The Gaming Contract

I received an email from a chap called Matt a while back and I’ve been working on a proper reply to him, as he asks some very interesting questions. As I can only speak for myself, perhaps other gamers would like to add their answers and views in the comments.

This is a topic that’s been on my mind for awhile and has been brought back to the foreground after ‘Ard Boyz.  The North American blogosphere is divided over how much of an influence tournaments have had over 40k and Fantasy and many seem to feel that ‘Ard Boyz is symptomatic of that.

These events are always majorly competitive with the lists that many people consider to be broken.  To use an example from your own work, Lash of Submission is one such thing.  I have no wish to condemn you over your work on Codex: Chaos Space Marines but wish to use an example you’ll be familiar with.  When dual CSM Sorcerors appeared with Lash and for a time dominated tournaments.  The response that came from GW as a whole that the company was shocked that anyone would do such a thing.  This suggests to me a fundamentally different mindset that we on the other side of the Atlantic aren’t familiar with.

I think you overstate any shock or viewpoint from GW as a whole – or certainly it seems to have come about through a Chinese whispers method. As a developer, I saw it as my job to eliminate obvious abuses while at the same time acknowledging the fact that competitive gamers will always approach any army list with a view to maximum efficiency regardless of other factors such as the background. I don’t have a problem with this, as each competitive player has equal access to all armies and compositions. In short, if a player’s only consideration is winning games and a particular army and selection fulfils this criteria I would expect them to field that army. As turns out, aesthetic, background and other considerations come into play for all but the most hardcore of players, and so variety is maintained. It would be a sad day if everybody decided that double-lash Chaos Marines were the way to go and that was all you saw in tournaments; proof from the frontline suggests that this is not the case thankfully.

I would like to know how the Games Workshop team (present and former) approach actually playing games of 40k and Fantasy.  I have tried reading Jervis Johnson’s Standard Bearer articles.  However, he is writing from a different cultural mindset and there are certain unspoken assumptions in his writing that don’t exist over here.

I would disagree that the cultural divide you describe is as pronounced as you seem to think. The greatest difference between the UK and US is simply one of size. The dispersion of the US gaming community over a much wider area creates a certain bias towards organised events (usually tournaments) and a tournament-heavy internet community, but I do not think that the competitive mindset is massively more prevalent than anywhere else. It was from large ‘garage floor’ games held by many US gamers that the inspiration for Apocalypse arose, for instance.

What I do find particular about the US approach to gaming, as in others areas of US culture, is a leaning towards statutory, rules-based solutions. Even in non-tournament environments, there is a desire for absolute clarity from outside, and an underlying suspicion of compromise and solutions agreed between the players themselves. Put another way, US gamers have a tendency to want independent, blanket arbitration even on issues that can be simply resolved on a case-by-case or local basis. In law, in sports rules and even just in society, there’s a definite bias towards rules-based solutions rather than behavioural changes; or the acceptance that sometimes things need to be fudged to work.

With regard to Jervis’ articles, the cultural difference is due more to generation and experience than any geographical location. As a long-time gamer, Jervis and other senior folks at GW cut their teeth in a very different environment to the one that exists in Warhammer, 40K and The Lord of the Rings today. Coming from a mainly historical wargaming perspective, with very few rulesets universally adopted, the previous generation of gamers depended upon doing their own research, amassing army composition and painting information from many different sources,  and creating their own rules far more than those who have been nurtured on the teat of boxed starter sets and all-in-one Army Books and Codexes. As a child of Rogue Trader, my gaming maturation occurred during a period of shift between the one and the other, and the experience of having to fend for oneself to a much greater extent still remains with me.

Tournament play has been a part of wargaming for decades, but for the majority of the time it has been a subset of the community, with the majority of wargamers refighting historical battles, ‘what if’ scenarios and with an unspoken convention of narrative and accuracy as informed by history and study. Wargaming was indivisible from the love of history, whereas today the gaming aspect of toy soldiers (particularly in a fictional world such as 40K) has become more abstract, and often an end in its own right.

No one particular style of play is given prominence over another in terms of games development policy. This can cause problems, because the needs and demands of different sorts of gamers can be very contradictory, and added to that are the competing requirements of novice and veteran gamers. At the heart of it, GW games were created to allow fans to collect, paint and game with cool toy soldiers, expressing the stories and imagery of the universes on the tabletop. Just as a military enthusiast might want to collect a Republican Roman Legion and live out their exploits in miniature, a 40K enthusiast can collect an army of Ultramarines and do the same for the fictional background.

