Making Something Out Of Nothing: The Tournament

Welcome back, it’s been quite a while.  I had a great capstone article for this series about hosting a local tournament, but real life intervened and I got busy, then apathetic.  However, I’ve noticed a few questions/posts from people about starting a local Meta and growing it, and I think this final article is really crucial, so I was inspired to write it.

If you don’t remember, or didn’t read the first four articles in the series, you can go back and check them out.  If you’ve got better things to do, fair enough.  Allow me to quickly summarize.  This series is about growing a local gaming group when you live somewhere with no store and no community.

The Other Big Problem

Listen, here’s the thing:[1] If you don’t have a tournament for a new meta, it’s going to be DOA before it ever gets going.  The deck is stacked against you from the start.  You’ve done your best.  You’ve recruited various people to give the game a shot.  You’ve done meticulous prep to give them a great battlebox[2]/demo experience.  You’ve maybe even convinced them to buy a battlebox or more.  Great.  However, much like New Year’s weight loss goals, the hard yards are in front of you after the initial excitement wears off.   Haven’t we all seen people buy $100 or more in models, only to never again touch them?

There are really two huge issues when starting a meta without a gaming store.  The first, we’ve covered.  Finding people to play games they likely have never heard and may even have preconceived notions against.  The second, which can be even more daunting, is no one is being paid to keep people interested in and playing said games.  You see, I have a wife, I have 2.5 kids[3] that are 3 or younger, I’m a Principal of a school, a high school football coach, etc.  I love Warmachine, but the truth is I’m lucky to play a dozen games in a year[4].  I just don’t have the time.  I make zero money promoting the hobby, which is fine because I promote it because I love it, but if I have to choose between my job or time with my kids[5] and the hobby, well, that’s no choice at all.  So what all this sob story means is, I barely have time to play myself, much less patrol the gaming lives of 5-10 guys.  They have to get the “bug” to want to be active participants or else their interest is going to fade faster mine on week 3 of Insanity.

The problem is, except in the best of cases, most likely they had a fairly pedestrian time in your demo.  Sure, the models were cool.  Yes, the terrain looked nice.  Of course they enjoyed winning as you “jobbed” to them by not popping Denny’s feat, but still it likely sucked.  It’s not your fault, it really isn’t.  The issue is, the first game is a grind.  They can’t remember the rules, they are confused on how to move, they are constantly checking cards, they forget stuff, they have no grasp of strategy, they only have three models, which against 3 other models, seems like a boring game, and the list goes on.  Sure, if they came over from another miniature game system, some of that is mitigated, but then I would suggest that the rules confusion and boring factors are intensified.[6]  As the saying goes, like a fine wine, the game gets better with age, but again, since you’re not getting paid to do this, it might month or more before you play again, and then It’s back to square one.  I have found this unlikely to inspire someone to play (and also hobby[7]) on their own without you.

Ok, that was a bit wordy, so let me sum up the issue.  Initial games are by nature boring and confusing, but never the less vital and important.  The issue is then, how do you transition people out of that initial haze, and break through the “light” that is seeing the game for how awesome it is?  How do you turn people on in such a way that they become self-sustaining gamers?  The answer is the Tournament.

The Tournament.

I just recently ran the 5th iteration of my personal tournament, Nitz In Your Face.[8]  Nitz In Your Face (NIYF) is an invitation only tournament I run every year.  The first 2 years, it was a Warhammer Fantasy tourney because that is what I played.  After a short hiatus, and a conversion into Warmachine, I brought it back 3 years ago with much trepidation.  Support for Warmachine was tenuous at best.  I had gotten people interested, but I was at the place described above.  If I pressured them, they’d indulge me in a game, but few people were doing much Warmachine thinking/playing/hobbying outside of my direct influence.[9]  I wasn’t sure a tournament would fly, or that anyone would even come.  However, after doing a lot of thinking about the second problem above, I felt it was worth a chance, and my best way to solve the issue of people not getting into the game enough.  Man, am I glad I did it.

A tournament can be a daunting proposition, but it has a ton of advantages and is totally worth it.  Each one compliments the others, and contributes to building excitement in the players.  Let’s go through them to see why I think it’s so crucial.

