Since its very inception, Warhammer has used an “I-go-U-go” system to divide player turns, but that system has always been problematic. Maybe it’s time to move on to something more balanced.
Warhammer 40K is, to be generous, a creaky old beast. Although 8th Edition jettisoned a lot of the most venerable aspects of the game, many others (such as the basic Space Marine statline, most weapon profiles, the basic system of attack resolution, etc) date all the way back to the game’s infancy in the late 1980s- a genesis which now predates the birth dates of most of the game’s players. For its time, 40K was a very innovative game and took a lot of unusual steps, but in the past three decades game design has come a long ways and many of those lessons have yet to be taken up by GW, much to the game’s detriment.
But of all of the artifacts of yesteryear that plague the game, perhaps the worst offender is the I-go-U-go” turn system, at least from a mechanical perspective. Put simply, I-go-U-go means that the turn sequence proceeds with one player starting their turn, taking all of their actions through to completion, and then handing the turn over to the other player, who does the same. When it isn’t your turn, you don’t get to do anything- with certain rare exceptions.
Now, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this turn system; it is used to great effect in many board games, including many wargame-styled board games. It has a variety of advantages, not the least of which being reducing the complexity of the game- when I’m doing my thing, that is all that is happening, and you don’t have a chance to interrupt me or make any decisions that might slow the game down. And this model is well-suited to games that want to be played in the course of an hour or two while having three, four, or even five players participating. It’s also used in almost all tabletop roleplaying games, where each individual player has their character perform all of their actions for the turn before passing on to the next player (or monster.)
However, modern 40K has moved beyond its roots as a board game and as a roleplaying game and become something wholly different- and I think that this shift necessitates changes in how the game should progress, especially as the size of armies continues to increase with every edition. In 2E, an army might consist of one or two tanks, half a dozen infantry squads, and handful of characters- but in 8E, that is probably only one detachment from a player’s army, with 2-3 such detachments expected. It’s not at all unusual for an army to consist of 20-30 units (and sometimes even more), every one of which that player will have to activate on each of their turns.
So what I’m proposing instead is alternating activations, a system that in fact is common to most popular wargames these days. To contrast with I-go-U-go, alternating activations says that while each player will still get to activate all of their units every turn, those turns are shared with the opponent. Most typically, this means that I will get to act with one of my units, then you will get to act with one of yours, then back to me again, etc. The advantages of this style of play (as opposed to the current one) are innumerable, but I’d like to touch of some of the biggest ones in sequence here.
Less Dead Time
One of the biggest problems with I-go-U-go is that, during the enemy’s turn you aren’t doing anything. This is, of course, somewhat by design, but it also is problematic because in Warhammer turns can take so long. It’s not unusual to see a player’s first turn go for forty minutes or even an hour during a tournament- to say nothing of casual games where time limits aren’t enforced and the atmosphere is more casual. Having one of the two players be essentially noninteractive during that time can result in extreme boredom even in the best of cases- and while 40K does give the player some extremely token actions to take (such as rolling Deny the Witch tests or armor saves), I don’t think anyone would argue that there are many choices to be made compared to having the active turn. It’s not simply that you aren’t playing for 50% of the game- it’s that you aren’t participating for long stretches at a time, which enhances the feeling of noninteractivity.
This is especially problematic from the perspective of perception, because when it comes to holding a player’s interest in a game perception of how they see the game is arguably just as important as the reality of how the game functions, and I think 40K has this problem in spades. If you spend the first one third of a game doing nothing but watching as the enemy sweeps your army off the table, you may become extremely disheartened with the situation even if you still stand a reasonable chance of winning. This is part of why so many of the best players emphasize the mental portion of the game, but it’s a particular problem for those who are newer to the game or who may not have the same deep and abiding interest in it- if such players consistently have negative experiences with those sorts of situations, they may decide that the game is unfair and abandon it before even having a chance to advance to the point where they understand the mechanics of what’s happening and how they can get past it. Removing barriers of entry is paramount for maintaining the health and growth of a hobby, and in this respect mental barriers can be just as important as other ones.
More Interaction and Counterplay
Going for half an hour or more without getting to do anything obviously drains a lot of interest from the game, but it also has other issues- namely, that it can remove a lot of potential strategy from the game as well. When a player is assured that they will get to activate all of their units without interruption or interference from the enemy, it removes a lot of potential for the enemy to disrupt that strategy. And that’s not a good thing! Wargames, even games in general, are all about disrupting the opponent’s plan while advancing your own. Obviously it is possible to do this within the context of Warhammer, but you are more limited in your ways to do so because you cannot interfere with the intermediate steps in many of their plans; if they decide “I’m going to shoot at his Gaunts first to remove them and then charge the Tyranid Prime”, then there really isn’t anything you can do about that. But if you had the opportunity to interrupt their plan with a response of your own- say, but shooting one of your units at the unit that was going to charge the Prime- then that is an opportunity for you to make decisions that affect the way the game plays out. But of course, your opponent can then devise a counterplan to stop you from stopping them, and then you can- well, you see how it goes.
Increasing the ways that players can interact with each other is generally going to a net positive during a game- it rewards skill, foresight, and planning and punishes poor choices in a way that feels warranted rather than arbitrary. This plays right back into the importance of perception in the game and its growth- if players feel that they lost a game because they were outplayed, they are much more likely to maintain a positive attitude than if they feel they lost because of bad luck or similar factors. And a player who has more agency in the game- because they are participating in more of it- is more likely to feel as though their decisions mattered in deciding the outcome of the game.
