Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Food for thought - Is 'activation advantage' unbalancing our tournament scene?

Is the activation war bad for our game?

Something I’ve been pondering for a while now, is it time to rejig the Epic tournament system? I’m the sort of gamer who loves competitive gaming, even the sort of guys I tend to play against socially are players who can do the numbers and make solid choices in army design and play. There’s been a fair bit of chatter for a while now amongst my circles about the imbalance inherit between armies which usually focuses on how much more powerful some armies can be built than others. More recently though I noticed a discussion about activation count and how big an advantage that can be in the tournament setting. I got to thinking and having a look over the tourney results for the last year and the pattern of high activation armies doing very well is quite apparent.
      Now let’s be absolutely clear here, I’m no numbers guru, my thoughts come straight from my gut based on many years of competitive gaming across a number of systems. As always take my opinions as just that but I do think it’s a discussion worth having and some potential for reforms exist.
      In the last 12 months of the Aus tournament scene we’ve seen a really clear theme of high activation armies performing extremely well overall. There was a time when 10 would be competitive but these days it just won’t fly. Consider this year’s Cancon Squats (13 activations) took first place and Eldar (14 activations) second. The squats didn’t drop a game and the only game the Eldar lost was against the squats. Now 3rd and 4th place were Vraskian Traitors and Codex Marines with a more reasonable 9 and 10 activations but I’m choosing not to incorporate the vraks because although they were commanded by a great general they fought neither the squats or the Eldar and Marines got beaten by (5-0VC) by the Eldar and 2-1VC by the squats which really just reinforces the main point... In my mind then their final rankings are more a reflection of coming from behind rather than taking on the best as the squats did (fighting all 3 top players from Cancon 2015 in this case). 
        Now the timing of this post is not in any way accidental. With Cancon just around the corner the players are no doubt planning and painting. I have no intention for the pack to be modified at this late point and like all competitive players will instead devote my attentions to how best I can come up with a list that fits the rules as written. But that said I have a prediction, as I mentioned last year’s top 2 were both high activations, this year’s Castle Assault comp top 2 were also high activations (and both orks!) with marines sneaking into 3rd place (again not playing either of the top 2 and 13 battle points behind 1st). My gut tells me that we should expect the same at Cancon 2017. In fact it may be a self-fulfilling prophesy because if you are the sort of player who expects to do well you will probably read a post like this and come to the conclusion that the range of options to beat a high activation army like the ones below is to match them, one or 2 activations below you can probably make up for but much more than that is too much of a disadvantage. So my point is this, I don’t want Cancon 2017 to change, but I want to see if the pattern I consider to be emerging will be proven right by the next big comp. If that is the case then with a trifecta of evidence we would need to seriously ask ourselves if the activation cold war is really what we want or if we should be changing the comp system to make it more equitable.  Now have a quick look at what was in the Top 2 lists from this Year’s Cancon and maybe you can see what I mean.

Thurgrim’s Stronghold Squats (Thurgrims Stronghold 1.5) 
This list was all about firepower and flexibility. It had heaps of guns with lots of range, perfectly suited for smashing small enemy formations and giving it’s owner an amazing advantage in activations by turn 3. It had enough small activations to waste a few doing pointless things at the beginning of the turn if needs be, thunder fires on overwatch, berserkers drive in a circle etc. Backing this up was multiple long range options, double macro from the train, 6BP barrage from the megacannons which could snipe out vulnerable units without leaving the deployment zone. Most opponents simply didn’t have an answer for it, and that’s even before you get to the 30+ battlecannon shots a turn… The list went undefeated, took out the comp and was rated so hideously broken that squats have been banned until they get a full rewrite.

1. Berzerker Brotherhood 1 Hearthguard unit 7 Berzerker units Rhinos
2. Berzerker Brotherhood 1 Hearthguard unit
 5 Berzerker units Rhinos
3. Berzerker Brotherhood 1 Hearthguard unit
 5 Berzerker units Termite Tunnellers
4. Thunderfire 2x Thunderfire
5. Thunderfire 2x Thunderfire
6. Bikers Guild 3x Guild Bike unit  3x Guild trike  Grand Warlord
7. Overlord Overlord Airship
8. Overlord Overlord Airship
9. Overlord Overlord Airship
10. Overlord Overlord Airship
11. Overlord Overlord Airship
12 Goliath
 2x Goliath Mega­Cannon
13. Land Train
 1 Land Train Engine 2x Berserker Battle Car Bomb Battle Car

Biel-Tan Craftworld (v4.2)
The strengths of this list start with the 13 (14) activations that gives it a big advantage in the later turns of the game where it can play out the early few activations as required giving the opponent more time to move into range and setup awesome shots for the falcons. The scorpions and void spinners are brilliant for long range sniping, taking out artillery or small formations like flak batteries etc. 3 sets of the best AA option available mean you can cover the entire army in overlapping fields of flak. Double rangers mean you can protect huge chunks of the army with a scout screen and the gaurdians can throw out some basic support fire but combo beautifully with the Avatar when he turns up. The shining spears are an amazing engage unit, solid armour, double Inspiring, speed and both BC and FF options that can be backed up by guardians and an Avatar.