Beyond this basic principle there is the desire to allow people from all over the world to come together and play their games on a common ground. Everybody plays the same game. In this sense, the tournament approach starts to make itself felt. Coming together with your friends, devising armies and a scenario based on a historical event or speculative encounter before you play takes preparation and commitment. Conversely, having pre-defined army lists and an agreed framework of battles allows players who have never met before to put their models on the table and start playing with the minimum of fuss. This is the ‘pick up’ game, and it is this more than tournaments that I feel has changed wargaming.

In order to ensure such pick up games give each player a reasonable chance of victory, issues of game and army balance come into the equation. However, such a consideration must always be tempered against the first principle – that of players being given freedom to collect and paint the toy soldiers that they like and to recreate the battles they envisage. Such is the nature of this conflict that balance between the two demands will never be perfect. At one end of the spectrum is giving players free rein to collect what they like regardless of the gaming consequences; at the other is heavily restricted force compositions that ensure a fair fight but tell people what they have to collect. Individual rulesets and army list styles sway along that spectrum.

I have no desire to ask you to reveal details covered by an NDA.  I only wish to be informed of the mindset that goes into the game as GW employees and the British wargaming community at large plays 40k and Fantasy.  What reasoning determines what miniatures you acquire and paint? What determines what units you put on a table? How do you go about writing a list? Does your opponent have any say in your list or do you have a neutral third party create your lists? How do you set up the board and determine win/loss conditions? How much terrain do you use? Do you do unique scenarios often? Does the British wargaming community do tournaments as well or do they do more story-based campaigns.

There is no single answer to these questions, either personally or as a community. I think that British wargamers are just as diverse as any others, and as prone to tournament mentality or narrative play as anybody else. There is a thriving tournament scene in the UK, some of which are free-for-all like the ‘Ard Boyz, some of which have additional composition restrictions and scenarios to create what the organisers see as a more level playing field.

No single approach, to gaming, events or tournaments is going to fit everybody. The issue GW must address is how to stream this varied message to the relevant parts of the gaming community. Take War Machine, for example. Designed as a no-holds-barred CCG with miniatures, it revels in its status as a competitive game and a ‘death to the weaklings’ approach. ‘Ard Boyz and other non-restricted tournaments take a similar approach. Conversely, GW games also address those who want to play campaigns, or design their own scenarios, or use ‘counts as’ armies to explore parts of the worlds for which miniatures don’t yet exist, or provide opportunity for those whose passion is simply for painting and modelling, and every shade in between.

GW does not take this decision for gamers, but endeavours (to greater or lesser success) to provide materials that the gamers can then do with as they wish. It is at this point that the gamers take responsibility for their own hobby and recognise what it is they want to get out of it. A major part of this is finding a group of like-minded gamers who are seeking the same thing, so that conflicts of what the players want to get out of their games do not arise.

And to come back to your first point, this is where I think tournaments and competitive gaming get a disproportionate amount of influence and press. Those players who are happy with a more freeform approach, who have found a comfortable gaming club or group of regular opponents are not thrown into the potential conflict of fresh opponents every weekend that tournaments and in-store pick up games might create. Their issues are resolved amicably and quietly between friends, rather than debated hotly over internet forums and with tournament umpires.

I would say that the first part of any gaming contract is with yourself and comes about from exploring what gaming has to offer and admitting without fear of prejudice what it is you like and don’t like from your games. Having done this, you are in a position to seek out those venues and opponents that are most likely to share your goals. Nobody should feel apologetic if they love the tactical challenge and the gaming aspect far above the other parts of the hobby, in the same vein that Golden Demon painting winners don’t feel the need to apologise for not being awesome generals on the tabletop. Regardless of aim, players should conduct themselves with reasonable decorum and do not seek to judge or denigrate the gaming preferences of others. For most of us, we exist in that fuzzy area between all of the extremes, enjoying the gaming, collecting, painting, background and beer in roughly equal measure.

Within that overall context, my choices as a gamer and a games developer are different. As a professional developer it was my job to weigh up the different demands, and the games I played covered the spectrum from trying to break lists to ensuring themed armies were characterful and entertaining. As my natural inclination is towards the narrative end of the spectrum, I was very keen to make use of others whose outlook was from a more competitive standpoint – and even if I disagreed with them I hope that they understand how much I valued their input and dedication.

