The Grand Tournament 2020 Mission Pack: The Goonhammer Review

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After a whirlwind month of news, reveals and reviews, the community is pretty close to having a picture (at least a theoretical one) of what competitive 9th edition is going to look like. We’ve gone through the core rules, found out how points are changing and received FAQs to bring all our armies up to code, but there’s been one piece of the puzzle missing – missions. Quite a stir was made pre-release by the announcement from various groups that tournaments would be unifying onto GW-supplied missions in 9th Edition, and originally it was assumed that this would mean the matched play missions in the rulebook, which we took an in-depth look at some initial strategies for. However, that turns out to have not been the case – alongside the announcement of preorders for Indomitus and the Rulebook, we also got the news that a Chapter Approved would be launching at the same time. Half of this was the already-covered Munitorium Field Manual, but the other half was the intriguingly titled “Grand Tournament 2020 Mission Pack” (hereafter “GT2020 pack”), which turned out to contain the missions that various playtester TOs had been referring to.

This, naturally, made them the subject of some fairly intense anticipation. 8th Edition saw both an absolute explosion in the size of the competitive scene and much more engagement with it from Games Workshop themselves, but the company starting to sell a product explicitly aimed at shaping tournaments was still a pleasant surprise. Anticipation has also been ratcheting up for a less positive reason – it’s fair to say that reactions to initial playtesting of the rulebook Matched Play missions has been somewhat mixed, with two major concerns crystalising. Given that what’s in this pack is going to shape the competitive experience for at least six months (maybe more if there’s no Christmas Chapter Approved this year), people naturally wanted to know if these concerns were addressed.

Well, all those questions can finally be answered, as the GT2020 pack has arrived and we’re ready to delve into it. In this review, we’ll summarise what’s in the book, look at the new Secondaries and Strike Force missions in detail. Finally, we will of course look at the most important questions of all – do these address the concerns people have been raising about the rulebook missions, and how should TOs use these to put together event packs? For the last part, I’ve also sought the opinion of Jon Kilcullen, who has the advantage of living in a less Covid-wracked land than the rest of us and has thus played a tonne of 9th. You’ll know from our Competitive round-table that he went into these missions a skeptic – has he been won round? Read on and see!

What’s In the Book?

The GT2020 pack is split 50:50 between two things:

  • 9 Incursion and 9 Strike Force missions, plus common rules shared between them such as an updated list of Secondary Objectives.
  • A reprint of the game’s core rules plus almost all of the “advanced rules” like Terrain and Reserves, with only Army Construction being left out.

We were somewhat surprised to find out about the second half, given this book is launching on the same day as the Core Book from which it reproduces the content, but we’ve come around to it being the good decision.

Scale aggressor is not sure about lugging this to events.

The 9th Edition core book is an extremely hefty tome, substantially more so than the 8th edition one. That would make lugging it around tournaments a literal burden, and flipping to the right rule a pain. As well as only having the rules you need for games, the GT2020 pack is smaller and ring bound, making it vastly more lightweight and less likely to get destroyed by repeated use.

Much better!

While I can’t pretend I didn’t have the same initial hostility to the idea of asking players to buy the same rules twice, if that means the death of 20+ year expectation that both players should lug a massive hardback to every match and that my 9th Edition book doesn’t end up like the shredded, spineless husk that is my 8th one, I can get behind it. This legitimately seems like a genius decision, and my shoulders thank GW for it in advance.

While the rules are in the book the rest of this review is going to focus on the new content here, which is the missions. If you want to see what we think of the Core Rules, check out our review or Ruleshammer 9th Edition series, both available from the 9th Edition landing page.

The Missions

Overall Structure

In general, it’s fair to say that the GT2020 missions are a refinement of the Eternal War ones from the Core Book, so if you haven’t already read our rundown of those it’s worth going and having a look before reading on.

