Beyond Sportsmanship: Game Stewardship

The great Time of Reflection Posts continues! This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for awhile – I started thinking about it thinking about the evolution of Horus Heresy and with Eight Edition right around the corner, it seemed like a good time to write about it.

There’s a lot of talk about sportsmanship in the hobby. How to be a good opponent. How to not be “That Guy (or Girl)”. But I’d argue that maintaining and helping your games goes beyond that, to something that exists at a system level.

Because the hobby has a collective action problem.

What the Hell is a Collective Action Problem?

A collective action problem is where a group of people would benefit from everyone doing something, but they fail to reach this outcome because it’s in no one’s self-interest to do that thing alone. If you’ve heard of the Tragedy of the Commons, that’s a collective action problem.

These kinds of problems are all over the place. In my day job, the collective action problem of how we currently use antibiotics leads to things like untreatable drug-resistant Gonorrhea. We all agree that’s a bad thing, yes?

Lets consider a gaming example. Consider a hypothetical group of gamers, where everyone is playing balanced, narratively-driven armies, and everyone has a 50% chance of winning. Lets also say that winning is more fun than losing, so the winner of a game gets one point, while the loser gets none. These points represent overall happiness with ones hobby.

Over many games, everyone’s score averages to about 0.5.

Now, a new player joins, Jimmy Nocomp. Jimmy plays an absolutely savage Eldar army, with a 75% change of winning any given game. We let the group play games a little longer…and things have gotten bad. Jimmy’s average score is now sitting at 0.75, but everyone else will have dropped below 0.5, as they lose more games than they win now (how much it drops depends on the size of the group). By and large, everyone but Jimmy is having a worse time.

The way to solve this is to harden up your own armies. Out with the Vespid, in with the Broadside. Winning is a theme!

The more people do this, the more anyone who doesn’t has their score drop, which means eventually, if everyone is following their own rational self-interest, fluffy armies disappear. And, eventually, the scores claw their way back to an average of 0.5. What’s the problem then?

Let’s say there was a reason everyone liked playing narrative armies – they find competitive armies less fun to play (in this hypothetical – chill tournament players). So when they win, they only get 0.8 points, not 1 point. Except Jimmy. Jimmy fucking loves beatstick armies.

For a ten player group, your average score is now: [(0.5*1) + (0.5*0.8*9)]/10 = 0.41

Jimmy has literally made everything worse. But no one can break the cycle, because the first person to break out is going to have a happiness of 0.25, even worse than when they stepped out. Everyone wants to go back to playing narrative games, but no one wants to be the first person to do it.

We all agree that literally nine out of the ten people in a gaming group having less fun than they used to is a bad thing, right?

This problem extends beyond sportsmanship. Jimmy might be a great opponent to play against. A nice guy fielding a legal (if rough) army. He might not even realize he’s doing anything. And it could be the exact opposite problem – what if four narrative players join an existing group of six tournament players, who will win more, but lose much of the satisfaction from winning against a trivial army (only getting 0.5 points)? The average score is [(0.33*1*4)+(0.61*0.78*6)]/10 = 0.42.

Jesus, they’re as bad as Jimmy!

What To Do About It

To fix a problem like this you have to step outside being a good opponent for any particular game and say “What kind of game do I want to play?”

And then you have to defend that.

In other fields (like antibiotic resistance) this concept is called “Stewardship” – recognizing that there is a collective good that needs to be defended, even if it occasionally comes at a personal cost to you. That yes, while it would be nice to have a campfire, and the probability of it catching something on fire is low, that if everyone did that, the whole goddamned forest is going to go up.

For gaming, that means occasionally resisting that trick you just found, because it’s going to trigger an arms race. An example for my army is that yes, technically, the Exarch in a Crimson Death formation could be my warlord, but that feels overly game-y and isn’t really what I want to play. So I don’t do it, and stick with my much more vulnerable Autarch.

Even if she’s useless a good 50% of the time.

Some people are doing this implicitly. Groups like Faultline 40K or the various G3 groups do this with painted models – I’m going to recognize that while individually I’d like to put my primer-grey Custodes on the field, that the game I want to play is with fully painted figures, so I’m going to wait until they’re painted. And to give full credit to the tournament scene, the folks at Frontline, Warzone Atlanta and scores of others have sat down, decided what kind of ecosystem they wanted to make and made it.

 Game Stewardship Into the Future

Where am I going with this? Part of the point of this is to just point out that this is a thing, and get people thinking about the idea of how they play and what they want to see beyond just the conversation they should have with their opponent before a game, or being a good sport once the dice start falling.

