First Round Gaming Tournament Seeding

This post discusses the challenge of first round pairings for wargaming (and boardgaming) tournaments, and an idea for improving them in larger events. My primary interest at the moment is organizing narrative events for Warhammer 40,000 (40k), but the discussion is largely not specific to that game or style.

Clubbing Baby Seals

One of the great virtues I see of tournaments, even and perhaps especially for fairly casual game players, is that if they’re well designed and run then they more or less ensure that by the end of the event everyone will be playing competitors of similar skill and/or equipment (army list, deck, etc.). However, the opening round presents a challenge. In wargaming and similar there’s typically no information to go on, no meaningful persistent rankings from which to seed the initial matches. High level chess, checkers, go, Magic, and other tabletop gaming tournaments that can do so are by far the exception rather than the rule. In nearly all events players are just paired randomly in the first round.

Random pairings can obviously lead to highly mismatched games between a very skilled and well equipped player and a much less skilled or well equipped opponent. In scoring systems where points earned go directly toward overall rankings that’s an unfair advantage for the better player versus other potential top competitors who faced more even competition and weren’t able to run up the score. That issue can be lessened, though not eliminated, by awarding separate normalized points for major win/win/draw/loss/major loss or similar. But much more importantly, getting clobbered by a random mismatch in the opening round is a terrible first experience for newcomers and discouraging even for veterans, lessening their enjoyment of the event and potentially the hobby as a whole.

In some settings this may not matter or may be unavoidable. If the goal of the event is establishing who is actually the best player, then a pure tournament bracket or other mechanism will work fine from a random seeding. In fact, if you do have the necessary information via a qualifying run or such to properly seed the bracket, then first round pairs should be in reverse order, with the best entrants competing against the worst. The entrants for such an event should also understand that it’s quite possible they’ll be clobbered. Part of the appeal for many tournament-goers is in fact gauging exactly where they stand—though in the moment it’s always tough to lose.

Nearly all gaming events though are not this clinical. Most cannot be simply due to the time involved in running enough rounds for a mathematical tournament, let alone other factors such as randomness. The NOVA GT is one of the few exceptions in 40k especially and wargaming generally, running an actual elimination bracket over a grueling 3 days of matches for the eventual winner. Instead, most gaming tournaments approximate a bracket through variations of Swiss pairings and accumulated scores rather than straight win/loss elimination.

A single-elimination tournament bracket, which most gaming tournaments more or less try to approximate and a few implement.

A single-elimination tournament bracket, which most gaming tournaments more or less try to approximate and a few implement.

Clubbing Baby Seals… But With A Story!

More fundamentally though, most gaming events are trying to balance being a competition with also being fun. I as an event organizer am particularly interested in fun, thematic narrative tournaments and campaigns rather than pure competitions. Surprisingly to many people, these also face the mismatch problem. I argue it’s actually an even worse issue than in a straight tournament: Many casual and fluff oriented players will come out for these events that would stay well away from highly competitive events, but, conversely, many competitive players will also come out for these events. That sets up a clash of expectations and styles than must be addressed mechanically.

Unfortunately, the mechanics of many narrative oriented events actually permit players to be repeatedly clobbered by stronger competitors. For example, this is a frequent inherent design limitation of classic map-based campaigns run outside of small, reasonably matched, friendly groups: There’s no guarantee that the adjacent or encountered players are not simply much better and will win every round.

Addressing this is a big part of why my narrative events are usually fairly abstract, permitting control mechanisms to be applied. For example, most of my narrative events arrange match pairings in a strategic, team-oriented fashion such as one team puts forward a player and a mission, and the other team responds with an opponent and a board/table. By restricting that response to being within the same win/loss bracket, teams are prevented from consciously or unconsciously throwing a newbie at a hardened vet or vice versa. Otherwise teams frequently apply logic such as “Well, that opponent has a lot of tanks, so we should send this player who has anti-tank specialists,” without accounting for one player or the other simply being vastly stronger overall and dominating that logic into irrelevancy. In my events we’ve also tried to address the issue by having team commanders chosen or coached to guide the decision making to account for the whole spectrum of considerations, including player experience. But then there’s still that challenge of opening round mismatches and how to prevent them without yet having any information about the players and their relative abilities.

First round, NOVA Narrative 2014, I am about to get crushed by Eric, who just minutes before had finished competing in NOVA's GT Invitational...

First round, NOVA Narrative 2014, I am about to get crushed by Eric, who just minutes before had finished competing in NOVA’s GT Invitational…

Questionnaires

One clear response then is to get some information about the players. Some time ago, a friend and I were talking about similar challenges in bicycle races, which I also organize, and he mentioned a scheme he’s seen in martial arts. There they have the additional challenge of many cross-discipline competitors, i.e., somebody that has a high rank or belt in one form of the sport that may or may not have real bearing in other forms. So some events begin by having a panel of experts quickly interview competitors and seed them into initial groupings based on the panel’s judgement of their experience level and skills applicable to the current event.

I have no idea how common or successful that is in martial arts. But it seems like a reasonable idea, and I’ve been thinking a fair bit about how to apply it to miniatures wargaming (and boardgaming). In particular, later this year I’m leading two (hopefully) large-ish events, the new LibertyHammer narrative event, and the popular NOVA 40k Narrative track. In both cases I will have no usable a priori knowledge of the vast majority of the players, but I’d really like to roughly seed them so that the first round pairings can be constrained and mismatches reduced.

libertyhammer-bg-560px

nova

To do so, I’m thinking of giving a short questionnaire to players as they check in. Those will then be used to roughly correlate players and constrain initial pairs.

Both events will use something like the propose/respond mechanism above. Especially for NOVA though, there are enough players (~100 total in that event if we sell out) that we can’t do that across everybody in a reasonable amount of time. So the players will be dividing into groups of about 12 and pairing up within groups simultaneously. In later rounds those groups will be determined by win/loss brackets, mitigating clubbings.

