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Sanctum | Strategy, Sorcery, SubterfugeSanctum | Strategy, Sorcery, Subterfuge



Ngozi's Way

A periodic column on Sanctum strategy, theory, and fun, by Ian Schreiber, Sanctum player name Gannon. You can reach Ian at

All About Initiative (Part One)
April 27, 2000

One interesting feature of Sanctum, as a game, is that the turns are simultaneous and yet there is an order to how all effects are resolved, such that it ends up acting like a turn-based game in some respects. Whose “turn” it is revolves around a game mechanic called Initiative, and we're going to look at it in depth these next two weeks.

How does it work?

Before worrying about what to do with it, we may as well define it. The game definition is as follows:

  1. At the beginning of the game, Initiative is assigned to one player randomly.
  2. At the end of any turn, Initiative goes to whichever player captured the greatest number of towns in that turn. If there is a tie, Initiative stays where it is.

So, if neither player captures a town (as happens on most turns), Initiative does not change hands. If your opponent has Initiative, the only way for you to get it (normally) is to capture one or more towns on a turn where your opponent does not, or capture two towns when your opponent only gets one town (or, in theory, to capture three towns when your opponent “only” takes two towns, although I must admit I've never seen that happen in a game).

Do I Want to Have Initiative?

Usually, the answer is yes. When you have it, your spells are cast before the opponent's, your groups move first, and in combat your minions strike first in each combat round. This means that it is impossible for your opponent to disrupt your spellcasting plans by tossing in a surprise before your spells go off, and it means that if you both want to move a recruit group into the same square then you'll very likely be the one to do so. It also obviously gives you a combat advantage, should you be getting into any fights; the advantage you get is generally enough to throw close combats in your favor, but not enough to turn a seriously losing battle into a win.

There are some instances where you want your opponent to move first, however.

The easiest example is a dispel spell such as Cleansing Light or The Unmagicking; in this case you want your opponent's Alterations to be cast first, so that your dispel will wipe those out along with the pre-existing spells. Likewise, if you expect your opponent to cast hazardous terrain in front of your group this turn and you have Plains, Abatement, Nullify, etc. in hand, you can cast it in front of the group and walk forward fearlessly if your opponent has Initiative; it will not help you in the least, however, if you have Initiative.

Another fairly common situation where you want your opponent to have Initiative is when you have a group adjacent to the enemy (probably because your group is made of novices being trained in your town this turn) and you want to force a combat; simply order your group to move into the square the enemy is occupying, and your opponent can do very little to avoid the conflict.

How Do I Get Initiative? How Do I Get Rid of It?

As noted above, most of the time you'll want to have Initiative. This also means that your opponent is very likely to want it as well. Since the creators of Sanctum were so unkind as to not allow both players to have Initiative at once, either you or your opponent is going to be unhappy in this respect. At any rate, your opponent is hardly going to make it easy for you to get and keep Initiative.

The most obvious way to get Initiative is to capture towns. Since towns are always the same distance from both Sancta, however, you will often take towns at the same time (and in the same quantity) that your opponent does. If you delay the opponent for a turn, then you will get there a turn faster (temporarily gaining Initiative), but then they will take her town next turn (and you'll lose Initiative again). Of course, there's usually only one town in the center of the board, so whichever of you manages to capture it will likely hold Initiative for awhile.

Of course, eliminating enemy groups before they ever reach their towns (as opposed to merely delaying them for a turn or two) will allow you to keep your Initiative longer. If you both capture your first town, and then you reach your second town while the opponent's second group is eliminated, again you will have Initiative for awhile.

That aside, if you started the game with Initiative (and you want to keep it) then it's usually in your best interests to advance, attempting to capture towns on the same turns that the opponent does. In this way, you'll retain Initiative for most of the early game, and possibly have that small edge you need to win the center town.

If you start the game without Initiative, a common trick is to delay one turn outside of a town and then move in on the following turn; your opponent will likely capture her town on that first turn, and when you capture it on the next turn you'll take Initiative from her. Of course, you must be cautious when attempting this; the thrill of gaining Initiative will be lost entirely if your opponent uses the extra turn to summon a monster or cast a spell that kills your stalling group! And having Initiative will be little consolation if the opponent reaches the center town unopposed because your Horde waited for too long to take their nearest town!!

Spells like Found City, Settlement, and Civilize all practically guarantee that you'll take Initiative by default, assuming you cast them and capture the town on the same turn. Settlement can also be used to hand Initiative to the opponent, which is sometimes desired, while killing her nastiest group at the same time (but of course, it also gives her a colony!).

Speaking of Colonies, if you destroy an enemy Colony (with The Unmagicking, Entropia, Gogar's Wrath or Ancestral Home) it will count as a net gain of a town for you, for purposes of gaining Initiative; if your opponent has any Colonies, destroying one or more of them is a nearly sure way to take Initiative from her. Change of Heart, like the others, can pretty much guarantee you Initiative ... provided you have a neutral town to cast it on. If you already have Initiative, it's sometimes worth your while to put off casting Change of Heart until the turn your opponent is expected to capture a town, in order to retain Initiative.

There are some other spells that determine Initiative directly: Adriel's Timepiece swaps Initiative, so it can be used to take it or give it away; and Lienna gives you Initiative and keeps it for you as long as she lives (and you do not lose Initiative automatically if she dies).

Finally, note that Adriel's Timepiece Settlement and Change of Heart will all change Initiative at the time of their casting, rather than at the end of the turn normally; this can reverse the expected order of movement for the duration of the turn, so be careful to take that into consideration (sometimes, changing the order of movement by surprise is reason enough to swap Initiative!)

Most of the above is concerned with taking Initiative from an unwilling opponent; but what if you already have Initiative and you don't want it? The little stalling-for-towns trick above works in reverse: if you speed your own progress (Forced March, Fleetness) or slow down your opponent's by a turn (with a cheap Lockdown or Monster spell) you can set up a situation where you'll take a town, and then your opponent will capture her town in another turn or two (you can usually rely on your opponent to want Initiative).

A Random Note on Grammar

When writing this article, I actually had to ask which was proper: “the Initiative” or simply “Initiative” – and as it turns out, it is technically correct to omit “the”. In other words, “I have Initiative” is proper, while “I have the Initiative” is not. Either way is still a lot of keystrokes, however, so when chatting online it's usually abbreviated to “Init”.

Next week, we'll look at how to plan your play differently depending on whether or not you have Initiative, and discuss how to incorporate the concept of Initiative into your decks!

Good luck!

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