If you’ve never heard of 40k, and have no idea how to play, you’re Unconsciously Incompetent. You have no idea of this skill that you lack. If you’ve heard of 40k but don’t know how to play, you’re Consciously Incompetent. You know of the skill, but do not know how to play. If you can play, but you’ve got to think hard whilst using the skill to be able to play, you’re Consciously Competent. If you can play without thinking about the skill you are using, you’re Unconsciously Competent.

Now, there are lots of different skills in competitive wargaming. You need to have an understanding of the core rules, have a knowledge of probability and statistics, and be able to plan your game to maximise objective scoring. Whilst that’s not an exhaustive list, it gives you an idea of the sorts of skills we might assess competence in for competitive play, and if you were regularly playing competitively before the lockdowns, then you probably sat at either unconscious or conscious competence for many of these skills.

It’s unrealistic to aim for unconscious competence in all aspects of wargaming – you will never have an intrinsic knowledge of every line in every codex, you will need supporting material to perform fluently in many areas, and you will have to problem solve more complex issues that you could not predict on the fly. The risk with lockdown is that many of your skills will have moved from a state of unconscious competence to conscious competence, and from conscious competence to conscious incompetence. Haven’t been keeping up with any new releases? Unconscious incompetence awaits. You’re probably still fast with some basic dice roll statistics, you’ll know a 4+ is a 50% success on a D6, but working through the odds on a hit/wound/save/FNP roll sequence will probably take much more time than it used to, let alone keeping up to date with how your army interacts with a new codex release.

Now, outside of the obvious realisation that this makes things harder, how is this going to impact your play, and how do we fix it? The answer lies in Cognitive Load.

Cognitive Load

Still with me? Good, because here’s where we start sharpening up.

Put simply, cognitive load is how much work your brain is doing for a given task. Information comes into Sensory Memory through your primary senses. If you pay attention to it, it gets funnelled into Working Memory, and if you spend enough time going over something it’ll get encoded as a Schema into your Long Term Memory.

Working Memory is the area we’re interested in – it’s what you’re thinking about or working

through in a given moment. You’ve got a limited space in there (around 5 to 9 items – it’s why when we memorise phone numbers we ‘chunk’ numbers into groups instead of remembering them as individual items), and it’s easy for it to get overwhelmed. Trying to keep in mind your Intercessors entire stat line, your opponents model, their position, the hit/wound/save odds at the same time? Tricky. Add in distraction, new rules, stratagems in play, prior psychic powers, your overarching strategic and then tactical game plan? Not going to happen. This amount of information cannot stay solely in your working memory – it’s why we use aids and prompts, something which we’ll touch on later.

This is all linked to our more what we’ve just covered on Competence – a skill in which you’re Unconsciously Competent is not going to overheat your cognitive load and take up valuable working memory, but consciously competent skills will, and trying to perform tasks in which you are consciously incompetent (or lacking in confidence) will increase load in an even less helpful way. If your cognitive load exceeds your capacity for it, you will forget things, you will make mistakes, and you will play a worse game.

So, what are the different types of cognitive load, how do they apply to wargaming, and how do we adjust them to maximise our performance?

Intrinsic Cognitive Load is how complex the task is that you’re trying to complete. This might be how complicated a rule or stratagem is, or how many statistical interactions you’re trying to think through – working out the odds of a single D6 outcome has low intrinsic load, but working out how many wounds will result from a 2D6 shot weapon with a 3+ BS needing a 5+ wound against a target with a 3+ save, adding in auras, special rules and stratagems? High intrinsic load. Germane Cognitive Load is how well new learning or information is being integrated with previous knowledge or skills (the skills, or schema logged in your long term memory). Extraneous Cognitive Load is the bad stuff – this happens when information is presented inefficiently. Extraneous load will also increase from stress, distractions and disorder.

So, we need to Simplify incoming information (Intrinsic Load), Maximise conversion to long term memory (Germane Load) and Minimise stress, distraction and overcomplication (Extraneous Load). Let’s get on to the tools we can use to do this, which will help us play better.

Optimise Cognitive Load

So, you’re now an expert in Cognitive Load Theory and know a decent amount about the psychology of education. We’re going to take that and give you the tools to play better wargames, and minimise the impact of lockdown and the time you’ve not been playing.

We’re going to start by stealing ideas from professions that do this already. Medicine and the airline industry have perfected ‘Human Factors’ training – this is primarily to reduce errors in practice, but what these tools really do is reduce cognitive load and stop you from falling into traps and unhelpful thinking. These industries involve performing complex, demanding and high risk tasks on a regular basis, and they definitely don’t rely on pure memorisation.