Going into the first round though we could use a questionnaire to populate the groups. If it’s a short list of yes/no answers all phrased toward a positive answer being a sign of a more competition-oriented, skillful, experienced, or better equipped player, then for each player we can count the number of “yes” answers, sort everybody by their counts, and then split that sorted list into groups and arrange pairs within them.

Probing Questions

This is a very rough first draft of such a questionnaire:

Please check off the following “yes” or “no” regarding your participation in 40k events. PLEASE NOTE: None of these are in any way to be construed as negatives and your answers will not affect your ranking or options throughout the event. They are simply a survey of our players that will be used to group like-minded and similarly experienced players together in forming the first round pairings.

  1. Are you more focused on gameplay than on hobby aspects?
  2. Do you read frequently online about tactics and army construction?
  3. Do you consider yourself a strong player?
  4. Do you play in tournaments more than once or twice a year?
  5. Have you played in any Grand Tournament (GT) or similar regional or national level competitive event at any point in the past two years?
  6. Is your primary faction Eldar, Chaos Daemons, Necrons, or Space Marines (generic codex)?
  7. Is your army comprised of more than a single detachment or formation?
  8. Does your army use more than one source (codex, campaign book, supplement, etc.)?
  9. Does your army include any single unit type more than three times?
  10. Does your army include more than one superheavy vehicle or gargantuan creature?

General Questions

The first five questions above are fairly general and get at the inclinations of the player. The intent here is that the more “yes” answers someone gives, the more likely they are to be at least more competition-oriented, if not indeed a stronger player. I don’t want the total newbie to get crushed in a bad mismatch. I also don’t want the fluff bunny who’s been playing for years but is primarily in the hobby to go pew-pew with his lovingly converted and painted toy soldiers to happen to be paired in the first round with someone fielding a barely prepared clone of the Internet’s latest and greatest all-conquering army list. I don’t though have a problem if someone regularly playing competitively or convinced they’re the Blood God’s gift to 40k goes up against a tough match, they can take it.

In addition to being ok with that outcome, it would also just be hard to ask quantifiable, objective questions about ability given hugely varied participant pools. So the questions ask more about mindset and participation rather than results. It wouldn’t mean much to ask “Have you won a tournament in the past year?” because events are so varied. But I think it does say something for someone to have played in a Grand Tournament recently.

Army Questions

The last four questions are more specific to 40k and what the player is fielding. These questions are intended to be very rough indicators of stronger armies, or at least armies coming from a similar mindset. For example, having more than one superheavy/gargantuan, detachment, or source book is by no means at all necessarily an indicator of a stronger army. But it is a good indicator that you’re not still playing from a 2nd, 3rd, 4th, or even 5th edition mentality and set of expectations as many players arguably are. There’s nothing wrong with that, but ideally as the organizer I’d like those players’ first taste of the event to not be facing someone coming from a radically different take on the game. Obviously a lot can be said on the topic of superheavies/gargantuans and their balance and appropriateness for 40k. Although we’re permitting them in this year’s NOVA Narrative (LibertyHammer’s points levels are too low), we are doing a fair bit with our mission design and rules to counter some of the issues that do exist while still allowing the freedom to play full 7th edition. Regardless, despite that inclusion, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hedge my bets on players’ initial experience by attempting to group similar mindsets together. Potentially it would be better to ask about player’s support for those elements being in the game rather than using them theirselves, but I don’t have good wording for that at the moment.

Your weapons are useless, fleshlings!

Your weapons are useless, fleshlings!

Similarly, the question about having more than three units of a single type may not mean much at all. But I would guess that having four or more of any particular unit tends to be more common in competition-oriented lists. Here I’m not making any value judgement on that whatsoever. We set up the rules, and people should design armies under those rules to be as strong as they wish. Hopefully our rules, missions, comprehensive scoring, limited prizes, and other mechanisms mitigate against whatever issues 40k may or may not have with overpowered units and armies. However, I think it’s worthwhile in the first round pairings to try to group armies that are more likely to be designed for competition with other armies coming from a similar mindset.

The question about the specific factions is incorporating into the seeding some notion of the currently strongest factions in the game. Those particular four I think would be largely conceded as such by most players. But I cite as specific objective evidence for those four as the distinct top tier—and not also a few additional armies that might be commonly opined as such—the statistical analysis done by Variance Hammer of this year’s LVO results. Obviously this question isn’t dispositive, any given player could field a weak army for any of those codexes. There will in particular be a lot of weak Space Marine armies, just because they’re such a huge portion of the player pool. But the question is just one point among eight in what is only a very rough seeding function anyway.

Logistics

An important note is that any scheme for mitigating first round mismatches has to be practical. In this case, potentially the two classes of questions should be separated in some way, to more independently gauge players’ inclination toward competitive play and their take on the current makeup of 40k. But ultimately this has to be fast to execute; we have tight time constraints between checking everybody in, preparing the data, and turning around first round pairings. The questionnaire can’t be that complex for players to fill out nor for us to tabulate and use. Any other mechanism would have to be similarly simple and fast.

Conclusion & Other Ideas?

Player mismatches are an issue that many narrative events don’t adequately address. First round mismatches in particular are a general issue that many gaming tournaments could improve. Here I’ve sketched one idea to do so: Players fill out a quick questionnaire to check in, and organizers sum up the “Yes” responses and seed the first round pairings by sorting on those counts.

Does that seem reasonable? Are there other good alternative or complementary mechanisms to reduce first round mismatches? For this questionnaire method, are there better questions to ask? This is just a rough draft and some thoughts, and my fellow organizers and I would really appreciate feedback and other ideas. Reach us in the comments below or the various forums where this has been linked. Thanks!

Update: There is now a discussion on Reddit about this that makes a bunch of additional points.

