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.

First X-Wing Tournament: Redcap’s X-Mas Wing

rebel-alliance-iconAfter resisting for years, a couple weeks ago I finally caved and started playing X-Wing Miniatures. Yesterday I entered my first tournament, X-Mas Wing at Redcap’s Corner. Fourteen players were there for some fun, low-key Boxing Day dogfighting. This is my very first X-Wing battle report!

Just a few more pictures than those here are in the gallery. Unfortunately, one downside of X-Wing having essentially no downtime is that it’s near impossible to go grab pics of other games.

Tournaments

Going in I only had two “real” games under my belt, a few more against a fellow brand new player, and a couple solitaire games against myself (I won!). Put that way it sounds a bit ridiculous to enter a tournament, but as long as you’re solid enough on rules to not impair your opponents’ experiences, and prepared to lose terribly, I think tournaments offer a couple things to a new player:

  • You’re guaranteed a couple games in rapid fire fashion, no pick-up night downtime and immediate opportunity to apply and test new lessons;
  • Assuming the pairings are done correctly, by the end of the event you’re guaranteed to be playing with opponents of similar ability;
  • There’s no better way to learn rules and strategies than playing with strangers;
  • There’s no better way to connect with new people and groups for your game.

As an organizer of a substantial number of (40k) events, these are observations I wish more people would realize and give tournaments and other organized play a try. Although perhaps less true for some other game systems and the very occasional less-friendly community, I’ve hardly ever found miniatures players to be anything but excited to have a newcomer out and ready to teach them the ropes.

Pew pew pew!

Pew pew pew!

Squadron

Given my inexperience, I kept my squadron list really simple:

Chewbacca (50)
YT-1300 (42), Marksmanship (3), Gunner (5)

Gray Squadron Pilot (26)
Y-Wing (20), Twin Laser Turret (6)

Gray Squadron Pilot (24)
Y-Wing (20), Blaster Turret (4)

Gray Squadron.

Gray Squadron.

I had been playing with Chewie + two plain Rookie X-Wings but switched to these Y-Wing escorts just before the event. The X-Wing list is more fun to fly, but arguably more demanding to fly. My theory was that this triple turret setup could hug the board edges to hamper my opponents’ maneuvering while I would be able to put shots on all around with no fancy flying needed. The Blaster Turret is perhaps a weaker weapon, but the idea was that its range 1–2 would complement the range 2–3 of the Twin Laser Turret, ensuring I always have range from at least one Y-Wing as all three fly around in a block.

The key underlying theme is to keep it simple & robust. There are no fancy abilities and few actions that need to be remembered and applied tactically, just some simple weapons and straightforward buffs. The squad is also robust, with a lot of hull points and shields plus Chewie’s ability to ignore critical damage. To that, the other reason I switched is I believe the Y-Wings are more survivable than X-Wings, though I haven’t done or looked up the math on hull points versus agility.

There are definitely huge weaknesses with this squad—autothrusters immediately come to mind. It’s not for no reason that the 2014 World Championships featured a YT-1300 in 25% of the Rebel lists, while in 2015 it was in 0% of the top lists. Similarly, the board edge strategy likely wouldn’t really hamper better players. But with this effort I’m hoping just to stay in the tough games long enough to learn something and not lose embarrassingly, and to beat the other new and lesser-experienced players who overburden themselves with overly fancy lists or tactics. So I stuck with my tried and true strategy for any new miniatures game: Keep it simple & forgiving.

Game 1: Swarm

First up was Troy and his 6-strong TIE swarm, using several of the new Gozanti carrier pilots. I stuck to my strategy here of hugging the board edges. Unfortunately I stuck to it too hard, misgauging distance and flying a full-strength TLT Y-Wing right off the board when I blew the turn in the far corner by literally millimeters… Meanwhile, the TIE fighters are so agile that they did not seem extraordinarily hampered by the board edge. Ultimately I got tabled and only eliminated two of Troy’s ships, but without that error I should have been able to finish off a couple more and at least put up a halfway respectable showing.