1. AVATAR [0]
2. ASPECT WARRIOR WARHOST [400] -8 Shining Spear, Exarch, Autarch
3. GUARDIAN WARHOST [200] - Farseer, 4 Guardians, 3 Heavy Weapon Platform, 3 Support Weapon Platforms
4. GUARDIAN WARHOST [200] Farseer, 4 Guardians, 3 Heavy Weapon Platform,3 Support Weapon Platforms
5. GUARDIAN WARHOST [150] Farseer, 6 Guardians, Heavy Weapon Platform
6. RANGER TROUPE [100] 4 Ranger
7. RANGER TROUPE [100] 4 Ranger
8. SWORDS OF VAUL TROUPE [250] 3 Falcon, 2 Fire Storm
9. SWORDS OF VAUL TROUPE [250] 3 Falcon, 2 Fire Storm
10. SWORDS OF VAUL TROUPE [295] 3 Fire Prism, 2 Fire Storm
11. ENGINE OF VAUL TROUPE [250] Scorpion
12. ENGINE OF VAUL TROUPE [250] Scorpion
13. VOID SPINNER [275] Void Spinner
14. VOID SPINNER [275] Void Spinner

Now compare these two builds to another fantastic one from Cancon this year that had everything going for it except the activations.

Space Wolves
1. FENRISIAN WOLVES [150] - 6 Fenrisian Wolves
2. GREAT COMPANY [625] - 6 Grey Hunters - Rhinos, Wolf Lord, 2 Wolf Guard Terminators, 2 Blood Claws, Land Raider Crusader
3. THUNDERBOLT SQUADRON [175] - 2 Thunderbolt Fighter-Bombers
4. WOLF GUARD TERMINATORS [375] - 4 Wolf Guard Terminators, Wolf Priest, Drop Pods
5. LANDING CRAFT [350] - Space Wolves Landing Craft
6. GREAT COMPANY [575] - 6 Grey Hunters,  Wolf Priest,  2 Wolf Guard Terminators, 2 Blood Claws, Rhinos, Hunter
7. STRIKE CRUISER [200] - Space Wolves Strike Cruiser
8. LAND SPEEDERS [200] - 5 Land Speeder
9. LANDING CRAFT [350] -Space Wolves Landing Craft

Now here’s what I know about this one:
     The build is solid – In fact a build that looks very familiar to this took 3rd place at Cancon 2015. The main difference was that in 2015 the build was generic Astartes, so replace generic with much more assault oriented Space Wolves and you have the 2016 version.
·         The player is excellent – He won Cancon 2014 and 2015 without dropping a single game, so his record is unquestioned.
So how did it go, simply put he utterly smashed all but two opponents… guess which ones… which brings me back to the original point about activation advantage. The philosophy of this list is really obvious, hit hard and do so much damage with the first strike they can’t recover. But against the high activation armies above this philosophy just doesn’t work.
     Against the squats the plan went well to start with, a well-placed deep strike of a barge full of  great company took out the BTS train and a chunk of the squat army in the first turn but that’s when the activation advantage took over and despite a full 3 turns playing out all the wolves could do was walk forwards into the teeth of battlecannon barrages looking for something worth killing.
      Against the Eldar the game was far more one sided. Look over that Eldar list and ask yourself what exactly is worth hitting with an alpha strike. There was enough scouts to prevent any deep strikers from hitting anything other than a scout screen and with triple overlapping AA fields no chance of using thunderbolts to break that screen first. Best case scenario then you can use an air assault to bust through the screen and take out one formation… before the rest of them pick you to pieces.  Though actually that’s not what happened, what actually happened was that the lander that attempted that attack took a crit on the way in and the game was essentially over in turn 1… 

Castle Assault 2016
So now fast forward to castle assault in August this year. A smaller comp by far but still hotly contested and look again at the top 2 players. This time it was a 14 activation Feral Ork build followed by a 13 activation standard ork list. Check out the feral ork list:

