Monday, June 19, 2006

Competition games; Pah!(?)

Wargaming competitions?


OK; I'll happily go to reasonable lengths to meet like minded individuals, to get a game of little men. But competitions were something I'd generally shied away from. I'd considered that the sort of person who played competition games generally played in a style I found less than appealling; for me it isn't all about the winning, but the experience along the way.

Nonetheless, when a weekend competition in leeds cropped up I entered, as I've already mentioned on this blog. A chance to meet other gamers, and to get a look at the Leeds club, now it has moved to new premises. Also a chance to get to grips with DBA again, something I try every once in a while.

As an even the organisation was fine, but then the organisor (Trevor Bavage) didn't have too much to organise on the day, what with all of 8 competitors turning up! Tables, scenry and all the rest were set up for 16 players, but only half that number showed. Still, more or less on time we began.

I was happy to confess to pretty much everyone my complete lack of experience at DBA. For the record I'd played version 1.1 about 4 times and 2.2 once at a show prior to the day; I'd played DBM, and the fantasy equivalent of DBA - HOTT - many more times, but the subtleties of DBA are more then enough to reduce the value of the experience. And as it would turn out my reading of the rules was fatally flawed. Also, my army was as you may know, brand new; traditionally bad luck.

Random drawing provided me with my first opponent; Indians. An army I'd never faced in any rules that I could recall, But one quarter elephants! I didn't fancy them but figured my chariots had a chance against his bowmen.

Although I didn't know it, I was on the right track, and my cavalry class chariots made short work of the indians in what was a swift and amiable battle. 'Hey this is alright' I thought, but it was to get tougher, and confirm some of my expectations too...

The next match up was 'Swiss styled' moving on one to face a new opponent. This meant facing a very particular genral with what I would describe as a classic beardy army. And a precocious child in tow to boot. Kids can't help being that way, sure, but my god it's distracting in some ways. The beardy army was late medieval, tough as nails and able to swap troop types at the start of the game. In other words like bringing two armies for the price of one. Beautifully painted but with a camp model, I assume he'd borrowed, that looked like its' last job was to hold soap in a Britsh Rail toilet. The match was a protracted stalemate, to be fair he should have won but several key dice rolls went against him.

This is one of several features of the rules I find annoying. DBA hangs on abberant rolls. DBM absorbs them on account of armies being of 40-80 or more elements, needing to lose many units to be defeated, other rules tend to use many dice rolls per combat, or require several successive defeats to be accumulated for a unit to be destroyed; but DBA doesn't have time for any of this. A game can last as little as 20 minutes. Great for competitions yes, but when losing 4 units out of twelve, on the strength of single dice rolls; or worse one general, ends your game, it can be well, frustrating to say the least.

This may explain the 'cocked dice' aspect; which I just found laughable. It runs something like this:

"That dice is cocked [by which i mean it is staddling the flat table top and a piece of felt 2 milimetres high, and I don't like the result] I demand it be rolled again."

WHAT!?! This is supposed to be fun, and you are supposed to accept the fickle nature of fate, I mean Jeez the game engine is such that random negatiive results are a virtual certainty. Why insist on rerolling a result you don't like on the thinnest of excuses, when any neutral observer in the human race, who'd seen a dice before could tell you with uneqivocable certainty what the result is, which side of the thing is face ****ing up!

For the record a cocked dice is one where it isn't clear which way it is up, it has somehow come to rest on or against something that has left it sat at around a 45 degree angle, or even on a corner. Not at about 3 degrees off horizontal due to a base edge or piece of paper!

Phil Barker (author of DBA) has had to placate the penny pinching rules mongerers out there with rules to control and rationalise this sort of behaviour, and one should perhaps expect it in a competition game, but really; its pathetic.

