Editorial: First Past the Post?

Can “First Past the Post” mission design be what Competitive 40k needs to make it legitimately competitive and end slow play? Hello all, Salty John here to try and answer that very question. 

It’s obvious to anyone who has followed 40k since at least 3rd edition that slow playing to win a game has been an issue. In recent years it seems to have reached near fever-pitched, pandemic levels, if the internet is to be believed. Having been a head judge at LVO this year, I must attest to the fact that not only is slow play a real issue, but it’s only symptomatic of a much larger issue in 40k. That problem is mission design.


The missions in 40k are very dependent upon getting bottom of the turn in objective missions and going first in missions using kill points or with certain builds relying on Alpha strike shooting or movement. In missions designed like the ITC missions that use a modified Maelstrom system or even a normal Maelstrom mission, there are situations where accruing points becomes a moot point, either through your opponent dominating that portion of the mission or through the game ending and points not being scored. In objective missions, the last turn can mean everything, allowing the person who goes last to hug all the objectives. That is a huge issue, and also a major source of slow play.

If you can move slowly enough in your turn 4 when you have the bottom, you can effectively use enough time that you can’t play a turn 5 before the tournament round ends. Even in a format like ITC that demands players evenly split time, you can’t evenly split 5 minutes to do two full turns. An army like Eldar, with all kinds of highly mobile objective secured bikes, can use their additional movement phases to take a while moving everything just right to set up objective grabbing and negate a turn 5 and the possibility of getting shot or pushed off objectives. This effectively allows the player who goes at the bottom of the turn to decide the conditions in which the game will end.

Before jumping into First Past the Post mission design as a way to fix game completion issues, let’s first analyze why this can’t be addressed in other ways. This horse has been beaten to death at least a 1000 times already on the internet, so let’s take a tour of the most common reasons slow play/game completion can’t be, and hasn’t been, fixed at major tournaments.

  1. Chess Clocks, or other turn timing devices. In a UGO-IGO turn sequence, it would seem like Chess clocks would be a great solution. The problem most often cited for this not working is that in 40k, the turns are interactive between players and rules disputes can become lengthy processes to resolve. The player whose turn it is not can eat up their opponent’s clock by rolling their saves slowly etc. Constantly clicking the clock back and forth every time a player has an action is also not feasible as that can easily lead to further disputes about what should be a reason to switch clocks, especially in a larger event.
  2. The Turn 4 or double penalty rule. Again, this seems like it would be plausible at first glance. A rule that the game must get through turn 4 or both players receive a loss or alternatively a draw. This actually works well locally where players all know each other, but the higher stakes of the GT and the relatively larger anonymity of those large events open up the idea that players may chipmunk their opponent by slow playing, so neither can win and advance. It can actually create a situation where slow play is being encouraged through a system implemented to discourage it.
  3. Sportsmanship or “soft scores”. The idea here is to discourage slow play by introducing Sportsmanship scores as part of a player’s overall score or as a way to discipline players with consistent issues. The problem with this is some players are apt to be overly harsh to opponents for perceived slights or even just because they lost, and on the other side, there are players who are overly nice and accommodating who always give a high sports score but expect one in return. It introduces, or reintroduces, a whole level of additional gamesmanship. If you played a lot of competitive 40k in 3rd and 4th edition, you’ll know what I am talking about.  There’s a reason the community moved away from soft scores.

The above solutions, it can be argued, create more problems than they the solve. The real problem though isn’t the player necessarily. The game has a meta to be sure, but the game within the game has a meta of its own. The game within the game is player interaction, how the player interacts with the game and their opponent through things like Table Talk or yes, slow-playing. Those two metas however are both influenced most by a single game mechanic: The mission. Whether a player is attempting to build a meta breaking, or meta using, list or acting in a way during the game to break, or use, the meta, all those decisions are based around the mission. Just look at the ETC and ITC. Both are dominated by different lists because of mission design primarily. If you remove Kill Points, Gladius shines, or if you have multiple objectives, Deathstars stumble. So how can we use Mission Design to shift the meta of player behavior away from slow play?

I came up with my solution while head judging at the Las Vegas Open 2017. The morning of Day 2 saw me showering, where I do my best thinking, and combining my thoughts on what I saw on TV about politics and my thoughts on having to help mediate numerous end of game scenarios for players who were going to finish a game well before turn 5 and/or in the midst of accusations of slow play. The solution I came up with was First Past the Post mission design. The past election was the inspiration, and to a lesser extent Warmachine, and if you don’t know what that election process is, here is a nice video explaining it.

Not quite what I mean…

Basically the way a FPTP (First Past the Post) mission would work is players would accrue points throughout a game in different ways depending on the mission, and the first player to reach a certain number of points would win the game. At the end of a certain number of turns, or alternatively just a hard time limit, if neither player has attained the threshold to win, it is a draw. Personally I think you would just have a time limit, no turn limits. If you can play 9 turns in 2 hours and 45 minutes before a player acquires the requisite number of points to win, then so be it. No need for random game length or hard turn limits.

The best part of this is that it encourages players to finish games as much as possible, and unless a player is getting absolutely hosed, it would be difficult for players to slow play on purpose to force a draw. The missions can all work on this basic mechanic and still use most of how the current missions are designed. Reaching a threshold of Kill Points to win, reaching a threshold of Maelstroms, these easy to design. Even objectives can still work with a simple tweak. At the end of your turn, if you control an objective score a point, first player to reach X number of points wins. This mission design even lends itself to creation of more diverse missions. Instead of 40mm objectives, you can design missions to have zones of control for acquiring points to win, table quarters, King of the Hill (obviously a zone). Overall, if you design 16 or so missions rather than the standard 6, it is harder to design a single army to dominate all of them and pushes the meta toward a more Take All Comers (TAC) style army design. As you push players to a TAC style, list design it will actually encourage players to try and game the player interaction meta less.

Let me explain. In the current meta, which as discussed is heavily influenced by mission design, lists are usually built to excel at 5 of the 6 missions. It is difficult to build a list to excel at all 6. As a result when players run into their 1 bad mission the propensity to slow play can become a tool to win a game or get a draw to maintain their ability to win overall. The same is true of army design when many armies have a rock to their scissors. In a match up when an army runs into it’s bad match up, a player may pull the slow play tool out of their bag of tricks to try and get a win or draw. When TAC army design is encouraged, the need to slow play to win is reduced dramatically.

First Past the Post mission design isn’t an absolute cure to slow play; however, it can go a long way to alleviate the problems that we see a lot in modern GTs. In the future, I plan to write and test a few of these First Past the Post missions and record them for general consumption. Stay tuned for that!