Is 40k Competitive?

There seems to be a lot of muttering on the subject all over the internet, from blog articles, forum posts and facebook discussions asking if the game we all love is actually competitive or not. The majority of these articles tend to be citing things such as randomness of dice, army imbalance, terrain, lighting, local weather conditions and pretty much everything in between leaning towards the fact that the game is not competitive at all.

Lets take a look for a moment at the definition of competition:

Is 40k competitive? 

When you get right down to it, 40k is a game designed around 2 players taking an army each and trying to achieve objectives in order to win the game. Throw this into a tournament setting and you have a hundred people facing off against each other trying to decide who comes out on top. This fits the definition of competition as defined above.

The question that is being asked throughout the internet about the competitiveness of 40k is actually not disputing this; instead it is asking is competition within 40k fair and balanced.  While the answer to that question is a fairly complicated one, with input from all sides ranging from calm deliberation to homicidal rage, one must ask if competition must be fair in order to be considered competition.

Lets look at some examples:

In nature, competition is one of the most prevalent aspects of any local ecosystem.  Animals compete over food, over territory, over shiny objects, over who-gets-to-sit-on-that-big rock, over who has easiest access to necessary resources, and so on and so forth.    This very competitiveness is the foundation of evolutionary processes; animals who 'win' the competition for food survive and get dinner; animals who 'lose' the competition go home hungry and eat dirt.   It can't really be denied that competition exists 'in the wild' between species where the dominant (winners) get the shiny objects and the losers don't.   However, this competition is not always necessarily 'fair' as different creatures are equipped with different tools available to help them 'win'.     If a lion and say, a rabbit, were competing over the same item, each brings their own assets to the table: strength, speed, stealth, cleverness, etc.  

However in most cases, the rabbit is going to end up losing this competition.  It simply isn't equipped to take on a lion with any expectation of winning.   That being said....

Does the fact that some creatures have natural advantages over other creatures invalidate the competition that they have between each other?  It is still competition, but in many cases, it can be argued that it certainly isn't fair.

Lets take another example:
A race is announced, where participants line up at the starting line and at the arranged single, will sprint forward at their best possible speed in order to reach the finish line first.  Clearly this is an example of a competitive sport in which there will be a winner and several losers.   Now, the rules pack for this race did not specify any limitations or restrictions on what could be brought to the race.  As a result, 9 people have turned up in their jogging shorts and trainers, and one person has turned up in a lamborgini.  While the results of this race may be fairly predictable as to the outcome, does this make it less a competition?   Before answering that, make sure the question you are asking isn't, is it a fair competition?   The objective is still the same - get to the end.  But the equipment one person brought clearly gives them a clear advantage.

Going back to 40k, you have a scenario where players each bring their equipment (army lists) to the event (the race) and the objective is to get the most number of victory points and emerge the overall king of Warhammer.   Like professional athletes, regardless of their equipment, each participant has certain skills - their physical strength, agility, gross misinterpretation of the rules limitations, etc.  These skills are honed through training, diet, etc. to give each athlete the 'best chance' at victory.  As with athletes, so with wargamers, at least in this particular circumstance, that in addition to the 'equipment' brought to the game, each gamer has their cleverness, experience, tactical knowledge, etc.  By definition the competition to determine 'who is best' is going to be affected by each player's skill as well as each player's equipment.  

The person who brings a car to a footrace clearly has an advantage in equipment, but he is still competing, by definition, with the other players.  It may be a laughable competition, but it is still a competition in which the conclusion is almost definitely forgone except in the event of engine trouble, bananas jammed in tailpipes, etc.

How is 40k not competitive? 

The question of competitiveness is always inextricably tied in to the question of balance, or fairness, which as detailed above doesn't invalidate the definition of competition.   However, in order to be a competition, there needs to be a contest; two opposing forces battling over objectives or kill points each of whom have a chance to win those objectives.  When the scales tip so far that the table falls over, the perception is that this is no longer a competition, its a bloodbath.

