Monday 31 August 2015

Game Design #52: Casual vs Competitive Game Design

When I review rules, I usually subconsiously lump games into two categories - competitive or "casual."

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.

Question 2: 
Are bad competitive experiences a result of poor game design?

The codex creep of 40K is the poster child for this; with factions being made irrelevant by changes to new codexes.  In AoS, GW seems to have recognized this by following the PP example of "everyone gets new models/rules" in a global expansion (though I think there are other, financial reasons that drive this).  

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? 


  1. I think there's an element of skill involved in competitive play, or at least there's perceived to be an element of skill that would allow players to develop and improve their skill at the game, and that it's primarily this degree of skill that would see them through a tournament competition, were on to be held.

    1. Skill at constructing army lists (40K),or skill at gameplay/tactics?
      Or (Warmachine) skill at remembering rules combinations?

      All games (bar the very random) have an 'element' of skill; I'm trying to nail down what makes us class a game as competitive...

      On the topic of random, Warmachine with its 2D6 bell curve results has more predictable mechanics than some.

    2. I don't know if I made myself clear... It looks like I was nitpicking but I didn't mean it that way.....

      For example, Tomorrow's War/Ambush Alley requires realistic tactics with an emphasis on suppression/fire/move. It's definitely a game you can improve yourself at, where common sense and skill can carry the day.

      Trying to cross open ground without suppressing foes first will swiftly (and consistently) be punished.

      However I doubt it would ever be used 'competitively' as it lacks a "balancing" points system, for example.

    3. In a broader sense, maybe a "competitive" wargame needs a "metagame" that can be gamed. I.e FoW, 40K, WFB all have a "army building" metagame. Warmachine and Infinity have that also, as well as (particularly Warmachine) a special abilities metagame (i.e. knowing when to trigger feats abilities).

      In other words, you can compete in ways outside the "basic" move-shoot-melee gameplay.

    4. Maybe. Maybe it's being able to improve in all aspects of the game, like having a set of game skills. That's one reason why Maelstrom missions in 7th edition are great in that they throw a huge wrench into traditional target priority, forcing players to make what would be sub-optimal decisions in Eternal War missions.

  2. From design talk I've read over the years, I think the GW designers are much less interested in the tournament play than the fan base is.. and within the fan base, the hyper competitive people are the loudest by far, but not a majority.

    1. I think Age of Sigmar has made this more clear. Though energy put into tournaments (back in 3rd-5th ed?) kinda obscured this.

      I do think they are guilty of mixed messages in the least...

      Though making a balanced game hurts no one and would satisfy EVERYONE so there is no reason (besides laziness) not to...

    2. Keeping things on spec, on time, and on budget, aka 'laziness,' is very strong motivation though. I'm always amazed at how my work makes the simplest tasks into monumental efforts. I think it's the application of the square-cube law to business or something. The bigger the business, the harder it is to accomplish anything.

  3. Another excellent post in this series, really made me think. Here are some of those thoughts:

    "One thing all competitive games share is a points system” - agreed, but not all games with points systems are competitive by nature

    " well-balanced game makes everyone happy.”- concur. Most games are balanced in some way, even though it might not be specifically by using a point system

    “PDF which looks like it was made in MS Word is assumed to be casual, or half-assed" - generally this is quite correct, but also with the bias that the best game made in that style probably isn’t getting a lot of support, figure releases or a wide player base. These are important factors in deciding what game to invest time/money/intellectual capital on. So is a shiny rulebook a guarantee of a balanced competitive game?

    I think both styles of games have their advantages – clearly making a XXX force up and getting to play it 3 times in a day against new opponents is quite a thrill and a quick way to learn its ins and out. Whether I (or my opponents) am an Asshat while doing it is another thing entirely of course…

    Conversely, a system which has more detail in various aspects of the genre or conflict may be very enjoyable buit which makes it unsuitable or too long for competitive play. Tomhawks and Muskets comes immediately to mind as a wonderful game I’d love to play a campaign of (if only I lived near some similalry minded chaps) but it would not work in a competitive environment.

    The Casual game is also more likely to provide a greater variety of scenarios where conditions may shift or deliberately unbalanced forces may provide a challenge. Players may also have different and unequal victory conditions (which is a balancing mechanism itself). You won't find that on a competitive table.

    Bolt Action and Chain of Command are excellent examples of either end of the spectrum even within the same 28mm WW2 Platoon genre. The emphasis within the rules is different.

    Then there are rare games which are good for both – Blood Bowl comes to mind. You can contest the serious national championships with a fine tuned Orc/Dwarf/Elf team or brawl in a local league with a goblin team for a bit of fun.