On a personal level, I am moving back to a less organised and structured approach to gaming, reclaiming some of the spirit of invention and imagination that drew me into this hobby in the first place. I’m still firmly of the mind that I’ll do what I want with my soldiers and games; I don’t need anyone else’s permission (expect my opponents!) and I don’t need outside authority to legitimise my choices. I have some lofty ideas and plans, but unfortunately at the moment don’t quite have the time to push them through to fruition – but that’s the same for most folks, isn’t it?

Published in: on July 6, 2010 at 12:55 pm  Comments (13)  

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  1. I never had a GW near me, in cold, wet Cork, Ireland, so the only games played were among friends out my back (in the cold and the rain, wind and hail)
    We always argued, but it was always fun too. We often got rules wrong.
    When we started playing 40k 3rd Edition, we thought that if you had a special combat weapon, it only affected 1 attack. So roll 1 regular attack plus 1 power weapon attack! Blame it on being a 12 year old who skims the rules!
    The tournament scene seemed to spring up more recently, and I’ve only attended one. Wasn’t much fun. Our armies were built over years of buying and painting things we thought were cool. There was no such thing as going online, finding a list and buying that.

    Now I am older and play very rarely (inside, thank the gods) but when we play it is still in the relaxed way we always did, stringing together major events by naming our commanders and remembering who won. I still spend plenty of time online, where I prefer to discuss fluff more than rules.

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  2. I *AM* an American and there are a multitude of playstyles here. While I expect in some social circles some styles of play (hard core competitive versus loose and fast ‘counts-as’ proxy-type) will be more or less prevalent, if you look around the opposite (and everything in-between) does exist. I don’t see a cultural divide in that area between the US and UK.

    One thing that exists in the GW realm of games is variety and ability to really make it what you want to. If you are interested in one aspect of the game/ hobby then that is fine and you can find others of like mind. This is not true in all games but it’s nice that GW rewards all styles of play and aspects of the hobby.

    While double-lash armies exist they aren’t my personal favorite. I’m not all that competitive and am more in to rolling dice, winging the rules or adjusting them to fit OUR games with pretty toy soldiers. That said, I wholly respect the guys who can math-hammer their way though competitive slugfests. There’s room in this hobby for all of us.

    Ultimately there is no “one true path” to enlightenment or “right way” to play nor is there a cultural divide as far as nationality goes. I think due to the US being a bit more spread out it may be more of a challenge to find all types of gamers, but we exist in a variety of flavors.

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  3. Speaking as an American gamer I find that there are players of every kind in the gaming community. There are several shops here in Lansing, MI and they all have dedicated groups. The store I play at, Evolution Games, has a very big group of 40k and Fantasy players. We are a very competitive bunch but we do not run into the issues that are apparently rampant due to the tournament scene. We plays lists that are considered broken to see how they work and develop strategies to counter them. For the most part though we play friendly games with competitive lists and do just fine when we do tournaments. We govern ourselves when it comes to rules clarifications and interpretations.
    I think the need for outside rulings by we Americans is due to the fact we want support or vindication when confronted with an army that skirts the rules or I should say the spirit of the rules. Although legal it hurts the spirit of the game when you use duel lash sorcerers or An inquisitor lord with mystics with an Imperial Guard army. It takes the fun out of playing.
    In friendly games you take stuff like this with a grain of salt but in tournaments victory by any means it taking precedence over sportsmanship and fair play. This hurts the spirit of the game.
    At least in my humble opinion

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  4. Interesting read Gav.

    With regards games design and development the way I see the discussions swing back and forth online I do get the impression that the US way of thinking is generally led by a somewhat rigid approach to rules and formulae. Obviously not all US citizens will be like that but the impression I get from online discussions is that number-crunching and things ‘adding up’ is a key aspect of their games development style. The designers tend to want to prove it works because it follows the xyz formula. (Calculating point values in particular is something I shake my head at when I see people creating formula to calculate values).

    Opposite that, here in the UK, we seem to have a much more flexible, ‘arty’ approach. We seem more likely to throw things together and see how it goes. The numbers don’t have to work to a formula as long at the resultant game play is fun and ‘feels’ right. Of course probabilities etc. have to be considered but I think we have, in general, a much more organic approach to our design work.

