[WFB] Ye Grande Tournamente of Yore

Oldhammer people are generally opposed to tournaments. Hell, in the modern sense of the word ‘tournament’ I agree with them. Playing five or six or seven cutthroat timed games, under pressure, knowing that to drop out is to bodge up the strength of schedule and ruin it for everyone, sucks balls. I am a soft and sleepy autist and a slow player par excellence: this is not my natural environment.

And yet, and yet. In the medieval sense of the word – as I believe my good friend and colleague Handsome Mr. Webb once said in one of his many hacked, redacted-when-he-became-the-industry’s-bitch or otherwise lost bloggeries – ‘tournament’ means something else entirely.

It was an opportunity for every knight of fair means and foul intentions (or vice versa), every man who owned a few peasants and a murdering tool, to come together and have their preferred barney. There would be archery, and the grand melee, and a joust or two, and you could win one of those events in their own right. There was variety.

When I think back to my first contact with the Grand Tournament (a writeup of the 1995 event by the esteemed Jervis Johnson, its organiser) I recall just such variety.

Attendees brought along a 1500 point force, a 500 point allied contingent from another army, and a special character.

One round was a straight 1500 point battle – but victory was awarded to the table with the highest Victory Points score, meaning no incentive to play Borehammer – solving the game through points denial or a ‘combo’ of abilities that tables the foe with little effort. Only mutually assured destruction would do: a proper gory game. You and your opponent had to work together to ensure maximum carnage.

Another was a battle with only your 500 points of Allies and your Special Character. Yes, I’m sure it was very gameable, let’s take Mannfred von Carstein and as many Pump Wagons as we can. It was there to generate absurdities, unusual games, games worth travelling and paying money to access, not the usual 2000 point pick-up (which in our modern times would often be someone’s ‘tournament prep’ anyway, to really cement that ‘more of the same’ feel).

There’d be an Arena of Death, in the classic style. Personally, to encourage the appearance of ‘lesser’ special characters like your Korhils and Kourans, I’d be tempted to bracket this: featherweights worth 1 or 2 VP all the way up to heavyweights like Nagash or Malekith. Or you could be boring and cap the special character’s cost at X hundred points or something.

And then, if you’d been very very good, you might just get to fight something resembling a 2000 point game, with the maximum 500 points spent on allies, and a special character – the quintessential Herohammer experience everyone remembers, only you wouldn’t have paid points for the special character so you’d actually have a proper army to go with them.

The main thing to consider here is that I don’t think there was a Best Overall, or if there was, it wasn’t the Only Thing for which everyone was shooting. You could win the Arena of Death and you’d win something worth winning. I approve of this. It ensures that there’s something at stake in every round, without sinking into the territory of participation medals or ‘best in faction’ or non-prizes like that.

If I were to run something like this, I can see two ways in which I’d do it. Either those four rounds, with a free lunch or tea (the meal of tea, eaten in the evening, to avoid controversies over what’s ‘dinner’) at stake for the winner of each round, OR those four events, four rounds of each.

That way people who like the single character approach (the Arena of Death) could do that for the whole weekend if they wanted to; people who enjoyed the wacky “500 points of Allies plus a Special Character from another army” round could repeat that one; people who like the ‘standard’ Herohammer game could just play their four 2000 pointers if they really wanted to.

Happy days. I don’t know if there’s a gathering point for Herohammer, like Bring Out Your Lead for the Oldhammer crowd, but maybe… there should be?

 

EDITED TO ADD:

  1. There is such an event, it runs at Warhammer World in early September. Huzzah!
  2. I have of course talked up the old tournament format before, in a post that the helpful “you may also like” widget dug out of my archives. In eight years of blogging it is almost impossible not to repeat oneself, which is why I don’t post as much as I used to.
  3. I forgot the “chariot race” round. Pick one model from your army and have a race round the table. Yes, you’re allowed to shoot other competitors. It was, apparently, hilarious to bring a Dreadnought and try to win by blasting all the Land Speeders and suchlike out of the sky.

[Meta Gaming] On Closure

An update of a 2011 piece, which aged badly, but which has come to mind time and again of late, so it’s getting a brush up and scrub down…

I – Follow The Money

An old acquaintance of mine argued, eloquently and at length, that the very concept of a ‘games industry’ leads to bad design. It does this in the cause of creating and maintaining a functional business in order for developers to support themselves.

