Profile photo of Kevin By Kevin On April 01, 2013 Posted In X-Wing Miniatures Game

Rules Interaction 101

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April 1, 2013

With introductions out of the way, let’s dive into our first actual content: Rules Interaction 101!

While I’m probably going to spend a lot of time talking about specific rules interactions, that’s not actually my goal here.  The real goal is to help spread understanding of the core rules, so that people can resolve rules questions themselves.  X-wing’s rules follow a structure which was originally popularized for CCGs, but has since expanded into many other styles of game.  These rules are basically broken into two major components: a core rules framework, and a bunch of separate, individual rules unique to each pilot, upgrade, or ability.  This variety of rules is one of the secrets to the longevity of such games, as new and interesting ability can be added quickly and easily.  Unfortunately, they’re also the source of confusion, as individual abilities interact with the rules framework and each other in odd ways.

I’m going to lay out a few core concepts I use in interpreting interactions between rules and abilities.  It’s worth noting at this point that many of the concepts I’m applying here are not explicitly stated as part of the X-wing rules, and may be questioned.  IMHO they’re fundamental to the operation of such a system, though, and so even if they’re only implied I believe they still hold.

1.  Card abilities override core framework rules
I’m not going to be in the habit of just repeating rules from the book here – everyone can read the rules as well as I can – but this one is important enough to deserve a specific callout.  This is why I refer to the rules in the book as a “core framework” – they’re foundational, but the cards can and will stomp all over them.  Whenever the rules say to do X, but a card says Y, the card wins.

2.  Abilities beat rules only when they say they do, and in the most limited way possible
Cards always override rules, but it’s important to appreciate the limitation of that.  When looking at what a card can do, be careful not to draw extra implications from the ability.  One example of this might be Tycho Celchu (“may perform actions even while you have stress tokens.”).  His ability lets you take an action while stressed, but it does not let you declare a red maneuver while stressed, or take an action which would be prevented by the Damaged Sensor Array critical hit card.

3.  Abilities come in two flavors: Ongoing and Triggered
These aren’t terms in the X-wing rules, but understanding them and the difference is important.  Ongoing abilities are something which is always in effect, such as Engine Modification and Biggs Darklighter.  While they are in play these cards change the overall game state.  Triggered abilities are effects such as Push the Limit or Night Beast.  They will include some condition which much be met before the ability can be used, and typically that ability will do something and then be finished.  Triggered abilities can usually be spotted by terms like “When”, “After”, “If”, or even “Before”.  Some abilities will blend these two by using a trigger to create a short-term ongoing effect, such as Wedge Antilles or Backstabber.  In these cases, the ongoing ability is active as long as the condition is met; once the condition goes away, the ability shuts off.

4.  Triggered abilities activate as soon as their trigger is met, and are completed once it is done
Occasional use of the word “Immediately” confuses this issue, so I’m avoiding it here, but when a trigger is met the ability goes off right then.  Wedge’s “When attacking” trigger causes his target the lose agility as soon as he starts the attack, and ends when he’s not attacking any more.  This can and often will interrupt the flow of other resolution.  The Heavy Laser Cannon, for example, says “Immediately after rolling your attack dice…” so it is activated once attack dice are rolled, before moving to the next step of combat resolution.

5.  Resolution is a linear flow
Unless something in the rules specifically say otherwise, everything happens one at a time, and the order matters.  A great many confusing questions can be resolved by paying attention to the steps you take, and following them in order.

6.  When an abilities interrupts the flow, finish that ability before returning to the normal flow
In software, we call this a subroutine.  When a triggered ability activates, you complete the full process for that ability before returning to the normal flow.  An example of this is Soontir Fel’s ability.  When you receive a stress token the trigger is met.  You add the focus token, and then resume the normal flow.