    As far as players are concerned I think as soon as you create a tournament environment you will get people who will try to squeeze whatever advantage they can out of the game they’re playing no matter which country they live in. I’ve played tourney players at our club and it’s a totally different approach to gaming than my default setting. I’m not a win at all costs player by any stretch of the imagination but I do play to win. There is a focused mindset for tourney players which, while I can understand it. I don’t find gaming in that fashion as much fun (when taken so seriously).

    I think ‘points values’ are a double-edged tool in tabletop gaming. They make list building relatively simple but they also create an illusion of fairness.

    A players perception of ‘fair’ depends on that players own internal position on what makes a game fun. At least that’s my current thinking anyway.

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    • I think ‘tournament requirements’ are more to do with the presentation and clarity of the rules than the actual system – more about this in another post.

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      • I think I might be able to see where you’re going with that thought. 🙂

        Reduction in ambiguity/open to interpretation rules writing = reducing the ‘wtf’ moment when a player does something on the tabletop that doesn’t seem right to his opponent. The player then reads the particular rule again very slowly one word at a time and has the, ‘the rule as written’ realisation of what just happened.

        Even some of the tourney players I’ve spoken to have said there’s a disconnect in some instances between the ‘intention of rule vs rule as written’. But in a competitive environment they take the rule as written despite knowing it plays differently than they think it was intended to.

        It’s an interesting topic when looked at without the vitriol you often see across the forums. Look forward to seeing your thought on it.

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  5. “What I do find particular about the US approach to gaming, as in others areas of US culture, is a leaning towards statutory, rules-based solutions. Even in non-tournament environments, there is a desire for absolute clarity from outside, and an underlying suspicion of compromise and solutions agreed between the players themselves. Put another way, US gamers have a tendency to want independent, blanket arbitration even on issues that can be simply resolved on a case-by-case or local basis. In law, in sports rules and even just in society, there’s a definite bias towards rules-based solutions rather than behavioural changes; or the acceptance that sometimes things need to be fudged to work.”

    I agree entirely here, again I think this is the overall national culture affecting the thinking with regards to rules, manner of play etc etc. Which I guess, given the sheer bloody size of the place and the mosaic like nature of much of the culture over there is perfectly understandable and a reflection of a genuine desire for a level playing field ( ok.. depth of pockets aside perhaps I’ll grant you and that’s the same in anything in life really) to enable the “best” to shine or rise to the top.

    I’m not attacking or saying this is a bad thing at all.. not in every case anyway.. but it’s something that I think GW ( and they’re not alone in this error but they are the topic) have often, and still frankly, failed to quite grasp at times.

    I’ve had loads of ( very polite and helpful I’ll hasten to add) conversations with design studio members of the years (including Mr. Thorpe here and there) over things like FAQS and whilst I can appreciate that to their eyes certain questions really don’t need or deserve answering in a FAQ ( The lack of grey knight transports or the infamous is a character in terminator armour a terminator or not debacle) there are others that, whilst clear in intent or design to the studio or writers, really aren’t that clear and do need answering.
    Yes, people are ( and should be) capable of deciding such things for themselves but this is where I think GW still fail to “step up to the plate”; these need an answer, especially as the “creative” ( for want of a better term) players are quite capable of ignoring any official ruling that they disagree with, whilst those who prefer or seek some official decision are left floundering or, increasingly, left to drag out an answer via the often painful process of internet forum debates and the like.

    … and you know what people on the internet are like right ? 😉

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  6. Hi there, Gav. This is Matt. Let me start off by thanking you for the polite and well thought out responses you’ve given to my questions.

    I think reds8n has made a very perceptive observation about our culture. For an example of our thinking towards any ‘competition’, I’ve linked the speech George C. Scott made as General Patton in the movie Patton.
    http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=5cb_1178900597&o=1
    I think part of it comes from the fact that our culture is so large and our frontiers were only truly becoming tamed just over a hundred years ago. We still have that ‘you gotta look out for yerself, pardner’ outlook from when we settled the land west of the Mississippi River. It encouraged a true “adapt or die” mentality that has continued to linger. One consequence is that we don’t like to house rule.

    We’ve all heard horror stories about someone unwittingly signing his life away in a contract and than losing it all because he “didn’t read the fine print.” Although there’s a huge difference between tabletop gaming and contract law, the fear is more or less the same. We don’t want to open ourselves up to abuse. We want clear wording because of “legalese” possibly being used against us.