A business has financial responsibilities; bills, wages, costs, overheads.  To satisfy those responsibilities, the business must continue to produce and sell product, either by creating new product lines (games) or adding material to existing ones. The latter is easier, and follows on the “sequels and remakes for proven success” model at the heart of the creative industries.

However, it results in designs which are at one and the same time bloated (with material released for the sake of releasing something, creating a range) and incomplete (there’ll always be niches left or created, design space forced, new concepts crowbarred in).

I find it hard to disagree with him.

I’ve seen it in tabletop wargames, where an elegant game becomes buried under redundant pieces, competing for ‘slots’. I’ve seen it in tabletop RPGs, where a torrent of splatbooks and supplements convolute rules and settings into incomprehensibility. I’ve seen it in computer games, where expansion packs have given way to DLC, and no game is complete on release.

Don’t think for a second that this is creatively merited. I was finally provoked into revising this piece by this:

Lexa

Now, I don’t remember asking for this state of affairs. I don’t like buying half a game now and half later, in a series of instalments, whether that’s DLC for a digital game or a series of splats and supplements for an analogue one. Nor do I believe that a dearth of releases “kills” a game. I still play games I bought five, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, and nothing’s been released for them in years-if-not-decades and they are still playable.

A bit dated, sure, and there’s merit in a revamp of the core product a couple of times in a decade, responding to new thinking and trends – cf. Privateer Press’ gradual drift away from balls-to-the-wall bro-hood, which was funny at the time but kind of embarrassing when everyone’s grown up a bit and we’ve seen the toxicity that bro culture creates.

But there’s a difference between putting out a new version of your core offering every few years and putting out a steady stream of miscellaneous non-essentials in between times, on a schedule, filling slots.

I didn’t ask to have this crap peddled to me – stuff that’s been deliberately left out of the core game to create a revenue stream down the line, or jemmied in later where it’s not needed. Developers apparently didn’t sign up to continue working on the same project indefinitely, chucking out a job half done because everyone expects the thing to be ‘finished’ some way down the line, not with a bang but with a whimper. That can’t be creatively fulfilling, can it?

Who benefits? Follow the money. Who benefits from extending the spending of money and the doing of work? Publishers and distributors.

II – Joker’s Law

To pay your mortgage with your game developer money, and put ‘game developer’ on your CV, and to be introduced at parties with “hi, this is Berk, he’s a game developer” – to develop and be Damned, as Robert Anton Wilson might have said.

Now, this should not be taken as a call for developers to work for the love. Sod that for a game of soldiers. Free labour is a mug’s game; neither ‘the love’ nor exposure are legal tender. As with all things in life, Joker’s Law applies:

C_DoAXYUMAAp2xo

 

Developing a good game takes time, time is money, and too much time spent not making money means having the pay the rent with Bullshit Integrity Dollars, which no nation in the world accepts as viable currency.

If you’re going to sink your time into making a game, that time should be remunerated. If you’re going to sink your time into doing anything it should be remunerated – and there’s the rub.

I detest the idea that we need one job, one stream of income, one vocation by which we can tidily identify (Damn) ourselves and earn our bread, and relegate everything else to ‘hobby’, stream-of-output status.

I am capable of doing quite a few things. I teach, I research, I write, and I play/think about/make stuff for games. Each of these things can become a stream of income, and I can identify as myself, rather than being ‘a teacher’ by vocation whose ‘hobbies’ are literary criticism and gaming. Oh – and I don’t need to do any of them full time. Because my livelihood does not depend on doing one thing, I don’t have to keep doing any one thing to keep the lights on. When it’s time to stop, I can stop.

 

III – One Door Closes, Another Opens

 

The classic model of making and selling games for a living is one of open streams of income – a game is made, and as sales flag, a new product is released for it in order to make more sales and continue paying the wages, bills, rents and so on and so forth.

Now imagine a game which exists, from the developer’s point of view, as a closed stream of income; it is produced, it sells out, pays the bills for a month or two, and then it’s done.  The developer moves on to paying their bills with something else, whether it be making another game or another job entirely.

Infinite extension through deliberate misdesign is no longer necessary because the developer’s livelihood is being assured by other means.  The game, if reasonably solid, can be preserved as a ‘dead’ one, immune to being buggered about with in the cause of generating further products and further sales.