Take the footrace example above.  Aside from tailpipe saboteurs, the person with the car is almost guarnateed to win.  When one of the other participants turns up in their track suit and looks at the shiny shiny car that they are meant to be racing against, while many thoughts may be going through their mind at least one of them is going to be 'what is the point?' (while another one may be 'next time I'm strapping a rocket launcher to my ass').   If two sides are imbalanced enough, the feeling of competitiveness diminishes until it is almost nonexistent.  While it is still competition according to technical definition, there is no spirit of competition.

40k put simply is not balanced. It wasn't designed to be balanced and in my opinion it doesn't need to be balanced. One of the main aspects of the 40k universe is that every army has its own characteristics and work in different ways. I've found this myself when using my Dark Eldar list which is at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to my necron and until you get into the mindset of using that particular army you will have a hard time winning games. We also have the randomness of 40k which can introduce an infinite number of small variations that cause imbalance. The size and weight of dice, how you roll them, the surface of the table they land on, height of a model compared to terrain the table, deployment type, mission type, points cost of units, units available to the player based on the size of their wallets....the list goes on and on. The point is competitiveness does not equal balance.

The obvious place to look for competitiveness is the tournament scene and that in itself introduces many small variations in terms of mission packs, FAQs, house rules and other limitations put on them all in the name of balance. The main issue with this is that the tournament organisers themselves come up with their own opinions on what is fair and that is all it is, an opinion. Take a look at the last 10 or so UK tournaments and you will probably find 9 different rules pack restrictions. What one person sees as overpowered another will see as fair and legal and for the most part this is based on the organiser's own experiences. Take adamantium lance as an example, this has the potential to completely unbalance the game with 3 imperial knights all re-rolling their invulnerable save. This on paper looks horrific and yet there are many ways to get around this unstoppable behemoth and take knights down. It all comes down to list building and what you, yourself bring to the table. I've always gone for mainly balanced lists and rather than playing the rock, paper, scissors game I bring a fairly well rounded list which gives me options against most armies. I don't win tournaments, I don't crush opponents but I always have a chance to win games regardless of what my opponents bring to the table.

Should restrictions be put on games to balance them? This can be a slippery slope as I mentioned above this is all subjective and based on the opinions of the organisers.

Taken to the extreme, we end up in the situation as described in Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

"Colored people don't like "Little Black Sambo". Burn it. White people don't feel good about "Uncle Tom's Cabin". Burn it....Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean."

Taken to its ultimate conclusion, everything becomes illegal and everything is burned. Applied to Warhammer, this evolves into something where the only safe things people could use in 40k would be a tactical squad of space marines with a single missile launcher. Of course sergeants are also not allowed because they imbalance the game by giving you an extra leadership value and its not fair if yours dies and your opponents doesn't because he would then have an advantage.

The other issue with the competitiveness of 40k has to do with the way the scoring system for tournaments works.  Player A wins all of their games, and Player B wins all of their games, but player B ends up with more points because of which opponents they happened to play against in the random match ups, therefore Player B is declared the winner.  However, Player A and Player B have played against each other dozens of times and in every single game, Player A kicks Player B's ass.  So clearly the tournament, designed to create a competitive environment in which someone is established as the 'best' player, is flawed.   An elimination system would be far better suited to purpose, but the result is you'd have half of the players eliminated after the first round with nothing else to do for the weekend.

Elimination system is fairly cut and dry.  On a fairly simple scale:

Game 1: Jim plays Danny, and Scoff plays Bill.  Danny and Scoff win their games.  Jim and Bill go sit in the bar and get pissed.

Game 2: Danny plays Scoff, and Scoff wins.  Scoff declared world dictator.  Tournament ends.

Because Scoff beat Danny and Danny Beat Jim, it would follow that Scoff could probably also beat Jim, unless he had a particularly strong list vs. Scoff's list.  While this isn't perfect because of the myriad of factors that go into listbuilding and gameplay, its more representative than the existing system.

The problem is, that there aren't just two games, there are usually more, 2-day tournaments may have 5 or six games.  If half of the players are eliminated in the first match up, they'd feel like they didn't get their money's worth for the tournament and they'd have nothing to do for the rest of the day.  So we instead have a system whereby, to use the above graphic, After Jim and Bill both lose their first game, they're put into a second hierarchy chart where the losers play against each other.  The 'bottom half table' is at a disadvantage for taking the 'whole tournament' because they've already lost a match, but at an advantage because now they are playing other people who also lost and so theoretically, according to the rules of competition, aren't as good at playing as the people on the 'top half table'.  Likewise, the people on the top half table are only playing against other people who won their games, so theoretically better players.