But part of it is that I think, at the moment, there’s two games that could use a little bit of stewardship:

Horus Heresy: The Horus Heresy getting more accessible is a good thing. Lord knows I’ve appreciated the widespread availability of plastic Mk. III marines for my Imperial Fists. But there’s a problem with Horus Heresy as a system – it’s basically built under the assumption that people are being good stewards. There’s all kinds of things, Leviathan detachments, the Primarch’s Chosen Rite of War, etc. that are amazing for narrative play and special scenarios, but if not used with a little bit of forethought go bad places quickly. And when Horus Heresy was dominated by resin armies and folks paying hundreds of dollars per rulebook, the temptation to chase a nice “power build” might not have been as strong.

But cheap plastic marines and accessible rules have changed that a bit, and to my mind, with the slow pace of Forge World updates, Horus Heresy is particular vulnerable to a broken thing being broken for a long time. Things like the “Infinite Shots Hand-flamer Moritat” – just ask yourself if that’s where you want the game to go, even if it would be really nice to effectively one-shot Horus by a tortured reading of the rules.

Warhammer 40K: Games Workshop is doing an amazing thing with giving 40K players three ways to play, because they’re recognizing that people are playing for different reasons, and those reasons are sometimes a bit incompatible.

But I don’t trust us.

Consider what the General’s Handbook did for Age of Sigmar. Yes, it breathed new life into it, but how did it do that? By providing a points system. I’m a little suspicious of how much of the community’s interest, even among fairly casual players, only really emerged when the old paradigm of equally matched forces meeting across the field was brought back. And there’s a lot of awkwardness in the General’s Handbook, some things that don’t make sense, but it was embraced with full-throated joy.

And I’m not saying it wasn’t warranted, because it is genuinely hard to figure out if thirty Dryads, a High Elf Lord on a Dragon, and ten Empire Knights is going to be a fun match for six Ogres and forty-six Night Goblins.

But what GW has been calling “Matched Play” has been the dominant paradigm by which the game has been played, and I’m concerned that if the expanded spectrum of ways to play isn’t defended a bit, that it will be easy to fall back into that old default. And matched play isn’t a bad way to play the game – but it does mean that if you want to use alternative ways to play the game, you need to champion them. Play the occasional odd and imbalanced scenario. Organize a Narrative Night at your club. Or a local tournament. Don’t just automatically agree to “1850 ITC Matched Play?” or whatever if you want to play a game. Be the person who welcomes new players.

A Narrative Fever Dream

One of the biggest challenges to the notion of stewardship is that notion of buy-in. Turning back to our first example, if you’re the one person who stands boldly against the tide of savagely competitive lists? Your life sucks, and it’s going to take a particularly strong and resolute person to either give up holding the line or just quit the hobby wholesale to go play Skyrim or fetch with your dog or take up sous-vide cooking or whatever.

You need allies.

This is, again, where tournament players have an advantage. They’ve done a bang-up job of building a community of people who (at least roughly) share their values and objectives, and have built a pretty strong ecosystem out of that. There are lots of competitive events out there, and going to ones with people you’ve never really met before still provides a pretty common and predictable experience. And that’s awesome – traveling to play toy soldiers with strangers is a singular pleasure.

And being in an environment of like-minded players is…well…a breath of fresh air.

I’d like to believe that there’s room for that in the narrative space as well. One-off events, like those done by The Narrative Guys are amazing (see my reviews here and here). And there are lots of local level events. But there’s that middle space, the smallish, non-marquee event that’s still worth traveling to, that’s missing. And there’s no particular linking of events, either narratively, or to exploit some of the benefits from having a unified platform (for example, using some measure of player skill to avoid pairing very skilled players against folks who don’t stand a chance). There are glimmers of this, especially in the 30K arenas, but I’d like to see more of it – though I’ll admit I’m not quite sure how to bring that into being.


Be the gamer you want to play. Play the game you want to play. Just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should.

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  1. Be the gamer you want to play. Play the game you want to play. Just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should.

    This is excellent advice.


  2. Very well said, and I couldn’t agree more. We need to be the ones to stand up and say ‘lets play something different’ I am trying to get a community going out here in PA and it’s and interesting path. We started with a Shadow War campaign that I did custom missions, location rules, and got ride of the winner and created hideouts to spend promethium on. It was a start, but then 8th drops and everyone is playing 2000 point matched play missions….

    Going to keep bringing my boxes of toys and looking to play some narrative games. Here’s hoping GW supports that play with the up coming global campaign.


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