The goal is to balance your time so that game development is not the One Thing you do for a living, which – in theory – means that more of your decisions can be based on good design practice, and you’re less worried about supporting yourself with any given project, because it is not your only means of support.

People manage it. However, they generally manage it because they’re aligned with distributors and publishers. Middlemen. People who specialise in moving money to creators and product to consumers, in managing pre-orders and guaranteeing income while development work is carried out. People who’ve made a business out of these things.

There is merit in this; after all, those labour hours in the early stages deserve recompense, you have to keep the lights on while you’re preparing the product too. I can “publish” my ideas by typing them on here and mashing a button, but people receiving those ideas… well, I have to go around telling people that I exist and have ideas, I have to represent myself to them, and they have to want to come looking for me, and I’m not exactly good at self-promotion, so of course I should work with someone who can do the stuff I’m not good at. These are the “needs of the business” I talked about earlier – and it’s all labour, and Joker’s Law still applies.

But do I work with them, or for them? Do I hire them, or do they hire me? Follow the money. Follow the benefit. Who hires? Who fires? Who drives, and who is driven? Who makes the millions and who lives in the shitbox apartments? Who says whether a game lives or dies – is finished, or unfinished? Who gets to call time and close the project and say “it’s good, it’s complete, it’s done?”

Not the people who want the product, nor the people who create the thing.

Seems to me the middlemen have taken over.

 

 

 

[Theory Thursday] The Ultimate Spirit of Wargaming

Part I – Dethroning Pedantry

ultimate-spirit-box

There’s a story behind this, but it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that, toward the end of my time with Warmachine and Hordes, I had to go and hunt out the first No Quarter that I ever bought, just to make sure I remembered “don’t quibble about millimetres in a game of inches”. Finding it gave me a few slaps in the face and reminded me what a sinner I am. I have kvetched about #3 and #4, I will be dead before I cam capable of #7 and I have indulged in #8 a few times, admittedly because I’m either dying of heatstroke or because someone’s due a bye anyway and I’ve had three miserable games. Finding it also vindicated me. See #1, #6, #9 and #10.

When I started playing (2005, would you credit it?), Playing Like You Had A Pair didn’t involve sticking the lip of your base right-next-to-but-not-within the woods so you could have the bonus without the penalty, or hanging one laser-calculated millimetre inside someone’s melee arc so you didn’t take a free strike. We accepted that blast templates are awkward, that one careless buttock passing by the table could send everything whole inches out of place, and that these awkward tactile objects of ours mean we’ll never be perfectly precise in our measuring and placing. We got on with the business at hand and gave a certain benefit of the doubt provided that intent was declared and mutually understood as acceptable.

Nowadays it seems unreasonable to expect a quiet game of giant robot smackdown fun after work without precision-cut measuring widgets in a range of sizes, a grab-the-geometry scenario presented in layers of legalese, a laser line and a cry of GOTCHA! for when someone forgets exactly what one of the two hundred or so warlocks or warcasters in the game can do.

At some point in the last decade, the game I loved has been taken over by, and become engineered for, rules lawyers and pedants and bean-counters. I find the resulting culture toxic: it brings out the worst in people who are often perfectly pleasant away from the game. Back in the day the most hardcore competitors I knew were the most chill, at-the-end-of-the-day-it’s-just-toy-soldiers guys you could imagine, and I can’t imagine anyone from Komitatus revelling in the pedantry that characterises the modern game.

I don’t begrudge people their high-end BE! ALL! THAT! YOU! CAN! BE! HUT HUT HUT! playstyle, if that’s what gets them through the day, but for me to have my fun I need at least a few people to cool their tits and remember that wargames will earn no paycheques, save no lives, and herald nobody’s place in Valhalla.

Part II – The Apparent Hypocrisy of Nigel Stillman

stillmania1-1024x719

Something similar was recommended to me in the Dark Ages of Warmachine (Mark I!) by a fellow from the Komitatus. “You people spend too much time and money on this shit,” he said. “Pick an army, pick a points value, build it, paint it, stick to it.”

When we discussed this over on the House of Paincakes, Stillmania was referred to as “a purist’s form of pick-up gaming”, and I think in this extreme form it is. The thing is, despite my general contempt for the pick-up form, this holds a certain weird appeal to me.

