Saturday, March 5, 2016

Veteran's Playbook (4) - Silent Digital Assassin

Those not unfamiliar with Warmachine will be more than aware of the impact that a clock can have on the game. I can still vividly recall my early forays in Warmachine dealing with timed games; first with 10 minute timed turns, later with the Deathclock. I developed something of a (justified) reputation for timing out and remember one particular game at a tournament in Hamilton where I won with 6 seconds left on the clock. Good times.

It's called Deathclock for a reason.

As noted in the previous Veteran's Playbook post, Steamforged Games has published an Organised Play document for Guild Ball, and use of a clock set to various time allowances is a feature of this document. This article will explore aspects of clock management as they pertain to competitive Guild Ball play, traps and pitfalls, and why you should be playing on the clock in casual games too.


"Man seems to be deficient in nothing so much as he is in time." 

The "Regional Cup" variation of competitive Guild Ball play, which could arguably be seen as the 'standard' of tournament formats, requires players to operate on a 45 minute chess clock. This means each of the two players involved in the game has 45 minutes to play the entirety of their game before the unique time penalties of the Guild Ball clock system come into play.

There are a few things to take into consideration with this format:

- When your clock has run down you have 1 (one) minute to complete your current activation. After one minute has expired (or when you have finished your current activation - whichever occurs first), your opponent may take their activation and you automatically cede 1VP. In most games this will result in a very rapid defeat by clock - 4 activations/minutes of play will cede 4VPs, and at the chronological point you are at in the game (at least 45 minutes of total play time having expired) the score is likely to be somewhere around the 8VP mark on either side. I like this system a lot because if for example you're 8-8 on the board, and you can string together a quick chain of MP to load up a Snapshot! then you can still dig yourself out of the time-deficiency hole - you just have to play really bloody quickly!

- At the end of the second players turn (after their last activation), pause the clock. Roll off for initiative. And I quote...
"In order to ensure timing in tournament games is fair and reasonable, an amended Maintenance Phase is used. At the end of the Activation Phase the clock is immediately paused. Both players resolve the End Phase, Initiative Phase, and Steps A & B of the Maintenance Phase and the clock is then restarted."

... Steps A and B of the Maintenance Phase are resolving Conditions and applying Icy Sponges. After this the player with who has won or was granted the first activation restarts their clock to allocate INF, bring on Icy Sponged players etc before flipping the clock for their opponent to do the same. Then you move on to the first activation of the turn.

- 45 minutes seems like a really long time - but it actually isn't. It's enough time for sure, but as we will explore throughout this article you can hang yourself on the clock very easily. Always maintain an awareness of what the clock is doing!


"Killing time is not an easy job." 

Don't be like Calvin. In reality life is totally devoid of meaning and happiness.

One of the greatest assets of the Guild Ball system can also become one of the greatest downfalls as far as clock management is concerned and of course this is the concept of pre-measuring.

It's quite wonderful - everything in Guild Ball, all distances between any models or points, can be pre-measured before activations are decided, actions undertaken, or even Playbook results selected. In the Dojo this has led to the proliferation of the most dastardly of gamer-nerd tools... the mighty widget.

Horrible things but frequently handy, if not necessary.

The clock-related issue here is obvious but worth considering - lots of time spent fiddling about with widgets and examining the nuances of every conceivable board position or janky Dodge location will cost you valuable seconds and minutes. I'll add explicit and opinionated use of proxy bases under this umbrella too. Now the goal (pun, lol) here is to ensure a high level of accuracy and transparency, getting the most tactical value possible out of the open and testable information that pre-measuring provides, without getting mired in the complexities of the decision-making that you'll encounter. And I think that's no easy thing. The best plays in Guild Ball that I've experienced have been achieved through accurate and assured (and checked, opponent qualified) pre-measuring and it really does encourage you to look for the most exciting avenues to achieve the most gloriously off-the-wall results. Temper this with practiced speed and consistency, and for goodness' sake make sure you aren't...


"Nothing keeps. There is one law in the universe: NOW."    

... overthinking.

