Start Competing: Time is of the Essence

We cannot hold it, cannot stop it, and we can only observe it as it carries us along its continuous path. We understand it to be relative, finite, and precious. We measure its passage; each upcoming moment an opportunity (tick) and each passing moment lost forever (tock). Time.

Time is a scarce resource – there is always more to be done or experienced but never enough hours in the day to do so. Instead, time focuses our efforts and sharpens our priorities. If we’re lucky we learn to respect our own time and by extension, the time of others. Those who are perpetually late we see as rude, selfish, or arrogant – that they value their time above ours. This may be true; though it may also be the case that they don’t understand or value their own time and thereby have no way to comprehend the value of yours. Knowingly or not it is a resource foundational to our very existence and permeates every activity we engage in. It speaks to a fundamental idea of charity, reciprocity, and fairness – and that includes Warhammer.

In recent weeks the topic of time management has surfaced repeatedly in top table stream games. The issues of the use of clocks, clock etiquette, and the rules of the ITC have all been hotly contested in the comment space of multiple social spaces. There’s a lot of opinion on the matter, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to examine the issue more broadly and ask why it started, what it solves, and how we should think on the use of clocks today.


A Brief History of Time Controls

As the name implies, the chess clock was first introduced in Chess in 1883 in London. The clock was an attempt to solve a problem that plagued tournament chess for the better part of the century – marathon games that stressed players, organizers, and watchers alike. Following its introduction the clock caught on rapidly throughout the tournament chess playing world, and with it, the concept of “time control”. Now used in almost all two-player competitive board games, time control is a means of maintaining the forward, orderly movement of tournament rounds by placing some form of time-based limit on an individual player’s actions or game in a single round. There are multiple methods of time control that may be applied such as; sudden death, overtime, penalty, and more. Overtime is a method of time control that applies a ‘bonus’ time after an initial set ‘regulation’ time to each player if certain triggers have been met (such as reaching 40-moves in Chess). At expiration of one or the other, if the game has not naturally concluded, the player whose time has expired loses.  Penalty, by contrast, provides only a single set time but does not limit a player in exceeding that time. Instead, the player is penalized some set amount of points (such as in Scrabble where each additional minute brings a 10-point penalty). By far the simplest method is sudden death which provides each player a set time to complete the game, if one player’s time runs out, they lose.

In tournament Warhammer clocks were introduced for much the same reason they were introduced in Chess almost 140 years ago – to speed tournament play and ensure a fair measure of the game’s completion. Specifically, clocks began appearing as the tournament scene began to accelerate its growth in the 2017-2018 timeframe as a way to address the tight tournament round timings and the problem of “slow play”, the intended or unintended dominance by one player of the total round time. The default implementation has been a modified version of the sudden death rules – where instead of auto-losing, a player whose time has run out merely cannot perform any additional actions beyond the ones required to keep their opponent’s turn moving forward.

The Issue of Slow Play

As tournaments have grown, both in size and number, the issue of time management has increasingly come to the forefront of TO considerations when organizing an event. Larger player bases means more rounds in which to identify a single winner, and as a result comes greater constraints on the length of rounds and intermissions that can be supported in a single day or weekend. Factor in player’s travel times, constraints, or work/life balance considerations and there emerges a trade-off that TOs are forced to consider in how they structure and schedule the event and what it will mean for its players. As round times creeped downwards, some as low as 2:30 from round pairing to dice down, the pressure on players to play faster grew. As a result, it was common for issues of slow play or unfinished games to arise in almost every event – to the point that TOs began tracking and measuring the ratio of games that reached a natural conclusion. At the time, a lot of discussion was had toward alternative tournament structures like lowered point caps and unit caps that might speed up the games and ensure a measure of fair time.

The game of Warhammer is a complex one, there are many decisions and moving parts in any given player turn that can be time consuming. Some armies require a greater amount of attention over others, or have more moving parts. Player or faction playstyles may lend themselves to early game or late game preferences. These fundamentally different aspects of the game present all sorts of challenges to playing the game in a timely and equitable manner. This is especially true for newer players but even experienced players may struggle to play quickly when faced with a challenging game. The instances where games do not reach a turn 5 conclusion and thus players lose out on scoring opportunity, often mean that even when the game is a foregone conclusion, both the winning and losing player is penalized in the ranking system due to the nature of Battle Points as a placing tie-breaker (which is terrible, arbitrary system and I’m sad most TOs still do this).