The very quick summary, for those that haven’t kept up to date is as follows:

  • Game Structure and Winning
    • The winner is determined by a Victory Point (VP) score out of 100, with:
      • A maximum of 45VP for achieving Primary Objectives
      • A maximum of 45VP for achieving Secondary Objectives.
      • 10VP for having your army painted to a battle forged standard.
    • All missions last five turns.
  • Deployment and First turn
    • All missions use fixed deployment zones and objective placement.
    • All missions use alternating deployment followed by a random roll off for first turn.
    • All decisions about reserves, deep strikers and who is riding transports are made prior to deployment.
  • Primary Objective Scoring
    • All missions allow you to score primary objectives at the end of your second through fifth command phases (i.e. “start of turn” in 8th parlance).
    • You can score a maximum of 15VP from primary objectives each turn, capped by the 45VP game-long total.
    • There are two versions of primary scoring, one used by six of the missions and one used by three.
  • Secondary Objective Scoring
    • Each player selects three secondary objectives pre-battle, which can be scored for up to 15VP each.
    • There are five secondary objective categories (each with three or four choices) and you can only select one from each category.
    • Each mission provides an additional secondary objective choice that is separate from the categories.
    • Secondary objectives have a variety of scoring conditions, often involving Actions (things that units can spend their turn doing instead of pretty much anything else) or Psychic Actions (things psykers can attempt instead of casting).

We’ll now take a look at some areas where things differ in the GT2020 pack and dive deeper into some areas since this is what we’ll be playing at events. We’re mostly going to be talking about the Strike Force missions, as they’re relevant to the widest competitive audience, and will return to the Incursion missions in a future article. As a general rule, the Incursion missions add some more complicated mission special rules than the Strike Force ones, which is a good way to go to add more variety to smaller game sizes, but between that and the fact that army construction needs some quite different considerations at 1K, we feel they need their own piece!

Army Construction

Army construction for the GT missions is almost identical to the Matched play mission set (i.e. core rules plus rule of three and no superfaction detachments) with one notable exception: Specialist Detachments are not permitted in the GT missions.

To be honest, this isn’t massively surprising – specialist detachments as were clearly didn’t meet GW’s goals for them, and 9th could have gone two ways with them – get rid or reinvent them entirely. There’s enough rules “clunk” associated with them that if they aren’t going to be fully supported, the start of an edition is the right time to pull the plaster off and shuffle them off. While I do think the new army building rules could plausibly have opened up new design space for them, either a decision has been taken that it’s not a route to pursue or it’s far enough in the future that this year’s missions don’t need to include them.

Does this suck for some factions/units? Yup, there’s no real way around that – but it’s definitely for the best going forward, because bluntly a set of stratagems/relics where the only ones that saw play were the ones so good you’d pay an extra CP for them never sat super well with the game as a whole.

The only other thing to mention here is that pre-game decisions about upgrade stratagems etc. still go on your army roster, so just like we discussed when looking at the Core Rules, you won’t be able to change them game to game if this pack is being used straight down the line.

Mission Selection

One of the biggest surprises for me on digging into this book was the number of missions – all mission sets GW published in 8th, the ITC mission pack and the Strike Force Missions in the Core Book had six each, but here we get a mighty nine each for both Incursion and Strike Force. This is a fantastic move for a number of reasons. First up, it’s great for the very limited number of events that run nine distinct rounds, as they can have a unique mission for each, preventing the final rounds from being retreads of previous ones. More practically for the vast majority of us playing in five or six round GTs and majors, it provides TOs with some options to tune their event pack to their liking, and gives a bit more variety between events. As an example for how this helps, there are two different styles of primary objective among theses missions, and having more than the minimum number needed for a six round event lets TOs tune how many use each (or, given the split is 6/3, choose to use only missions using the first type).

Finally, if we’re bluntly honest, it provides a little bit of protection against there being one or two duds in the pack. GW got much, much better at writing missions as 8th went on, but as anyone who has ever had the misfortune to play Narrow the Search in a competitive context will attest, some are better than others. Having a few surplus missions means that if any turn out to have problems they can be quietly shuffled out, and if some end up as particular community favourites they can be used more consistently.