PAGE Apocalypse 2016: Rebuffed at Barnes 595

kingbreakers-iconWithout a home and newly without their major supply base, the Kingbreakers Space Marines drifted through the void for a time seeming interminable. Then they turned toward action and their sworn enemies: “They take one of ours, we take one of theirs…”

Another year, another PAGE Winter Apocalypse! Our club’s annual mega-Apocalypse is in the books. Seven players came out for the Recon Squad skirmish prologue last Saturday, and thirteen for the all-day mega-battle on Sunday. Each team fielded 26,000 points across an array of factions:

  • Legions of Discord: Daemons, Daemonkin, Chaos Marines, Renegades, Eldar, Dark Eldar, and Tyranids
    • Hierophant, Harridan, Hierodule, Scabeiathrax, Angrath, Samus, Baneblade-chassis, Corrupted Knight, Macro-Cannon Strongpoint
  • Forces of Order: Adeptus Mechanicus, Steel Legion, Death Korps of Krieg, Valhallans, Grey Knights, Dark Angels, Kingbreakers Space Marines
    • Warhound, eight Imperial Knights, Crassus Armored Transport, Marauder, two Baneblade-chassis, Vortex Missile Strongpoint, Plasma Obliterator
Daemonettes attack the Steel Legion's position.

Daemonettes attack the Steel Legion’s position.

Although both days in the end came out a couple players smaller than last year, it was a stellar weekend of gaming. Supported by some fantastic looking boards and armies, the Recon Squad matches were excellent. A new terrain theme for the Apocalypse brought a different look and revised tactics to that game, while double blind deployment significantly changed the startup phase. In the end it was a full day of great 40k with giant warmachines exploding, lone sergeants defending critical positions, and everything in between. Bonus points go to Alex and Dan for making the trip to Philly all the way from Cleveland and DC respectively!

Join the Fight!

Join us!

Join us!

The full story is below, and many more photos are in the Flickr gallery. If you are interested in events like this in & around Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA), or the supporting campaigns, game variants, and other materials we post from time to time, we invite you to get involved or follow along in any of several ways:

The field of war.

The field of war.

Backstory

Years ago the Legions of Discord assaulted Kimball Prime, intent on taking or destroying the primary Imperial manufactorum in the sector. After many lives given in devotion to the Emperor, the invasion was successfully brought to a halt and then itself put on the defensive. Elsewhere in the sector though the Legions finally acquired the legendary Scythe of Unbound Light super-weapon after a years-long campaign across Caldor IV. Deploying it on Kimball Prime, the traitors crashed through the front gates of the manufactorum and won the planet.

With Kimball Prime fallen and its system lost, leaders of the in-sector armies of the Astra Militarum and Adeptus Astartes regrouped in secret. Drawn by the loss of a major manufactorum, the Adeptus Mechanicus joined their strategic auguries. Hungry for revenge, the Astartes proposed to conquer and cleanse the corrupted Chaos temple world of Barnes 595—an act of symbolism over pure strategy. Although initially hesitant to partake in this emotional response, the Mechanicus was swayed by the promise of archeotech believed lost in the planet’s swamps and dead forests, or buried in the collapsed sub-basements of its byzantine shrines.

Gazing into the strategios, the representatives of the Imperial Guard remained silent, then assented. They were also unconvinced by the Astartes’ constant vainglorious prioritization of honor and ideals over blood. However, the cogs of the Imperial war machine had already ratcheted toward the sector. Regiments and equipment must go toward some target, and it matters little which—there is no stopping the tide of war now, and it will wash over all the sector in time.

Recon Squad games underway.

Recon Squad games underway.

Commanders of the Legions of Discord plot their strategy.

Commanders of the Legions of Discord plot their strategy.

Recon Squads

Preparing for the onslaught to come, the Forces of Order sent small teams to reconnoiter and sabotage Chaos sites on Barnes 595. These were all played using our Kill Team-style Recon Squad rules combined with our Zone Mortalis-style Mortalis Solypsus boards and rules. The missions came from a set of eight worked out for last year’s larger Recon Squad campaign. Most are asymmetric and have specific thematic objectives, e.g., defending an installation, or assassinating a special character. In this year’s smaller form, each round the teams alternated putting forward a mission, role, and player. The other team responded with a player and a table. The third match contested the default Recon Squad skirmish mission.

Round 1

A band of Plaguemarines manages to intercept and ambush a Deathwatch team infiltrating a Chaos planetary missile complex. The fighting quickly concentrates in a hall junction and comes down to a single warrior from each side in hand-to-hand combat. At last the Imperial veteran gains an opening and jams his combat blade up to the hilt in the rotted traitor, another pyrrhic victory won for the Emperor.

Meanwhile, an Imperial commander met with a group of Tau to learn of mysterious energy signals they have detected buried within a collapsed underground extraction facility. They were beset however by a pack of ancient Bloodcrushers, and unable to prevent the assassination of the commander.

Deathwatch skulk through a complex.

Deathwatch skulk through the missile complex.

A Tau exploration team warily enters the collapsed mine.

A Tau exploration team warily enters the collapsed mine.

Round 2

Routed by Daemons, the Tau continue their desperate struggle within the collapsed mine. Quickly encircled, the xenos fight bravely but are caught in a pincer of Plaguemarine reinforcements.

Having regrouped and treated their wounded as best as possible, the Deathwatch also continue their own fight. With the missile complex’s defenders alerted by the battle with the Plaguemarines, they are attacked by Renegade infantry. Fortunately the Emperor’s light guides them into surrounding and neutralizing the heretics.

Elsewhere, the Steel Legion arrive at Barnes 595. Small teams land and begin making their way through a Chaos temple serving as a gate to the missile complex. Although believed to be abandoned, the gate turns out to be infested with daemonic devotees of Khorne. The battle proceeds slowly among the site’s barricades and overgrowth, but eventually the soldiers break through.

Short on ammo, a plague brother resorts to simply bashing in heads.

Short on ammo, a Plaguemarine resorts to simply bashing in heads.

The Renegade Sergeant bellows out orders...

The Renegade Sergeant bellows out orders…

As Renegades hunt for the Deathwatch team loose in their complex.

