The Ballbusch Experience: Competitive Games
A few years back there was a huge push in the 40k player base to create a ‘competitive game’ out of 5th Edition. As we all know this effort came to grief thanks in no small part of Games Workshop itself. The question of competitive wargames lingers. Before we go one, I’d like to define what I mean by competitive. All players want to win, and all players strive to win. However, for a game to be truly competitive both sides must have an equal change to win. A sporting event is competitive because both sides have the same number of players and the same goal. There is no way to win without knowledge of the players. Likewise, chess. In a vacuum white and black have the same chance at victory.
Ours is an age that bend towards collaboration rather than competition. ‘There is no ‘I’ in team’; ‘everyone is a winner’, that sort of thing. One the other hand, there is a distinct push to make competitions out of the most ridiculous and unsuitable pastimes. So-called e-sports are popular and remarkably lucrative. Collectable card games have enjoyed popularity as tournament games for decades, and misguided souls have attempted the same with wargames on several occasions.
The first and most salient point is that war is simply not fair. The heart of even the most basic tactics is to lure your opponent into the most unfair situation possible. The standard set-up for any wargame is reminiscent of a chessboard: two forces roughly equal in size and/or capacities facing off over an expanse of more-or-less open ground. While balanced, this situation represents a complete failure of leadership. The result of such and encounter is predictable: heavy casualties and an inclusive result, which is sadly a common outcome on the wargames table.
Any competent officer transported to the wargames table would attempt to maintain contact with the enemy while awaiting reinforcements, a chance to redeploy, or orders to withdraw. This does not present a very interesting game. Yet, there are plenty of rules where an even points match can result in one said being ‘tabled’. However, I submit the following: any rules set that allows for the realistic possibility that one side will suffer defeat in detail during the classic ‘pitched battle’ scenario is fundamentally unbalanced.
The counter argument is, of course, tactics. But this does not hold up to examination. The scenario has set up a slugging match. If both sides are fundamentally equal (as assumed by the points match) and neither side has any particular advantage in ground then neither should suffer disproportionate attrition. Luck plays a part, but that undermines the idea player skill. With all else being equal the game should naturally drift toward stalemate. Skill is the theoretical X factor that makes the game winnable. However, this requires creating fundamental instability in the game which works to destroy balance.
Consider the conditions on the wargames table: cramped and crowded. The player may attempt to form a schwerpunkt somewhere on the table, but that is often very hard to do and tends to be more often an elite unit or ‘deathstar’ than an actual task force. Also, in an equal game the opposing force has the same level of threat as the play’s own force. Therefore, any effective concentration of force necessitates critically weakening another sector. Again, driving towards stalemate. The way around this, from a design prospective, is army books and special rules. Everything is not made equal, and a cleaver player can design a force to overawe an opponent with less knowledge of system or without the foresight to select the best army out of those available.
So, in order to create a winnable wargame the game must be made unfair. This eliminates any hope of competition on the table. At best the contest is one of list building skill. At worst it is one of luck and gamesmanship. Either way it has cease to be a proper wargame. Military considerations are forgotten and the setting is simply trappings for game mechanics. Much like a video or card game.
Magic: The Gathering can be made competitive because all cards are not created equal, but all players have access to all cards (in theory). So, deck building is a critical skill. Also, it is clearly a card game. There is no pretense of simulating wizardly duels. Likewise chess or checkers are not battlegames, and any real life events they might portray are abstracted beyond recognition.
As rules become simpler there is more room for competitive play. Something like Warhammer, even the much-praised 5th Edition 40k, groaning under the weight of dozens of books and hundreds of pages of rules really is not suitable. Also, most wargamers like complexity and detail. All impulses drive games away from competitive play even while many gamers still seek fair tournaments.
Some games are at least semi-suitable. Horde of the Things is a good example. Everyone has access to the same ‘army list’ the rules are simple and both sides have a simple goal. Similarly you can have a relatively fair and balanced DBA game. All armies are not created equal, but there is a certain amount of rock, paper, scissors to the play. All armies are the same size and victory goes to the first player to eliminate 25% of the opposing force. Add to that core rules that run all of six pages and you have a game that’s easy to play, easy to score, and–so long as no one plays any of the bottom-of-the-barrel armies–fairly balanced.
However, wargames work best with scenarios. More than that, they work best with a referee. Fog of war is a major part of battle. You never know the exact disposition of the enemy, he numbers and intentions have to be deduced from his behavior. A not necessarily balanced makes the play more simulation and less game. A gamemaster who hides things for the players and adds friction creates a far deeper appreciation for tactics.
That said, I acknowledge that I approach wargaming from something of an RPG prospective. I try to put myself in the commander’s place, use the right tactics, etc. But that is the intellectual soil from which wargames bloomed. Admittedly, modern wargames are far removed from the offices of the Prussian General Staff, but they remain evolved thought experiments.
Can we have a competitive wargame? I say no because the spirit of fair play and competition run counter to all considerations of warfare. This does not mean that wargames should not be conducted in the manner of gentlemanly sport. They must be. But rather that a certain amount of co-operation is necessary between the players even as both strive for victory.
This does not mean that by extension we cannot have a competitive miniatures game. However, such a game would have to be largely divorced from any pretense of tactical simulation. In that case the setting and ‘realistic’ outcomes are meaningless in the face of gameplay and balanced game mechanics. As mentioned before, Magic follows this model, as to some extent does 4th Edition D&D.
One underlying problem is list building. Even with point values it is almost impossible to ensure that all things are equal. So, in time it will be found that this is better than that. Which leads to a game becoming ‘solved’. Being ‘competitive’ means that players will select the optimal army. Which leads to the question of why the options are available in the first place.
From an intellectual standpoint I am not convinced that a truly competitive wargame would require nothing but mirror matches. Yet, I cannot think of a realistic approach that would ensure A army would always have a 50% change of winning against B army. Which leads us back to the same problem: in order to be competitive both sides must always have an equal chance of winning. That way player skill (in other words, the competition) is the only variable. The next question is do any of us even want to play that game? Much of the charm of wargaming would be lost for little or no gain.
Using current rules you could design a reasonably competitive tournament if not a competitive game. If the organizer designed all armies played and playtested the scenario(s) used until there was reasonable certainty that either side was equally likely to win. But again that is a largely preprogramed game with little of the creativity wargamers enjoy.