Getting Rid of the Alpha Strike Problem
Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of the Alpha Strike problem, where one player’s army is devastated on the first turn of the game to such a degree that they are unable to recover. This is almost exclusively a feature of I-go-U-go game systems, because it is only in them where one player has the chance to take all of their actions and do all of their damage before the other player can respond. In a game of alternating activations, it usually isn’t even possible to do this kind of sudden, overwhelming damage unless one player is so massively outplaying the other that the match would’ve been trivial no matter what.
Alpha strikes are a problem because not only do they remove interaction (you can’t do anything if your models are dead), but also because they make “comback mechanics” harder. Comeback mechanics are important for maintaining player engagement in a game, although they tend to be less present in wargames than in other board games. However, they still should have some place, because they offer a way for a player who is on the back foot to fight against the cascading advantages of the player who starts to pull ahead. After all, if you are winning (by virtue of having killed more enemy units, etc) it becomes easier to increase the lead by which you are winning, which in turn makes it easier to increase you lead even further, and so on and so forth until you are so far ahead your opponent has absolutely not chance of catching up. This kind of positive feedback loop is extremely detrimental to gameplay and needs to be avoided if at all possible- and alternating activations can help to slow this process, since they are generally less lopsided for the advantaged player.
Armies Look More Like Armies
What do we mean by this? Well, in short, you are more likely to see a variety of units under most alternating activation systems, and more visual variety in armies is generally appealing to players. For the reason why, we need to dig a little deeper into the mechanics of the thing.
In alternating activations, there is a lot of value to being able to control when you activate your units- that is to say, whether you do so before the enemy (and thus pre-empt their own activations by wounding or destroying units) or after the enemy (allowing you to respond to what they have done with perfect information.) These advantages are roughly analogous to the advantages of first turn and second turn, respectively, in an I-go-U-go system such as 40K, which I assume the reader is familiar with. However, the key trick with alternating activations is that when the two players have differing numbers of units, they player with more units will have a lot of control over when they choose to activate their units, allowing them to freely choose between the “first player” and “second player” advantages for each unit and each time they activate.
This flexibility means that players are naturally incentivized to bring a larger variety of units- some strong and expensive units, to take advantage of activating at a particular time, but also a large number of smaller, cheaper units so that they can outweigh the enemy’s total activation number and thus control the sequence of the game. This counterbalancing forces mean that players will want some units from each selection and thus naturally have a certain amount of variety in their armies, even all other factors aside, rather than trying to double down on a single, powerful strategy or by bringing the maximum possible number of a small handful of efficient unit types. This variety is generally more aesthetically appealing and thus more likely to not only make players happy with what they are bringing to the table but also to feel like armies are “real” to an observer or opponent, rather than just a collection of rules that are assembled in the most efficient way possible.
Greater Rewards for Strategy/Tactics
Now, I don’t intend to say that alternating activations are strictly better than I-go-U-go, as they both serve different purposes and have different advantages, but one of the advantages of alternating activations is that it allows for more interaction, and more interaction (as we already covered) means that player skill and foresight is generally going to be more rewarded. When there are more decisions to be made and more possible plays that are viable, that also means there are more “correct” and “incorrect” plays and thus more ways for players to leverage their knowledge of the game and its rules or their knowledge of what the opponent is going to do.
In I-go-U-go this is more limited, because the decision trees are more limited; I can’t interfere with your plan for a given turn much because you can enact that entire plan with essentially no interaction from me. If I can’t interact with it, I can’t interfere with it, plain and simple. I can try and cause your plan for next turn to fail, but that is only a single action point I can take, whereas with alternating activations I might have many chances to interfere with you in different ways. If I’m smart, that rewards my smart play- and if you’re smart and can head off my interference, that forces me to waste resources to no effect and rewards your smart play. In both cases, the additional interaction means that player skill is better rewarded.
Alright, so I’ve made my arguments- maybe I’ve convinced you and maybe I haven’t, but obviously no single player is going to be able to change the rules on their own, so what, exactly, am I arguing this matter for? Well, it’s simple- while no single player can make the change, opinions from enough players can potentially do so, especially if those opinions are carried through to the game designers.
Games Workshop isn’t unfamiliar with the dichotomy between these two systems of play- in fact, many of their games already use alternating activations, including skirmish games such as Necromunda, Kill Team, and others. I don’t think it’s a stretch to extend these rule systems- and the lessons learned from them- to “proper” 40K as a game, especially because it would potentially solve so many of the issues that are plaguing the game right now. Would it solve everything? Certainly not, and it would raise issues of its own in terms of how to change the designs and rules of various units, but I think it could very plausibly be a positive step forward for the game.
It may be that Games Workshop and their rules team and even playtesters have already started work on 9th Edition- I would hardly be surprised to learn that this is the case, though I don’t have any insider knowledge on the subject. Game design is a long and slow process and creating an entirely new edition is a ton of work. Whether this is the case or not, however, I’d like to put this idea out to the community to think about and discuss- would the game be better served by transitioning its activation system away from I-go-U-go? I’ve made my case for why I think it should do so here, but raising the issue is only the first step to actually pushing it. And whether it convinces anyone or not, the real point is to get people thinking about game design and what that means- how the choices in the game affect how we play it and how we perceive it. What’s really important here is not the success or failure of a single argument, but the intentionality of observing game design; that is, to truly look at the rules and understand why they are the way they are and what that means. Games are just games, but in understanding them and the rules we set for them we can open ourselves up to also understanding the other rules that govern our lives- the rules we set for ourselves about how we behave and act as well as the rules others set for us. In examining them and understanding their implications, we can understand what people tell us the rules do as well as what they actually do, and in doing so move beyond a simple acceptance of those rules to a comprehension of them in their totality.
Also seizing sucks and everyone hates it, even the people who think it’s necessary, and alternating activations mean seize becomes basically meaningless. So there’s that.