From a pure analytical standpoint, why bother with the bottom table?  They've already lost.  In the wild, that would mean they got eaten, more than likely.   While its certainly possible that someone who lost their first match could 'come back' and win the tournament via the points system, the odds of this happening are low.  Obviously we bother with the bottom table so that everyone who attends the event can have fun and keep playing.  Which in turn redefines the definition of the tournament moving it from something competitive, into something at which players can have fun.    While there is still an element of competitiveness, yes, the scoring system utilised clearly demonstrates that the competitiveness factor is not the most important thing in tournaments.  Fun, and inclusion, are considered more important.   But because of this, the scoring system does not by any means adequately measure who is the 'best' - and if you're not measuring who is the best, you aren't really competing.

This also leads to situations in which Player A can win a game against Player B, and player B can win the tournament.  But clearly Player A has already established dominance over player B.  Why should he not get the prize?  Because of the extremely convoluted points system which at some tournaments even brings in other factors outside of gameplay, such as painting, formations, and sportsmanship . What are we really measuring here then?   We aren't measuring who is the best player. While winning one of these tournaments certainly carries some prestige, it certainly isn't a measure of who is the better player.  Its more a measure of, who is a sporting player who has put some time into painting their army who submitted their list on time who got lucky in the match up system in that their scissors didnt get matched up against any rocks.  If you took the same players and same armies and re-randomized the matchups you'd get an entirely different set of results.  This is because the tournaments as they are can not quantifiably measure 'who is better'.

Consider a chess tournament.

With Chess, while who you play against is important, and going first or second is important, each player controls the same pieces on a static, defined gameboard.  In this sense, Chess skill can be quantified by winning and losing because each player has to perform with the same tools.  There are far fewer variables at stake.

With 40k, the free-form army building as well as a dozen different armies to choose from in the first place, one player's army may do very well against 90% of opponents, but if  they get matched against the other 10%, it doesn't do so well.  This doesn't measure the player's ability so much as the capability of that particular list.

This can be further seen when two people with identical lists place in vastly different positions in the end.

With the number of possible matchups and number of variables, I think its probably safe to say that there is no perfect system for quantifying a winner.  It would make just as much sense to ask 99 of your best friends to come to the venue and lets all play a few games against each other.  But if there wasn't a prize, people probably wouldn't bother.  So it then follows that people do attend tournaments for the competitive factor.   So clearly that competitive factor must exist.  Why then does the scoring system encourage 'fun and inclusion' over identifying a clear 'best' player?  Round and round it goes, until you come up with the fact that the competitiveness exists, and is an important aspect, but it isn't what makes the game fun.


Is 40k competitive? Who cares, its a fun game
Is 40k balanced? Who cares, its a fun game.
Should 40k be balanced and made more competitive? This in itself becomes a slippery slope in that there is no way to equally balance out and therefore make the game competitive in the way people seem to want to see it. The rich background of the universe we choose to play in makes it an interesting game and people will play it regardless of how balanced or competitive it is. When you look at GW as a whole it is in fact a company designed to make money. In order for it to make money it has to produce new models and new concepts to keep the game fluid and alive and these new additions to the game have to be given rules and points cost as a mechanism for us to use. Sometimes these will cause conflict with existing rules, sometimes they appear to be overpowered and sometimes there is a small unforeseen way of using the new addition in ways never considered when the rules were written. With GW putting out models on an almost weekly basis the game is kept fluid and interesting and these new combinations of units and rules make the game interesting and stop it becoming stale like we saw in the late stages of 5th edition. Meta chasing on the tournament scene is almost seen as a losing battle simply because of these new additions and the effect it has on the meta in general.

In short, we as players have to decide on how we want to play the game. Do we like or dislike the competitive and balancing issues shouldn't come into it. You can arrange games that do or don't take on these aspects as you see fit. Or do we go with the Ray Bradbury approach of "Burn it all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean".


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