House of Paincakes / Is Small Beautiful?

HOP Blog Network About twelve hours too late (far beyond ‘fashionably late’ and into ‘angry phone calls and brandishing of erroneous calendars, with references to scribbled notes and bad connections, as we try to establish whose fault it is that we’ve come on the wrong sodding day AGAIN’):

GAME OVER is dead chuffed to be invited into the shiny new network for blogs that don’t draw lines where none need exist.  They bring the new moves. I bring… parentheses, the bare minimum of foul language, and theme lists with the wackiness carefully siphoned out and the sharp pointy metal death carefully ladled back in.

Also, since people are actually reading this thing now, I suppose I should make an effort and get it looking nicer.

Now, I dislike vacuous announcement posts without anything else in them, so here’s a response to something I read on Baals 2 the Waals (you see how good this networking thing is?  Already we’re meeting new people!  Hello new readers, by the way…) about small games in big game systems (the distinction, rather than just saying ‘small games’, is made because systems like Necromunda or Mordheim or Malifaux, what we used to call ‘skirmish scale’, have their own strange alchemy, with their own problems of scaling that work the other way.).  We’ll skip the part where it’s hard to persuade people to play a 40K game bigger than that in Merrie England, and cut straight to the twitching heart of the matter before ripping it out, still beating, and smearing it on the bosoms of our loyal disciples.

Maybe I need to ease off on the Dark Elves a bit?


I value smaller games when I’m starting a collection or learning a new system, mainly because I can’t really afford to rush out and buy a standard sized army all at once, and also because that’s how you end up with shelves full of unused, unsatisfactory-on-the-tabletop models that you didn’t know better than to buy.

Small games are invaluable for feeling my way around the mechanics of the new thing, learning how it works and what it needs, actually making informed choices rather than buying stuff that mostly adds up and consequently making a rubbish list.

Small games tend to be easier to handle: with fewer units on the board, you don’t have so many lanes of fire and orders of activation to manage, and since I – unlike, it seems, every other wargamer on the planet – am a card-carrying Morning Person and tend to be addled, weary and easily confused by the time the games ever start, that’s occasionally a small mercy.

Local players who wouldn’t play small games and insisted I borrow a hodgepodge of minis to build a really rubbish 2000 point WFB army actually drove me out of the game for over a year (in fact, until I’d moved out of the area).

(Aside: incidentally, there’s a conversation doing the rounds about goals being misaligned and The Difference between ‘hobby’ and ‘competitive’ players.  This, right here, is proof that when your goal is to build a nice army with an implicit character and a strong hobby aspect, to learn it slowly with small games and carefully pace out your investment, and the other local players are all off to a tournament every other month and want 2000 point high-end practice competition with their best lists, you are out of whack and not going to enjoy yourself.  The fact that I couldn’t arrange a space in which I could play the way I wanted to was the killer here – due to my circumstances at the time, it was their way or the highway.)

The point is that I don’t dislike small games, in the slightest. I disagree, however, that they somehow require more skill.  It’s certainly a challenge to build a take-all-comers list at 1500 in either mainstream GW system, and some people/books simply can’t do it.  Most end up going for what White Dwarf used to call ‘nemesis armies’ and what we Sun Tzus of the Internet customarily call the ‘rock/paper/scissors’ approach.

In essence, one abandons the attempt for balance, and gives up capability in one arena in order for increased potential in one.  If we go back to my Dark Elf army for a bit, this is what I’ve been advocating doing for small tables and the games which fit on them; you don’t have the space to preserve appropriate lines of fire and advance your combat troops to the optimal position and cockblock your opponents with scouts, vanguards, fliers and other sundry nuisances, so you give up one of these in order to give the others room to operate.