As his men hunt for the Deathwatch team loose in their complex.

Steel Legion enter the closed-off base.

Steel Legion enter the closed-off base.

Round 3

Their position underground untenable, the Tau attempt to fight back to the surface. Moving into the overgrown upper levels of the collapsed mine they are caught by Renegade militia and wiped out in bitter skirmishing.

Too late to reinforce the Tau, Skitarii renew the exploration of the collapsed facility at the fore of a Mechanicus excavation mission. Although beset by Bloodcrushers at every junction, their arcane weaponry bears them through. Fighting ceases with Mars in control of whatever secrets lay beneath the choking dust.

Simultaneously, a Steel Legion special missions team follows the wake of the Deathwatch into the heart of the missile complex. Though harried by Plaguemarines, they succeed in destroying a critical cogitator bank.

Outcomes

Order won the Recon Squad matches handily, 46 to 29. Together the Imperium and allies had captured an important planetary-scale missile complex, greatly aiding their establishment of a beachhead on the planet. Early excavation efforts in the collapsed mine also unearthed a long forgotten Imperial Shrine.

Steel Legion move against a vital cogitator bank...

Steel Legion move against a vital cogitator bank…

Defended by Plaguemarines.

Defended by Plaguemarines.

Skitarii work their way underground...

Skitarii work their way underground…

While battling Bloodcrushers for control of the collapsed facility.

While battling Bloodcrushers for control of the collapsed facility.

APOCALYPSE

Finally the big day.

It’s worth noting that our Apocalypse games are not the cliche of just dumping out all the models you own, or whatever ridiculously overpowered Titans you happen to have spent a fortune on. A good amount of effort is put into balancing the teams. For example, all superheavies/gargantuans must be declared in advance, and models with more than 9 hull points/wounds are negotiated between the teams. Between switching players to balance for skill, asking that Reaver or Warlord Titans (!) or such sit out the game if the other side can’t match it, and so on, we usually wind up fairly closely matched. Scoring and other mechanisms further ensure that troops matter and tactics count, even as whole units are obliterated.

Although a few people bailed right beforehand, this was probably the smoothest we’ve launched one of these mega-battles. We made it clear than anybody who showed up late would go into reserve, and in the end that only almost applied to me as I scrambled to finish my army list during deployment… (I was planning to reserve the bulk anyway). Everybody came prepared to fill out up to ~1k in additional points or trim down a bit to balance for the no-shows. When the time came we ran through a roll call, did some quick math, adjusted a couple armies, and away we went.

A Knight Errant stalks its prey across the crowded battlefield.

A Knight Errant stalks its prey across the crowded battlefield.

Field of War

Having fought largely among Imperial ruins the past two years, we moved this year to a wasteland forest with many barbaric Chaos fortifications and shrines. The final table was exactly 6′ by 18′, cluttered up with just enough line-of-sight blockers and scatter terrain. As usual the deployment zones were marked off with tape to speed things up and improve adherence. Seven primary objectives were symmetrically placed, two in each deployment zone and three along the midline, each associated with some particularly notable piece of terrain.

After doing an ‘L’ shaped deployment last year, we switched it up even more by using Vanguard Strike deployment zones, diagonal table corners with a 2′ buffer zone. I was concerned about the reduced frontage of this configuration leading to armies just sitting around in the comparatively deep backfield. If the table had a narrower aspect ratio or our armies included less deep striking and other fast mobility that may have been the case. As it was however, there was plenty of action all over the board, with significant charges both across and down the board, as well as deep strikers and outflankers coming in from all sides.

Traitor melta-bikers race through a slave village toward a Knight Errant threatening their perimeter bastions.

Traitor melta-bikers race through a slave village toward a Knight Errant threatening their perimeter bastions.

Double Blind

In previous Apocalypse matches we’ve used a bidding mechanism for deployment and turn order: Both teams make a bid on deployment time, up to 30 minutes. The lower bid would deploy first and play first, but only got that long to set up. At first that worked great. In the 2014 Winter Apocalypse, Order spent a lot of time debating its need to deploy lots of static gunlines versus trying to scoop Discord for an Alpha strike, only to have Discord bid a ridiculous 3 minutes… In the couple Apoc and Apoc-styled games we’ve had since then though, both sides have taken to bidding 30 minutes, through a combination of having more players to coordinate, more models to start on the board, and most importantly wanting to play second.

So this year we changed things up a lot: Double blind deployment. That’s a bold departure from standard 40k play, and risky for Apocalypse—we usually try to be a bit conservative with Apoc given the time commitment and how easy it is for things to go sideways with so many points and overpowered models in play.

Physically it would be really difficult to screen such a big table so the teams couldn’t see each others’ activities, let alone to not have the screen fall and crush models. Strategically we also really wanted players to have some idea what they were facing across the table before deploying. So instead we used a two step process. We drew a simple map of the table and gave each team a copy. The map showed all the primary objectives, deployment zones, and a grid of 2′ by 1.5′ sectors. The teams then huddled up and each player committed to deploying in up to two sectors by marking up the map, also making note of any superheavies, gargantuans, mighty bulwarks, or lords of war.

Those maps were then revealed to the opposing team, and the two sides simultaneously deployed. That worked well because at this scale of game players generally aren’t super concerned about the precise positioning of enemy units while they deploy, so there’s no gaming of trying to see what the other side is doing while deploying. There’s also only so much adjustment you can do within the 30 minute time limit. But you did have a rough idea of what’s likely coming after you and could take that into account while deploying. As a bonus, by deploying simultaneously, we shaved half an hour off the schedule. Choice of first or second turn was set as the prize for overall victory of the Recon Squad games.

Barnes 595.

Barnes 595.