 

Credit: Robert “TheChirurgeon” Jones

Deployment Maps

For me this is where the optimism really kicks in – the deployment and objective maps in this book are both quite a bit more interesting than the ones we got in the core book, and for my money also a serious boost to the balance of primary scoring. While the two “classics” of deployment zones (Dawn of War and Hammer and Anvil) get several missions each, there’s enough mixing up of where objectives are placed within those to keep them fresh, and several of the others play with maps that are entirely new for this edition.

We’ll come back to why I think this is so important for balance later on, but the important thing to note here is that the maps provide a nice mix of the familiar and new, and have clearly had some proper thought put into their design.

The exception, obviously, is Vital Intelligence’s map, where the weirdly off set distance line will summon all of Tzeentch’s little wizards into this dimension if you stare at it too long. Seriously. That thing is unholy. I would recommend not looking directly at it without adequate spiritual protection. These are the strategy tips you’re here for.

Mission Rules

The mission special rules from Four Pillars and No Man’s Land, both mechanics that shut down or reduced the power of certain abilities, are no where to be seen. This is an extremely good choice – shutting out certain mechanics randomly punishes armies that make use of them heavily in a way that doesn’t feel proportionate or balanced. Their presence in the Eternal War missions was a real worry, and I’m delighted by the tacit acknowledgement that they don’t belong in competitive events.

Primary Scoring

Just like in the core missions, Primary Objective scoring happens in your command phase based on how many objectives you hold, with points for hitting some target numbers of objectives and additional points if you hold more, for a total of up to 15 per turn and 45 across the game.

The big difference here is that unlike in the core book, where five missions scored you for holding one, two and more (referred to as Take and Hold) and only Vital Intelligence was a weird outlier (called Domination and scoring for two, three and more), in the GT pack there’s much more of a split. Here, we get six Take and Hold missions and three Domination missions, which as discussed above gives TOs quite a bit of leeway in designing their packs. I expect to see some decide that Take and Hold is “proper” scoring and use all six of those, but I think that would be a mistake – mixing up the primary forces players to change up their plans and shifts the value of various kinds of units and secondaries alongside it. Being able to craft a list that can win under different constraints is a real skill tester, and were I planning a six-round event I’d probably go for a 4/2 split (and 3/2 for a five-round).

You do, as a player, need to keep a careful eye on how many objectives your opponent has in the Domination missions – it’s easy to fall into the trap of the three scoring criteria being of increasing difficulty, but on Domination missions it’ll potentially be quite common for Hold More to get scored when a player is only holding two objectives rather than three.

Secondary Objectives

The mechanism for selecting Secondaries is, once again, the same as in the Eternal War pack, but here the specific objectives have had quite a lot of tweaks made. There are still five objective categories from which you need to pick three objectives, maximum one per category, and there’s still a mission Secondary you can pick instead of one of the others.

It’s clear from reading these that there’s quite a different dynamic at play with these than with Secondaries in many 8th Edition tournament packs. For those, the overwhelming goal was to pick three that you would reliably max or near max in a game where you did any much better than OK. In addition, they generally put most of the agency for scoring them in the hands of the player who had picked them – some definitely had counterplay, but often that took a player making a substantial mistake for their opponent to unlock.

Here the intent is that maxing a secondary is a real achievement, and your expected output for an OK game is much more in the 8-10pts region, 12pts being a good score and 15 being much more of a rarity. They also trend towards it being more practical for your opponent to outright stop you scoring maximum points on them if they’re willing to expend resources or position to do so. There are also still some that max out lower than 15, though the floor is higher here than in the Eternal War pack, with 10 being the lowest max score of any. I’m relatively neutral on the point of whether having secondaries you can’t get 15 from is a good idea, but did feel some of the ceilings were too low in the EW pack, so it’s good to see that lifted. Correspondingly, some of the ones that do cap at fifteen have been made a bit harder to score full points for, most notably with Attrition from the core book (4pts for killing more in a battle round) replaced with Grind them Down (3pts for killing more in a battle round), removing any margin for error if you want to score it.

There’s also a decent range in the mission secondaries too – progressive ones still trend towards being a bit easier to rack up points on quickly, allowing a player to get back into the game if they pick them and don’t manage to start out strong, but just being aware of which missions have an “easier” secondary (The Scouring, Sweep and Clear and Priority Target, for my money) is important to be aware of as it needs to be fed into your picks – you probably can’t afford to take a low-ceiling one in these games against a competent opponent.

