RogerBW's Blog

The Tournament Mentality in Gaming 25 June 2015

There's a certain mentality in games (particularly wargames, but others too) which seems to be associated with tournament play.

By "tournament play", I mean any formally competitive play. There may be prizes, or just kudos; it may be run by the publisher, or by some other organisation; but in some way a victory will be recognised and bruited about, in some way that's more than just club bragging rights.

So, understandably enough, there's more emphasis on winning than on having a game that everyone enjoys; a "good game" becomes one in which the speaker won. Now, it may just be that I'm not terribly good at many games, but the ones I like most tend to be ones that I can enjoy even when I lose. (See the Chain of Command tag for battle reports that illustrate this.) I'll call the contrasting extreme "social play": it's still a gathering to play games rather than to socialise, but one of the goals is that everyone should enjoy the experience. (There may well be more table chat than you'd get in a competitive game.)

As competition increases, rules-lawyering tends to become more important (whether the game attracts people like that or just encourages them). Because it matters who wins, there's more incentive to argue about rules, which creates a toxic social atmosphere; this isn't something that happens if you're just playing for interest.

What's more, the game becomes less realistic. No game is perfect, obviously, but when one's playing socially it's quite reasonable to say that while the rules do technically allow one to do this, it's not really plausible, and so one should do that instead. (For example, in X-Wing, the tactic of blocking in one's own shuttle with asteroids so that it remains in one corner of the table, even though it technically isn't allowed to stay still.) But in a competitive game, those little loopholes become the potential edges that could lead one to victory, and there's a race to the bottom: with other things equal, players who take them will beat players who don't.

In wargaming this also leads to one-off thinking, where you expend all your forces because there will be no consequences in any future battles. (In a wargame tournament, you start with fresh forces in round two, not with the army you managed to salvage from round one.) This happens in quite a few games anyway, but again the tournament mentality promotes it.

"So just don't play with people like that." Which is fine, but if there's enough of a tournament ethos about it, those are the people who are playing the game. The social players who are thinking about taking it up may well be put off by a competitive community; the two sorts of player don't really have a lot to say to each other. (That said, I've been fortunate enough to find X-Wing players who are more interested in playing than in winning at all costs, even in my limited tournament experience.)

So what is a solution other than simply playing different games? Clearly there's demand for tournaments, or these players wouldn't exist in the first place. I suspect one answer may be more referee fiat, which should put off the ultra-competitive types and make rules-lawyering irrelevant. And individual tournaments could be structured as campaigns, with each player's surviving forces taken into account when setting up the next battle, though someone who comes up against a strong opponent in their first game will be in trouble. But the only long-term answer seems to me to avoid having valuable prizes in the first place.

See also:
On Campaign Systems
X-Wing Tournament in Aldershot, March 2015


  1. Posted by John Dallman at 11:07am on 25 June 2015

    I don't play wargames or boardgames seriously enough to bump into much of this, but running role-playing conventions in the nineties brought me into contact with it in RPGs. At the time, there seemed to be a fraction within role-playing, implicitly encouraged by TSR, who considered tournaments as the highest form of role-playing.

    My option is a pretty much exact opposite, shaped by published "tournament scenarios" which tended to be both poor and very artificial, and I nailed my colours to the mast with what turned out to be the first of the BRS conventions, with a "no support of tournaments" policy. We couldn't actually prevent someone running one, but we would give them no help at all, and the people who ran them at the time were sufficiently shocked by this idea that they stayed away, which was fine.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:24pm on 25 June 2015

    I met tournament role-playing very briefly at the first GamesFair I went to (which would probably have been in the early 1980s). I wondered how one could possibly "score" role-players, and discovered through trying it that the answer was basically to treat it like a tactical wargame. If I wanted a wargame, that's what I'd be playing; I never played another tournament RPG, and remain slightly puzzled by people who like the things.

  3. Posted by John Dallman at 09:21pm on 26 June 2015

    From my contacts with the RPGA and Raven, its UK successor organisation ("The Continuity RPGA", as James Wallis dubbed them), it seemed to be about showing that you were good at this stuff, by have a high ranking in an official league.

    Since the scoring systems weren't all that objective, there were certain ... problems. I have had people defend the system to me on the basis that "there's a lot less cheating than there used to be!" I found this a long way short of convincing, possibly because it had been clear to me from very early in my D&D-playing that TSR had a lot of confused ideas about how their games should be played, starting with "there is a way they should be played."

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 02:50pm on 27 June 2015

    What I love about role-playing doesn't seem to be what RPGA and tournament players love about role-playing. We really ought to track down someone who does like this stuff and talk with him about it on the podcast.

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