Let’s bring all that together with a pretty complex example: Kath Scarlett fires at Soontir Fel (Range 2, no tokens on either), and rolls {Critical}, {Critical}, {Hit}.  Fel rolls {Evade}, {Evade}, {Eyeball}.  What happens?  Let’s pick it up at Combat Step 6, Compare Results:

  1. Fel’s first {Evade} cancels the {Hit}
  2. Fel’s second {Evade} cancels one of the {Critical} rolls
  3. The trigger for Kath Scarlett’s ability is met – Fel gets a stress token
  4. The trigger for Fel’s ability is met – Fel gets a focus token
  5. Fel’s ability is complete, back to where we were (3)
  6. Kath Scarlett’s ability is complete, back to where we were (2)
  7. Fel gets excited because he has a focus token to change that last {Eyeball} – but unfortunately, we’re past Step 5, which would let him change the {Eyeball} to an {Evade}.  The last {Critical} cannot be canceled, and Fel is hit, taking a critical damage card.

Hopefully this provides a good foundation for analyzing how card abilities interact, especially in regards to timing.  If anyone sees anything I missed, or areas that could be cleaned up or clarified further, please let me know in the comments.


    1. I haven’t seen that thread, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but my interpretation has always been:

      Roll attacks, modify accordingly.
      Roll evades, modify accordingly.
      Compare results, note if any crits have been cancelled. If so, apply stress token.
      Is there 1 or more damage being done to the defending ship? if so cancel all of the original damage and apply 1 damage from the ion cannon’s effect.

      This also means that if the damage that wasn’t cancelled out by the defender’s rolls (the 1 or greater required) where the only crits, they are not cancelled by the defender, they are cancelled by you. So the defender would not receive the stress.

      Correct me if I’m wrong please, but in my mind I’ve never considered this one unclear.

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      1. That’s the correct interpretation, but several people are arguing that the ion cannon skips over the normal cancellation of rolls with evades, determines whether or not it hits by a different method than in the rules (more hits than evades instead of uncanceled hits), and then cancels all of the results itself so that Kath doesn’t trigger.

      2. It’s amazing to me how many people don’t understand the Ion Cannon. There are so many questions about it on the FF forums, it’s kind of shocking. It seems very straight forward to me.

  1. Yeah, I rather intentionally avoided that one since I’d weighed in over there already, but the inspiration is obvious… and, as you say, my belief in the solution is as well 😉

  2. I’ve mostly stopped reading the FFG forums, at this point. That thread should have been over after the second post, but somehow it’s gone for four pages.

    The rules interaction between Kath and Fel is perfectly clear: “Compare Results” doesn’t happen until all rolls have been finalized, so the stress (and therefore the Focus) doesn’t appear until after it’s far too late to use it.

    The rules interaction between Kath and Ion Cannon is a little less clear, but since the Ion Cannon’s “cancel all results” happens after you’ve determined whether or not the attack hits, Kath’s ability must have the opportunity to trigger.

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    1. Debates like that happen because FFG writes rules poorly. It’s a thing. I’ve pointed out several instances across many games where the rules create opportunities like this. And I see the thinking behind the argument in this case. I disagree that it should work that way, but I do see the flaw.

      And I’d counter you that there’s nothing that says that Kath’s ability in this case must have a chance to trigger. Why? Where in the rules does it say that Kath’s ability must have a chance to trigger with the Ion Cannon? If you step back and look at the ability, it’s functioning to impart an extra cost to negating a crit hit effect. Except with the Ion Cannon shot, there is no crit hit effect. So using Kath’s ability imparts the cost without awarding the associated benefit. Looking at it that way, it makes more sense that the stress token doesn’t get added.

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      1. Except Kath’s ability doesn’t trigger from avoiding a critical effect, it triggers from canceling a critical result. There are other cases where the defender wouldn’t be at risk of the critical effect that still clearly trigger Kath (shields, for instance).

      2. And thus the debate.

        Ion Cannon would have been better worded. Expandable card games have always had this problem, it’s just a little surprising to see them in the second wave of releases. Then again it’s FFG, which makes some of my favorite games, but has always had issues with rules.