This is something I was well-renowned for in Warmachine and it really gained me very little in terms of a quantifiable improvement in my results. Overthinking in Guild Ball however is much MUCH worse largely due to the nature of the alternating activations system of play.

In Warmachine you spend your turn solving a puzzle set by your opponent, playing into an often (accepting effects such as Admonition do exist) position-static group of models. But your turn is mostly unaffected by what your opponent is currently doing in a live sense - they have spent their turn solving and establishing their own puzzles and have now passed the torch to you. In Guild Ball, the very nature of the alternating individual model sub-turn structure means that you can ill afford to spend at best a few minutes deeply considering how your actions will impact the placement of other models and direct synergies with other friendly models, because there's a damn good chance the board state is about to change (sometimes significantly!).

1-2 minutes of deep thinking and locking yourself into a plan can lead to tragic outcomes like planning out your turn based on the assumption your opponent will do 'X' with model 'Y' and (even worse) you will do 'A' with model 'B' in response. Then suddenly Shark is 13" somewhere else and his Legendary Play combined with a few handily applied Gut & Strings stops your entire team dead in their tracks. Or he's scored and you have to completely re-evaluate how to stop the Fish from getting hold of the ball and scoring consecutive goals in one turn. Or cheerfully loading up Ox and Boiler, intent on causing maximum carnage, before Casket wanders up and drops Ghostly Visage clouds all over the show because there's a new errata out and now your lads can't charge in with TAC-for-days and waste them fools.

The key here is that Guild Ball delivers an ever-changing, highly fluid table situation and demands that you constantly likewise keep your plans fluid and adaptable. You're probably still going into a game with the rough plan of looking for so many goals and so many Take Outs, but you simply MUST stay totally flexible in considering how to achieve these desired outcomes. Locking yourself into a plan not only loses you this prerequisite adaptability to the changing state of the table, it also forces you to go back to the drawing board every time, killing your clock as you dig yourself out of the mental dead-end you've created for yourself.

Stay fresh, frosty, flexible, adaptable. Be ready to adopt a different tact in order to cope with swiftly and suddenly changing scenarios and on-table developments.


"Indifferent to the affairs of men, time runs out; precise, heedless, exact, and immutable in rhythm."

So after all this doom and gloom and foreboding... why would you want to use a clock outside of dead serious, life-and-death, "I'm desperately justifying my existence and reason for being" tournament games?

Because it's actually (and surprisingly) enormous fun! Not only do you immediately get past those soul-draining 3 hour games where each activation takes 10 minutes and Dave wants to go to bed but is far too polite to kick you out of the The Shed, but you inject every moment with thrill, vitality and energy. Every model interaction becomes an intense battle for ball, blood and real estate under the auspices of the ticking time bomb. The clock forces you to respond at a visceral level; its primal, inexorable advance - the steady march towards zero hour - literally forces you to make decisions, commit to zany and wild ideas, and be led by your heart.

In some cases it actually addresses what might be perceived as questionable game balance issues. Morticians on the clock are horrendously difficult to play flawlessly (8INF Obulus activations take FOREVER to resolve!). Fishermen measuring out all their girly Dodges and Where'd They Goes? and Tidal Surges - all that delicate planning can catch them in their own net when the clock runs out. Butchers literally rolling all the dice and making that many attacks - that takes time! Blackhearts LP Dodges, Engineers Gun Mage Pushes lined up just so, Alchemists organising Midas to carry the entire team while you try not to get your cheerleading support crew scrubs wiped out... this all takes time! And all of this clock pressure adds hugely to the spice of the game, the parry and thrust of evenly matched teams having it all to play for.


Practice. Practice. Practice.

You simply must practise playing on the clock. At the start of this article I suggested that 45 minutes is ample time to push around 6 models while seeking a way forward to victory and it really is. But unlike Warmachine where you can put in a single 25 minute turn and end up in an overwhelmingly crushing position, able to relax into your remaining time practically assured of victory, Guild Ball is full of opportunities for the opposition to bounce back from the very brink of annihilation - a goal and a Take Out later and the game is suddenly yours to lose once again! I cannot recommend strongly enough that you start playing casual games on the clock. 

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