Means of Victory

We also tweaked our scoring mechanism to be every turn rather than every other, the better to either end games earlier than expected or run an extra turn as time permits (the latter never happens…). The rules are:

  • All players designate a warlord as usual, one of which on each team is nominated to be the warmaster.
  • After deployment, each team alternates having each player place a secondary objective anywhere on the board, caveat the usual restrictions (at least 12″ from other objectives, 6″ from table edges).
    • Any player and either team can score any secondary objective, they’re just placed by a particular player to represent their personal goals.
  • Only troops may score objective markers until the final scoring, at which point all scoring units count.
  • Scoring happens at the end of each game turn:
    • Primary objectives are worth the current game turn number;
    • Secondary objectives are always worth 1 victory point;
    • The warmasters are worth 3 points;
    • Eliminating a superheavy, gargantuan, mighty bulwark, lord of war, or warlord is worth 1 point each.
A Harridan prepares to chow down on some Dark Angels.

A Harridan prepares to chow down on some Dark Angels.

The rule about troops is a huge deal. It does have the downside that it encourages players to bring a lot of individual infantry rather than sinking points into big models, which makes it hard to meet turn time constraints. However, it ensures that regular troopers are critical and armies have to include a good contingent of them to be viable, which consequently makes the match feel a lot like a regular game of 40k writ huge, rather than a whole different game of giant robot/monster battles.

The escalating value of primary objectives is another balancing mechanism. It’s difficult for teams to run away with the game by controlling objectives over the early turns since they’re worth so much more at the end. Conversely, by not scoring solely at the end, alpha striking and high-mobility armies are given a better chance than they otherwise would have against deathstar and brick armies.

The other points for killing supers, etc., are also of course a balancing mechanism. They and the secondary objectives become less important as the game goes on and the primaries scale up, which is how you want the focus to change heading toward the end of the game. However, those single points still add up over time and are critical to overall victory, as played out in this very game.

In practice this basic scoring scheme and the other balancing efforts have worked out very well, producing a number of close games over several years now.

Deployment

Following their successes in the Recon Squad campaign, the Forces of Order established their invasion base around the Missile Complex and Imperial Shrine and chose to play second. They turned their aim on the heavily defended Broken Altar and Warp Tower, important sites to all the disciples of Chaos. In between lay a disused Comms Tower that might be reclaimed for the invasion, a Side Gate barring the way to a complex of temples beyond, and of course the wreckage of Sergeant Titus’ Rhino, an important relic of the Kingbreakers claimed by Nurgle’s servants in the aftermath of the Apocalypse on Solypsus 9.

Deployment commitments.

Deployment commitments.

Fight!

The invasion begun, the mighty armies on both sides rumbled to war. A gang of monstrous Tyranids held captive on Barnes 595 was unleashed on the Death Korps, with many fatalities in the earliest phase of the combat as the flying ones raked their dagger-like talons across exposed infantry. Worse, a Crassus superheavy armored transport poised toward the enemy lines was obliterated before it could even move from the landing point, with the entire platoon inside lost to the Emperor’s grace. A desperate struggle between the Death Korps and the gargantuan Tyranids towering over them would last throughout the battle.

Meanwhile, in Order’s backfield, a coterie of Slaneesh’s followers lead by a formation of Daemonettes made a devastating surprise attack. Spawning directly onto the Steel Legion’s lines, many tanks were immediately destroyed. Only after prolonged fighting and the death of the Order warmaster was their charge finally blunted by the arrival of the Shadowsword Indominator. No longer imperiled, the Steel Legion supported the Valhallans moving on the Comms Tower, as well as the defense of the Imperial Shrine and Missile Complex.

Matching that aggression, squad after squad of Kingbreakers, Grey Knights, and Dark Angels dropped directly into Discord’s backfield. Dark Angels claimed secondary objectives while Grey Knights fought Dark Eldar come to capture whatever they could in the heat of battle. Kingbreakers fought valiantly all around the Warp Tower and contested the site for some time, but were ultimately overwhelmed by the flood of Daemons and Daemonkin pouring into the area, guided and supported by the Renegades sworn to Discord warmaster Hellboy.

Major movements and drops throughout the game.

Major movements and drops throughout the game.

All across the land in between, daemons and traitors clashed with the Emperor’s finest. Dark Angels made an early play for Titus’ Rhino, but were eventually pushed off by the legions of Nurgle inexorably marching to reclaim the prize they had so carelessly left laying around. Valhallan air cavalry flew bravely into the daemons guarding the Comms Tower and successfully held it at several critical junctures. By their landing base, Commissar Yarrick almost singlehandedly defended the Missile Complex despite repeated wounds that would have been mortal for any lesser man. Nearly all the armies wound up engaged at some point in the fierce battle for the Side Gate as one unit after another claimed it, only to be blasted away and replaced by another in rapid succession.

Throughout all this, Adeptus Mechanicus light units guarded the Imperial Shrine while their heavy war machines were dispatched up and down the Order line wherever a heavy threat appeared. Surely the center would have caved but for a Warhound Titan come to lock in close combat with an enraged Hierophant. By the Side Gate, a Cerastus Lancer bravely launched into combat with Angrath, piercing the beast squarely to dispatch him back to the Warp and save that flank. On the opposite end, Knight Errants and Castigators blasted away at giant Tyranids and Daemons alike as they fought over the Missile Complex. Many irreplaceable war machines were lost throughout the battle, but no doubt their sacrifice prevented the total collapse of Order’s position.

In the end though that was all the might of Mars was able to ensure. The steadfast troops of the Legions of Discord stood firm against the combined attack on the planet. With their strike forces extinguished or hastily falling back, by the end the Forces of Order had been rebuffed, claiming little more than their initial beachhead. Although not repulsed entirely from the planet, the effort to cleanse the temple world had ground to a halt, its only trace yet more bones rotting among the dead forests and abandoned shrines of Barnes 595.

Monsters and war machines towering over the troops below go at each other's throats.

Monsters and war machines towering over the troops below go at each other’s throats.

A Death Korps Marauder swoops in to aerial combat with a Harridan menacing its Guard compatriots below.

A Death Korps Marauder swoops in to aerial combat with a Harridan menacing its Guard compatriots below.

A Soulgrinder prepares to crush a lesser walker.