      3. The problem is, with games like this, you can’t just “step back” and look at it from a different angle. Games like this work by having key words with exactly one meaning.

        “Attack” is a very important keyword that involves rolling red dice, modifying them, someone else rolling green dice, modifying them, and then cancelling out results. Even “cancelling” has taken on the role of a keyword with the introduction of Kath. Each of these steps have a chance trigger actions, they are done at this time, every time. Kevin explains this as a subroutine, in MTG we call it a Stack (we have that in software too).

        Having a software engineering background like Kevin makes me very comfortable with these absolutes and identifying keywords as shortcuts to longer explanations. Don’t be afraid to throw out card flavor to better understand the more complicated parts of the game mechanics. It will make you a better player and more confident in your plays and choices.

      4. But that’s the problem: You’re approaching the rules like they’re a machine, which is a good approach to take. The problem is that there’s no law of physics governing how the machine operates. There’s only the rule construct itself, and this is constantly added to and changed by the new rules included with further expansions. The only thing limiting the Ion Cannon’s “cancel all dice results” effect from going back to an earlier step in the attack (or erasing previous effects, if that’s easier to grasp) is your understanding of the rules. Mechanically, the “rule of least disturbance” postulated in #2 above is fantastic: Unfortunately, it’s an external approach that is subjective, and it’s not something found within the rules.

        I prefer rules that are unambiguous. Ion Cannon should read “After determining if the attack hits, convert all Crit results to normal hits. The target then suffers 1 damage and receives 1 Ion Token. Ion Cannon may not inflict more than 1 damage per attack.”

        It’s unambiguous, doesn’t create any room for an argument that would interfere with Kath’s ability, and fits within the existing phases of the attack.

      5. I kind of agree with both sides of this. FFG is not the best at writing tight, well-templated rules, and I wish they were better. Unfortunately, we’ve got what we’ve got. It seems at the moment we’re in a phase where a lot of people, especially on the FFG forums, want to take what ambiguity exists and actually multiply it into really crazy rulings. That’s a big part of the motivation for me to start this series.

        While Bobb’s right that my “Rule of Least Disturbance” (I like that :) ) isn’t formally in the rules, I think everyone actually believes in it. Why? Well, what if I argued that Garven spending a focus lets me give a token to every ship in range? You’d probably think I was nuts. Same principle.

        I think the same thing applies to everything I’ve presented here. They may not be formally in the rules, but without them it’s basically impossible to even have a rule set. Throw out #2, and Garven can hand out focus to everyone. Throw out #4, and Fel can gain a stress and wait until next turn to gain the focus.

        In the specific case of the Kath/Ion, the argument flying around right now throws out #5. So what happens if it does? You literally get a paradox:

        1. Defender cancels a crit, but not all of them
        2. Kath hits
        3. Ion cannon triggers, does its ion and damage
        4. Ion cannon “goes back” and cancels ALL results
        5. All dice are canceled, including the ones that made the ion hit in the first place
        6. Kath misses
        7. Ion cannon doesn’t trigger, so dice aren’t canceled
        8. Insert fun Trek, Terminator, Looper, or Dr. Who quote here as the universe implodes

        For this argument to hold, the Ion Cannon has to cancel the dice which were already canceled, but not the ones that caused it to actually hit, or we have to consider the cancellation to be mutable in the past, while the fact that Kath hit isn’t. I don’t find either argument terribly convincing.

      6. I don’t think Garven creates a similar hole: You take the token, and place it on another ship. It doesn’t say “a token,” it says “that token.” Unless you’ve got replicators, you’re not going to be able to place multiple copies of that token.

        The problem is that the Ion effect card says ALL dice….and it even emphasizes that it’s ALL dice. You could say that cancellations that the defender’s dice create are removed from the attack…but even then, there’s room for a stubborn player to say “well, those dice still exist, they weren’t removed from my memory.”

        It’s a dumb argument, but FFG rules are infamous for leaving room for dumb arguments to be made, and make them hard to counter. I think the game would be far better off using an integrated approach like Kevin’s laid out.

