Game Balance, Competiveness, and Peer Pressure in Miniatures Games

Andrew Gross

Over the course of the last several years, while participating in several different online miniatures-related mailing lists, I have seen a fairly common argument repeated many times with minor variations. The argument begins with one person pointing out a particularly efficient army design that is quite likely to beat most opposing armies, or with someone pointing out a combination of troops/items/spells that clearly gives more value than was probably intended by the rules' author. At some point in the exchange, someone inevitably writes something to the effect of "yeah, it's legal, but anyone that would do that is a cheesy power-gamer munchkin, so the solution is just not to play with people like that again." I could not disagree with this sentiment and this argument more strongly. It's a fairly common point of view in the miniatures hobby, and I'd like to take a couple of minutes to explain why I so vehemently disagree with it.

Hmmm... if I just happen to leave this ruler on the table here... First of all, let me rebut the notion (in advance) that I'm some sort of ultra-competitive power gamer who wants to win at any cost. There are people on all of the lists that I'm referring to who have played against me (including the rules' authors of several of the games in question), and I think they'll back me up on this. I am even-tempered and genial when playing games; I've never yelled at anyone, or insulted anyone, or tried to intimidate anyone while playing. I am courteous, and willing to resolve all rules disputes with a die roll, or even give in entirely if playing at someone else's house or against someone less experienced than myself. I like the social aspect of gaming quite a bit, and generally only play games with and against people who I enjoy talking to and interacting with. I do not derive any portion of my self-image or ego from being good at games; I have a successful career, a wonderful wife, degrees from elite universities, etc., so I really don't have any need to beat someone at a game in order to feel good about myself. In other words, I'm not one of those people (and we've all met them) who would do something like sit there and watch you make a stupid move purely because you don't understand the rules, wait until you're done, and then point out your misinterpretation, with no intention of letting you take it back. That's not me.

Now, all that being said, I absolutely cannot understand why anyone would choose to play any game in which there are winners and losers (i.e., I'm not talking about role playing games or cooperative games) unless they're trying as hard as they can to win, within the confines of the rules and the boundaries of good sportsmanship. I don't understand what the attraction is. If it's just to be social, then why bother with the game at all? I routinely have people over to cook, drink wine, go to baseball games, etc. -- if that's all I'm after, it seems like introducing some sort of competitive structure like a game into the equation isn't worth the effort.

For me, the joy of gaming involves analyzing the rules of the game and the strategies of my opponents, trying different strategies of my own, and attempting to play as optimally as possible. If I make an optimal move and the die roll goes against me, I feel much better than if I make a poor move and get bailed out by an improbable die roll. If at some step along the way I find myself saying, "This move would be best for me, but it will make the game less fun", then I think the rules are fatally flawed, and I will not want to play that game anymore. What's more, it seems to me that this is an almost universal standard to hold card games and board games to; it is only in the realm of miniatures rules that I normally encounter people who seem to inject some sort of role-playing or cooperative element into the game, claiming that people should voluntarily forego certain advantages afforded them by the rules in order to make the game more fun for everyone else.

For example, let's say that in chess there was a rule that said the player who had the white pieces could, once per game, remove any piece of his opponent from the board other than the king. Now, obviously the rules for chess would be completely broken, because the white player would have a huge advantage. Yet I submit to you that the reaction of most people would not be to say, "Oh, the rules for chess are just fine; there's no problem with them. Just don't play with the jerks that actually remove one of your pieces when you've got black; only play with the players that refuse to take advantage of that opportunity". Instead, I think most people would have one of two reactions: (1) the rules of chess are broken, let's play a different game instead; or (2) let's agree on a house rule to make the rules fair -- in this case, throwing out the rule that lets white remove a black piece.

I could contrive similar examples for any other game you care to name, as well. Yet, for some reason, if you point out a flaw in a set of miniatures rules -- some combination of factors that the game designer did not see, that allow you to gain a huge advantage over your opponent in a manner that was obviously not intended or foreseen by the author -- you are often times labeled a power-gamer, or a munchkin, or an ultra-competitive asshole. And invariably, someone comes along and says something to the effect of "I just don't play with people like that."

And I just don't agree with that sentiment. It seems to me that we expect every other type of game we play to have rules that allow us to try as hard as we can to win without ruining the game for everyone else. When I go to Titan tournaments, the top players are from MIT and U.C. Berkeley, and most are math and physics majors; we spend a fair amount of time computing probabilities and permutations, sometimes spending 15 minutes to gain an advantage that will only reveal itself 1 or 2 percent of the time. We have a blast; it's fun for us. No one accuses anyone else of being a jerk for trying to find an optimal move; having a rich, well balanced set of rules that allows for many different viable moves at every stage encourages this sort of analysis, and it's what makes the game fun for us.

Why should I expect anything different (I would claim "anything less") from a set of miniatures rules? Why should I suddenly be required to analyze my position, determine that I could easily do X within the rules and greatly increase my chances of winning, but be forced to refuse to do X or risk being labeled a jerk?

On one of the mailing lists I read, someone recently said "No rules set that I've ever encountered is immune to bad players." Well, bullocks on that. I think I'm a very reasonable player; most people that play games with me have a good time, and I've made many close friends over the years playing strangers at conventions. But if the rules allow me to do something, and it helps my chances of winning, than I'm going to do it. If the result is that we don't have an even game, and we don't have fun, then I submit that this is an indication that the rules have a problem, not that I'm a "bad player".

Or, to put my whole diatribe as succinctly as I can: many perfectly reasonable, congenial, decent people derive a large part of their enjoyment of wargames from the process of developing a set of strategies and tactics that is as close to optimal (i.e. gives the largest probability of winning) as possible; and any set of rules that relies on social pressure ("I won't play with you if you do this", "you're a jerk if you do this", "you're a bad player if you do this") rather than correctly thought out and worded rules to get a desired outcome is broken and should be fixed.


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Comments

Great guest Jan 24, 2007 16:58

This is a REALLY fantastic article and puts across many of the points I've been making for years too. Although I suspect you feel even more strongly about them than I do - good man!

I'd love to know.. have you found any miniatures wargames that don't need to invoke the "don't be a jerk" rule?

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