Countering the Double Dogma

by Theo Kik-Jansen

A story of nuance and the mechanics behind the priority roll

Let’s get controversial baby! The AoS community loves to trot out the priority roll as their favourite feature, that elevates AoS from just a wargame to a 200-IQ-4D-Chess experience, that you’re just not enough of a connoisseur to be able to appreciate. It’s an almost elitist sentiment: you either agree, or are just not seeing it and are a shit player*. Then we circle jerk on it some more. Talking about not liking the priority role is almost taboo within the competitive AoS community, people almost being shunned for even mentioning it.

*I have no idea what you are talking about – Pete A

Pete A getting a bit excited last week

Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m not saying the double is merely chance or that there’s no play to work it to your advantage. The hypothesis is: While the double turn is undoubtedly another opportunity for skill-expression, it’s no different in that regard than a straight turn system (alternate activations). It is unnecessary complexity.

Please don’t kill me. “Yikes, what have I gotten myself into?” – Albert Einstein (probably)

Let’s see if I can free your minds from the dogma. I know this is a delicate subject, and I might have to pry a couple of convictions from your minds. But if we as wargamers are experts at anything, it’s mental gymnastics. So let’s shake those cortexes loose, stretch those lobes, work those campasus (campi, campusi? Ok I’m going to have to tap out on the brain references, need to watch more Pinky and the Brain), and let’s do some mind gymnastics!

Sidenote: when I talk about equilibrium, I refer to settling on the specific probability distribution for that particular random action. So don’t come at me, you fucking nerds.

Let’s dive in!

Mental warm-up: laying down the basics

Let’s establish the basics: the perfect 50% win-rate game is the coin-flip, a pure dice game or rock-paper scissors. If two people repeated the process enough times, they would always end up at a 50-50 win-rate. The more of these truly random actions are repeated in the same game, the sooner equilibrium will be reached between the players. E.g.: a game with dice with a thousand 4+ rolls, will most likely reach equilibrium within a few of games, whereas a game with one 4+ roll to determine the winner will require thousands of games to achieve the same. You get the point. A very reliable route to a 50-50 win-rate. You can’t predict who will win of course.

Every game that involves decision making involves an improved chance of winning as relative skill increases. Let’s use F1 racing as an example. Let’s say they all ride with the same car, but we limit their speed to 50 km/h (or 31.0694 mph for those still writing with feathers). This would result in the most boring shit show (yeah you heard me, even more boring than regular old F1) you’ve ever seen. There would also be no need for tuning, car-design, down-force or aerodynamics, as they are slow as shit anyway. But! There would still be 1 winner for the race, and more than likely, some people will do better than others, someone will have the skill to consistently out-perform his rivals. It’ll always be the same people at the top. It’s the ultimate skill expression.

Obviously, both examples are ridiculous and above all, extremely boring. But it serves to show a mechanism: take out variables, create room for skill expression, add more random mechanics, introduce trends towards equilibrium.

Keep this in mind, we’re about to do some gymnastics!

Mental stretching: adding complications

So let’s add a layer to this. Most games you’ll encounter have two players pitched against each other with the same set of tools. Traditionally the most competitive board game is chess. The reason is simple: it takes away (assuming alternating between black and white) variables or randomness and thus leans in heavily on skill expression.

Luckily, AoS is a lot more varied. Inherently our tools differ a lot, with separate mechanics for each force. This is why we love these games and why we play it over chess or any other game rationally more suited to competitive play. On top of that, there are 25+ factions, so it’s not like StarCraft, where they only had to balance 3 or 4 forces against each other. The only true pitching mechanism we have is points, but we’ve all experienced how limited that can be.

NightHaunt playing a cagey turn 1

So straight out of the gate we have an opportunity for skilled players taking advantage of small inconsistencies in balance and mechanics to use to their advantage.

In come the dice! To add randomness and excitement to the game, we’re using dice to make it less predictable. This allows big moments to occur and also for one player not to run away too far from the other, and keep games exiting until the end.

If, however, dice rolls impact the outcome of the game too strongly, you veer away from the impact of skill on the outcome. (I had a nightmare once where the new Kroak scoll had a rule, where on a 4+ he wins the game, if not, he loses. Followed by a scene from the GW HQ where they are having a party to celebrate achieving a perfect 50% winrate. Shudders…). So the challange for GW is to find that happy medium. Keep the games as close as possible, so that even two people with skewed skill levels can have a close game. Without it becoming so random that hot dice trump skills more often than not.

Mental drills: Arguments against turn rolls

In comes the priority roll. There are two ways to go about an alternate activation game, random or straight. GW swings both ways for their major game systems and both work. We’ve heard the arguments for the priority roll (here).

Now let’s hear some counters:

Constant fixing required

If the double turn is a feature, why does it need to continually be compensated for? Since the dawn of time (or since like the last few years or something) GW has been tinkering with the priority roll. The amount of shit they’ve had to bestow on the poor fella going second in the round is huge. CP’s, objective burning, extra heroic actions, the works. If your rule needs that much work to be balanced out, is it a good rule?

Non-ambiguous argument

The arguments made for good players to be able to play around the second turn, would need to work both ways to be valid. In other words, would a straight turn system (like 40k has) promote less skill-expression? The same phenomenon of skilled players rising to the top still holds true for 40k as much as it does for AoS as far as I can tell. Would you say chess is less of a competitive game because they don’t have randomised turns?