Ultimately, these do seem to succeed at what they’re aiming for – picking the right Secondaries is going to be a skill, and a perfect score is far from guaranteed. There’s more to say about them of course, which we’ll return to shortly.

 

Are The Missions Good?

We know what y’all are here for. The Eternal War missions have had a rocky landing, with lots of people (including some of our own) lining up to give them a bit of a kicking. My personal take was been a bit more optimistic than most, but I was still a bit nervous about some of the complaints based on seeing how some initial games played out. A lot of different things have been thrown around, but I think you can realistically consolidate the potentially-legitimate balance complaints down to two things:

  • Going first was too advantageous on primary scoring.
  • The internal balance of the secondaries was a bit off.

While I’m still definitely in the optimist camp, for my money, the GT pack improves substantially on the first point (which is definitely the more important of the two) and a bit on the second.

Primary Scoring and First Turn

Progressive scoring at the start of the turn has its fans and detractors. I’m in the former camp, but acknowledge that it has two inherent balance issues that you need some mechanism to address:

  • The player who takes the first turn gets both the first touch and the last touch on primary scoring – they get the first opportunity to move onto objectives and the last meaningful opportunity to take their opponent off them, as player two can do nothing to influence the primary score on their final turn.
  • If the deployment map allows it, the first player can sometimes bulldoze their opponent out of the game by taking a critical mass of objectives early on – even if they’re eventually cleared off, the other player can’t catch up.

These are mitigateable problems. You can:

  • Provide the second player with information to adapt, such as delaying mission or deployment decisions till after the first turn is known.
  • Cap primary scoring, reducing the bulldozer effect and reducing the chance that the last touch matters.
  • Introduce alternative scoring mechanisms that occur at different times.
  • Design objective maps or scoring targets to make overextending onto objectives.

The Eternal War missions definitely tried some of these things, but didn’t quite feel like they ultimately got there. A primary cap is present, but shortening the game to five player turns and four scoring turns hampered the ability to act as a safety valve – even starting the game with your opponent scoring 15 and you scoring 5 feels like it puts you right up against it from the word go. Some secondaries score at the end of the player turn, which advantages player two as they’re consistently operating with more information about the enemy’s plans, and the mission secondaries leant into this, but not really enough. Finally, the maps were just a bit pedestrian, and on many it was too easy for the first player to carve out enough of the objectives with a well supported thrust that there wasn’t a downside to trying to bulldoze.

There was counterplay to this – of course there was. Planning for how to go second could mitigate some of the problems, and I talked about things you could do for it. I also felt that the problem was less pronounced on the six objective maps than the four and five objective ones. Ultimately though, in one of my test games of 9th, on a six-objective map I faced a matchup that was definitely a go-second matchup in pretty much every format I’ve ever played before, so I decided to test things out and chose to go second after winning the roll. I did win – but it would have been massively easier and more comfortable if I’d just chosen to go first.

The things that the GT2020 missions improve that make me optimistic that this is improved are:

  • The maps are substantially better designed. There’s one (Battle Lines) that still hits the bulldozer trap, but in general they more reliably ensure the second player has objectives to take, and several of them also force the conflict to spread out more widely on the board, forcing different strategies than just pushing for the center.
  • Adding more Domination missions provides another way to mix up scoring – the primary cap is much more real here as it’s way, way harder for the first player to lock in a 15pt turn early on.
  • There’s even more of a trend towards mission secondaries providing a player who starts behind and counterattacks to rack up points in the mid/late game.

For my money, that gives us missions we can work with. Do I still have concerns that they’re tilted towards the player who wins the roll? Sure – but I wouldn’t be surprised if once players have properly adapted their list building and strategies, the skew in win rate based on who wins the roll is within margins that are either acceptable or at worse only need a light-touch tweak rather than the sweeping overhauls some are proposing. It doesn’t look like we’ll have too long to wait, and I’ll be watching this aspect with interest.

