I was listening to the Combined Arms Podcast today and I was inspired by their topic on activation in wargames. It got me thinking about the many ways alpha strikes have been a difficult thing to overcome in the new edition and how some form of alternating activation could alleviate that. Right now it feels a lot like 5th edition in that regard where the Imperial Guard alpha strike or the Ork Nob beta strike was a nasty way to end a game early.
My caveat here is that the game is still very fun; more fun out of the box than it has been in years. I still argue that 7th edition was extremely fun with a solid social contract, but Matched Play 8th Edition is the most fun the game has been sans-tweaks in years. This is in no small part due to Games Workshop's active role in (competitive) Matched Play.
What is it Good For?
I feel as if Alternating Activation would be best suited for Narrative gaming. It takes longer and requires more think time than I Go You Go. The way I'm presenting it here adds even more complication than traditional Alternating Activation as well.
This system could be adapted for Matched Play, but I feel as if the points values of your armies would have to be reduced to 1750 points to accommodate the added complexity.
Clearly, if you're running a huge narrative event with many players who will not be familiar with these rules, this is probably a bad idea. Always know your audience.
Models, Units, Deployment
All the normal rules for models and units apply with Alternating Activation as they do with normal I Go You Go Activation. Deploy your armies in exactly the same way you normally would for the mission you are playing.
Instead of each player taking a turn in a Battle Round, players share each Phase of the game as described below.
The Player who finishes deploying their army first gains the Tactical Advantage. At the start of every Battle Round, Tactical Advantage switches to the Player who didn't have the Tactical Advantage last turn.
Starting with the Player with Tactical Advantage, players take turns Activating a unit to move. During each Activation, the unit does all of the things it would normally do in the Movement Phase. You may choose to not move a unit as an Activation, but if a unit has no action it can perform in the Movement Phase (such as an immobile Fortification), it may not be selected to Activate.
There is no limit on the order in which Players pick units for Activation in the Movement Phase.
Both Players' units Activate in the Psychic Phase in order of highest Power Level to lowest Power Level. In this way, a Player might activate multiple units consecutively depending on their Power Level in comparison to that of their Opponent's.
If a Player's own units are tied for Power Level, they may choose which Activates first. If opposing Players' units are tied for Power Level, the Player with Tactical Advantage gets to pick the order in which the units Activate.
During each Activation, the unit does all of the things it would normally do in the Psychic Phase. If a unit has no action it can perform in the Psychic Phase, then it may not be selected to Activate this Phase.
Starting with the Player with Tactical Advantage, players take turns Activating each of their units one at a time. During each Activation, the unit does all of the things it would normally do in the Shooting Phase. If a unit has no action it can perform in the Shooting Phase (such as if it has no viable targets for shooting), it may not be selected to Activate this Phase.
Small, nimble units have a distinct advantage over larger, more ponderous units. Although players do take turns shooting, they must do so from their unit with the lowest Power Level to their unit with the highest Power Level. This avoids the obvious problem of players firing with their biggest, most destructive unit first and wiping out entire units in one go.
There is one exception to this. Units with the <Character> keyword may be activated in any order. Some Characters might also permit another unit to Activate out of order depending on their special rules.
Starting with the Player with Tactical Advantage, players take turns Activating a unit to charge with. During each Activation, the unit does all of the things it would normally do in the Charge Phase. You may not choose to not charge as an Activation and if a unit has no action it can perform in the Charge Phase (such as an immobile Fortification or it is more than 12" away from enemy models), it may not be selected to Activate.
There is no limit on the order in which Players pick units for Activation in the Charge Phase.
The Combat Phase
Adjudicate the Combat Phase as you normally would. The one caveat is that you might have multiple units who have charged this turn. In this case, alternate between units which have charged, starting with the player with Tactical Advantage. Note that some units also have rules that allow them to swing first and these are often adjudicated first or they are alternated with units which have charged.
The Morale Phase
There is no change to the Morale Phase.
Strategic Feint (1 Command Point): Use this Stratagem after your opponent has Activated a unit in the Movement Phase. Roll a d3. Your Opponent must immediately Activate that many more of their units which haven't yet Activated this Phase.
Hair Trigger (1 or 3 Command Points): Use this Stratagem in your first Activation of the Shooting Phase. You may Activate any one of your units instead of the unit with the lowest Power Level. If you spend 1 Command Point, the firing unit suffers a -2 to hit. If you spend 3 Command Points, the unit suffers no penalty.
Unrelenting Firepower (1 Command Point): Use this Stratagem after you have Activated a unit in the Shooting Phase. You may immediately Activate another unit.
Deadly Momentum (2 Command Points): Use this Stratagem after you have Activated a unit in the Charge Phase. You may immediately Activate another unit.
Two things will make Phased Alternating Activation more fun and reduce the amount of time it takes to play a game.
Keep Activation Tokens on hand. It's best if these tokens have a Heads and a Tails side. When a unit has moved, place an activation token next to it Heads side up. When all of your units have a Heads up token next to it, you have run out of activations. When a unit shoots, flip its Activation Token to the Tails side. When a unit fights, flip its Activation Token back to the Heads side. Continue in this way throughout the game.
In your Army Roster, make put your Characters at the top of the list, then arrange all of your units from smallest Power Level to highest. This way, you can easily spot which units get to activate first in the Shooting Phase.
There is a delicate balance when building your army. Making big units of models decreases the number of Activations and ensures you'll shoot with your high-powered weaponry sooner than your opponent. Having said that, breaking up your army into multiple units ensures at least some of your models will fire before your opponents' will.
We considered Random Activation using cards as a method for the Shooting Phase and even the Movement Phase. This might be a fun way of simulating the fact that units don't always act the way they should in war, but 40k has an issue where units can take up huge swaths of the battlefield and it might be difficult to move your army around. It wouldn't be as bad for shooting. In either case, we recommend leaving characters out of the Random Activation Deck and still allowing them to move and shoot whenever they want.
We also considered using Battlefield Role for Activation. This is something I might like to see in the Movement Phase and possibly Deployment. What I'd like to see is Fast Attack getting preference, then Troops, then Elites, then Heavy Support. Again, HQs and Characters would get free reign.
We tried to think of ways to double up the Combat Phase because we are essentially reducing the number of Combats by half. We're open to any suggestions in this regard. In this stage of the game, we simply suggest fighting one extra Fight Phase after the game has ended.
We are definitely going to be playtesting these rules and reporting on them in an upcoming episode of Masters of the Forge. We'd love to have other people give them a try as well and report back with their experiences.