      7. I actually think this is an instance of FFG having written fairly good rules, if a little lawyerly. As you’ve made clear, Kevin, the text “Then cancel all results” has a really specific meaning, and the set of steps is fairly clear.

        The only ambiguity is introduced by making the assumption that after determining whether you hit, the Ion Cannon can go back and retroactively cancel dice results–which introduces a paradox.

      8. Can someone argue that the “Cancel all dice” means that you should go back in time, cancel all the dice which might have been canceled by the defender, un-fire Kath’s ability, but still leave the other hits intact so that the attack can still hit anyway? Or remember that the attack hit, but not that the dice were canceled even though “hit” is directly dependent on the dice?

        Yes – yes, they can. But that’s not the same as an ambiguous rule. “Some people refuse to accept it” does not mean it’s ambiguous. It’s effectively impossible to write a CCG-like game which will avoid arguments like the one surrounding this issue. FFG’s rules certainly aren’t the tightest, but this really isn’t something that can be held against them.

      9. Bobb, you touch a nerve for me lol. I may have to hop on my soapbox and do my own blog about game constructs.

        Game rules are not civil laws, they do not include intent nor are they truly up for interpretation. It IS a machine who’s mechanisms do not change. It can be added to, but nothing these additions do changes the core of the rules. Just because Kath and Ion Cannons were printed doesn’t change how crits are cancelled or when.

        We can “cancel all dice”, thats fine, but it is also completely irrelevant. We have already canceled some dice to determine if there were hits. We have already acted on that. Events have triggered and resolved and we cannot undue them by performing another action.

        Also as a tangent, can we please not talk about “least disturbance” rules. They don’t exist nor is there any kind of disturbance happening. We are doing exactly what is printed on the cards and rulebook.

      10. Tonico, I respectfully disagree :) Rules ARE civil laws: They state how people interacting in a certain way are going to behave. What you describe is more like a physical machine: Push button X, start mechanism Y in motion, get result Z. If built well, every time you push button X, you’ll get result Z.

        Game rules create machines out of imagination: They only work when powered by the mind. And thus, how well they function, or how poorly, depends entirely on the words used to describe the rules. You state that the Ion Cannon can’t go back and cancel things that have already happened: I ask (hypothetically, because I agree with you on how things work) “why not?” What about the RULES prevent the Ion Cannon from doing just that? The answer is that there’s nothing explicit (that jumps out to me, anyway), because the rules don’t say “once you move on to the next phase in the attack, you can’t undo anything that happened in the prior phase.”

        To use the machine example, imagine if the machine is designed to fill a glass of water. You push button X, water runs from the spigot, and into the glass, filling it. Simple.

        Except you’ve assumed that the machine is in the correct orientation. You’ve assumed that the glass is placed in the proper location. And you’ve assumed that the machine’s water tank is filled with enough water to fill the glass. Nothing in the instructions said anything about those, but without them, the machine won’t function as intended.

        Kevin, it’s not impossible to write rules better. It’s just a matter of time and effort. X-Wing had rules issues in the first wave, so it’s not really a surprise that wave 2 has some as well. I think for an FFG game, the number and kinds of issues that have come up is on the smaller end, so they’re ahead of their normal products.

      11. “You state that the Ion Cannon can’t go back and cancel things that have already happened: I ask (hypothetically, because I agree with you on how things work) “why not?” What about the RULES prevent the Ion Cannon from doing just that?”

        Rules are proscriptive – they tell you what to do. The fact that the rules are presented in an ordered manner means that that order is in the rules, and must be adhered to.

        Cards beat basic rules, so will beat the order if the card instructs you to do so. There are two possible ways that can happen: First, the card explicitly tells you to go back in time and undo the hit. Second, that the only way to do what the card tells you is to go back in time and undo the hit.