Feral Orks
WILDBOYZ [350] 2 Nobz, 6 Wildboyz Units, Orkeosaurus, Warlord, Wyrdboy
WILDBOYZ [300] 2 Nobz, 6 Wildboyz Units, Orkeosaurus
WILDBOYZ [300] 2 Nobz, 6 Wildboyz Units, Orkeosaurus
WILDBOYZ [300] 2 Nobz, 6 Wildboyz Units, Orkeosaurus
WILDBOYZ [300] 2 Nobz, 6 Wildboyz Units, Orkeosaurus
WILDBOYZ [200] 2 Nobz, 6 Wildboyz Units, 3 Squig Katapult
WILDBOYZ [200] 2 Nobz, 6 Wildboyz Units, 3 Squig Katapult
BOARBOYZ HORDE [100] 5 Boarboyz
BOARBOYZ HORDE [100] 5 Boarboyz
BOARBOYZ HORDE [100] 5 Boarboyz
BOARBOYZ HORDE [100] 5 Boarboyz
TRAPPAS [150] 6 Wildboyz
STEAM GARGANT [500] 3 Steam Gargant

The strengths again are obvious; it follows the brick shithouse design philosophy where it has heaps of solid assault units and plenty of smaller spam units able to pad out the activation phase allowing excellent positioning of the Orkeosaurus in the end of the turn and optimal firing opportunities for the steam gargant unit. In fact I would say this strategy was essential in every game that I played and gave me a huge advantage over ever army I played except for the other ork build. You can read up on the details of that in my tourney report. I know that the 2nd place orks follow a similar philosophy of padding out the early activations with basic troops to allow for a potentially massive late turn air assault by the lander or something awesome involving a gargant.

The point that I’m making here isn’t that these lists can’t be beaten, there’s absolutely builds that can do it, I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens when the Feral Orks take on the Cancon Eldar, and it should be an interesting matchup. The point is simply that the only way to combat such extreme lists really is with other extreme lists. There is no way in my mind that you could build a list using Steel Legion, Black Legion or Codex Astartes for example that would be a fair fight against those Eldar or Savage Orks. Maybe you could pull something off with the newer lists like Emperor’s Children or DKOK but the challenge is to build something with at least 12 activations that has either the flexibility of the Eldar or the resilience of the feral orks. Now this issue can be viewed in two contexts, one being that there is an issue of intrinsic imbalance between armies in the system. That, in my mind, is very apparent and almost unavoidable. But that said it’s also seriously hard to tackle and can be remedied easily enough in a social environment with a few house rules like limits to activations or changing the basic points size that could allow for more variety and flexibility. If all you’ve taken away from this post is that there are awesome builds for you to steal and use you’ve really missed the point. In a comp setting though there is a need for balance as much as possible, final results should be a reflection of player skill not just who can cut/paste the best list possible.
      I’ve played Imperial Assault a fair bit for example and something interesting about last year’s big competitions was that almost every team was literally identical… The World’s Grand Final was played off as a mirror match. I tried to watch it on Youtube and switched off in about 5 minutes because it was so boring… FFG’s response was to bring in new rules and rewrite 3 complete units that were considered so overpowered it led to this unique scenario. Their comps are also always played with 6 different scenarios played out on 3 different maps that rotate 3-4 times a year. This fluidity encourages substantial variety in list builds.
      By contrast Epic armies are largely stagnant, any changes take enormous amounts of time and energy to change and consistency of changes is haphazard at best. We seem to have some list writers who are very conservative in increasing the power of anything whilst others are seemingly unaware of the power and combos that they are unleashing under the guise of new approved lists. As a community trying to change and balance that issue is very challenging and in the short term pretty unrealistic. We need large community with more comps to generate data to get discussions going and at the moment we just aren’t there. Yet we also have an obligation to ensure that our new players can turn up to events and at least have a chance of achieving something, and encouraging stagnation in our system just isn’t going to help that. 
      So while I don’t think that changing the entire system is wise, or even plausible I do think we should be looking at the tournament systems we use to fix what we can do in the short term. Composition scoring systems have been tried in the Aus scene for a while but the general feeling was that they did little to balance the issue regardless so what else can we try. Another balancing factor in many tournament systems is the variety of scenarios which place unique challenges on the armies and force a degree of flexibility. I think this could be something we could start with. Below I’ve included my proposal for a baby step towards improving balance without throwing out the core tournament scenario.

Somewhere down the track I think it would be great if tournaments utilised a range of scenarios to mix things up a bit but finding proper balance is a significant issue that will take time. In the interim I have 2 possible alternatives, one simple, one a little more complex.

Option 1 - Cap the activations - Back in the WHFB 7th Edition time period (AKA the golden age of tournament gaming) new armies started to arise who could produce obscene amounts of magic dice, and suddenly a balance that had been in place for years fell apart. First there came an unwritten rule that said "If I can count your magic dice on 2 hands we can be friends...", soon enough that became a formal rule at competitions and all was right in the world again. I would suggest similar for Epic comps. My magic number is 12 activations max. Most armies hover in the 9-11 range with Titans more in the 7-8 and Marines in the 11-12 range. It's only a short list of armies like those above who can really bust this fomulae and my feeling is that if you limit the potential difference to 2-3 on average rather than the current situation where the difference can be literally double and often is 4-5 you will encourage a wider range of armies being competitive and potentially see a shift towards actually buffing units.

