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Saturday, 28 November 2015

Tournament: Choose Your Own Adventure

As we are all painfully aware, GW does not support competitive play with any kind of sanctioned tournament system. And all too often, the attempts of amateur tournament organisers to 'improve' 40k with their own custom missions results in player confusion at best, and broken events at worst.

In this post, we'll examine what we really want to achieve with tournament missions, and propose an alternative mission set for competitive play.

Fundamental Principles

I believe that missions for competitive play should satisfy the following fundamental principles:

  • There must be multiple valid ways to play and win the game, with multiple army builds
  • Building and playing to table your opponent must not be an absolutely more valid path to victory than accruing Victory Points
  • The Critical Decision Point should be delayed until as late as possible in the game
Designing missions that satisfy all three of these principles, whilst remaining simple enough for all players to understand, and sufficiently watertight to prevent cunning player exploitation, is no easy feat! But before we start looking at missions, I should explain what I mean by Critical Decision Point.

The Critical Decision Point

In every single game of 40k, there comes a point at which every player—whether they realise it or not—pauses to regard the board-state and asks themselves two successive questions:

  • From here, can I score enough VP to win the mission?
  • If not, can I realistically table my opponent so I win anyway?
If a player answers both these questions with "no", then they give up on winning the game—either consciously or subconsciously. But when this occurs during the course of a game makes a huge difference to the mindset of the losing player.

We have all been in this situation: it's the bottom of turn five, you count your VP and your opponent's, you consider your remaining units and your opponent's, and you realise that you literally cannot win if the game goes on. The Random Game Length roll gives you both another turn, and you know you've lost. Presuming you're not an immature little bitch, you accept this outcome as graciously as possible and congratulate your opponent.

But a lot of us have also been in this situation: it's the top of turn two, your opponent drew amazing Tactical Objectives and scored 12 VP to your 1 VP in the first game turn, and you've just drawn shitty cards that won't let you catch up. Considering the board-state, you realise that all your opponent has to do is keep hiding that min-sized unit of Objective Secured plebs behind that huge ruin in the corner all game and you will never table him. You can either concede and do nothing for the next two hours, or simply go through the motions for the same period, growing more and more bitter by the minute as you scoop your pretty minis back into their case with no hope of victory.

That latter experience is what turns players off competitive 40k, and that's something we should try to avoid with better mission design. Now let's be brutally honest: some players are going still to lose their games in the second turn—we just don't want them to realise it for another hour! Hope will keep them fighting to the end, and they can lose without feeling utterly crushed.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Now back to the point: how to make a good 40k tournament mission set.

Obviously we need more than one mission, otherwise playing a 3+ round tournament would be get repetitive.

Perhaps less obviously, we need a win condition that is not 100% correlated to wiping out your opponent, otherwise it's not really a mission—you're simply playing to table your opponent. That means we need VP (or similar) and ways to score VP that do not require killing your opponent. A VP 'mission' in which all the VP come from killing the enemy (e.g. Purge the Alien) does not satisfy our principles, since there is only one way to win the game.

With all that said, pursuing a tabling should still be a valid way to play, but it should not be absolutely better (or worse) than playing for VP. We want multiple valid paths to victory.

Ideally, we want to decouple those multiple paths to victory so two players can choose to play completely different ways (e.g. pursuing Objectives versus pursuing kills) and 'race' each other to victory instead of forcing them to fight over the same finite VP pool.

However, we want to encourage interaction between players so they aren't completely ignoring the opposing army as they build their respective VP totals. And we want players to have the choose how to split their efforts between building their own VP total and restricting their opponent's.

Easier said than done!

How about we try something like this:

  • Create list of different missions (ways to score VP)
  • Each game, after exchanging army lists with your opponent, you choose one mission from the list for yourself, and one mission for your opponent
  • Each player then pursues two missions (ways to score VP) which may be partially or completely different to their opponent's missions
  • Tabling remains an option, otherwise the highest VP total wins
Randomised standard deployment maps, and standard Secondary Objectives (including Through Attrition, Victory) would also be used. It may be worthwhile to restrict players from choosing the same mission for themselves more than once during the tournament (or maybe no more than once per day in a longer tournament) in order to get some desirable variety.

We would expect each player to choose for themselves an easy way to earn VP (for their build), and choose for their opponent a difficult way to earn VP (for their build). This system effectively gives each player three paths to victory in each game—how you want to score VP, how your opponent wants you to score VP, and tabling your opponent.

So what would this achieve?

Firstly, it would allow players to build their list however they prefer, since they have some control over how they score their VP. This prevents the "I want to play MSU Dark Eldar but every mission in this tournament uses Kill Points!" type of scenario. Conversely, it encourages more balanced builds because an extreme army list can be hindered by giving your opponent a mission from which they will really struggle to score VP. Also, if you cannot keep choosing the same mission for yourself every game, that will encourage a more versatile list too. This satisfies our first principle for mission design.

Secondly, while building and playing to table remains a valid option, choosing the way you score VP encourages players to build for the missions rather than just to kill. The pinnacle of building would be to create a list that has no real 'bad mission' for your opponent to choose for you, so you end up with two easy ways to score VP instead of one easy way and one difficult way. Tabling will still get the win, but playing the missions will probably get you there easier. This satisfies our second principle for mission design.

Lastly, while this system admittedly would not prevent premature Critical Decision Points, by giving players more power to determine how they score their VP they will hopefully be less likely to give up hope of victory too early in a game—and if they do, they will hopefully demonstrate some maturity and personal responsibility by recognising that they chose their own mission.

Mission Options

So it all sounds good in theory, right? Now we need to build that list of different missions that players will choose from. This list should cater to as many different build and play styles as possible, whilst being as orthogonal as possible, and also avoiding non-interaction. Again, easier said than done!

I think we will need about eight different missions for a good list. Here are some examples, but this is just a starting point—leave your suggestions in the comments.

Engage
Score 1 VP each time you completely destroy an enemy unit.
Score 1 VP at the end of each of your turns if you completely destroyed an enemy unit.

Seize Ground
Score 1 VP at the end of each of your turns if you control more Objectives than your opponent.

Take and Hold
Nominate one Objective outside your deployment zone. Score 6 VP at the end of the game if you control that Objective.

Reconnaissance
Score 1 VP at the end of each of your turns if there are more friendly units than enemy units wholly within the enemy deployment zone.

Hold the Line (Love Isn't Always On Time)
Score 1 VP at the end of each of your turns if there are more friendly units than enemy units wholly within your deployment zone.

Contain
Score 1 VP at the end of each of your turns if there are no enemy units wholly outside the enemy deployment zone.

Assassinate
Nominate one enemy unit. Score 6 VP when you completely destroy that enemy unit.

Protect
Nominate one friendly unit. Score 6 VP at the end of the game if that friendly unit has not been completely destroyed.

There are a couple of 'all or nothing' missions in there that award a big 6 VP at the end of the game; I chose 6 VP since the average game lasts six turns, making these equivalent to the progressively scored missions. There are also some interactive mission pairs that encourages some strategic subtly in mission choice; if your opponent has built a static gun-line, and you expect them to choose Hold the Line for themselves, then you could choose Contain for yourself and give them Take and Hold or Reconnaissance to really screw with their battle plans.

This system obviously needs play-testing, but let me know if you see any big flaws in its design, or have any suggestions for improvement—just don't suggest adding unnecessary complexity, since that is exactly what we want to avoid!

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