        I think it pretty clearly doesn’t do the first. So what about the second? Can you complete “cancel all die results” without going back in time? I think it can – you cancel all remaining dice, and everything’s canceled. Especially considering the paradox which emerges if you do it any other way, that seems to be clearly the right answer.

    2. “Also as a tangent, can we please not talk about “least disturbance” rules. They don’t exist nor is there any kind of disturbance happening. We are doing exactly what is printed on the cards and rulebook.”

      I think this is exactly the point of “least disturbance” as a concept. You do exactly what is printed on the cards and rules (which will change, i.e. disturb, the game state) AND NO MORE. That’s where the idea of “least disturbance” comes from. It’s just a specific description for the same thing.

  3. Weighing in.

    The interaction between Kath and Ion Cannon is …wait for it… whatever FFG wants it to be. This isn’t accidentally poorly written — you don’t get that result across several games and several years all by accident. It’s deliberately vague so that FFG can rule one way or the other to make sure that combination isn’t over-powered. It is FFG policy when writing up rules for any game to make them murky.

    The debates that crop up have multiple purposes:
    — Forums become more reliable when gauging game interest.
    — FFG can replace play-testing w/ player-driven judgements.
    — More players feel clever for finding a great combo, but half of the combos are busted by FFG decisions to keep the game unbroken.
    — The game is harder to master because people can’t learn the rules by just reading them. They MUST follow rulings and adjust their thinking as rulings come out.
    — Related: anyone wanting to play competitively MUST follow rulings, since they can’t just buy in and show up at tournament because they won’t know how to handle murky situations. This means a larger captive audience of current players for FFG to interact with.

    There are other reasons I’m sure.

    I think both Kath and Ion Cannon are pretty clearly written, at least by FFG standards.

    Kath’s ability has nothing to do with anything except the cancelling of a critical hit — her attack can miss because of that cancel, and the defender will still get the stress token.

    Ion Cannon doesn’t turn crits into hits before hit/miss is checked. Its effect doesn’t even happen until after — it specifically uses the word THEN in relation to canceled results, at which point Kath’s ability has already had a chance to happen.

    This isn’t to say that FFG thinks like I do, but to me it’s clear that Kath should be able to stress a target while using the Ion Cannon. I don’t actually see any room for debate given the wording on the cards.

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  4. I feel like we’re starting to have three sides in this debate: Those who think Kath’s ability works with the ion, those who think that the ion cancels Kath’s ability, and those who think FFG writes bad rules and have latched onto this issue as a way to prove that.

    I’m going to ask that we curtail the latter. If you want to argue either side of a rules issue at hand, that’s fine. If you really believe that the Ion Cannon goes back in time while somehow avoiding the paradox of cancelling its own hit, that’s fine too, no matter how much I might think it’s wrong. But arguing about the quality of FFG’s rules helps nobody understand anything.

    1. A bit harshly put, but I was trying to make your same point so I can’t criticize too much — but I never said bad rules, just murky ones (which makes me think you don’t mean me). In truth murky text makes it easier for FFG to adjust card strength without having pages of errata or reprints, so I’ll gladly take murky text if it means not getting the other two things.

      I fall firmly in the camp of the word THEN on Ion Cannon — you handle things normally, THEN during damage assignment you follow the Ion Cannon text instead of applying damage according to dice rolls. This means there were critical results, and they might have been canceled in earlier steps.

      I think I understand the opposite side — you go through all steps of the attack until you apply the Ion Cannon text. At that point, you cancel the entire attack (???) and apply the text. The argument is that the attack itself never really happened… that the phrase “cancel all dice results” means that the rolls to hit and evade never really happened. It was all to see if you apply the Ion Cannon text or not, and otherwise has nothing to do with the attack

      It’s a matter of how you interpret the word THEN. Is it saying only apply the phrase “cancel all dice results” to the damage assignment step? Or is it saying at that point, throw out the result of all steps and just assign the 1 damage + 1 ion token?

