Sunday, November 22, 2009

Contemplations On The BoLS Divide

by SandWyrm



While we're waiting for Farmpunk to post his tourney report, let's think for a bit on this question:

Why do we collect toy soldiers? Why do we play 40K? (more...)


I've been doing a lot of thinking about this lately. Especially since Bell of Lost Souls has been doing hit-pieces on competitive players lately. Then of course we have the well(?) known rivalry/feud between those guys and Stelek over at Yes The Truth Hurts. Both camps act like bratty 12-year-olds when they interact, but I won't go any further into their drama here.

In a sense though, both Stelek and the BoLS guys have come to represent the ying and yang of the 40K community. Stelek is the uber-competitive player, who wants to build up the competition aspect of the hobby, which GW doesn't understand the need for. While the BoLS guys embrace GW's traditional target market and seek to provide some of the community outreach and support that GW can't be bothered with doing themselves.

So how would this divide be mapped out? Any set of choices can be thought of as a series of tradeoffs between a series of demands. Therefore, let's consider the 3 major demands that come into play when you get into this hobby.

They are:

1) Economy
2) Beauty
3) Competitiveness

Let's consider each of these in turn:


Economy

When most players first get into 40K, they are in their teenage years. Which means that they often have lots of free time to play, but very little money. So their choices in terms of the type of army they field will be dominated at all times by what they can afford to buy. This is one reason Marines are so popular. Because the new players don't need to buy as many models to get a game going, and you get a great deal on them by buying the starter set.

As these players get older, their disposable income starts going up. So now they can afford to buy many of the cool looking models they couldn't even consider having before. Or, if they care more about competition, they'll now be able to buy the more competitive units that might, for instance, only come in metal. Or require multiples of expensive vehicle models, like Valkyries.


Beauty

Beauty-centric players are all about theme, fluff, and making sure their army looks as cool as possible on the table. They like to win, sure. But they're not mentally ranking themselves against all the other players in their area. These guys love to set up themed missions and large Apoc battles just to have fun on a Sunday afternoon. You can bet that every conversion or cool-looking model they have will be on the table, whether it wins games or not. And they'll gladly buy an entire boxed set just to get the parts they need for that perfect pre-heresy version of their favorite primarch's retinue.

The archetype for this type of player in the Indianapolis area is K-Mech, who has a Tau army painted in Gundam colors and a giant conversion of a Gundam robot that stands in for a Hammerhead gunship. His army looks great, and he loves to show it off.

His record is among the worst of the local players, but he just doesn't care. He'll even ask you not to give him tactical advice. Because it just doesn't matter to him.


Competitiveness

Now we come to the purely competitive player, who's liking of fluff and theme is secondary to his love of the game itself. He wants to win and be able to rank his abilities on the battlefield against other competitive players. He's chosen his forces based on both points efficiency and their tactical role. If the model he needs to win is cheap, he'll buy it. If it's expensive, he'll still buy it. And it will stand there unpainted for months until he needs to get 3 colors on it for a tourney.



Mapping the Landscape

Now, very few 40K players are purely one type or the other. Instead, each person is a mix of these influences based up their degree of interest in each. Thus, they will fall somewhere within the following triangle:




After plotting several of my friends and other well-known 40K personalities, we get something like this:



Please don't mistake this graphic. Besides being totally subjective based on my opinions, players near the top aren't necessarily "better" players. Goatboy, for instance, is much more of a match for Stelek than this chart would suggest, and he'd probably beat me without too much trouble. But the players nearer the top are focused more on winning and competition, which drives their 40K choices towards greater list efficiency and use of tactics.

Where, you may ask, are the "green" players? Why in their basements, playing 40K with each other. Those that come to their FLGS to play other people will quickly find that their mish-mash collection of figs can't compete in terms of either beauty or competitiveness with the FLGS crowd. So most of them will decide to either return to the basement or quit the game in disgust. Because the only other choice is to spend some serious money and time to catch up. That's exactly what happened to me... twice!

This effect shouldn't be underestimated. There's probably 10X as many 40K players in basements as there are FLGS or Tourney players. Because cost will always be the number one concern for most people. Hence we come to an understanding of the "BoLS Divide":



As players leave the basement, they're confronted with 2 paths. The path-to-beauty beckons with cool looking models and lists that follow neat themes. This appeals to the visual and story themes that get new players hooked in the first place. Hence it is the path most trodden.

