First Questions in Tabletop Tournament Organization

A local Infinity player is looking to start organizing tournaments and asked if I have any notes. This is a rough cut of the most basic questions and topics I can think of that should be addressed in initial planning of a tabletop gaming event. Much of it is not specific to Infinity, 40k, or even miniatures wargaming.

Venue

How many players can you accommodate?

  • How much space do you have available at your venue?
    • In addition to the playing surfaces, each player needs some adjacent space for their models not in play, dice, tokens, templates, books, etc..
      • Infinity: Standard 4’x4′ match is ideally played on a 6’x4′ table, giving both players side table space.
      • 40k: Standard 4’x6′ match is ideally played on a 4’x8′ or even 4×10′ table.
        • Reasonably common for 40k players to bring carts and stands for their armies and accessories, especially with notice of table space being limited.
    • Other solutions might be possible.
      • E.g., Redcap’s has custom built wargaming tables with space underneath the playing surfaces that players can use. For the biggest events we have used the full surface of every single table for playing.
      • Some other venues use stools or benches for side tables if they don’t have enough table surface.
  • What size army lists will you permit?
    • Infinity: 300pts of Infinity requires 4’x4′ playing areas, 200 pts requires 2’x3′, etc
  • What are your COVID policies and protocols?
    • Many venues are limiting participation to better foster distancing.

In addition to the space, does the venue have a sufficient quantity of sturdy enough tables?

Local organizers: If necessary and we can coordinate logistics, I have a stash of ~8+ suitable folding tables that can be used. They’re from hosting PAGE events back when there were no gaming shops in the city.

Schedule

What’s your schedule going to be?

  • What times do players prefer?
  • What hours will the store support?
  • How many hours do you need?
    • Need about an hour before dice start rolling to get boards setup.
      • Players will arrive, unpack, get settled in this period as well.
    • For each round need however much time is permitted, plus wrapping up, making pairings, etc..
      • How quickly can you turn around updated rankings & pairings?
    • Need additional 30–60 minutes after conclusion at minimum to wrap everything up, tear down boards, pack up, and clear everybody out.
    • Depending on time of day and length of the event it’s not at all uncommon to incorporate lunch/dinner/etc breaks into the schedule.

How long will each round be?

  • What size army lists will you permit?
    • Larger games mostly take longer in general, but it’s definitely not a linear relationship.
  • Are your posted round time limits a dice-down hard stop or a point after which final actions or the last game round are played out?
  • Infinity: Typically ~2 hour rounds.
    • Historically Infinity was supposed to be very fast to play. Full size tournaments might schedule 75–90 minutes matches.
    • Realistically, in modern Infinity and in our player community, you need to budget 2hrs per match for 300pt games.
  • 40k: Typically ~3 hour rounds.

Registration

Is there a registration fee?

Can players register in advance? How?

Must players register in advance?

How will you get the word out about the event?

  • Not worth worrying too much about putting in a special effort on this unless you’re advertising at least 2 weeks in advance.

Prizes

Will there be prizes? What are they?

  • For Infinity tournaments you can get a prize pack for official ITS events, but it’s a hassle to acquire and pricey for what it includes (see below).
  • Many players might be willing to donate merchandise, models, terrain, etc., to a prize pool.
  • And/or have a registration fee and put it toward store credit prizes.
    • Big plus of this, and the main reason we have a $5 entry fee for most Redcap’s Infinity tournaments, is that it sends at least some money toward the store.

Format

What type of event will it be?

  • Is it a tournament, casual play, a narrative event, etc?

If a tournament, what’s the format of the event and missions?

  • What are the scoring metrics? What is the ranking formula? What is the pairing algorithm?
  • For Infinity, is it ITS or not, and if so is it official ITS or not?
    • Official ITS event, registered in the system and everything.
      • Plus side of this is it provides a small level of advertising via people looking for events on ITS, and maybe attracts people who are interested in having games count toward their ITS rankings and not so interested in organized play otherwise.
      • Costs $7 for a virtual code to register the event in ITS. Some people might have codes they can give you.
      • An ITS event prize pack w/ event code is like $40 and takes a long while to ship. Unless it’s changed recently, distributors don’t carry them, so the shops can’t get them cheaper or quicker.
    • ITS format, but not an officially registered ITS event.
      • Uses the ITS tournament rules, missions, etc., with which players are familiar, but is more low-key and doesn’t require an event code. ITS rules & mission packet has a solid writeup in detail of how everything is supposed to work—table sizes, pairings, etc..
      • Downside is results don’t go into players’ rankings.
      • This is the most common style of Infinity event at Redcap’s.
    • Other mission pack and format.
      • Not sure what the state of things are in N4, but in prior editions there were a large number of alternative missions packs.

Execution

How will you conduct the scoring, ranking, and pairing?

  • For even a few players you realistically need software to make sure everything gets calculated correctly & quickly.
  • There are a variety of apps and software available, both free and commercial, for doing tournament pairings.
  • Infinity has a couple options

Will you print out score cards, or players just verbally report?

Will you print out mission packs, and if so how?

  • Don’t underestimate the cost & time involved in this for large and/or complicated events.

Terrain

Do you have or how will you get access to enough terrain for all the boards?

  • Note that the terrain in many shops is geared toward 40k, which often doesn’t work well for Infinity (too much open line of sight, pieces too big, etc).
  • It’s common for Infinity events for players to bring terrain and setup boards. Just gotta make clear in advance they should do so.

Local organizers: If necessary and we can coordinate logistics, I have a good amount of terrain for Infinity and 40k in addition to what I’ve donated to Redcap’s.

Objective Markers

Do you have or how will you get enough objective markers?

  • Players can work something out on the spot in a pinch, but don’t usually carry enough suitable objective markers on themselves all the time for all missions. With advance notice though they can generally bring enough.
  • Some players might be able to provide, either by having on hand or making, a large number of objective markers.
  • Poker chips will also work well and are cheap.
    • Make sure to announce before matches begin whether they are to be played as silhouettes or non-blocking markers.

Local organizers: If necessary and we can coordinate logistics, I might be able to provide a number of consistent 3D objective markers. Redcap’s Infinity and many 40k events use a box of markers I made.

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.