10 February 2010

Put Your Best Foot Forward

A first look at initiative and activation system of Horus Heresy

It is time once again for us to return to Holy Terra, birthplace of the human race and the heart of the sprawling Imperium of man, at the time of the 31st millennium. As we hurtle down through the churning atmosphere the clouds quickly thin to reveal a battle raging across a crevasse latticed landscape, centered about the magnificence of the Imperial Palace itself. Within its baroque and immense bastions the shining light and hope for the future of mankind stands nobly in his inner chambers, surrounded by a cadre of the most elite of all protectors, the Adeptus Custodes.

The Emperor observes the catastrophic unraveling of Terra, with massive orbital bombardments searing their cataclysm across entire divisions of tanks and platoons of the Imperial army, recklessly attempting to blow through the imposing plasteel fortifications that shield the Palace itself. He senses how at this very moment, legions of the once loyal are revealing the depths of their own depravity, turning on their brothers in search of blood, driven to insanity by the insidious whisperings of the forces of Chaos. 
After so many centuries of progress beyond the darkest days of humanity and the Age of Strife, it has come now to this – the once celebrated Warmaster Horus has returned home bringing naught but hatred and madness. He has cast aside his soul by this most blasphemous act of treachery, choosing to unite in spirit with the ruinous powers of strife and destruction. The Warmaster has brought his warship Vengeful Spirit into orbit and from the command center he prepares for battle, along with legions of Traitor Space Marines, gibbering Daemon hordes, and other unspeakable evils. This is the final stand for both the forces of the Imperium and for Chaos - there will be no turning back. Welcome to the Horus Heresy!
In our last sneak peek we began to explore how you command your myriad forces and heroes into action. We learned how you each draw from a deck of order cards, those accumulated opportunities and manoeuvres that become available over the course of the conflict. We also discovered that you begin the game with a starting hand of these cards, and that by playing these cards you can execute commands to move your troops, launch attacks, build fortifications and much more.
We also saw that there is more than one way to execute an order. If you play your order card to the strategic map rather than directly from your hand, you can create opportunities where an order is less costly and sometimes gain a strategic benefit as well.
Today we are going to unravel the mystery of initiative, which we talked about briefly but haven’t explored in any depth. We’re also finally going to understand how and when activation comes into play, as well as how this will affect your game. Let’s dive right in.
Horus Heresy is played in rounds. At any point in time only one player, called the current player, will have the initiative. As the current player you can take a single action whether playing an order card straight from your hand, or executing an existing order from the strategic map. If you understand that an order card represents potential energy and activity on the battlefield, know that the action step is when those possibilities finally manifest.
The heartbeat for everything in Horus Heresy, the conductor that sets the pace and the ebb and flow of all actions, is the initiative track that runs along one entire edge of the game board. Each player has an initiative marker on the track that is moved in accordance with the orders you choose to execute. 
During each game round the player whose marker is closest to the start of the Initiative track is called the current player. If both markers ever rest on the same space they are stacked, and whoever has their marker on top will gain the initiative that round. At the start of the game, the Chaos player’s marker actually begins on top of the Imperial marker on the first spot of the initiative track.
As we've seen before, every order card has an initiative cost that ranges from 0 to 3. You pay this cost by moving your initiative marker forward along the track each time you take an action. After you've finished moving your marker, you redetermine who has initiative. If you're still the closest to the start, you remain the current player and can take yet another action in the following round.
This cycle continues, one round at a time, until your initiative marker passes that of your opponent. When your opponent’s marker is closest to the start of the initiative track, there is a change of initiative and your opponent becomes the current player. Over the course of a battle both initiative markers will pulse ahead and behind of each other, in response to the choices you each make. This rhythmic sequence is the crux of the entire initiative system, and makes for exciting and incredibly fun game play.
As the supreme commander of a monumental array of forces, you're faced with the challenge of weighing the short-term benefits of taking an action against the risks of granting your opponent too much of an opportunity to respond. Here's an example that should make this dynamic process more clear, as well as offer some insight into the rich strategic possibilities to be found in Horus Heresy.
For this example imagine that you are playing as the Emperor, and in your hand are the three Imperial order cards pictured above. At the moment, your initiative marker is exactly two spaces behind that of your opponent. Since you are closest to the start of the initiative track, you are the current player. No matter how you choose to execute these orders, once the Assault is played your initiative marker will move forward three spaces, therefore passing your opponent's marker and causing a change of initiative. 
However, perhaps you'll choose to execute one of the initiative 1 cards first. As pictured below, you can even play a 1 cost card, then another 1 cost card to end up on top of the Chaos player's initiative marker. Since the player on top is always the current player by default, you would still be able to issue a final order, even one with an initiative cost of 3! By playing your Assault card last you can ensure that all three commands occur before the impending change of initiative.
You are always free to act within your limits, but your actions need to do more than just afford you some desirable result. The choices you make will also grant your opponent more or less of an opportunity to respond. In the picture below, you might have been successful executing three simultaneous orders, but now your opponent is three spaces behind you. What orders do they currently have in hand? Do you realize that in the picture below, the Chaos player could conceivably execute 6 points worth of orders before you have initiative once again? What price is worth taking action and when is that cost too high? I hope you're up for the challenge!
There is one last thing we introduced in the last article that will have a powerful impact on the game, and that is activation. Each player is given a pile of activation markers that are used to quickly denote an area where your units have taken an action. Most order cards explicitly state which areas are activated after it executes. 
Take a look at the order card pictured to the left. It should be fairly clear that you will need to activate the destination area after executing the order. However, the bottom half of the card reveals that when you execute the same order from the strategic map and gain the card's strategic effect, you actually do not activate the destination area. Perhaps you are wondering why you need to be concerned with activation at all?
The importance of activation is devastatingly simple: if your units are in an area that you have already activated, they may not execute any further orders. In other words, any units within an activated area will remain wholly inert. That area will remain so marked until the next refresh phase, at which time both players can remove all their activation tokens from all areas on the board. Refresh phases are clearly marked on the initiative track and are triggered by the first player to move into that space.
The activation system will force you to consider your entire combined force, rather than over-relying on any single unit. These innovative order and initiative systems should hopefully cause you to weigh your options carefully. The question of which areas to activate is a decision you must not take lightly, especially if you plan on keeping particular units ready to move.
These are but a few of the unique mechanics found in Horus Heresy that will infuse your games with the visceral thrill of large-scale strategic combat. You alone are responsible for successfully leading your forces into the fray, while keeping a clear eye focused on the primary objectives of your campaign. In a future article we will take this conversation down to ground level, as we familiarize ourselves with the nuanced yet white-knuckled tactical demands of combat in Horus Heresy!
Horus Heresy is a board game that pits two players against each other to recreate the most famous battle of Warhammer 40,000's rich history, in which the Warmaster Horus's betrayal of the Emperor comes to its climax. Taking the side of either traitor or loyalist, players control a fearsome array of units, including the Emperor and Horus themselves. Brother fights brother, and the universe hangs in the balance!

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