      Games are by necessity procedural in nature. You execute in steps/stages/phases, toward a conclusion. Once a step is executed, it isn’t reverse-executed later — that would be confusing, and in some cases impossible. Plus it would cause argument in perpetuity over exactly what had and had not transpired than needed undone. If I use a Focus to cancel a result and than that cancel never happened, do I get my Focus back too?

      The only way to proceed is by execution in stages. This means that when Ion Cannon says THEN, it means apply the coming instructions to the stage you are in (and possibly all coming stages)… not to stages that are already completed.

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      1. Sorry, Theorist, that wasn’t directed at you, or even prompted by your post, nor even by this issue alone. It was mostly just topic-policing to stay on track for the purpose I decided to do this: Helping people understand the rules. Whether FFG writes good rules, or why they write rules the way they do, is a perfectly interesting topic, but it doesn’t really serve the purpose of helping people interpret the rules.

      1. Certainly no apology necessary :) I feel like everyone’s contributed to the Kath/Ion debate – and it really is a worthwhile debate, even if some people end up not agreeing – but it’s reached that point where everything’s out there and nobody’s going to convince anybody.

        I’d rather bring the discussion back to any thoughts or comments people have on the broader points of rules reading, rather than beating that particular dead horse or turning it into a gripe session about how bad FFG is at writing rules.

    1. It would probably be more on topic (and actually interesting) to look at whether Abrahms can introduce time travel to Star Wars in a way which removes the prequels from history while avoiding any new paradox.

      Side discussion on whether such paradox would be well worth the price even if it meant Jar-Jar was absent from only half the cycles.

      1. I can’t remember where I saw it, but somewhere online there’s an essay suggesting that the “correct” order in which to watch the Star Wars movies is 4, 5, 2, 3, 6. It establishes something of a coherent dramatic narrative, and I think it does a fairly good job of salvaging the best that’s available of Lucas’ grand story: you set Luke’s story aside at the moment where he’s at his lowest point (and therefore the highest tension), and follow up on the revelation of his link to Vader by staying with the angry and increasingly erratic Anakin through an altered bildungsroman that results in his transformation to the SIth monster in black.

        And then we skip back to Luke, the good guy, who’s… wait, what? He’s wearing black, Force-choking and twisting the minds of his enemies, openly threatening powerful enemies on Tatooine, and then murdering dozens of those beings to get revenge on people who have taken what he considers his.

        All of Obi-wan’s and Yoda’s precautions now make sense: this is what Luke is like even without the life-long influence of his father. Their fears now also make more sense: Yoda was, in fact, precisely correct when he warned Luke that everything could be lost if he abandoned his training.

        It also heightens the meaning of Luke’s ebbing and waning violence when he confronts Vader again, as well as the scope of Vader’s redemption: Luke really was and is on the brink of becoming another Vader, and so Anakin’s final act of rebellion finally saves both himself and his son from the anger that threatened to consume them both.

        (…okay, I admit I’m now getting way off topic and am at blog-post length. Wrapping it up soon, I promise!)

        So what I would like to see the new Star Wars director do is something that respects that narrative, the story that’s buried about love and redemption and all the strange dimensions of family–both the family we’re born with and the family we choose. I do think it’s what Lucas was attempting to get across, although he did so ham-handedly (and of course the story was further mangled by the bizarre choice to use a stop-motion clay puppet instead of an actor for Anakin).

        …but I admit I was much more excited about Star Wars when I heard rumors that Brad Bird would be attached. What I’m afraid Abrams will do is, really, more of what Lucas did with the prequels and what Abrams himself did with Star Trek: lots of tech-porn and CGI explosions and epic threats, and much less of a focus on creating a relatable mythology around characters we care about.

        Hopefully time travel won’t enter into it in any way, honestly.

      2. The fan-fiction edited version of the prequels where JarJar has no lines and is a jedi wasn’t bad… but still, I’d support time travel to delete the prequels.

        It isn’t Star Wars anymore. It’s “How R2-D2 Saved the Galaxy”, with different jedi/sith guest stars. And if it was billed as that, I might have no issue with it.

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