Troy starts moving his new swarm.

Troy starts moving his new swarm.

Stay in formation!

Stay in formation!

The swarm arrives!

The swarm arrives!

Game 2: Brobots

Next was Adam and his tricked out double Aggressors. He came straight at me, and I quickly abandoned my edge hugging strategy. I was worried his primary weapons would rip me apart while he bounced back and forth over me k-turning and using his abilities to largely ignore the stress. So I fled in fear like a coward…

Unfortunately my formation was too tightly packed, particularly with an asteroid right in the way, and I suffered for several turns with poor flying as I bumped into myself, asteroids, everything. Once things opened up though I was able to move better and do some damage. This wound up an extremely tight game, with Adam eventually prevailing at 75 points over my 74 (and him starting at 98 points versus my 100). Key to this was concentrating my shooting as much as possible on a single Aggressor until it was eliminated, halving Adam’s firepower, rather than spreading damage across both of them and taking all his shots the whole time. The YT’s maneuverability was also critical, as I was able to get it out of arc and unshot on several turns, and Gunner was really useful to partially counter Adam’s significant defense—he was frequently rolling 4 or even 5 defensive dice in this match.

Adam does the robot.

Adam does the robot.

Around and around we go!

Around and around we go!

Game 3: Scum

Last for me was TJ flying Boba Fett, Talonbane, and a Z-95. A few of the abilities here caught me off guard, and the Talonbane did a scary amount of damage in a couple turns. TJ setup spread out across the board though while I turtled up along the board edge following my pre-game plan. That prevented him from bringing enough firepower to bear early in the match to do sufficient damage. I eventually lost a Y-Wing, but “safely” absorbed most of the damage throughout the match on the YT, leveraging Chewbacca’s ability, and winning 100–49.

TJ just wants to know what the bounty is.

TJ just wants to know what the bounty is.

Boba stands guard.

Boba stands guard.

Chewie dogfights Boba while Gray Squadron intercepts.

Chewie dogfights Boba while Gray Squadron intercepts.

Outcome & Analysis

I wound up 8th of 14, which felt like a reasonable showing in the circumstances.

Gray Squadron

For my current level of play this squad and board-hugging strategy seemed ok. I’m sure there are lists and players that would cut it apart trivially, but I think it’s solid against players of similar caliber. The big downside at the moment is just that it’s a fairly boring approach. The core draw of the game for me is just the simple pleasure of X-Wings and TIE fighters swooping in and out around each other. So I’m not sure I’ll use that strategy or list again.

However, I was pleased with their performance this day. The basic meta-approach of eliminating fancy abilities and playing a simple, straightforward list with a lot of tolerance for taking damage and surviving mistakes without requiring me to track too many things or remember too many unique abilities was born out once more.

Brobot Scoring

In some sense I was just 2 points away from winning the game with Adam and going a much better 2-1 for the day. That’s true, but actually not possible.

A setup like his double-Aggressor, consisting solely of large ships, just doesn’t give up points easily. With how points are awarded (full points for destroyed ships, half points for half-destroyed large ships), for me to have won this match I would have had to eliminate the second large ship as well. There’s no easy way I could have scored just a few more points, I would have had to win completely to win at all.

Looking deeper, if Adam had brought just 1 or 2 points more (depending on rounding rules), we would have drawn for the round. A lot of Brobot lists seem to tally up to 98 points, but I’ve only seen people talk about that in terms of taking the initiative. Synergizing with the scoring properties of large ships and tipping the match result in your favor seems like at least as important a reason to not take a full 100 points on these kinds of lists consisting of just large ships.

Epic!