There is nothing morally wrong with this approach; if you don’t agree, you’re welcome to, but please read the last five or so posts on this blog before you say so, so you can understand where I’m coming from.  I think playing a small game and choosing how to use the limited battlespace you have available is sensible, or at least more so than bringing a small list that tries to do everything and ends up like a bag of jumping jacks; locked together in a big lump of metal that you can’t play with properly.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a downside, though.  If you’re playing pick-up games at the local nerd emporium, for instance, and you have a list that has forsaken the shooting element for close combat and denial, and you face something with strong shooting and denial elements, you’re buggered.  The loyal opposition has the paper to your rock; their shooting shoots your denial, their denial is free to deny your combat, and their shooting finishes your combat off.  Welcome to the noble game of keep-going-forward-don’t-get-killed.  That’s the classic example of a rock-paper-scissors game.  Through no fault of your own, you’ve set yourself up for a bad, frustrating game that isn’t a proper competition, but a duckshoot.

Small games leave you open to bad matchups, if ill planned.  This can be negotiated by actually planning.  The House of Von believes there is no shame in pre-negotiating army lists and scenario if doing so removes the threat to an enjoyable game where all participants are competing, although this is by no means the only way to play.  Pickup games are still a perfectly legitimate approach and one I partake of often.

Even then, however, there is still a chance for the game to be spoiled by factors beyond your control.  The thing I dislike about small games in big game systems is the inability to absorb a bad turn and recover – you simply don’t have enough good stuff on the board.

Smaller games, in my experience, tend to turn on single incidents – which is fine unless that incident is in the second turn and you spend the rest of the game unsatisfied, stressed and doing little more than remove your models when you’re told to.  A challenge is good.  Stress is not.  Biggish games have an ebb and flow about them: they give you the modelpower (not raw numbers, but the all-important redundancy in your army list) to come back from a mistake or a round of cold dice.  I might be biased because we gamers tend to do things in the evening, when I am especially short of spoons and prone to making mistakes and getting frustrated, but I like games where I can foul up (or be at probability’s mercy, whether through very cold dice or a failure to properly stack the odds in my favour) and recover from it.  There’s a skill to doing that which I don’t think is built or tested in small games.  I also – and this is visceral thinking, rather than logical – find ‘ebb and flow’ more interesting than ‘you snooze, you lose’.

TL:DR? Small games in big game systems are good for learning, good for tired gamers, good for limited space and good tests for the skill of list building.  Big games are good for balanced lists and tactics, good for avoiding bad match-ups, good for absorbing cold dice and avoiding the frustration they bring, and good tests for the skill of tactical recovery.  They are equally valid, but different.  False binary oppositions are the enemy of the hobby and create animosity where none need exist: and if you disagree with that, do so elsewhere.

6 thoughts on “House of Paincakes / Is Small Beautiful?

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  1. >Well played, though I don't necessarily agree with everything you said, you stated your position well. I personally prefer the 750-1000 point games, but for my own reasons. I do agree with your thoughts on "breaking into the game" using this size listings. As a parent trying to teach his children the mechanics of said system smaller point games are the best way to do just that.

  2. >I quite agree that when you're learning/teaching the game, especially with younger gamers, small games have a world of virtues. Not least among these are time and money, which become a lot more important in the world of pocket money, lunchtime games and short attention spans.Honestly, though, I don't think I can really get my teeth into 750 points of 40K: the system doesn't seem to scale down that far for me. 1000 points was quite fun the last time I tried it, but that was fourth edition and we were all a bit less sophisticated in our tactics in them days.

  3. >Lol, nice one Von. I especially like this comparison… :D"Most end up going for what White Dwarf used to call 'nemesis armies' and what we Sun Tzus of the Internet customarily call the 'rock/paper/scissors' approach."I'm signing up an looking forward to your future observations. BTW, you're right it sounds like there maybe a bit too much Druchii in your life right now ;-)Keep it up (in a none Druchii sense !),Sigmar

  4. >A sad sack of jumping jacks? Yeah, I hate it when I have a big lump that I can't play with properly. Oh, and everything else was well put as well. I especially liked your point that people are either binary in their thinking and stupid, or are…uh…UNbinary in their thinking and cool. XD

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