Depth and accessebility

We’re in constant need of explanation, articles and videos to explain how great the priority roll is and how to play around it. I’d argue we have enough complexity in this game as it is. We have list building, buffs, de-buffs, battle tactics, grand strategies, phases, threat ranges, screening, battalions, enhancements, missions, contesting, controlling, visible, spells, dispels, unbinds, modified, unmodified, re-rolls, and so on and so on. And if you choose to identify the priority roll as the defining feature, I think you are selling AoS short. Plus it’s another addition of mental load and complexity to add to the barrier of entry of the game.

It is paramount to the future health of the game to keep it accessible. Rules depth is a finicky fucker. More depth might give an edge to players with knowledge and practise. And depth is what drives us to these types of games. But depth has an inverse relationship with accessebility. More depth doesn’t equal a better game, and certainly not a healthier game (triggers End Times trauma’s).

Getting double turned is boring

Sure, you have reactions, you can roll some saves. But two turns of your opponent’s is just less fun than doing your own thing. If you are going first, you’d need to conceptualize two of your opponent’s turns. That’s an almost inconceivable amount of permutations, it would make Magnus Carlson blush. You might be a genius, but the amount of preparation you can do against two opponent turns is pretty limited. So while you can prepare for the different eventualities, your still sitting around while your opponent can look for gaps over two activations. When it’s your turn next, your brain is already firing at full speed about what your are going to do. I’d argue this is even more boring for your casual games than for knife-edge tournament stuff.

Playing around it” vs mitigating

So given that the priority roll is an addition of randomness, at least to some extend, it adds to a series of randomized charactaristics based on dice rolls. When people say “play around it”, what they actually mean is mitigating the effects of randomness. The randomness is still going to have effect and sometimes the effect will decide the game, if it is close enough and/or the difference in “luck” of critical dicerolls is large enough.

Every person had their own tollerence for randomness. Some people live for the big moments, others love the challange of mitigating the risks of randomness as much as they can. But if you play a dice based gome, you need to have some stomage for the inevitable dice-fucks. It is good to recognize that these differences in tollerance excist and that increase in randomness.

Mental gymnastics: let’s unravel this thing

Now back to the argument: you just need to learn to play around it. Git Gud! We’ve established that every addition of randomness pushes the game towards chance and away from skill isolation. Likewise the reduction of these variables moves the game towards skill expression.

Because both players have to deal with the same circumstances, they both have to prepare for the turn role. A good player would be as likely to be able to deal well with a priority roll system as with a straight system.

To take it one step further, while the better player mitigates the randomness the best, both circumstances are unlikely to be as favourable as the other; or, they’ll have a preference of going first or second. Ergo; it provides randomness that trends the game towards equilibrium.

So hypothetically: two players with the same lists and Exactly the same skill level, rolling the exact same for attacks, charges and saves, etc.. The player winning the priority rolls will win the game.

“But, it’s something You can learn to deal with, so it gives astute players a competitive edge”. Well sure, but that’s like saying “I don’t want these content creators make great concise video’s on how to interpret FAQ’s and new rules, that should be my competitive advantage if I have the ability to internalize that quicker than others”.

The priority roll adds complexity to an already hard to get into game, it’s imperfect in itself, as it needs constant tinkering with and it doesn’t set itself apart as a skill expression opportunity more than alternate activation does. Alternate activations is a more straightforward system that is easier to conceptualize, complexity isn’t the same as strategic depth.

Mental breakdown: what is life?

So is AoS a shit game? Should the priority roll go away in 4th edition? Should I set my armies on fire? Should I just go out and buy an Archaon?

No of course not. Or at least, not necessarily. That’s because randomness is what makes this game great. It ensures that we have tight games full of excitement, where you can never be quite sure what’s going to happen, even if we plan accordingly.

Do people use it as an excuse? Sure. Could they just be ignorant to the counter play opportunities? Possibly. Does that mean disliking the priority roll equals you being shit? It really doesn’t.

The Skaven player succeeded in forcing the Spiders into a funnel for their double turn attack

What I set out to do is to add some nuance to the discussion. To expose the priority roll for what it really is: an element of randomness that has its own charm. And for what it isn’t: it is not the Summum of skill-based game design.

That also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t like it, or shouldn’t enjoy figuring out how to play around it. But it means it’s also fine to prefer alternate activations, based on sound reasoning and not because you’re shit at the game. AoS is a great game, and it isn’t defined by the double turn. I agrue that it has enough complexity and randomness to satisfy you, even if it had staight alternate activations.

Ok, pitch forks in hands folks: And while I would probably prefer Alternate activations to the priority roll personally if I had the choice, I’m fine either way and AoS is still my favourite game by a large margin.

And while it’s a part of the game, you should find ways to deal with it. A good player finds ways to mitigate the risks of randomness in their games. So read the article and use the gems that are in there to make yourself into a more well-rounded player. But as you are reading the intro, just think to yourself: Am I shit and a heretic for doubting the holiness of the coveted priority roll, or could the Circle Jerk possibly, conceivably, inexplicably, be wrong here? Or at the very least, hyperbolic?

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