Option 2 - Slightly more complicated but still a potentially effective  short term proposal would be to keep the current scenario but instead of a win being determined by the standard victory conditions I would take it one step further. Maintain the same VC’s, but allocate points to them as illustrated which are added to the normal system points allocated for kills.   
  • Defend the Flag – Each objective you control in your starting half of the board is worth 100 points. Holding all 3 objectives gains an extra 200 points.
  • Take and Hold – Each objective you control in your opponents half of the board is worth 200 point. Holding at least 2/3 objectives gains an extra 400 points.
  • Blitzkrieg – Capturing your opponents Blitzkrieg objective gains 500 points
So the logic here is that much like in the current VC system capturing the enemy objectives are more valuable than the ones in your half.
  • They Shall Not Pass – Divide the table into quarters. Each quarter which contains one of your own unbroken formations and does not include any unbroken enemy formations gains 200 points.
  • Break Their Spirit – Calculate the victory points for the most expensive formation in the opposing army as usual (Under 50% strength/broken etc) any points earned for this formation are doubled.

So a players score would comprise of whatever they killed from the enemy in addition to up to 2800 + BTS (variable) and the difference would then be used to determine a winner and the scale of the victory. The final magin would be determined on a 0-20 point breakdown system starting at a 10-10 draw for a result with a margin of less than say 300points. I don’t have a solid idea yet of what a good margin would be to determine each of the brackets after that but believe it should be an 11/9, 12/8 system with small incremental differences.
The main way I perceive this system helping to balance issues like the activation war is that with points on the map lower activation count armies still have a way to achieve a win. Taking lots of small formations will give you activation advantages but will die more easily than larger ones bleeding points. For example you can have 7 units of sentinels for the same points as a Reaver but you don’t get any points unless you kill the reaver whilst you will get some points for killing units of sentinels… I’m not claiming its perfect but in my mind it at least forces an extra level to the design process beyond just If I have more units I get a huge advantage and win.
      Time will tell I guess if what I’m illustrating here is just a storm in a teacup or an emerging trend. As our game continues to grow though I feel we need to be really conscious about how to move our system forwards rather than just planting our feet and stubbornly maintaining the status quo. As always feel free to agree or disagree, I said at the beginning this is just a gut feeling from a long time gamer but at the very least it’s worth having the discussion.


  1. Interesting! I am truly not a fan of the activation arms race. I think it encourages rules-driven solutions that would otherwise make little sense. (I mean, SEVEN units of sentinels should never be seen as a solution to ANY problem!) But there’s also no point in trying to rewrite the rules wholesale.

    I also enjoy the fluff and the background colour for an army, and some armies (IG, Orks) really should be able to take large detachments without being unduly penalised.

    What follows is totally untried and tested, but it does create some unpredictibility of when a side gets to activate:

    1) Take a pack of playing cards.
    2) Allocate one colour to each player.
    3) Create a reduced pack with one card of the relevant colour for each detachment/activation.
    4) Shuffle.
    5) Discard two cards without looking at them.
    6) The player that wins the strategy roll can choose whether to activate first or second.
    7) The other then takes the second activation.
    8) Thereafter turn a card to see who activates next.
    9) If one side attempts to Sustain, then immediately discard the next card, without looking at it.
    10) Repeat.
    11) If a coloured card is turned and that player has no remaining unactivated detachments, then the other player gets to activate his remaining detachments in any order he wants.
    12) In the next Strategy Phase, recreate the deck based on the number of detachments/activations that still exist, and go again from 4) above.

    I've probably missed something obvious, but that's the general idea.

    What does this all achieve ?

    You spread each side’s activations through the turn; the predictible IGOUGO is replaced with something with greater friction (to paraphrase Clausewitz). High activation armies will still have an advantage, and will get runs of activations, but they don’t know when these will occur. It is impossible to predict who will get to activate next as you can’t count the cards, so if you want to coordinate attacks then you’ll just have to sustain at some point. Whch is how it should be. You no longer get to wait until the end of the turn and zip around with your proverbial three activation advantage and set everything up perfectly for the next Action Phase. Of course you MIGHT get lucky, and realise that you’ll get three out of the last four activations, but that’s the gods of war smiling on you rather than a systemic advantage.

    I don’t think this breaks either the rules system or the existing army lists. The activation mechanisms are largely unchanged, you aren’t artificially limiting numbers, and higher activations do still have an advantage. It’s just not an overwhelming one any more. I suspect that chasing activation numbers would be less of a holy grail (although it would probably still be a good strategy for e.g. Eldar) whilst permitting bigger detachments to be less disadvantaged for those armies with the bigger battalions.

    Anyway, more food for though, I hope.

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