I think it’s the opportunity for closure. Malich over at Tabletop Gamers UK brought this up a while ago: when is an army finished? In the past my efforts have often petered out once the event which stimulated me to collect the force in the first place is gone, or once I’ve had enough of the league (or game system), or simply when there’s a lack of regular gameplay to encourage me. The last few models have lingered, either unpainted or forced for completion’s sake – and it’s always obvious when a model was forced above and beyond the normal level of “I don’t know if I like painting…”

Stillmania offers a rigid, unyielding sense of completion. It includes the deep and fundamental obligation to create Your Dudes and abide by them. It refutes the theoryhammer tinkering beloved of people who spend too much time talking about wargames on the Internet. It forces people to paint and to reject the czars of fashion. It is… compelling.

It is also not how Nigel himself seemed to end up doing things. When unleashed at article length the great Stillmaniac acknowledged playing smaller games with a champion and a handful of followers, and building the 1000-2000-3000 point blocks that were commonplace back in the Day. There’s an implied flexibility and nuance there which isn’t present in his principles as directly articulated… and it’s that flexibility, that sense that I have my 3000 point army and will pick units from it and make small variations for smaller games, that I’ve managed to achieve only once in my long career of wargaming.

It’s what I’m edging toward doing with the Chaos lads, though. I have a vision, with its core elements strictly defined, and other things not collected until they have ceased being nebulous and collapsed into something concrete. The list itself is tinkered with, thought about, adjusted as part of a process in which the collection grows and changes, but it will one day, probably when just shy of Apocalypse, be considered Done. There will be a collection to which no further models are added. There will be a List or two for games of various sizes and these Lists will only change when the rules on which they are based change. I am going to get this right, one more time.

Part III – Pick-Up Gamers Are Doin It Rong

Before any game, players must agree how they are going to select their armies, and if any restrictions apply to the number and type of models they can use.
— Warhammer 40K rulebook, ‘Choosing an Army’, emphasis theirs

I’m of the opinion that ‘any’ might as well read ‘every’.

We take this stage for granted: in the interests of a nice easy game we speed through this section and rely on unspoken standards, un-negotiated social contracts and undiscussed expectations.

This is why new players get flattened by melts who throw three Knights at them in their very first game. This is why tournament players wail and lament when they encounter an army that doesn’t use their preferred comp. This is why I reject the pick-up game: the idea that I and Joseph K. Meltsworth, who I don’t know from Adam, can whip out our respective 1500 point lists and have that be “good enough”, ready to play, sight unseen.

This is barking mad. I don’t know if Joseph has the same understandings of what is and is not acceptable as I do. I don’t know what he considers to be fluff, or cheese, or beard. He may have brought the latest donkeyflop laswing tri-Knight D-spam 30 warp charge psychic malarkey and I may have brought a handful of desperate Chosen tooled for melee and hiding out behind Cultists and shambolic vehicles.

Neither of us is Doin It Rong but both of us think the other guy is. We need to discover that before we begin preparing to play, not when we’ve already sunk time into writing a list and packed our case and come straight from work to get our game on. That way lies madness, disappointment, and Nerd Rage.

Fie on that noise. Skip the pre-game agreement and negotiation stage at your peril. Curate your experience. Don’t be afraid to say no to a game if you can’t agree on how to play it. No gaming is better than sad gaming and good gaming is better than either.

GW doesn’t develop its games to be played in the way that we normally play them. Look at all the occasions on which they describe building an army as “organising a collection” – you collect the dudes and then you fret about the army list and the Detachments and the Formations.

We have turned our back on this Way for valid reasons: an army we’ve planned is a collection and an expense we can  control, a pick-up game using by-the-book scenarios relieves us of potentially having to say no to someone. Nonetheless, when we play pick-up games, we are Doin It Rong in a subtle and insidious way that extends beyond the unwritten rules and assumptions that we all bring to pick-up games and which are far more valid on a subjective level.

I no longer drag myself down to the Friendly Local Gaming Store once a week for a ‘blind’ game against whoever’s there. I only really play wargames a handful of times in a year, by appointment and arrangement, in this more curated environment where we have to make agreements about things in order for the game to happen at all.

According to Da Roolz, this seems to be the Right Way. The Ultimate Spirit of Wargaming, at least as Games Workshop envisages it.

Discuss.