    It may also just be my local gaming scene (New York,New Jersey,Pennsylvania) but the metagame swings towards hardcore tournament list building. The main reason for this I think is because tournaments are over and done in a single day. I’ve met more than a few people who won’t play in campaigns, special scenarios, or anything else with an ongoing story because they either have no interest or feel they don’t have the time. On top of this, it’s made all the harder when busy adult schedules can’t seem to mesh for weeks at a time. Also, the wargaming hobby still occupies a smaller niche here than it does in Britain.

    I’ve heard people talk about trying to rectify the above, but that’s usually all it winds up being…talk. Few really want to evaluate and learn new house rules for each “house” they go to. They don’t want to spend the time negotiating with their opponents. There will always be complaints that they don’t have time for it due to their job and family obligations. As a consequence, “bad” rules will still get used because it’s just easier to do than write your own and convince others to try them.

    Anyway, sorry if I rambled a bit. Thank you again for your response, Gav.

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    • It could be an east/ west culture thing. In gross generalities East-coasters tend to be more outspoken and competitive where West-coasters tend towards being laid back and casual. Again, gross generalizations. If I had to throw a dart at a cause I’d shoot for population density over the past couple hundred years but I’m totally guessing.

      While I’m in the mid-west now I’m a Washington native and I’m far more used to creative house-ruling, simple roll-offs and Rule Zero.

      (Admittedly there are competitive folks everywhere just as there are casual players. East…west, makes no difference. Maybe a higher prevalence depending on locale.)

      It’s an interesting conundrum Matt.
      Cheers!
      JP

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  7. “We seem more likely to throw things together and see how it goes. The numbers don’t have to work to a formula as long at the resultant game play is fun and ‘feels’ right.”

    The above quote is exactly how I play games, and for the life of me I don’t see the attraction of recreating stock factions and characters, but to each his own. I always go back to “Rule Zero”, and my 40k collecting and playing is a running narrative between me and my friends.

    As a US player of many games I’d say that there are just different mindsets in the American gaming community, and if it seems like one is a stereotype of American players, I’d say it has more to do with competitive Americans being more likely to voice and argue about their opinions than guys like me who just like to do weird, fun things with their toys.

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  8. Gav,
    Well said!
    Sean

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  9. Wow. It can’t be much fun as an American kid trying to play 40k. When I first picked it up in 1987 there were no army lists. It just depended on who bought what as to the kind of army you had. I remember my 30 plastic marines being seriously outgunned by a vast horde of metal eldar (bought at great expense by my wealthy mate) – all the fun was in trying to hold a hilltop (a pile of books) as long as possible before all my guys were gone! I was getting kill ratios of 3/1! Those days of cobbled scenarios and bodge-it-up rules were probably more fun than anything I’ve played where an army list was involved. Lighten up America!

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  10. I’ve given this issue some thought over the last year having read alot of US gaming websites [I myself am English] and I have a suggestion as to why there is a difference between the UK and US.

    Now what I will say is of course there are ALL types of gamers in both countries. However, the prevalent tournament focused, listbuilding thing that goes on in the US does have a possible reason for it’s existence besides the peddling it gets online.

    Hobby Centre placement.

    Now the UK is a reasonably small place. However in this small place you can go to most small towns and find an official GW store, and several within a big city sometimes. It’s like starbucks over here. The US by contrast has comparably few by landmass and has a very hard to get to Games Day unless you happen to live in the state its held.

    Now why is this important?

    Well, the official stores themselves foster through games nights and staffer attitude the more casual approach to play. Any discussion through the staff is done with company policy in mind. Have you ever tried to get a GW staff member to admit an obviously flawed rule or rubbish unit is useless? They won’t do it because they are salesmen who have to push company product and goodwill. The games nights are rarely as competetive as a US tournament which for some US gamers is the biggest chance to play against alot of, or a large amount of different people. Go a long time without playing at an event and you will spend ages trying to come up with a list where you will do well and the trip isn’t a complete waste of time because you didn’t plan your list carefully enough. There are FLGS in the US of course but I would think playing there is a different experience and atmosphere than an official store.

    On a final note every UK tournament I’ve seen has awarded alot for things other than winning such as compostition, painting and sportsmanship so ‘winning at all costs’ is not exactly encouraged in any way.

    Of course this is just a hypothesis based on what I have seen and is in no way a definitive explanation.

    P.S. I’ve never seen double lash prince/sorcerer in store games largely because slaanesh armies are fairly rare and people don’t seem to fluff-rape by taking them with a non-slaaneshi force.

    P.P.S can we please get a new chaos codex ;o;

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