Sunday, 23 October 2011

Opinion Piece: Competitive Play - Round Peg Meets Square Hole

And it's that time of arbitrary time unit again, when the stars align just so, and Incarias feels he needs to write something about Competitive play.

This time, though, I am going to look at the very core of my arguments against the notion. Why - exactly - does it bug me that the Competitive crowd is growing in influence? Why can I not just sit back and watch as one aspect of my hobby grows?

Put simply: wargaming isn't suited for true competition.

Okay, okay, I need to define my terms. By 'true competition', I mean the kind where it really matters who wins. Big prizes is perhaps the defining factor here; an event with a modest prize for the winner is competition, one with not-modest prize support is true competition. If there is huge prestige to be had from winning an event, this could also create true competition. This is what I'll be talking about today.

And wargaming isn't suited for it.

Before we go any further, this needs to be said. I'll be basing everything here on 40k, and to a lesser extent Warhammer, Blood Bowl and WarmaHordes. I have no doubt a lot of it is applicable to many, if not most, other wargames too, but this is the limit of my experience.

There, that's the disclaimers out of the way. Let's start the hate.

I will try to break up what is otherwise an immense Wall o'Text with some random pictures. Don't worry, they'll be entirely nonsensical.

Random Chance
If there's stuff at stake, a true competition should be decided primarily by skill. Like, ninety-nine per cent primarily. The occasional moment of Lady Fortune meddling can rarely be avoided (even chess champions can get sick, for example). But luck should be as small a decider as possible in true competition. Otherwise we're leaving that realm for the Land of Lottery.

Thus, one of the very principles underlying our games becomes a problem. What do we use to determine the outcome of any given situation? Dice. Random number generators. Luck in its physical form.

That's okay. I hate you too.

Clear enough? Slightly overstated, even?


It is impossible to create a scenario for one of these games that cannot be determined by luck, in such a manner that the better player loses. It is equally impossible to build an army that entirely negates the effect of luck. Sure, you can build armies that are as reliable as possible. Maximizing the number of times those dice are rolled increases the likelihood that things will average out.

But every once in a while, a whole game will be nothing but ones and twos. And every so often the deciding event of a game will come down to a few dice. A lucky shot, a 2+ save missed, etc. For WarmaHordes, an incredible attack killing off a caster can end an entire game because of a few sixes on those nefarious dice.

So, though skill does play an important part in who wins a wargames tournament, it is not the only deciding factor. Hence, we cannot truly guarantee that the right player wins. If there's a lot at stake, this is bad.

The Rules
The second greatest problem with staking things on the outcome of a wargame is that the rules are never watertight. There are disputes about rules for our games every day, in any number of venues; the Internet, gaming clubs and game stores around the world, being the most obvious. Anywhere people gather to play a wargame, questions arise regarding the rules.

Part of this comes out of careless writing. The companies that produce our games aren't perfect. We live with that.

More importantly, however, the rules for our games are incredibly complex. They have to encompass uncounted possible scenarios, sometimes caused by the tiniest of variations. The ways rules interact will always be difficult to predict accurately. This is even more true when rule are published sequentially rather than simultaneously (or near enough), sometimes with years between one set of rules and the next. The oldest and the newest Codexes for 40k are separated by nine years and span three separate editions of the core rules (the Necrons were published in 2002, and the Grey Knights in 2011, 3rd and 5th edition, respectively).

Even when rules are published more or less simultaneously, it would require an immense amount of text to cover every eventuality. Also, all aspects of the game would need to be controlled, so as to avoid loopholes. The most obvious place where this is not the case is in regards to terrain. Warhammer Fantasy micro-manages terrain selection and placement with a random table (which has its own problems, see above regarding random chance), but neither WarmaHordes or 40k does more than advise.

Is it cheating to break up a Wall o´Text with a picture about Walls of Text? I don't think so...
 Those games that are suitable for true competition are those that are simple enough to avoid these unforeseeable situations. Chess is an example, where every possible interaction can be relatively easily foreseen. Most sports have similarly relatively simple rules sets, because most aspects are controlled, and those that aren't are left in the hands of (theoretically) ever-attentive judges.

Which leads us neatly into the next subject.

True competiton requires judging. I am not prepared to negotiate this point. As soon as the stakes rise above the negligible, my trust in the players evaporates. This is not because I think every wargames player is a cheating dastard. Far from it. It is because I think any wargames player (or any human being) could be a cheating dastard in the wrong situation. If even one in a thousand gamers cheats when it matters, that means we cannot fully trust the results of a competition.

And even when cheating isn't considered, people make honest mistakes that can alter the outcome of a game.

So, a true competition needs judging. Constant judging. At every table, for every game.

I do judo in real life. Judo matches of any importance (which means larger than club level, for people older than twelve) has three judges for every single match. Even the tiniest match requires one judge. True, judo relies much more heavily on the judges than a wargame does, since individual scores are assigned by them.

And yes, they can probably kick your ass. But that would be undignified.

 Let's go back to football (yes, the real kind). Easy enough to determine who wins, right? Ball in goal equals one point. Most points after a given amount of time wins. Still needs a bundle of judges. Fewer per player than judo, but still three judges per match, when the match matters.

This is a football. I thought it appropriate.
 What's the density of judges at a wargames competition? One per three tables? Five? Maybe one judge dedicated to the top table. Maybe. And as far as I've understood, they are generally the passive kind of judge - answering questions and resolving disputes brought to them by the players, rather than watching the players actively.

Lack of Governing Body
This one's a bit dodgier than the rest, but sort of encompasses the Rules and Judging bits. Wargames generally lack a governing body.

Football has FIFA. Judo has the IJF. Even chess has the FIDE, apparently. No matter the game, these organisations have the responsibilty of keeping the game fair. They update rules, they clarify when things are unclear, they educate the judges, they organize or oversee the organization of large, important events.

Wargames largely lack this.

Oh, we have the companies who publish the games. And they do what I will call their best. But their existence revolves around making and publishing the games, rather than supporting them once they've been released. What work they do is to keep us buying their products. They also organize a very small percentage of the events for their respective games, and seem to take a very limited interest in the events organized by others.

There is little or no official support structure for wargames competition. There might be rules packs. There are no official judges, no centrally appointed supervisors, nothing.

And Finally...
I'm done now. Sort of.

Am I being ridiculous? Yes. But if one is to have a true competition, one needs to be a little ridiculous. The moment wargames competitons start boasting large prizes, sometimes seemingly cash prizes, the games enter a place they aren't meant to be. If you think I'm just being silly about judges and governing bodies, consider what you'd think if your favourite professional sport was left similarly unguided.

Consider those professional players, who get paid to win (much better paid than any wargamer, but still), left without judges for most of a game.

And then consider, again, if wargames are really suited for true competition.

For those keeping track (me) this post is fifteen hundred words long. If you're interested.



  1. Great article. I truly believe that for me the competitive aspect of war-games are irrelevant. Wargames are more than just winning or loosing because if you want that then there is chess.
    But the problem with chess is you dont have to choose factions, read or invent fluff, design your forces and then craft/build/paint your pieces. This is to me why i keep coming back to it.
    As you very eloquently state that to make it competitive in the truest sense would be too labour intensive. I think the growing voice of the competitive crowd can sometimes be exceptionally loud, sometimes quite interesting and insightful but I still think it's influence is small when you look as at the hobbies as a whole.
    P.s. Still enjoyed every one of the 1500 words :)

  2. Which might, now that I think about it, explain why Magic is such a popular tournament game. No random chance, centralised authority - not refereed, but closer to the ideal than any wargame.

    Food for thought.