The competitive path, on the other hand, seems darker and more unforgiving. The players on this path have lots of unpainted models and various proxies used to test out new builds. They also speak in a strange tongue filled with terms like "Torrent of Fire", "Role Redundency", and "Points Per Wound".  They have spreadsheets filled with personal performance stats and have calculated the weapon odds against every target imaginable.

Right down the middle of these two camps lies what I call the BoLS divide.

BoLS didn't invent that division (GW did), but they embrace it shamelessly. Putting up articles that competitive players like me find particularly aweful. There is however, a certain logic to what they do. Most people don't like long articles, so they keep them to about 5 paragraphs, maximum. Which makes any real discussion of tactics impossible.  Most people's eyes will glaze over when discussing anything mathematical, so they don't discuss odds or math-hammer. Most people chose their units based on how cool they look or some movie army that they want to recreate. So BoLS panders to that.

There's some competitive info on their site, but it's watered down, lest they wander too far into the red and away from the greater 40K population that GW has built over the years.

What does this mean for you and me? Well, the following thoughts occur to me:


1) You can't change the nature of the 40K competitive scene without GW's help.

Think about it. GW has built this market over the last 20+ years. During that time, they've striven to appeal to the beauty gamers to the exclusion (whenever they can) of the competitive gamers. This long-term shaping has biased the general 40K population (through self-selection) against the sort of competitive play that games like Magic: The Gathering enjoy.

As a result, there just aren't enough competitive gamers in the greater 40K population to force an immediate change of focus on GW's part. We're a relatively small minority compared to the whole. So until GW starts actively encouraging more competitive play in 40K, thus attracting more gamers with a competitive mindset, things aren't going to change much.

Which brings me to my next point...


2) The recent announcement of the new North American Tournament Circuit is a GOOD thing.

Yes, the first few years of it will be aweful. Hideous even. Broken from the get-go. But for the first time in a long while, GW is trying to appeal to competitive gamers. That's an accomplishment. This WILL attract more competitive people to the game, and that's a long-term trend worth supporting. We'll get a few more at first, and then a lot more as GW hopefully learns from it's mistakes and sees the kind of untapped market it's been ignoring for so long.

5 comments:

  1. Well, first of all I'd just like to say this is a really well thought out and written article.

    I agree with what you are saying about an artificial divide between those who play casually (or perhaps with a bent towards the painting/modelling and background) and those who play just for the competitive side of things. Although I know a couple of guys with zero-effort unpainted orcs with no arms (giving one example) who will argue till the cows come home over a quarter inch (and games are typically highly wrought affairs), I also know a chap who not only aces everyone at our club tournies, but does so with beautifully painted and converted armies. The two 'methodologies' are not mutually exclusive.

    However, I'm not sure BoLS deserve criticism for pandering to the masses. They've always focused on the 'hobby' aspect of the game ever since their more humble roots, and i think some of their finest output has been things such as the pre-heresy campaign, the smaller codecies, and other campaign packs - essentially items which sit at an opposite polarity to tournament and high-end competitive play. I think the fact that they've moved at all towards tournament play is at least an admission towards more competitive play styles.

    As always I think the game is very much horses for courses, and fortunately there are blogs such as your own to cater for those who are focused towards competitive gaming. Personally, I think its great that the game has such a wide appeal, and can mean so much to people for entirely different reasons!

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  2. Heh, I can personally attest that good painters can also be competitive.

    But if I was more focused on beauty to the exclusion of competition, I'd be fielding Ogryns and Rough Riders because they look cool. I'd also be putting as many cool =][= troops as I could in for the conversion and painting possibilities. I'd have Penal Legionaires and such forth too, because it would be so cool to field some Necromunda models that way.

    But I am competitive, so I stick to the effective, but more boring units, and dress them up as nicely as I can. :)

    As for BoLS, I don't mean to be overly harsh about them. They're tops when they stick to the hobby aspect of the game, and I don't want to minimize what they've contributed in terms of building a community. Particularly compared to what GW hasn't done to foster one. So props to them for what they've accomplished. I do appreciate that. I also appreciate that they act like grown ups 99% of the time and always keep the personal drama stuff away from their site.