We can break down these techniques into Pre-Event, Event and Post Event tools.

The above examples are by no means totally comprehensive, but they’re all used when high level performance is needed. Let’s take the example of working in the emergency department, where a patient requires sedation for a procedure. A professional managing that will have had Pre-Event learning, they’ll have been taught and revised the topic, done Simulations of the event and there will be preparation of tools (crash trolley, flashcards and prompt sheets) ready. When at the event, they won’t rely on pure memory, but will have a checklist that will be read out, prompt cards for common complications, a written plan and simple flowcharts available. After the event, if there was a difficulty they will debrief immediately after, they will undertake a post event review and develop targeted simulation to practice weakened areas.

This sounds like high level work, but these are all useful tools we can take advantage of to reduce our cognitive load and help push skillsets back into conscious and unconscious competence. Let’s look at how we use this in a wargaming scenario.


- Core Learning: Revise your codex, and read the rules! This step is a simple one, but feeling comfortable with your units and their rules is key. Immerse yourself in how they play – spend some time watching Battle Reports of the armies you play, and of the armies you struggle to win against.

- Simulation: The key step that was missing in lockdown – practice. Play as many games as you can in a non competitive setting, but maximise the realism. Play missions you know you’ll be competing on, use a consistent list and stick to the rules you know you’ll face at the event. Realism is the key component to good sim.

- Tool Prep: Make sure your tools are easily accessible and ready to use. I recently interviewed Neil Robertson, the current World No. 3 snooker player and past world champion, about his competitive 40k career (keep your eyes on for the full interview when it’s released), and one of the points he made was that top players will always have easy and tidy access to their dice, their rules and their tools. They’re not taking up time and getting stressed about where things are, and they can focus more on their game. Consider bookmarking key rules and stratagem pages, and have your FAQ and dice to hand!


- (Check)Lists: Make sure you’ve got three copies of your list. One for your opponent (it’s good manners), one for yourself and one as backup for the inevitable coffee spill on one of the first two. Feel comfortable running down your list to make sure you’ve activated each unit in each phase (unit tokens help here), and don’t hesitate to make notes on your copy of key rules or stratagems you want to use for a given unit.

- Written plan: Have a game plan ready. List out your objectives, know your secondaries and how you plan to achieve them – run down them every turn and for each secondary, ask yourself what you’re going to do this turn to achieve them. No plan survives contact with the enemy, but having an idea of how you want to achieve your objectives, any key stratagems you plan to use or set combos will help immeasurably. Lower that cognitive load by having them written out, so you can leave your working memory to better analyse tactical problems as they arise.

- Flowcharts: This links nicely into having a written plan, as you might have repeated moments or situational tricks that you want to be able to use. Maybe there’s a combo that will only come up rarely – you don’t need a full page for each one, but you might find it useful to have a simple three step note on your plan to remind you that you have these tools available. Forgetting to use Auspex Scan after a deep striking enemy unit pops up is always something you’ll kick yourself for. Look through your rules, look at your past games and make notes of things you’ve missed in the past.

Post Event:

- Debrief: This happens immediately post game. Make quick notes of what went well and what did not go well – what did you miss, what slips were there? Take the time to chat to your opponent as well. Ask them where they thought you’d played well, where they struggled and whether you made any mistakes that they noticed and were able to take advantage of.

- Post event review and targeted simulation: These tie together really well. Work through your debrief notes and think through which moments were in your control and which weren’t. From those, take a note from pro chess players and set up ‘Problems’ on a game board with a friend that replicate the moments you struggled with. These might only involve two or three units, and might only take two or three turns to run through. Simulate the challenge, and practice until you’re comfortable that if it happened in competition, you could overcome it.


This was a heavy article, but there are some key takeaways from what we’ve covered here. Lockdown is going to make your next game a bit tougher, because not having played combined with having to assimilate new information is going to shift down your skill competencies and ramp up your cognitive load. This is a challenge you can overcome by using the simple tools that we have seen perfected by high performance industries – even if you have been able to practice over lockdown, optimising your cognitive load will keep you calmer, help you solve problems faster and let you win more games. Read over the various steps you can take to help make your games better, and help get you back to your best as fast as possible.

This is our first article in our Sports Psychology for Wargaming series – let us know in the comments below if you found it useful, and if there are other topics in the field you want covered then let us know too.

Happy Wargaming!

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