From the numbers coming out of tournaments- and the near-universal assessment of the competitive community- taking the first turn appears to be a significant advantage. How do we solve this problem? Click to read more, or check out the Tactics Corner for reviews and strategies.
One of the first things that most players took from the new mission packs once they were released was that the first player had a significant advantage in scoring, and while there was some argument about it at the time, I don’t think that is the case anymore. Goonhammer did an excellent piece analyzing the tournament results we’ve seen so far with some very good statistical tools that I think puts the controversy entirely to bed- first turn is generally better, end of story.
Now, this in itself is not problematic; it is almost inevitably going to be the case that either first or second turn is broadly better than the other, so having there be a disparity is not itself a huge issue. However, the magnitude of the disparity, I think, is a problem- it tilts things by as much as 10% if these early readings are any indication. Now, we should take all of this with a grain of salt because the game is still new and players are adapting their lists and thinking to how to cope with these problems, but given that the disparity increases in the later rounds, rather than decreases, seems to indicate that it is not a lack of skill or knowledge that is causing this problem- when equally-skilled opponents face down against each other, the first player is favored to win.
So the question becomes what can be done to blunt this advantage? As I said earlier, the existence of the advantage itself is not the problem- it’s the magnitude of it that is an issue. So as we look at potential solutions, we should be looking at what sort of tweaks can accomplish the goal, rather than complete overhauls of the system.
Option 1: Scoring
At its most basic level, I think the issue here is dualistic: the first player has both an advantage in firepower and an advantage in scoring, which multiplies the effects of each of them. Note that this was the opposite case in 8th edition, where going first netted you a firepower advantage but going second was an advantage in scoring. If we can dissociate those two advantages a bit, it should go a long ways in terms of bringing the first-turn powerhouse into check.
The easiest way to do this is probably to modify the secondaries. End of battle round scoring, rather than beginning of turn scoring, gives the second player a significant edge because they have the “final say” in what happens. Since the secondaries are already a mix of end-of-turn and beginning-of-turn scoring this could be relatively painless to implement, possibly even just retooling a few of the existing objectives to do it.
Option 2: Terrain
Given the new terrain book we have seen previewed already, this may be a solution Games Workshop has already created- however, I still think it is worth talking through. The goal here is to solve the other half of the aforementioned dualistic firepower-and-scoring combo, giving the second player an advantage in their damage output rather than victory points.
This might seem a bit counterintuitive at a first glance- doesn’t the first player, by definition, always have superior firepower by virtue of going first? However, this is not actually the case, because it’s who gets to use their firepower first that matters. If the second player is consistently able to hide or protect all of their units from the first player’s alpha strike the advantage actually turns to them, as the first player is essentially forced to move out from any hiding spots of their own and get onto objectives in order to be ready to score points, theoretically exposing their units to the enemy’s shooting.
Now, how one would do this beyond simply changing the recommended terrain density, I don’t really know; perhaps the expanded terrain rules include “heavier” types of cover that can add more than +1 to a unit’s saves, or give invulnerable saves, or some other type of bonus that adds significantly to unit durability. If balanced properly with weapon statlines and whatnot, this would potentially negate much of the first-turn advantage as well.
Option 3: Stratagems
This is actually a solution that we have seen implemented in the past during 8th Edition, specifically in the form of the Prepared Positions stratagem. The idea would be that one or more generic stratagems would be added to the game that provide either a defensive or scoring bonus (or both), but that can only be used by the second player. (Stratagems that can be used by either player but function more effectively for the second player would have the same overall effect.)
Prepared Positions itself was actually a pretty clever way of doing this, though of course it’s not the only way. A blanket -1 to hit, or 5+ invulnerable save, or some other bonus is an easy way to tilt the odds, and these bonuses are actually one of the more flexible ways to do so because it is possible to adjust their CP costs to try and find the desired balance point. Similarly, some sort of scoring or reserve bonus might be possible to achieve a similar effect- for example, stragagems that allow the second player to bring reserves in on the first turn of the game, give some or all of their units ObSec for a turn, allow them to score some primary or secondary objectives on the first turn of the game, etc, are all theoretically possible.
Option 4: Codex Balance
Of course, it doesn’t have to be the core rules that are rewritten to shift the first-versus-second balance, as the core rules are only a small part of the overall rules of the game. It’s entirely possible that Games Workshop could write the codices for 9th Edition such that they favored going second overall, by use of some combination of stratagems, unit rules, army-wide rules, etc.
Of course, this would probably be the hardest path to follow for a number of reasons, and the one I would least expect them to choose as a result. This would mean making sure that each codex printed was similarly-inclined to favor the second turn (as big disparities there could actually cause more problems than they solved) and also that all of the codices would be released in a sufficiently-timely manner to ensure that the problem actually gets fixed- after all, if four armies are using “new” codices that favor going second but nineteen are using “old” codices that don’t, the game hasn’t really been rebalanced, has it?
Option 5: Do Nothing
It’s easy to lose track of this in all of the talk about these sorts of things, but it’s important to remember that there is the option to simply accept the status quo and deal with it. It is not impossible that the first-turn advantage is simply an artifact of our current modes of thinking and that it will fade as players adapt to the new edition and tournament organizers work to ensure that terrain and missions similarly are set to maximize game balance.
Even if the advantage actually is real, it also isn’t so pronounced as to make the game unplayable- a 60/40 split at the outside is obviously far from ideal, but neither is it insurmountable in the face of the many other factors that come into play when two armies face off. It is well within the realm of possibility that games Workshop doesn’t see the imbalance as so problematic that it needs an immediate fix and will simply wait until next year’s Chapter Approved to update and tweak things, or perhaps won’t attempt to do so at all.
It’s important to remember that we are still very early in the edition at this point- not only do we not know what Games Workshop’s plan for various codices and other supplements is, but we haven’t had enough rigorous playtesting and tournament results to say very much with absolute certainty. The first-turn advantage very likely is real according to all the data gathered so far, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the defining trait of the edition or that all of our efforts need to be dedicated to circumventing it. Especially in uncertain times like these, it benefits the community (and GW) to act with care and caution, lest they make the problem worse in trying to solve it. That doesn’t mean it should be ignored or brushed off as trivial, but it does mean that open dialogue about things is important, as is taking actual data and assessment by top players into account when making decisions.
Oh, and Rob? We don’t care what you think about which tournaments “count” or what Warhammer World is doing, just to head that horse off at the pass.
As always, remember you can get your wargaming supplies at great discounts every day at the Frontline Gaming store, whether you’re looking to start a new army or expand an existing one.