  4. "Question 1: What makes a game competitive or casual?"
    In my oppinion a casual game has the following characteristics:
    - the basic rules are simple and can be taught to anyone within 10 minutes
    - the gameplay is fluid and fast paced (more action than simulation)
    - easy or no army building (open the box and play)
    - balanced armies/units

    A competitive game needs the following:
    - clear, unambiguous rules/no loop holes
    - "skill over chance/luck", players decisions have more impact on the game than luck (MtG)/chances can be influenced (the extra D6 when boosting rolls in WarmaHordes)
    - "army/deck building" for different strategies/builds (while being balanced!!!).

    A well designed game can (or should) include all the above. The first example that comes into my mind is "Magic the Gathering". You can open a starter set and play with your friends or you can build a competitive deck and go to a tournament.

    "Question 2:
    Are bad competitive experiences a result of poor game design?"

    After playing 40K for almost 20 years: YES!
    Players will always try to use/abuse the rules to their own advantage. The question is how much room does the game leave for exploitation? It is obvious that some companies (GW!) create imbalance on purpose to promote sales.

    And I would make a distinction between two stereotypes of players, the "miniature collector" and the "offline gamer".
    The "miniature collector" is more interested in reading the fluff and collecting/painting. He chooses the army/models he likes, not always the most efficient. Some dont play at all!

    The "offline gamer" is only interested in one thing: winning!. It doesnt matter how.
    In 40K he will always build the "best" codex/army and spam the imba units.
    When you see a cheesy list like Grav/Serpent/Flyer Spam, thats him.

    Now this is where game design comes in!
    A well made game will allow both kind of players to have a fair game based on skill rather than "list building" and "rules lawyering".

  5. So here's a question: How does a company promote sales by deliberately creating imbalanced rules? There's the infamous 'Codex Creep' which would, one imagines, require each successive supplement to be more 'powerful' than the preceding ones, despite GW not actually doing that - they release plenty of material that's considered weaker than preceding material. They release plenty of units that, game-wise, aren't competitive.

    More to the point, imagine you're selling a game with two widgets where it costs the same amount to produce each. Now, if widget A is better than widget B, then presumably that increases sales of A. But doesn't that also discourage sales of widget B? More to the point, doesn't it also discourage people buying widget B from continuing to buy stuff? Even if they also buy widget A to keep up with the Joneses, you're still paying twice the production cost for half the sales because instead of people buying both A and B, they're buying one product and you're selling one product for the cost of two.

    1. For GW's practices, I refer you to Hanlon's Razor:

      "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity."

    2. Doesn't it follow that if GW is accidentally creating imbalanced rules, they're not deliberately promoting sales through deliberately creating imbalanced rules?

    3. Yes. I'm not 100% sure GW is a malicious empire of evil. Sometimes they're surprisingly dumb and amateurish. Can they be both?

      I'd say they definitely like the "flavour of the month" cycle but I'd say it is poor planning that leads to factions not being updated through 3 editions of rules....

      "People buy them anyway if we don't update the codexes - and look, many old Necron players are also buying the 3rd sexy new space marine faction we released this year - bonus!" ...this, rather than a pre planned business plan.

      That said, I've been completely out of touch since 5th ed 40K and only lately have revived interest through AoS so tak with helping of salt...

    4. Whether the arms race of imbalanced factions is a fiendish business plan or an accident of poor design by guys who don't care about competition; the net effect is the same.

      And by not taking steps to address the issue, they are the cause, regardless of motivation.

    5. Which is why you might want to update your information, at least about what's been released, what's been updated, and what's available.

    6. To be even more fiendish, produce three times of Widget A than you do of Widget B. Knowing that you need fewer of B as most people will buy A. Then laugh evilly as you wheelbarrow piles of cash to the bank. LOL

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Although I don't see how it is relevant to the topic at hand?

      5th to 6th - snap firing + assault changes, random charges, fleet, more explodey vehicles would have completely altered the balance of armies, just like every edition before it.... ..which is "imbalancing" factions since they were balanced against different criteria....

    2. Sorry, that was in reply to your comments about being out of touch with the present state of the game.

    3. If 40K ever does an "Age of Sigmar" I promise I'll be right onto it!

  7. >Is open beta the solution to all balancing woes?

    Balance requires sustained, focused, serious testing at the level of play you're trying to balance. (It's quite possible for a game to be imbalanced in the opinion of its casual players but not its higher echelons.) To balance a deeply competitive game, you need playtesters of that caliber. Anyone below that skill level is simply incapable of giving you good data. You *can* find such players through an open invite, but they'll be in the minority, and you'll only find them by luck.