Anyhow; my second match was at least tense and my opponent proved himself a gentleman when not facing you accross a table. My third game was destined to be a defeat based on my lack of experience and poor reading of Mr Barkers' inscrutable prose. I was beaten in short order by a bunch of camels belonging to a gamer who seemed to have drawn inspiration from Nigel Mansell, despite trouncing everbody he bemoaned the terrain he had to fight over, the dice rolls, his troops, the tempreature; everything.

After he thrashed me he pointed out I hadn't needed to deploy a built up area, fair enough I'm only learning though I said, this somehow seemed an inadequate answer though and we argued futilly for five minutes, why I may have come to the conclusion that I needed to do that. Did it matter I had, I'd lost, end of story!

I was starting to believe DBA players to be pretty humourless.

To my complete absence of surprise I was eliminated, along with Indian player, who was the nicest opponent I had, and two guys from York. Both appeared to have brought armies with a snowballs chance in hell of winning, and were having fun, I have to respect that. I for one was starting to enjoy just watching instead, and checking out the extra curricular club games some of the Leeds lads had set up for themselves. A couple of historical refights seemed to be going on, fairly typical, and relaxed club fare. Ah, if only...

Back with the competition and two of my opponents had qualified along with a guy I didn't know, and the rank outsider at the start of the elimination round, my local opponent, Phil W. Phil got through on the strength of a points system that rewarded his two particularly bloody defeats and a win, with more points than some others. Kinda the wargame equivalent of going through on Goal difference.

In his first play off he drew the late Medievals for the second time, but thanks to defending set the enemy a battlefield that played to his Phils' own strengths and got in early to kill the enemy general. The result stood, but whilst the other Semi-final plodded to a conclusion an epic, academic and ultimately pointless debate began about the legitmacy of the terrain placed.

It's the rules again, bringing out the worst in players. I suppose the referee could've pre-vetted all the terrain to make sure it was within the excessively precise rule dimensions, but why should that be necessary, last time I looked mother nature didn't only make hills that are less than 200 metres long in any direction! Argue the what ifs of your tactics to deal with the terrain,yes; but measuring a model hill just to hold the moral high ground as it was perhaps half an element too large? WHY?

The plodding epic of Arabs versus Sumerians finally ended, with the Arabs still undefeated. So the scene was set for a final showdown. Again the scenery played against the Arabs, and into the favour of Phils' Romans, this time the layout was conservative though; at the end of the day, Phils troops were too powerful for camels, who had so far manged to avoid an army with knights, and in a game of low dice rolls ultimately threw a few more tellingly bad ones than Phil.

I suspect no-one was more surprised than Phil himself at his victory.

Parts of the day were really good; away from the game itself everyone was very friendly and easy going. DBA itself is a frustrating beast however, you know the armies are unbalanced, you know it hangs on especially random levels of chance, you know it looks more like a boardgame than an actual battle; and the rules are in some ways so appalling it is beyond belief. Yet this isn't because they are bad; not as such. They are elegant and in their basic conception staggeringly simple. But they are wholly devoid of plain English resulting in the most slavishly precise understanding of them being essential in order to play them properly, this means playing them a lot, and I doubt many players actually enjoy their first few games of them.

You need to be a dyed in the wool, competitive gamer to enjoy DBA, by contrast, Armarti (though often no better written) can be played in the same timescale with simpler less random results, AND look like a real battle. Furthermore Warhammer Ancients is a rules system that is almost brainlessly easy and well suited to fun play, if not so geared up for competitions.

You wouldn't turn on many converts to gaming with DBA, it's like computer software, 80's software; only with no computer to run it on.

Competitions, are just that; competitive. In this situation, DBA is ideal. It panders to the rules obsessed, micromanagement perfectionists; the sort of person who spends five minutes pondering a 5mm advance, not least because it's five minutes less for the enemy to make a move in. Personally I much prefer friendly matches which a mentally stimulating, AND FUN.

I was pleased not to be last, 6th out of 8 wasn't to bad in the end, and I may well enter again. But competition gaming is only a cul-de-sac of wargaming for me. Alright to visit now and then, but it won't lead anywhere.

Probably time to set up another short campaign I think...