That Time Again: How to Use a Clock in Competitive Play

In my first article on the use of clocks I discussed the history and reasons for why clocks are used in competitive 40k and then touched a little bit on their use and what to do if you think it is being weaponized. In my second article, I sought to destigmatize and dispel some community misconceptions around the competitive use of the clock, no matter whether its used at a top table or a bottom table game. In this article I’d like to re-focus and dive a little deeper on how to use the clock, particularly when you’re running short on time, and how to handle weaponization.

Communication Remains Key

If you’ve read my prior articles, or really any of my Start Competing articles, a recurring themes is communication with your opponent. Whether it’s reviewing army lists, discussing, and aligning on the intention of a move, or just general gameplay – you and your opponent are in this together and open and honest communication is the foundational aspect to a good game. The use of clocks is no different and you’ll want to establish with your opponent how you intend to use the clock and what circumstances will cause that to change before you start rolling your dice. This article is going to provide a wide array of tips and concepts, but the tie between all of it is practice and habit – that applies to your communication as well. Good communication is practiced, and it’s okay to be uncomfortable or make mistakes in communication if you’re willing to work on improving it! Good communication in a game will result in better, more fun games and better experiences with your opponent.

A ten-dollar chess clock. Actually, on sale right now for $8.89. Credit: Walmart.


Good Practices of Clock Use

Before we go into unique situations and how to handle various challenges, I’d like to offer a few general guidelines for the use of the clock that will help to establish familiarity and a pattern of good habits.

Use the Clock: it doesn’t matter how well you understand the idea of clock use, if you’re not actively using it in your games, you’re not going to build up the habits and muscle memory that makes for effective and fair use – and it is perishable. While there shouldn’t be, there is a stigma and discomfort around clocks, you should understand this exists, but when approaching a tournament game remember that you are not asking to use a clock, you are simply stating your desire and exercising your right to use one. Some opponents may be uncomfortable with the clock and that’s okay – you should be encouraging collaboration to ensure effective clock use for both players. Your goal with a clock should never be to win with the clock, your goal is to maintain your own time and pacing to ensure you’re able to play your game in your time.

Define When You Switch: As I stated above on communication, you want to set the expectations for use with your opponent. Define when you will switch to their time, when you will deviate from those established rules (more on this later), how you will handle scoring, etc. Establish the baseline so your opponent knows what to expect.

Be Consistent*: Following from the prior, if you say you will do something in terms of how you handle the clock you need to follow through on that. Your clock behavior should be both consistent with the expectations you laid out with your opponent and repeated throughout the game. I do however, place an asterisk here because there are times when you may need to shift expectations, however, in doing so you need too…

Continue to Communicate: You cannot hope to cover every situation where a clock may be impacted in any pre-game conversation, and usually the rules you communicate are general enough to be widely applied. However, there will be times in a game or tournament where your opponent’s gameplay or the state of the game may require adjustments. When this happens, it is very important that you continue to communicate with your opponent and highlight that you intend to make a change to clock use, the modification you’re intending to make, and the reason you need to make that change.

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

Using the Clock

As I discussed in my previous article, you are entitled to your time. No more and no less. The implication is that the clock is there to protect your time, but just as important is that the clock also protects your opponent’s time. That means that the faction and army that you compete with must be playable in the allotted time for a given tournament round. Playing a horde or complex army is not an excuse for using your opponent’s time. You should understand how your army plays, understand its rules, and understand when you may be time constrained. Fortunately, using a clock helps with all of this. I would posit that if you are unfamiliar with your army, unfamiliar with its rules, and are not efficient in your movement and actions, that it is far more sporting to use a clock than to potentially disadvantage your opponent with your own shortcomings. In short, if you’re uncertain, use a clock.

Probably the hardest or anxiety-inducing part of the clock is understanding when to switch it. In short, it is your right to switch the clock whenever you are not the active player – meaning that the game cannot progress with any action you do or do not take. Exsmples of this could be your opponent taking save rolls, placing models on the board from a destroyed transport, looking up a rule, weighing the use of a stratagem on your turn, etc. That’s an absolutist view, and bear in mind, the more granular you are in definig your clock use, the more likely it becomes you or your opponent make a mistake and allow time to run on the non-active player. In general, I would propose the following approach:

  • Switch the clock when your opponent is considering whether to use an “interrupt” stratagem.
  • Switch the clock when your opponent challenges a rule that requires you to stop further action and cannot be easily answered by a simple, quick rule check. If a clarification requires that you stop and engage with multiple rule sections, search for an extended time, weigh interpretations, or if your opponent wants a judge call clarification (the judge may pause the clock) then the clock should be on your opponent while it is sorted. Please note that this assumes you know your rules, if challenged and you don’t know the rule you’re using, leave the clock on you while you figure it out or move on without using it (and look when you’re not active).
  • Switch the clock while your opponent is placing models, moving models, or otherwise taking an action in your turn (rapid ingress, destroyed transport and disembark, fight backs or fight on death, etc)
  • Switch the clock if your opponent is taking large or complex batches of saves. This one is challenging as generally you do not need to switch the clock to your opponent for save rolls. However, large quantities of saves, or complex arrangements (different damages, feel-no-pain, wound allocations, etc) can be very time consuming. In these instances, the clock should be switched to your opponent.
  • Switch the clock at the conclusion of your turn after you have scored your turn and confirmed with your opponent.
  • When flipping a clock over to your opponent you should state as much. If you’re not an asshole, you’ll also ensure your opponent heard you and understands. DO NOT be the person who flips time to their opponent without them knowing. This isn’t adversarial. In most circumstances, when flipping to your opponent, you can hang out around the clock and help them by flipping it back to you when they conclude their interrupt or action so that there is no risk of running on the wrong player. Is it required? No. Is it sporting and a good habit? Yes.

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

Playing On Pace

Pacing of a tournament round will be entirely dependent on the circumstances of the event and how rounds are paired. Length of a round, setup required, or even time reequired to get to the table can impact your planning. In much of the Midwest US, 2 hours and 30 minutes is the typical round length from arrival at the table to dice down. It’s brisk, but for those of you who worry that you cannot play your horde in that time, I assure you it is commonly completed by players throughout the Midwest. Under those circumstances, the following benchmarks are what I use to measure my pace generally:

  • Deployment + Turn One: 20 minutes
  • Turn Two: 20 minutes
  • Turn Three: 15 minutes
  • Turn Four: 10 minutes
  • Turn Five: 10 minutes

You may need to adjust these time benchmarks based on going first/second or for your specific list and style of play – perhaps your list plays for a big turn three with a lot of cascading series of rolls and movement/combat shenanigans. That’s fine, but you just need to understand that time is a finite resource, and thus zero-sum – when you add you must also subtract, so understanding where in the tournament round you can save time is just as important as knowing where you will need more time.

As an aside, what I like about the Midwest’s 2:30 round times is that it very much creates a sense of clarity and focus on where your army will take significant time, under what circumstances, and places an emphasis on sharp decision-making. Playing under these conditions will give you confidence and an edge if you enter into an environment with a more luxurious time allotment. However, don’t get lazy, you will still want to approach the game with the same mindset of having benchmarks appropriate to that event. Just because you have additional time doesn’t mean you can squander it, but if you do…

Oh No! I’m Behind On Time!

The biggest challenge is how to identify that you’re behind on time. In the moment, particularly in tough games where you’re forced to consider each move or action deeply, time can fly by without you even realizing it. Before you know it, you arrive at a decision and look at the clock only to realize that you’ve squandered 15 minutes just thinking about how you’re going to organize your movement or shooting phase. This is in part why I strongly advocate that even casual tournament players get in the habit of using the chess clock in their games – it serves as practice but also helps keep you honest on your internal clock. Getting in the habit of glancing at a clock as you go through your motions and maintaining a preconceived sense of timing benchmarks that I just discussed will be your biggest aid. The benchmarks will keep you grounded, and the habitual checking of time will ensure that even in your deepest thought, you’ll have the muscle memory to keep yourself on track. However you learn to establish this habit is personal preference, certainly practice is part of it. But you might also use training aids like setting benchmark alarms on your phone, writing a note you keep in front of yourself, or just getting burned on time so many times that you’re deeply and emotionally scarred from the experience. The key here is knowing, and knowing is half the battle! G.I. Joooooooe!

Inevitably you will find yourself in time crunch situations and how you respond to that can be the difference between a win or loss. Your approach will need to depend on the game state and how far behind you find yourself, but actions or processes you should consider include the following, arranged by most fundamental to most critical:

  • Pre-stage your dice and keep them orderly so you do not spend extra time hunting for the right number. Keep a relevant number in your hand or on your person to make quick rolls or keep multiple sets in different areas of the board so they’re always within reach.
  • Similarly, keep your ruler or game aids neat and in an accessible location so you know exactly where it is when you need it.
  • Review your current scoring dynamic. Are you ahead, behind, is it close, who has the easier scoring path? Knowing the answers to these questions will not only help you understand your approach to the remainder of the game, but will sharpen your focus on critical actions vs those you may be able to forgo to save time.
  • Movement (and positioning) is king. Place an emphasis on this as you consider where you need to be in the late rounds. Worse comes to worst and you clock out, you are still eligible for passive scoring. Identify which units are critical to the win and which you can deprioritize if you need too. Make a decision and move on with your movement, do not spend time second-guessing a move and repositioning if it’s not immediately critical to your gameplan.
  • Prioritize activations/actions that either enable your scoring or limit your opponent’s scoring. Consider skipping unit activations that don’t directly contribute to either of those endpoints.
  • Avoid using “if I get lucky” activations. There’sno time to go fishing for low likelihood chip damage. This may be something like firing small arms into a monster or vehicle to try to strip a wound or two, or charging a unit that is irrelevant to the above scoring endpoints. These actions can be surprisingly time consuming and by cutting them out you can gain back critical minutes or seconds.
  • Keep it simple. There’s no time for complex maneuvers or ‘clever’ complicated rules interaction that your opponent may not be familiar with and result in costly rule queries. Whether or not you are short on time, your opponent is still entitled to understanding what is happening and whether it’s legal. If they don’t know what’s going on it’s going to slow your game down as they rightfully try to figure it out.
  • Evaluate where you may need to tighten up the game with you and your opponent. Often times an opponent may not be as keenly aware of your time situation as you are or may not feel the same time pressure. They may be slow to roll saves, be talkative or inquisitive, or otherwise place additional pressure on you. In these situations you need to take a few moments to calmly explain your predicament, identify what you need (focus, active listening, urgency, etc), briefly discuss any changes to clock management you need to make (maybe they will roll batches of saves on their time), and ask them for their support in getting the game to a natural conclusion. Do not waste time haggling on details and move on accordingly.
  • If your opponent is not able to meet your needs, request a judge, request to pause the clock during the judge call, and ask the judge to weigh in on your needs, clock management changes, or to even manage the clock on the game’s behalf. This is an extreme step and should only be taken if the game is on the line and you and your opponent cannot reach an agreement or you’re in a situation where you and your opponent are simply not seeing eye-to-eye. When you call for a judge, do not waste time waiting for them to arrive – identify and do what can be done to advance your turn and the game state while the judge makes their way to you.

How and when to leverage these concepts will be highly variable to your individual circumstances. The first few may even be something that you establish as default practice and may save you from being at risk in the first place. I want to note that in anxious or contentious moments it’s easy to assume the worst of your opponent. Reflect on your interactions, their demeanor and yours, over the full course of the game and approach tight-game situations accordingly. Be fair and amiable, but be firm in your needs.

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

Weaponization of the Clock

Unfortunately, not everyone will approach the game or the use of a clock with the mindset outlined in this article. Different communities and playgroups have different interpretations on acceptable use of rules of the clock. While these articles and similar public media can help level-set expectations between groups, we cant assume they’ve accessed these materials and internalized them. Maybe they simply disagree. Or maybe they’re seeking an unfair advantage. Regardless of the reason, it does not mean you need tolerate it if their actions result in placing you at a time disadvantage. This unfair position is what is commonly referred to as “clock weaponization” and it can take many forms, including:

  • Placing the clock in a difficult to reach position for both players
  • During timed deployment, placing units in deployment on your time or placing multiple units at once resulting in a time advantage.
  • Switching the clock to your time, without notification, for minor/short actions, and then not switching it back
  • Switching the clock to run on your time when you aren’t looking
  • Asking multiple questions, particularly when not relevant to the current game state, or repeatedly requesting rule checks for standard game play.

No single instance of the above is necessarily indicative of underhanded behavior, but a pattern of one or more certainly can be. Particularly egregious actions, like switching a clock when you’re not looking should be a giant flashing red light. Most individuals who are seeking an underhanded time advantage will telegraph their behavior early as the effect of a time advantage is more pronounced the earlier it starts. When you first notice a practice that puts you at a disadvantage you should do the following:

  • Calmly point out for your opponent the behavior that is disadvantaging you and why. Ask your opponent to stop and encourage them to commit to a good game. In many cases this simple step will pre-empt more damaging clock use later, as your opponent will understand that you’re aware of their intention and willing to confront it (if a bad actor) or be reminded that their actions impact you (if innocent) and act accordingly.
  • If those actions persist or your opponent ignores you, you should call for a judge immediately. The fundamental social contract between you and your opponent may be broken and for your own protection you need to alert an authoritative third party. This does two things; involves an impartial observer who can take action on your behalf, and it also creates a data point for the event team in what may form a pattern of behavior.

That second part should not be underestimated. Cheating and poor behavior is rarely so obvious that it’s caught and addressed in the moment. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be caught and addressed eventually. Forming a record by raising an issue to a judge may create a better environment for other tournament players but also may positively impact you in future events.


Final Thoughts

The use of a competitive clock shouldn’t be something that causes you stress but rather be a tool for you and your opponent to mutually ensure a fair game. All the same concepts and ideas that go into improving in other aspects of competitive play and sportsmanship apply to using a clock – practice, understanding, and communication. It’s not a weapon, it’s not a source of ossible advantage, it’s just a measuring device. Help your opponent switch times, keep them honest, keep yourself honest, and go have an excellent tournament experience!

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