On the darker side of the hobby, one must also consider that not every player will have your best interests in mind in a head-to-head matchup. While the intention of malicious behavior is always challenging to prove, and often only identified in retrospect (pattern), arguments over whether a player who had an early but possibly fleeting advantage playing deliberately slow have been all too frequent. And while plausible deniability exists in each individual instance, it is undoubted that it has happened, happens, and will continue to be the case in non-clocked games. Generally experienced tournament players will know who these people are and be on the lookout for poor behavior in their games. Unfortunately, that rarely helps a newer player who is about to have an awful tournament experience.

Fundamentally the issue is one of fairness. When a player shows up to a tournament table they expect that they will have an equal opportunity to play that game. When a player monopolizes a shared, finite resource, knowingly or not, they are disadvantaging and disrespecting their opponent who are then put into a position of having to think faster, move faster, and be more deliberate. It’s unfair, unsporting, and often leads to mistakes and a bad overall experience or even outright arguments at the table. It is for this reason that the Warhammer tournament scene eventually joined the rest of the two-player competitive table-top world and introduced game clocks.

The Game Clock

While clocks had been tried before at individual events, the ITC officially introduced rules for use of the clock for competitive 40k in 2018. At the time the new rules were met with a mix of debate on whether it was truly necessary. Originally, I counted myself amongst the detractors to the necessity of the clock, but I have since come around on them and now play on the clock in nearly every game of tournament 40k and recommend that others do the same.

Some fringe opinions will tell us that clocks are not meant for 40k, or that 40k is not a game that can support such a feature fairly. I disagree – there is nothing inherent to 40k that can or should prevent the equitable time distribution between two players in a tournament setting. As mentioned earlier, nearly all competitive two-player table-top games now use form of time control in their formats. There is no reason to believe that 40k is an exception here.

Other individuals might argue that clocks are not a part of the core 40k rules and therefore not appropriate for use in tournament play. This is flat wrong. There are many rules and systems implemented for competitive 40k that are not core to the GW rules – this includes the entirety of the ITC code of conduct as well as various tournament ranking and placing systems. In terms of the competitive game, the clock is as core to ITC tournament play as the conduct and paring/placing systems – participating in ITC events means that you may or may not de facto play on a clock, but if your opponent requests a clock you do not have a choice and must use it. That alone makes it an essential element of tournament play and something that you, a veteran or prospective tournament player, should at least be familiar with and know how to use appropriately.

Using the Clock in the ITC

The ITC rules for the clock’s use are optional to TOs. However, in practice, very few grand tournament or larger sized events choose to forgo the ITC’s game clock rules. The notable exception is the Games Workshop US Open series where instead of clocks, a milestone system is used to ensure games move along on pace. Under such a system, games that are lagging will receive judge input and management to move it along and players will be allowed extra time to complete their games. However, this isn’t a foolproof method and some especially slow games may still be asked to end early. While the US Open utilizes 3-hour rounds, shorter tournament rounds (commonly 2:45) may be too resource constrained by their judge team to implement such a system. As a result, the game clock is commonly utilized, even if only at request by a player. In practice, the rules for clock use are soft and more commonly implemented as guidelines – with the TO and judging team being the ultimate arbiters of their use at an event. When using the clock rules, players and organizers should clarify any deviations but unless otherwise noted, the following are assumed to be the default:

  • Time begins with the first pre-game action of each player
  • Do not start a new round when both players have fewer than 5 minutes remaining
  • Each player is responsible for their own time
  • Only a judge may pause the clock
  • If a player’s time expires they may finish the current action (such as a move) but may not start any new actions (such as an attack)
  • A player whose time has expired may only score objectives in process or that they still hold in future rounds, roll saves, and take any additional actions required to facilitate their opponent’s turn

Perhaps most important is that third bullet – each player is responsible for their own time. Essentially this is the understanding that only one player’s time may run at any moment, and it is each player’s responsibility to ensure that they are governing their time. That said, there are practical challenges to the use of a clock such as being unaware that the time has been flipped to you and is running. For that reason, I’d propose the following best practices to build as habits for any tournament player:

  • Communicate your intention
  • Check your time after completing an action
  • Use a clock in every tournament game
  • Be consistent

That first part is so fundamental – not just to clock use but everything in 40k… or just life! Whether you’re playing by intent or just having a fun game among friends – avoiding arguments and having a good time at the table starts with telling your opponent what you’re going to do or are doing. It’s not any different when you’re using a clock – when you flip to your opponent, let them know. When their time is running inappropriately, let them know. If their time is running low and you don’t think they know, let them know! When you’re scoring, communicate how you want to handle who’s time is running. Don’t expect or assume that your opponent knows what is happening on the clock at all times – this is a complex game and there is a lot to track at once. Be helpful, be a good sport, treat others with respect – I promise it’ll come back around.

The second habit speaks directly to being responsible for your clock. The time that a player most commonly loses is when the clock is ticking on your time during an opponent’s turn. However, you cannot be surprised by your own clock running inappropriately if you’re glancing over periodically and at key points and making sure it’s ticking correctly. As a rule of thumb, when it is my opponent’s turn and I have just completed an action (rolling saves, getting out of a destroyed transport, etc) I will confirm my clock is back on my opponent.

Finally, use it. Practice will make you better – you’ll become familiar and importantly, you’ll be more confident. Use them outside of tournaments to get ready! I believe that there is a certain stigma that many perceive with the use of a clock as if it were a penalty or a mark of shame. Nothing could be further from the truth! The clock is meant to safeguard your time as well as your opponent’s. When understood and used properly in good faith, the clock should not lead to any arguments or bad feelings. Moreover, the clock can help you understand your own game and where you may need to be more decisive. Top table players are all familiar with its use, and while they may not use them all the time will use them unflinchingly and when appropriate to make sure the game is fair.

On the question of what to do when you or your opponent’s time expires is fairly subjective. My honest opinion is that anyone who tells you there is a right and wrong action to take in terms of giving an opponent additional time or not is pushing their own agenda. Truth is, the ITC code of conduct is very clear – so at a minimum you want to make sure that you are not running afoul of the rules by granting additional time and should call a judge. If you wish to grant the opponent more time to finish a turn or even the game, then having the judge acknowledge it can only protect you. Under no circumstances should you feel obligated to grant time. Personally, whether or not I choose to grant my opponent time often will come down to how our game has been, the state of play (which round are we in), and how much time I have left. When possible I would prefer that the game reach a natural conclusion.

Weaponization of the Clock

Before we close out I’d like to touch on ‘weaponization’ of the clock. One of the last bastion’s of detractor opinions on the use of clocks come from the idea of it being weaponized, or used in a manner that is underhanded to disadvantage a less experienced or unsuspecting opponent. We might quibble at the extent to which this happens, but it undoubtedly does and the player’s responsible are often ‘known’ amongst the more experienced members of the competitive community.

Weaponization usually takes the following forms:

  • Clicking the clock to the opponent, unannounced or during a distraction so they do not notice
  • Taking actions (such as deployment) in parallel to an opponent on their time so as to keep it running on their clock
  • Noticing an inappropriately running clock and failing to announce it or take corrective action

With all of these, true intent is hard to prove but a pattern of intent is often clear. The player is seeking to create ‘time pressure’ for their opponent which may lead to mistakes or clocking out and being forced to passively watch the remainder of the game. Let me be clear – this is no different than angle shooting, it is in poor sportsmanship, and when it happens it is absolutely infuriating. If you believe that this is happening in your games and you have already discussed with your opponent to clearly communicate their intentions, then you need to call a judge immediately and have a calm conversation about what you are experiencing at the table. This type of behavior is not a one-off, it is practiced, will happen in other games, and is toxic.

If you are a player who does this and are reading this section, stop. You absolute dickhead.

Final Thoughts

The clock is just another aspect of tournament play. Whether you’re new or a veteran, it is a tool to help you manage your play and to safeguard against the loss of your time due to an opponent’s unexpected overrun. When used appropriately the clock can prevent the worst experiences in tournament play – a loss due to time expiration. It’s up to you! Communicate your intent, be mindful of your time, and practice. There’s no shame and nothing to fear, it’s just part of the competitive game!

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