The first category, synonymous in many minds with the cheesy 40K powergamer, includes games like Flames of War, 40K, and Infinity.
The second category includes most indie games, including PDFs available from places like Wargames Vault. I'd also class Osprey titles like Ronin, Frostgrave and Fighting Sail in this category.
I'd also like to draw a distinction between competitive and unsportmanlike. It's a thin line that sometimes can be deliberately obscured, but a player can be relentlessly, ruthlessly competitive and utterly fair and scrupulous. There's a difference between enjoying testing yourself against others, and a desire to win and do your best - and the willingness to do any action, no matter how dubious, to gain advantage.
Question 1: What makes a game competitive or casual?
Is it the rules themselves?
What are the hallmarks of a competitive game?
Is it the player it attracts?
Do games with a focus on "list building" and points systems - attract a particular type of player?
One thing all competitive games share is a points system.
This creates an illusion of balanced and "fair" game which can be competitive, whilst simultaneously providing another metagame or area for competitive players to compete in; i.e. the manipulating of the natural flaws and loopholes in a points system to maximise your chance of winning. So points systems would, I think, be attractive to a competitive player.
I know if I make a random scenario in Tomorrow's War, then offer my opponent his choice of forces - the mood of the game is fundamentally different from a 35pt game of Warmachine.
Are bad competitive experiences a result of poor game design?
So if games are poorly balanced - some factions simply are unviable or completely outgun others - or there are loopholes in the balancing/competition mechanics, isn't that the fault of the designer?
Flipping this question - is a "casual" game = lazy game design?
I.e. I see a game is perhaps poorly balanced with haphazard rules, so I instantly classify it as a 'casual' game. I know I tend to quickly make this assumption when I see special rules (especially excessive special rules) with potential to be abused.
So is what we call a "casual" ruleset simply one where the designer couldn't be bothered to rigorous playtest all the cool factions, special rules and toys he gleefully shoehorned into his game?
Is Competitive/Casual based on how Shiny the Game is?
People seem to assume if a product has great production values, it must be good. Conversely, a PDF which looks like it was made in MS Word is assumed to be casual, or half-assed.
I wonder if there is an assumption that if a game is well produced, it must be well balanced and play tested. From occasional snippets I get the vibe that GW only does a small sample of play testing within a small select group.
I always get the feeling GW doesn't regard balance as important as it players themselves do (I mean, for them, having a good balanced game is secondary to making and selling minis, after all). I wonder if they do genuinely think people should just chuck models on the table and have fun - AoS certainly seems to have this vibe. If that is the case, they are massively out of touch with their player base. We often accuse them of instigating a codex arms race - but perhaps it is simply shortsightedness, laziness and being out of touch. That said, I recall seeing a survey once where only ~5% of players were heavily competitive, 15% played in some competitions, 30% played casually and often, 40% played casually and infrequently, and about 10% collected and didn't play at all. (Yes I know my math doesn't add up) So perhaps GW correctly knows its target audience. Though if 50% of your audience base is regular players, not collectors, then your rules should be good. There's no reason not to properly balance a game.
Even if some people don't care, a well-balanced game makes everyone happy. And it seems silly to alienate potential customers - i.e. the exodus of 40K players to Warmachine who invariably cite the tighter rules as a reason for the swap.
So is a shiny rulebook a guarantee of a balanced competitive game? I'd say we can easily say no to this one. It's not even a guarantee of adequate playtesting, let alone "competition level" playtesting - whatever that is. E.g. just because a lot of people take 40K seriously does not mean it is designed as a serious competition wargame.
Obviously, it all comes down to the player. A douchebag will be a douchebag, no matter what game he or she is playing. However a ruleset does bear some responsibility in how much "wriggle room" he gets. And it's the game design aspect I'm interested in (the title is the clue).
Is competitive vs casual simply how popular it is?
When I played Malifaux v1 years ago, no one regarded it as "competitive" - it was more a fun game you could hook non-gamers with, with its cheesy steampunk-zombie-horror-Western style and card mechanics. Now (locally at least) you could easily run a competitive league. Did it suddenly get "competitive?" (actually, I think the rules have been tightened up, but I think it's more it's simply popular and flavour-of-the-month).
Is Open Beta Testing the Way?
Warmachine Mk2 showed the way in this, and although I am leery about games who invite you to be "part of the design process" and "make the game you want to play" (translation: we'd like to sell you a mini line now with half-finished rules /or/ we'd like your money now but you'll get a full game later) I think an open beta gives a chance for better game design input both in the quantity and variety of play testers, as opposed to the three friends in that ivory tower.
I'm not keen to get back into Malifaux, but I'd trust their beta-tested 2.0 rules as a much tighter "competition" ruleset than say 40K due to their openness and Wyrd's great interaction with their community.
I think this applies equally to indie devs who are just selling rules. I often see early alpha/beta rules and I'd happily pay for the completed product with all the shiny stuff put in (caveat: not over $15 if it's a PDF, as Osprey has shown you can put out a nice full-colour rulebook for that price). This assumes there IS some shiny stuff. I know artwork is a hassle, but PDF rulesets need to lift their game - B&W MS Word docs don't cut it anymore. As I mentioned here, intellectual theft isn't really an issue, and many would benefit from wider play testing and exposure to a wider audience (others call it 'marketing').
To recap:What designates a game as competitive or casual? What are the clues or defining aspects? A points system? A shiny rulebook? Or simply popular enough to make a league?
Is bad competitive experiences a result of bad game design? How much responsibility belongs to the game designer and the playtesting/lack thereof? Is open beta the solution to all balancing woes?