Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Treatise on Gaming; Points Values, You Need 'Em

The topic of points and balance have, thanks to the recent release of Age of Sigmar, been a hotly contested topic for the last few weeks. I generally tried to stay out of flame wars because, after all, this is the internet, and we all know what is said about internet arguments... However, I was no longer to stay silent when I saw an older article pop up, written by Game Workshop's "long term strategy manager," Jervis Johnson, titled "Points Values; Who Need 'Em?!?" Originally published in 2002, you can read the article in the pictures below:

Suggest downloading or at least manipulating to make readable. 
 *Warning - wall of text to follow

Page 2
For the remainder of this article, you should have the context of this article, so please do read it. The first page, and the first column in particular, I found both insulting and wildly out of touch. The main thrust of his article makes a few points:
  1. Tournament gamers only "play to win" and a disproportionate are "beardy" or WAAC
  2. Tournament gaming and tournaments "destroy what the hobby is really all about"
  3. Tournament gaming is directly opposed to painting, and the play-style is unimaginative and uninspired
  4. Scenario based games and campaigns are the pinnacle of the hobby as it should be
  5. Scenario and campaign games have no need for point values or pre-set win conditions
  6. Points and even match-ups are the cause and death of "casual play" and scenario and campaign based gaming for the wider community.
One thing that needs to be defined from this list is, in Mr. Johnson's terminology, "scenario based" games seem to be inherently unbalanced. He cites (and dismisses) that players will not attend tournaments that use what he defines as scenarios because they are unfair. From this, and his further use of the term "scenario," Mr, Johnson defines scenarios as narrative stories that give a background to the game and, as stories go, do not involve a fair fight. We'll come back to this in a bit.

Starting from the beginning of the article, Mr. Johnson comes across as accusatory and alternately insulting and dismissive to the tournament community. Yes, the root of tournament gaming is a competition, but that doesn't mean the majority of players are only there to win. Some are, sure, but that holds true at the local gaming store too. There is also a difference between competition and winning; many people, myself included, don't go to events expecting to win, but instead to measure themselves against their peers and evaluate the strength of their list and their play. 

Next he accuses tournament play as destroying “what the hobby is all about,” which looking forward in the article, seems to be about a combination of the hobby side of the game, and playing narrative games only. From a current point of view, this feels like a game developer getting mad at gamers for only playing the online multiplayer mode of the game. 

I will concede that without requirements for painting, people will bring unpainted armies. However, again, this is not something that is unique to the tournament setting. Games at my local store, more often than not, feature partly or completely unpainted armies. Same goes for games at my house; unless we’re making a point of only playing painted models, someone usually wants to try out something new and see how it works in game. 

If anything, big tournaments have become some of the best showcases for the hobby. Every year at NOVA I try to make a point of wandering the hall and check out all of the cool armies. The Adepticon Teams Tournament is legendary for the themed displays and armies. With the death of GamesDay in the states, there is really no other forum for hobbyists to show off their beautiful armies to a large number of people and fellow gamers than at tournaments.

For point 4, this is, frankly, an opinion. According to Mr. Johnson, we should all aspire to narrative gaming. This is how he gets the most enjoyment out of the hobby, and I have to question why it has to be, in his mind, the only way the hobby should be enjoyed. Again, this seems like a creator getting mad at his audience for connecting with it in different ways. I have nothing against narrative play and campaigns as a tournament gamer. I would love to play narrative games and have epic campaigns, but the reality is that I do not have the time. 

Additionally, as his article concludes to some degree, the game shouldn't be taken just as it is from the company, which really calls into question why Mr. Johnson's preferred mode of play should be the esteemed way to play to begin with. 

In the fifth point, Mr. Johnson states that points are superfluous when crafting a narrative scenario for a game. This is true, but not entirely. Mr. Johnson and his friends in the design studio are fully capable of tossing the points out the window and still having a reasonably balanced game in large part because they have institutional knowledge; they invented the game, and have played it in some form or another for decades. On an instinctual level they can balance the two sides without points.

Not all players have access to the knowledge of how all units and models match up on an instinctual level like Mr. Johnson would. So while he would know that a narrative story where 20 Space Marines try to stem the tide of daemons lead by a pantheon of greater daemons won't go as planned without breaking more elements of the game, someone just picking up the game won't without referencing the fact that his story might be pitting 300 points against 4,000. In this instance, points help newer players balance their own scenarios, even if those scenarios are intended to be unbalanced. 

Point six is where I get lost a bit and return to an old adage from NOVA's Mike Brandt: Balance doesn't hurt casual play, and it helps everyone. 

Removing points and balance doesn't help anyone, but it hurts attempts to play strangers in an organized fashion. Balance, on the other hand, helps everyone. It's well accepted that if you're running a story based game, you don't need even points, but having points in place in the background does not hinder that style of play at all. 

Removing balance hinders people who don't have the time or community available to them to regularly sit down with other gamers and talk out all the unresolved issues in an unbalanced game. Removing balance also hinders people looking to join the hobby as they lack the institutional knowledge of the entire game and how to work out a balanced game. Finally, removing balance hinders anyone not in a regular gaming group, and makes gaming groups insular, as they've adopted "house rules" that can exclude people from joining. 

A balanced game is inclusive, an unbalanced game is not. In reading this article, I consistently go back to the thought that it's a reflection of an author not happy about the way their work is being interpreted. There are entire tomes of essays on Authorial Intent and the fallacy of it, but it boils down to dictating that one approach is superior to another, which is simply an opinion. 

Mr. Johnson expresses the belief that any semblance of competitive, organized play leads to the death and destruction of the game as he envisioned it. The idea that a healthy competitive game precludes a game with an immersive narrative is patently false. You only have to look at other game systems that have immersive backdrops for the game and tightly balanced rules sets with recommendations for tournament play. Fantasy Flight's Star Wars games, and Wyrd's Malifaux come to mind. 

Wyrd has chosen to somewhat split the two with their release of Crossroads, an RPG-like campaign take on the main game, but they're still based on the same system; they also provide narrative missions and scenarios for people to play out and have immense amounts of original backstory items being released regularly in their free newsletter as well as other publications.

Fantasy Flight has the immense Star Wars universe to pull from, and tons of narrative elements that can be inserted into any game, be it Luke making bombing runs on a Star Destroyer in Armada or Darth Vader force choking opponents from his Tie Advanced in X-Wing. At the same time, the game is balanced, regularly FAQ'd, and Fantasy Flight provides guidance for tournament play, which includes advised ways of setting up forces for a standard game. Part of force creation in Armada is selecting missions that have hints of a narrative element, and could be easily expanded to fit a narrative or campaign if so desired.

The main problem I have with Mr. Johnson's article is that it is, in the end, adversarial and divisive. As such, it's somewhat a wonder that a company would publish such an article when it demeans and demonizes a portion of its consumer base. That said, divisiveness is a serious issue for the gaming community, and one that is not helped by Mr. Johnson's article. There is no "right way" to play the game, despite Mr. Johnson's assertions, and everyone should be free to play the game as they see fit. 

I don't have the answers, but I can say that blaming a consumer base is not the best way to solve a problem, and removing balance does not increase the appeal of a game. A tight ruleset with definitive answers to rules questions makes for a more straightforward and enjoyable gaming experience.