    But... at the same time they're holding back. Things like the article length limits and all the empty articles that seem to only be written in order to meet some sort of daily quota (advertising contract obligation?).

    Personally, my impression of JWolf and Goatboy is that they're holding back on sharing decent tactical and list-building advice. Combined with the anti-competitive articles they've been posting, it feels like pandering to me.

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  3. Congratulations on a great article. I like your points a lot, I went the way of the poor collector, but i have no opponents, I would have them, then my story might became other.

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  4. I think I disagree with regard to BOLS holding back. I think, instead, that 40k doesn't lend itself well to discussion of tactics in the broad or abstract sense, and instead to have any sort of meaningful conversation I think you almost have to limit yourself to specific games/situations.

    I say this, because more and more, I am thinking that the fast and loose way that GW handles their rules has made a mockery of 'balance' in the game. Each new codex seems to have a reactionary approach to the last (Codex 1 has uber nasty unit -> Codex 2 has uber nasty unit to deal with uber unit from Codex 1 -> Ad infinitum), which constantly changes the game dynamics. Additionally, the inclusion of tons of special or army-wide rules that invalidate core game mechanics (morale, pinning, tau jump-shoot-jump in 4th, etc) or other armies abilities (eternal warrior being everywhere, we'll be back, etc), the short 6 turn game, and the U.S.'s habit of playing at more than the designed for 1500 point games make having a really well defined game-plan before you see your opponents army very hard and not very useful. I think you have to play a bunch of types of armies, generate a kind of 'feel' for the army and it's tactics, and then apply that to a new game.

    I still think making a well-balanced/thought-out/play-tested army is important, and possible to discuss prior to gaming--I just think that the 'structure' of 40k doesn't really make it well suited to well-defined pre-planned out tactics. For these reasons, I don't really see what kinds of really useful articles they could have on tactics in the abstract. Take their recent set of articles on the nine principles of war--those were fairly well done, but really because they were so abstract, not too useful to a veteran player, I think.

    I think to really make 40k a competitive game, GW would have to make a much more solid rules set and do a much better job of supporting the FAQ's. Right now, I think that there is too much of the rock-paper-scissors to really allow for a fair competitive game. It's for those reasons that, while I am a very competitve player, I still kind of take a middle-of-the-road approach to 40k--I personally think there is just too much randomness and unbalance in the game to go completely competitive in my list-making and playing, and instead I try to make 'pretty hard' lists but still have some fluff and fun stuff so that I, and hopefully my opponent, still have a good time even when everything goes to pot.

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  5. There are some great points all around here.

    I agree with Canaan to a certain extent. I find 40K difficult to approach with a well defined plan. I usually have vague ideas of how to approach a different kind of army (like castle up with tanks vs Demons.)

    I usually have to see the table, and how my opponent deploys to come up with a definate plan of attack.
    I think tactics are best discussed using battle reports, and then it can slip into 'pat yourself on the back' a little too much.

    I also agree with Sandwyrm. I think BoLS waters some stuff down a bit too much. I'm not a big fan of their 'must publish on a timeline' approach. Some of the articles that come down the pipes read like a rushed english essay written an hour before class (I wrote more than a few of those in college). I'd much rather they not make deadlines and put out higher quality work than adding more people and pumping out more watered down posts.

    I respect Jwolf, Goatboy, and Mkerr, but I feel some of their articles are just getting started, then they wrap it up. I also don't care for trying to write up poor codex entries as 'awesome' if you use them in a certain instance, against a certain other thing. (Culexis assassin comes to mind). I do think Goatboy's improved a LOT since his first few articles. I didn't read his stuff much at first, and now, I make his stuff a priority.

    *sigh* we're not gonna remake the 40K community overnight. but I don't think we have to. I think there are enough multifaceted reasons people play.

    I suppose I AM a bit on the cheaper side of playing, I've gotten a lot of my stuff second hand, and use tools and supplies I'm used to from the farm to do conversions (I'll sing the praises of JB weld, but don't own greenstuff)
    but in my own defense, I started Sisters because I thought the models were BEAUTIFUL. My second choice for starting army: Demonhunters, for very similar reasons.

    after that, I had to figure out how to make them work.

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