A Soulgrinder prepares to crush a lesser walker.

A molten daemon lurks in the bushes.

A molten daemon lurks in the bushes.

Troops prepare to give their lives by the score.

Troops prepare to give their lives by the score.

Harbinger’s Charge

I wouldn’t want to play Apocalypse all the time, but with all our balancing mechanisms and other rules it’s actually a really good, strategic and tactical game.

As a small example, one of my own favorite stories from this game is that of the Kingbreakers’ Sergeant Harbinger. He and his Tacticals are part of the mass Drop Pod assault on the Warp Tower objective in Turn 1. His men blow up a Rhino, the rest of his squad gets obliterated, and he ducks back behind his Drop Pod while other units contest that primary objective.

Next, Captain Angholan splits from the Deathwatch team he dropped with, and I have a choice: Charge him at Samus now, or use him to wipe out Bloodletters standing between Harbinger and the objective. I go for the latter, and the Chaos players look at me like I’m silly for giving up the preemptive charge on Samus.

Turn 3, the Kingbreakers on the objective have all been wiped out. Samus has gone after Captain Angholan, who blocked him from doing anything else and stood there taunting the beast. But Sergeant Harbinger alone now has a clear path to run up onto the Warp Tower base and just barely contest the objective, shocking Discord and denying them 3 points. Didn’t win the game, but didn’t hurt either. And it wouldn’t have happened without just a bit of advance thinking on my part and forcing moves and mistakes on my opponents’ part to make sure I had that one Tactical left and a clear path for him. Meanwhile I’m also making larger decisions about where to commit reserves, use my stratagem, etc..

So even though it might look and even sometimes feel like a silly game of simply putting down units, shooting, and removing units, at least in the form we run Apocalypse there is actually both tactics and strategy.

Sergeant Harbinger contests the Warp Tower objective, against impossible odds.

Sergeant Harbinger contests the Warp Tower objective, against impossible odds.

Outcome

This was a very back-and-forth battle. Order opened the game in the lead, felt like it lost all momentum in the middle, then rallied to pull close but not enough to seize the day. In the final tally Discord won, 79 victory points to Order’s 70, a close result given the scoring structure. The last turn was a nail-biter right down until we’d gone over the final disposition of the objectives twice and tallied everything up.

The turn-by-turn breakdown lines up with how I felt things were going during the match. Order essentially lost on Turn 3. Taking ten less points that round was the biggest turn deficit of the game, and we never made it up. By the end of that Discord player turn I was actually telling Lovell that we were getting creamed and would be lucky to not fall tens of points behind and have zero hope for the remainder of the game. Fortunately Order managed to make some desperate moves that just barely tied us on primary objectives for the turn; I was shocked to sum everything and find us only seven points behind overall. But we got smoked on secondaries and tertiaries that round as Discord contested a bunch of our home base markers and destroyed a couple superheavies and warlords. With our alpha strike depleted that was just too much of a gap to cover by the end.

Turn-by-turn breakdown of the scoring.

Turn-by-turn breakdown of the scoring.

Analysis

Directly from that, I think Order’s big strategic issue continues to be that it puts itself in the position of half-committing to an alpha strike. One way to look at the loss is that we needed to scoop a couple more objectives early, and ideally keep Discord off them longer. Alternatively, maybe we needed to sit back and save more resources for the closing turns. I view the Discord team as largely following the latter. Brett frequently does some pretty aggressive alpha striking deep into enemy territory, and Justin did some as well this game. But everybody else tends to sit back a bit more and work their way across the table in a more traditional fashion. Their most aggressive flanking attacks usually come late in the game, after we’re spread thin and out of steam. So, Order should consider two paths:

  • Tone down the alpha strike. It can’t go away completely just given some of the armies and players. But it should be smaller, and be better concentrated on taking and holding specific objectives. Part of this is that the forces being dropped need to be modernized and hardier: More Centurions and Venerable Dreadnoughts, fewer ridiculously brave but foolish Tactical Marines.
  • Amp up the alpha strike! Just go for broke, and dump a lot more forces on the other side of the table early on. Sure, we’ll regret it horribly as the bad guys roll right onto our home base objectives. But so what, as long as we’ve taken theirs? Further, most of their stuff moving across the ground might be either blocked or more or less forced to turn back and reckon with the drop.
Elite Valhallans fly over the battlefield on their mission to take the Comms Tower.

Elite Valhallans fly over the battlefield on their mission to take the Comms Tower.

The big meta-point to make that happen is that we probably need to establish a commander not also entangled in organizing this and many of our other events. With the Winter Combat Patrol and NOVA taking up much more time than I had hoped, I wasn’t able to foster any team discussion leading up to the Apocalypse. What little strategizing did happen pre-game was actually instigated by Colin stepping in to help out. Which, you know, is awesome, because it basically amounts to the Discord warmaster saying “You puny Imperials are no match for our dark strategies! Come, come, please talk amongst yourselves such that you may offer at least some challenge to our warriors!” With Colin at the helm, Discord does just a bit more planning over army focii; use of reserves and their entry vectors; and stratagems. Although we generally manage to keep the games close, that extra bit of coordination shows in the closing turns and the slightly higher percentage of Discord wins across all our Apocalypse battles.

Revisions

Back to the organizational side, I have just a couple notes for next year.

One issue in this match was that the armies were too large. Discord in particular had a hard time completing all of its actions in the early turns. Next year we should cut the baseline back down to 3000 points, but allow people to field up to 4000 if at least a quarter of that is made up of superheavy, gargantuan, or mighty bulwark models. That way they should have a low enough model count to be a touch more comfortable in the turn time limits, yet still field lots of toys.

A Knight Castigator marches toward deadly combat with rotted Scabeiathrax.

A Knight Castigator marches toward deadly combat with rotted Scabeiathrax.