Jon’s Take: As everyone now knows, I was Extremely critical of the Eternal war missions as they rolled out, I absolutely could not stand the start of turn scoring as it was heavily slanted towards the roll off. As One_Wing has stated above, they put a lot more thought into these missions and secondaries and they play like it. After getting my hands on these missions I managed to design lists based around the GT package and learned how exactly these missions play.  Its much more open.  lots of fights on many fronts, You are rewarded for being out on the table and can simultaneously take secondaries that synergize with this idea.  The roll off is still Too important but its much more balanced than it was before. These missions also bring some of the power back to combat armies giving us yet more balance.  As multiple missions have you needing to dominate and play the board, this is where a combat army thrives, any time your opponent is required to move towards you, is a good thing for the combat player.

Internal Balance of Secondaries

As I talked about earlier, I don’t see any fundamental problem with unmaxable secondaries as a design tool. If 10pts is meant to be a “good” outcome, then trading the chance at an excellent outcome for a more reliable good one is a reasonable strategic choice to present players with. In addition, I’m quite a fan of the high risk, high reward nature of some of them – if scoring 15pts is meant to be an excellent outcome, then Psychic Ritual is a good piece of design.

However, in the Eternal War missions the balance between secondaries was just wonky. Several of the secondaries with score caps had them set ridiculously low, making them things you just couldn’t afford to take, while others let you achieve them with room to spare.

That complaint has been smoothed out quite a bit. The really low scoring secondaries are gone, and the lowest scoring option on the list, Deploy Scramblers, has a noticeably easy ask on it that some armies can pull off almost 100% of the time. In addition, a few of the ones that were potentially a bit easy in this model, Titan Slayers and Attrition, are replaced with harder versions. So far, so good.

Where I don’t think this is fully fixed yet is that the balance between some objectives that you can score incrementally (either progressive or ones for killing certain targets) isn’t there yet, and the value on some of them swings too wildly on a few conditions. I like the design of Psychic Ritual – but the problem is, if my army can do Engage on All Fronts I’m probably going to pick that, because with Ritual if I swing and miss I get nothing, whereas I’m always going to walk away with 8pts+ from Engage, and crucially still have 15 as a realistic goal.

It’s a similar story with the kill secondaries – because you pick up points incrementally as you wipe out units, Bring it Down and Assassinate are both much lower risk than other options. I can believe that this is a deliberate choice to punish some kinds of army, but I don’t think there are enough of them if so – much like the rules I hated on Four Pillars, putting in a punishment mechanic like this implicitly assumes that every faction can adapt around them equally, which just doesn’t hold. It took the ITC a long, long time to finally arrive at a list of kill target secondaries that let you go after most different skew builds equally, and this isn’t there yet. Bring it Down in particular is problematically punishing for units of small vehicles – I think multi-model VEHICLE units with <10W should probably count 3VP for the whole unit, not two each.

Finally some of these turn too hard on factors outside your control. Notably, the conditions on the psychic actions feel a bit too tight against an opponent with any realistic deny firepower and Investigate Sites’ rider that you can’t do the action if the opponent has any models within 6″ of the board centre makes it absurd trash if you lose the dice roll. Were it up to me, I’d allow a second psyker to try an action if the first gets denied (since giving up all your casts is a huge cost in and of itself), and let two units do Investigate Sites on later turns (maybe four and five?), because a player going second needs some way to score it after player one makes the genius strategic move of “advance a throwaway unit slightly”.

Ultimately, while my complaints in this area are a little more concrete than with first turn, a few secondaries being slightly off has a much less fundamental impact on the balance of the game. In addition, the mission secondaries added in these missions are generally very good, and will often create a good dynamic by luring both players in on them then setting them in opposition to one another trying to score them. Finally, I am ultimately on-board with an attempt to recalibrate the difficulty level of secondaries significantly up from where it sat in most 8th edition packs, and I think some minor issues with internal balance arising during that process isn’t unreasonable.

 

Overall

One_Wing: I went into this pack needing to see something to give me a bit of reassurance on the first turn issue and I got it – the better maps, increased Domination scoring and good mission secondaries feel like they have a strong chance of making early events interesting. It probably isn’t the intention, but I think the presence of nine missions rather than six helps with this too, because you can straight up select for the ones that do the best job of mitigating the issue.

