With convention season kicking up, and people looking to play competitively, there is often one sticking point: the clock. Many players see the clock as a necessary evil. Something that has to be there to keep the game flowing, to keep someone from slowing down tournaments unnecessarily.
I would argue that the clock is an important part of gameplay, especially at a competitive level. And that playing well, truly understanding the game, requires that one play on a clock.
The clock is used in many different games, at varying levels of intensity. People are generally familiar with the idea of clocks in games with regards to chess, go, or other competitive board games. Many sports, especially team sports, have a clock for deciding when the game will end.
And some tabletop games have followed suit. Why? What benefits does it bring to have timing become an issue on the table?
Predictable Game Length
The easiest benefit to point out immediately is that it forces the game to last a predictable length. If both players have 1 hour apiece to do all of their moves, you know the game will (generally) not last longer than 2 hours. This is a really, REALLY good thing when planning tournaments. It means that you can determine if you have three rounds, about when the tournament will finish.
As someone who has organized and run many tournaments over the years, this is a very important thing. It also means that players generally have a good idea when the tournament is going to end, so they can plan out their days accordingly. This includes arranging rides if needed, notifying family members, spouses, etc. All very important things.
It also means, from a logistical standpoint, that one knows when a space will become available. This is especially important at conventions, where the halls are often booked solid for the entire weekend.
One of the things that playing on a clock does, is it rewards knowledge. The better you know your own army, your own strategies, your own tactics, the better you can play when under pressure. The better you know your opponent, your opponent’s armies, strategies and general tactics, the better you can react quickly.
The clock means that when you have to make snap-decisions, quicker decisions than you may be used to, you will do better if you are practiced with your army. If you are practiced against a particular opponent, or against a particular faction, then you will do better under the pressure of a clock.
Games Don’t Drag
I love playing tabletop games, but there are times when they can take forever. If your opponent is taking 30-45 minutes (or longer!) per turn, that can make the game drag on. Playing with a clock can help to keep that from happening (or if it does happen, you only have to deal with it for a little over half the total time of the game). This means players can play more games, get better at the game quicker, and play more opponents.
Yes, playing games quickly, even when you make mistakes because you are trying to beat a clock, will make you a better player. “Practice like it is the big game” means just as much when studying for a test, practicing a sport, or playing a game you want to be competitive at.
Humans also learn more from mistakes than from successes. So, if you play lots of games slowly, then you may have lots of success in those games, but you may not retain the tactics or strategies you so painstakingly worked out during those games. Because you never got to see the failure of not using those strategies.
Tournaments will always have a timer of some sort, and being able to play quickly in a tournament setting is always important. Playing with a clock at all times will keep you ready for the tournament scene, and keep you in shape for the big game.
While games being decided by the clock are generally not fun for either party, the addition of the time pressure can add excitement to a well-played game. Players who know their armies well, and play quickly, will often not feel the time pressure. But if the game goes long, then the clock suddenly can add that extra level of the end game.
Nothing is without give and take, and yes, playing with a clock has drawbacks.
When playing under a clock, it can be very hard to have teachable moments. Moments where a player does something that a more experienced player might point out as something that they might not want to do.
As a Press Ganger, I end up doing a lot of teaching games, or a lot of “learning” games where I try and help people better their game. I also do a lot of games where someone is watching and asking questions while we play, which can be more difficult when a clock is in play.
In those circumstances, a clock is probably not the best situation, and can make the game harder and less enjoyable.
Sometimes, especially if you are new to the game, having a clock can seem overwhelming at first. Until you have the basic rules down, and some idea of how the game flows, a clock is often counterproductive to learning the ropes.
For new players, or those coming back after a long hiatus, I recommend not using a clock right away. This allows for you to figure out the rules, and the flow of the game, without the additional pressure of a timer distracting you.
Some people find playing with a clock can cause anxiety or stress beyond what one might expect. A little bit of stress around the clock is good, and healthy, for the game – it can make it more exciting, and often makes it more memorable.
Some people find that this is too much, and it detracts from the game, or even makes the game completely unenjoyable. This is obviously not a good situation, and deserves a mention here. I want to go into this in greater detail in a later post, and how to deal with timing and learn to work through it if that is desired.
Death Clock or Timed Turns?
In Warmachine and Hordes there are two standard ways of timing: Death Clock and Timed Turns.
Death Clock is done like a traditional chess clock. You have a set amount of time per player for the whole game, and the game ends when ending conditions are met, or one player runs out of time.
Timed turns are where each player has a set amount of time per turn. Often the players can “extend” one turn for an amount of time (say 5 minutes) for a particularly long, or important turn. This is often used during the feat turn, or on the turn where the player needs to think a LOT because it is a very important set of moves.
So Which Is Better?
While I may be biased, I strongly prefer Death Clock over Timed Turns.
In Death Clock, whenever you are the active player, your clock is running. This means that if you choose to counter charge on your opponent’s turn, while you are counter charging this goes against your time.
During Timed Turns, the timer is stopped while you are doing out of turn activations. This means that one player could end up taking much more time than might otherwise be allotted to them as their “half” of the time.
In Death Clock, if you are taking too long to do something while on your opponent’s turn (find a card for a rule, mark damage, make a tough roll, etc) they can switch the clock over to your time while you finish up. This means you are responsible for moving quickly, knowing where your cards are, being ready to mark damage on the model being targeted, etc.
It also means that if you are slowing down the game, it will show in your clock. This can be much harder to determine with Timed Turns since there is no record of someone not being at the ready for the game.
This is a tough one to talk about, but it is an important consideration when running an event. Players who are canny and savvy enough to know the timing rules could have an idea of how much time is left on the master clock while playing under Timed Turns. They could then play just a little bit (or a lot!) slower to run down the clock, and win on tie breakers (where they might have lost otherwise had their opponent had another turn).
This may seem like an edge case, but it happens. There will always be people who will attempt to bend the rules, or ignore the spirit of the rules, to their own end and gain. Death Clock helps to circumvent that by having everything being on your clock – if you are wasting time, you are just bringing yourself closer to your own end.
You didn’t think a TO would avoid talking about how predictable for timing Death Clock is, did you? Since the setup of models is on the clock, it means that setup cannot drag on (and on and on…) but instead players have to move quickly once choosing their sides. This helps make sure that the tournament progresses smoothly and on time.
Clocks are good! Use clocks in your games!
In all seriousness, if you want to start playing competitively and winning, you should practice every game with a clock. Even if you don’t adhere to it, it will help you start to think about the clock while planning lists, while playing, and while strategizing.
I wanted to go into some tips and tricks for learning how to play on a clock, but this post is already way too long. That will have to wait until next time.
Watch those clocks, and roll those dice!