We should also perhaps try to find a way to limit how many different sections of the table in which a single person can have units. That’s tough, because sprawling interaction across a huge landscape is part of the appeal of Apocalypse, and important to some armies playing more of a supporting or counter-attacking role. You can’t limit people down to a single table or such, as then you may as well play separate games in a linked campaign. But that’s a major cause of slowdowns, when one person is getting shot at or is in assaults all over the place. Even with other people helping resolve them, it’s a bottleneck. One possible idea is to have players secretly record several reserve vectors and deep strike locations on the map, and only allow their reserves to enter from those sectors. Obviously many units could still move around the board quite a bit regardless, but that would prevent a great deal of the spreading out which occurs. Most people shouldn’t have armies literally all over the place because it hurts their focus and encourages mistakes, let alone generally weakening their forces. But lots of people do, and as a side benefit, a mechanism like this would cut down on that.

Finally, although this is just a free, semi-invitational event, next year we’ll probably require $20 deposits to sign-up. For those that show, the money will be put toward food for the day and the remainder returned, or maybe we just put it toward club expenses or new activities. It would not be returned for people that bail after some cut-off close to the event. That will likely eliminate the usual couple of people who sign-up but aren’t committed and simply don’t come through, as opposed to those that legitimately have something come up at the last minute.

Wrap-Up

more-photosAlthough not without its trying moments in preparation, this was another great event. Some old friends made the trip, some new friends joined up, and we had a bunch of excellent Recon Squad games and another epic, closely fought Apocalypse featuring some interesting new mechanisms. Again, there are tons more photos in the Flickr gallery. We’ll see you next year!

The Lord of Skulls cares not the victor, for he wins the loser regardless!

The Lord of Skulls cares not the victor, for he wins the loser regardless!

 

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40k: Alternate Maelstrom

One of the big changes to Warhammer 40,000 with 7th edition was of course the new class of official missions: Maelstrom. Upon first hearing rumors of it I was really excited, enough to pre-order the associated cards. They’ve been underutilized though because I found the final release so lackluster compared to its potential. In the tournaments and events I’ve run this year we’ve used an alternate set of Maelstrom-style tactical objectives and mission rules. They seem to work really well, addressing some of the big issues while preserving the positive aspects and adding some interesting innovations, so I thought I’d finally get around to sharing.

Into the maelstrom!

Into the maelstrom.

Just Roll Some Dice!

The heart of Maelstrom is randomized missions. In traditional 40k, players essentially compete for control over a set of objective markers placed on the board, or simply to kill all the opposing units. Maelstrom has players randomly determine smaller scoped objectives throughout the game. By drawing cards or rolling on a table, they’re directed to control specific objective markers, kill a stipulated type of unit, or even make particular actions in order to score points.

Official Maelstrom has many shortcomings. Some are easily rectified or mitigated. One such common house rule is to immediately discard impossible tactical objectives, e.g., if your opponent has no units of a necessary type. That this is so obvious an improvement only highlights how little effort GW put into their rules. It’s worth noting though what seems to be a frequently overlooked subtlety: Should tactical objectives be discarded only if they were never possible, or even if they’re impossible when drawn? The “Kill a psyker” goal highlights the difference: Can it be discarded immediately only if the opponent never had a psyker in their army, or can it also be discarded if all their psykers are merely already slain? I don’t have strong feelings either way and the two probably don’t offer vastly different experiences in practice, but this is a design decision to be made consciously.

Beyond a few such smaller problems, there are two design patterns throughout the stock Maelstrom that really gall me. Most obvious and frequently addressed in tournaments are random results. It’s absolutely deleterious to strategic play to have tactical objectives yield random amounts of victory points once achieved. A variety of reasonable house rules could address that and are frequently applied, e.g., always claim the maximum, or roll for the value when the objective is drawn. The latter actually imposes an interesting strategic evaluation of effort versus reward while maintaining the basic Maelstrom philosophy of unknown and variable objectives. That it’s such a small tweak but vastly better again highlights just how little design effort GW expends. In any event, a variety of hotfixes are possible for these objectives, but at some point you may as well just replace them.

Most upsetting to me though are the forced play tactical objectives, that award victory points simply for executing game mechanics. Instead of presenting a goal to work toward, they merely give away free points or, worse, dictate play. Many are actions you may be trivially doing anyway, such as Daemons and the “Cast a psychic power” condition. Others force you to make micro-level  moves that may not fit your army or macro-level situation at all—may the Greater Good shine on Tau that draw the “Make an assault” card! Scoring should be based on game conditions to be achieved, not making the player a puppet enacting pre-scripted actions.

Random results and forced play goals come from the same “Just roll dice & push models around!” mentality of Games Workshop that gave us random psychic powers and warlord traits. Otherwise stock Maelstrom could be solid with just a house rule or two and some card tweaks, but those aspects warrant substantial reworking.

A Games Workshop game designer shambles in to work.

A Games Workshop game designer shambles in to work.

Flexibility & Deathstars

At this point it’s worth noting what is in fact appealing about Maelstrom. The surface level attraction is just the variability of it. Sooner or later most everybody wants to play something different from the Eternal War missions that have been carried through editions under one name or another for literally decades now.

As an event organizer and game designer though, what really calls to me about that variability is the flexibility it requires of the players and their armies. To really capitalize on the Maelstrom tactical objectives, you need to be able to move all about the table, and to easily switch back and forth between killing specific units versus claiming objectives. The downside of this is that it encourages armies built around—and perhaps even spamming—small, highly mobile units. Arguably the format is imbalanced toward factions with more or better units of that style. However, given that many of the recent balance problems in 40k have revolved around deathstar units or even unstoppable single models, tipping the scales the other way is not necessarily unwelcome. In my events we mitigate the chance of going too far that way by generally also including other missions for which more “grind-em-out” style armies are perhaps better suited.

These guys are definitely here for the Maelstrom party.

These guys are definitely here for the Maelstrom party.