Among these, I think my favourites are:

  • Surround and Destroy: One of the things I talked about in my roundup of my favourite games of 8th was how games that spread out to encompass the whole table are often the most exhilerating. The secondary and objective placement here encourage that, and the secondary also directly helps the second player by having an end-of-game component, making it one of the most balanced in the pack.
  • Priority Target: The map and objective movement here create a quite different feel to all of the others, in a way I think is positive.
  • The Scouring: This is the one I think makes the best use of Domination scoring – it forces a brutal mid-table engagement without so obviously favouring player 1 as the Take and Hold missions that do that do. I also like that once again, the secondary is tilted towards player 2 to help balance things.

If you put me on the spot and told me I was running a six round event tomorrow, I’d probably drop:

  • Battle Lines: The only one sthill still has a four objective map that’s easy to bulldozer as player 1.
  • Retrieval Mission: This was one of the better maps in the corebook, but the mission secondary doesn’t provide any angles for second turn mitigation in a lot of matchups.
  • Vital Intelligence: H̹͠a͉̳͔̣̘̩͘v̼̝̻̼̤͉̥͝e͍̮̬̞̹ ͕̘̖́y̪͔o̱͈̳̭͡u̲ͅ ̭̤̯͈͇̞̪h̯̱̺̰̩e̻͙̮̫a͔r̲̝̺d͖͕͘ ̜͖th͙͕̝̜̪̭e҉̣̭̩͇̣ ̗͚͎͠ͅg̲̺̞͚o̱̞̥̝̬̣̭͘o̰͖̘̥d̺̻͝ ͔̭̹n̵̘̘͍̙ͅe̡̬̺͓̲ͅw̟͈̝̠͖̖s̬̰͍̖͕̘͜ ̺̝̘̥̩́ͅạ̭͓̫̩̘b̛͕̲̜̜̩ǫ͎u̡̻͖̱͇̹t͖͍̭̠͚͘ͅ ̜͚̰̙T̤̟̞̬̺̤̙z̗͙̹̘̦e̗͙͚e̷n͈̝̝̜ͅt̵c̮̜̩̻̘̘͝h̜͖̲̲͓̞́?͍͓̩͟.

    OK the actual reason is that clustering the two sets of mid-board objectives seems to partially undo the positive impact Domination has on the balance. Not just that the map diagram terrifies me on a primal level. That would be ridiculous.

That would give me a six mission pack I’d feel pretty good about – and I firmly hope I get a chance to play it in the near future.

Jon Kilcullen: There is no question, I went into this very worried about the potential state of the game as 9th edition rolls out. I put a lot of games into the eternal war and GT mission packs and as of now, I will admit I was wrong about this being the age of the gunline. The missions are much more balanced and reward movement, the impact of the roll is offset by the location of the objectives which allows for some counter play and list tweaks to give yourself the best chance to endure the second turn and put your own pressure on. Combine this with the great terrain rules and I think with some minor changes you have a really good edition coming in. I am definitely not a fan of Command phase scoring but at this point, that’s life. I am very happy with the adjustments the GT package made and I am looking forward to putting them to the test in two weeks at our first 5 game live event since COVID social distancing measure began. The missions I’m a bit less keen on are:

  • Battle Lines: Its too straight forward and really rewards the roll off.  Very concerning.
  • Retrieval Mission: Very punishing in the already extremely punishing match-ups and rewards turn 1 player.
  • Surround and Destroy: I would like this one more if you were required to hold 2/3/more. It seems to play a bit less interactive than I would prefer.

 

Wrap Up

It’s genuinely great to see GW putting out a competitive mission pack where some clear thought and care has been put into tuning the missions for balance over and above the Eternal War ones. While we still have some things we need to be convinced of, we’re very excited to try these out in a competitive environment, and to see how players start to build their lists to attack them. We’re sure even now you are preparing takes of a fiery heat previously unbeknownst to mankind, so please do chuck them our way, either in the comments section or at contact@goonhammer.com.

 

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