One sidenote I found amusing about the whole affair is the vast difference in rolling up to this versus a 40k event. To be fair, I am often running those events and thus bring a lot of extra items (laptop, papercutter, etc.). But still, even for 1000 point games I’m bringing a sports bag, small duffel bag, and another bag of books. In contrast my entire, fairly substantial, X-Wing collection fits in one backpack…

Fortunately I did have my whole collection with me! Most of the PAGE contingent was hanging around afterward and wound up playing a 300 point, 5 player battle. It was definitely too late to start that sort of thing, but was a good battle. I’d have to say that the surprising MVP was Darth Vader, who deployed all on his own in a corner doing his Lone Wolf thing and proceeded to tie up and/or destroy several ships. Imperials and Rebels eventually played down to a draw when we called time.

In general this felt a bit like 40k Apocalypse, though at a smaller scale. A fair bit of downtime, and some loss in tactical precision just given the number of things going on across the board. But still a lot of tactics and strategy in a sprawling, fun game. A great way to cap off my month of X-Wing. More to come in the future!

Everything finally laid out.

Everything finally laid out.

My expanded fleet.

My expanded fleet.

Hope you Rebels brought your stress tokens!

Hope you Rebels brought your stress tokens!

Swirling melee at table center.

Swirling melee at table center.

Mortalis Solypsus WIP

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Yesterday Colin and I got started on construction for the July PAGE/Redcap’s 40k event: Mortalis Solypsus. A bit over-ambitiously, we intend to run a full day of Zone Mortalis-styled games, capturing the fighting inside the Lab, Mine, and other installations of Solypsus 9. Note that the fluff here is that you’re fighting in huge facilities. Vehicles can fit through part of them, but may not be able to make it into narrower sections or rooms. Think NORAD, not office building.

Everybody should take note of the draft rules being collected on the event page. There are a number of restrictions and special rules to suit the indoor fighting. A basic restriction is that large vehicles are outright not permitted. Further, even permitted larger models like Dreadnoughts will not have full mobility throughout a board as they won’t fit through doorways and such. An example special rule is that blasts and templates gain Shred, and only scatter and take effect within the confines of the walls.

Although there’s a long way to go, we wanted to post some notes and pictures for both players thinking about what armies to prepare, and for the other hobbyists building boards for the event to follow along. As the boards are being constructed by several people and using a variety of styles, they will definitely vary a bit. But this is roughly how most of them will work.

If you are committed to playing in the event, please sign up on the Doodle poll so we can plan appropriately.

Colin starts measuring out walls.

Colin starts measuring out walls.

Layout

The game boards will all be 4×4, to suit the 1000 point armies. They are made up of 2×2 or 1×1 tiles, to give some variety in laying out a board. Each tile has a fixed layout of walls making corridors, generally along an 8×8 or similar grid. This gives just enough room for small vehicles such as a Rhino to move through, but in a somewhat restricted way. With other models present or scatter terrain such as debris, containers, or consoles, it may be difficult to have them turn in place and such to head in a new direction.

Line of sight is very limited by the walls. A number of walls do have doorways, but they’re staggered such that even with all of them open there is no line of sight across the board. Indirect attacks are in general not permitted, see the rules for details. Close up shooting and assault will definitely be emphasized compared to a normal game.

One of Colin's 2x2 tiles.

One of Colin’s 2×2 tiles.

Doorways

The doorways on our canonical board design are 2 inches wide and tall. This means anything up to about a Space Marine Centurion can easily move them them. Dreadnoughts, monstrous creatures, and other large models simply won’t fit. Although the tile designs generate discourage fully enclosed spaces, it will certainly be possible for troopers to huddle up away from a bigger foe and force it to take a roundabout route to them and the objective they are defending for the corpse god and/or false idols.

It doesn’t matter for gameplay purposes because they’re treated as an infinite surface, but for building purposes, the walls should be 3 to 4 inches tall. Many models need at least a 3″ wall to look right. At 4″ though the walls start to feel pretty cavernous against infantry, which might be an appropriate look for some themes.

A Kingbreaker checks out his new digs.

A Kingbreaker checks out his new digs.

Burn It Down!

Again, take a look at the draft rules to see some of the changes and special effects. And, if you are committed to participating, please sign up on the Doodle poll so we know how many people to expect.

Two WIP tiles together.

Two WIP tiles together.