Logistics

In developing a revised Maelstrom mission as an event organizer rather than an individual player, I also had to keep in mind some logistics. If you don’t buy GW’s cards, stock Maelstrom missions are kind of a hassle to execute. Tracking which tactical objectives are in play, discarded, and achieved isn’t a huge deal, but it’s not nothing either. Without the cards you’re left just scribbling things down. In order to keep my events on time while enabling games to play out fully, and to alleviate the burden on our more casual, less frequent players, I really wanted to structure and streamline the bookkeeping. At the same time, this alternate format was developed for and used within small, monthly shop tournaments. In that context it’s not practical for me to print and/or make and give out whole new Maelstrom card decks as some bigger events like Adepticon have done.

A New Maelstrom

The core of my revised Maelstrom is this table of tactical objectives:

Screenshot_2015-10-21_23-37-21

[ Download as a PDF ]

Our mission packets include two copies of this for each Maelstrom mission. The players rip them out and each mark one up throughout the game for their bookkeeping. Mechanics are as follows:

  • To draw a tactical objective, roll a D66 and consult your tactical objective table. If that objective is already in play for you, has been achieved, or is scratched off, roll again. Similarly, if that objective would be provably impossible to score, e.g., your opponent has no characters remaining, roll again. Once a valid objective has been rolled, mark it as in play.
  • Targets cannot be nominated or chosen for a tactical objective marked with a † that have already been chosen for a † objective you have in play.
  • At the end of your turns, check the requirements for each tactical objective you have in play. For each fixed-value objective met, mark it as achieved and score the associated value in mission points (n.b.: not victory points). Tactical objectives with a value of X may be kept in play as long as you wish. At the end of any of your turns while in play they may be marked as achieved and scored as indicated. Once achieved, objectives are no longer considered in play and cannot be put in play or scored again.
  • Multiple objectives can be scored in a turn, caveat that you cannot achieve multiple tactical objectives with the same exact title in the same turn using the same marker(s) or unit(s). E.g., to score both Storm objectives at once, you would need to simultaneously control two separate markers in the enemy deployment zone.
  • At the end of your turn you may scratch out one of your tactical objectives in play to remove it from play.
  • Tactical objectives in play, achieved, and scratched out are not secret.

Each particular mission will then have a rule controlling the number of cards drawn, similar to the various official Maelstrom missions. Two examples we’ve used include:

  • Standing Orders. At the start of your turns, draw tactical objectives until you have a total of six in play.
  • Into the Maelstrom. At the start of your turns, draw tactical objectives until you have as many in play as the current game turn number.

Rather earning victory points directly, at game end the players are scored by comparing mission points earned via tactical objectives achieved, and awarding victory points to the higher and lower scorer according to this table:

Screenshot_2015-10-21_23-51-31

Scoring in that indirect fashion rescales the substantial number of tactical objectives that might be achieved into the 9 VP primary objective cap around which our missions are designed (they also include secondary and tertiary objectives, for a total of 20 points available in each round). In doing so the results are also normalized a bit across matches, such that one player cannot gain an insurmountable lead in the tournament by winning with a ridiculous number of tactical objectives achieved, while another victorious player falls far behind despite also trouncing their opponent but by a less ridiculous amount. In general it’s important to normalize in some fashion like this to determine the strength of a result for a Maelstrom mission, given that the actual number of tactical objectives achieved can be so variable match to match. The specific value ranges here were determined by Sascha Edelkraut and seem to work well for our 9 VP cap.

Strategy

These new tactical objectives of course eliminate random results and forced play. However, Maelstrom’s overall variability and requisite flexibility is still maintained.

Further, the X-valued objectives are a novel mechanic I haven’t seen in 40k. They enable the player to make an ongoing strategic evaluation of effort versus reward for that condition, either pushing on to try and acquire another point or to cut bait and dump it for a new, hopefully easier, objective. Objectives that require the player to nominate a target also encourage players to declare a goal and then work toward it, rather than simply hoping they draw tactical objectives for markers they’re already holding. The several variations with one player putting forward several proposals and the other choosing among them are also an interesting twist, adding a new interaction and a little bit of adversarial forward thinking.

Last but not least, these tactical objectives rightfully focus heavily on controlling objective markers. However, a number also offer opportunities to play toward pure mobility, as well as annihilation-style kill point hunting. Particularly with the X-valued mechanic enabling players to work toward them for some time or not, this gives a real, conscious strategic choice about whether or how much to focus on the various types of goals, while still staying within the overall chaotic Maelstrom framework of variable objectives and necessary flexibility. You can’t win a tough match if you can’t play for both objective markers and kill points to at least some extent, but you do have some opportunity here to strategically focus your efforts on one or the other. In general that kind of choice in both play and army construction is a major goal of the mission format for our events.

Evaluation

We’ve used this format in a number of small scale tournaments (8–16 players) this year, and it’s worked very well. The logistics for me as event organizer are trivial, I simply include multiple copies of the tactical objectives sheet above in each mission packet. For players the bookkeeping is fast and intuitive to execute once explained.

To game design, random results and forced play are eliminated while still maintaining the variability and requisite flexibility of Maelstrom play. Further, a number of novel mechanics offer new and ongoing strategic evaluations to the players, as well as affording meaningful selections between different strategic concentrations and army styles.

One notable downside of this setup is that it’s not as tactile as cards. However, for a large enough event or as a one-off occassion it would be easy to convert the objectives table and mechanics into cards. A related note though is that several players have been disappointed at not being able to use faction-specific tactical objectives published by Games Workshop. This is unfortunate, but given the rampant problems among those with random results and imbalanced conditions, I don’t see any acceptable approach but to disallow their use in tournaments.

Play!

Again, the tactical objectives sheet is available as a printable PDF. For an example of how this format has been incorporated into a tournament, check out the mission packet for our June event, The Tournament of Blood. These rules and the objectives table are released into the public domain, so please copy, edit, and use as you wish. We would though love to hear about any use of these, as well as suggestions or questions, in the comments below.  Good luck in the Maelstrom!

Descent into the Maelstrom!

Descent into the Maelstrom!