  1. Preparation.  Most of us are in dire need of deadlines.  Left to our own devices, we’ll dawdle away hours of our lives in meaningless pursuits.[10]  The beauty of a tournament is it sets a deadline for the players.  It gives them a target date to prepare for.  They are now on the clock to get that unit assembled, paint that last war beast, review the power attack rules, or even just download Warroom and finally make a list for their army.  I announce the date about 6 months in advance, and keep hammering it.  This helps guys get ready, it also makes it easier to clear with wives/girlfriends/work as they have a ton of time to get the date cleared.
  2. When you sign up for a tournament, you are making a conscious decision to devote a day to gaming.  For most guys in my gaming group, finding time for a one-off game is hard, and when we do, it’s all we have time for.  We can’t bang out 2 or 3 games in a night (especially early on before we started using timed turns), so the problem of getting comfortable with the rules and army persist.  The tournament allows players to play four back-to-back games with their army.  They learn the game, they learn the army, and they start to learn the tactics.  THIS IS HUGE![11]  On multiple occasions I have seen the game actually “click” for people over the course of the day.  Playing in the tournament turned my best friend from a guy who had played a couple games but was probably going to give his models to me, into a serious convert.  The guy loves the game now, and has become my most common opponent.  This happened because over the course of those four games he got a real grasp of the rules, he got a real grasp of his army, and he was able to start developing tactics and implementing them with success.  This would never have happened with four games spread out over 6 months.[12]
  3. A tournament means new opponents and new armies.  Excitement comes from variety.  I can only make playing against my Khador so exciting the 5th time.  What fires people up is playing against new people, new lists, new casters, and entirely new factions.  This is possible at a tourney.  It’s one of the best parts of a tourney for newbie and veteran alike.  The game is a lot more dynamic with variety.
  4. The post-game glow.  Anyone who has ever been in any daylong event (sports, miniatures, cons, etc.) knows about the post-game glow.  Half the fun is afterwards, swapping stories, recounting funny events, discussing what worked and what didn’t.  Miniature games add another level as you start to think about list tweaks, new casters, or even new factions you discovered on the day.  This discussing can be done on the ride home, or even just around the gaming tables afterwards drinking some beers.  The fact is, the excitement that is generated on the day feeds a desire to delve deeper into the game, and then they are hooked.

How to…

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you holding a tournament is a smart and almost necessary step in solidifying a meta.  That still leaves the pesky problem of hosting one, which can be a daunting task.  I’m going to quickly run through some common questions/issues and solutions I’ve come up with to hopefully make it less intimidating for those of you who might feel overwhelmed at the prospect.  Let me add the disclaimer that a) I’m not a Press Ganger and b) with everything, do what you think is best, it probably is.

Where do I have it?  I am now lucky enough to have a house with an enormous basement, so I held the last week’s tournament there.  Before last year, I did not.  I held ours at the Knights of Columbus Hall.  The reality is, if you are building a small meta, you probably only need 5 tables (10 people), so a lot of places will work.  A garage in the warmer months is fine, or just try to see if a local church or school might have a room you can use for free or very cheap.

What do I need?  This depends on your size and rules.  At minimum, you need tables and scenery.  It’s not hard to get a few 4×4 sheets from the local hardware store.  I recommend getting a couple of the more committed members to help you purchase them, as they can then have some to keep and play on their own.  You can do the same with terrain.  Regardless though, these things shouldn’t be barriers.  Having a tourney is more important than aesthetics, and your new players don’t know any better anyway.  If you have a little terrain, I might suggest doing 2 tables with nice stuff, and just making sure everyone gets a least one game on them.

What do I charge/provide?  Again, it depends.  I’ll tell you I charge $20.  That seems like a lot to some, but I think it’s good value for what you get as I pump all of it back into the tourney.  For $20, you get entry, free lunch,[13] tons of free snacks, free beer/pop, and I try to have prizes for more than half the participants.  Having food and drinks people can wander over to all day really turns it into more of a fun, party day which is what I’m going for.  For prizes, I buy $10-20 prizes (Merc and minion models usually) and give first through third their choice.  The remaining prizes I randomly draw out so everyone has a chance to be a winner.   We also have a traveling warhammer (as in, a hammer used in war) trophy, which is sweet.

What rules should I use?  This depends on your group, your desire for the tourney, and other factors.  I can tell you that my tourney has evolved each year.  The first Warmachine one was 25 points, one list, no scenarios, no time limits and soft scores involved.[14]  The second one was two 25-point games, two 35-point games, same caster in both lists, one scenario throughout, no time limits, and no soft scores but ties were possible.  This year we did four rounds, 35 points, one list, one scenario, timed turns (15 minutes + one 3 minute extension, and SR rules for scoring so no ties.  Next year I can say for sure will be 50 points, at least one scenario, and timed turns.  The point is, each year I morphed the rules to best meet the needs of the most group members, with an eye towards newbies.  Not every decision I made was right, but overall, customizing it has made it better for my players.  Do what you want, but if you start out with a 50-point steamroller event for 9 guys who have just started playing, I think it will be a disaster.

Any other tips?  Glad you asked

  • I do an invite only tourney.  It’s in my basement for one, so I want to control who is there.  Also, my goal is for people to have fun and to grow the game.  That doesn’t happen when terrible guys show up with horrible lists and/or horrible attitudes.  Someday I might try to run a “real” tourney, but for now, invitation is the best way to go to ensure my players have the best experience possible.  I’m still selling the game to some new players.
  • We play board games after.  Some guys have to leave of course, but it’s nice to have some time to “depump” and just hang out.  I think some people came initially just to board game afterwards.  Guys bring some extra cash, and we order pizza.  Having it be a daylong event that goes into evening, helps ensure guys don’t bail out early and quit on their last game as well.
  • Get people there.  Especially at first, you’ve got to do whatever it takes to get as many guys there as you can (with 8 being a magic number).  That first year my brother and I painted my best friend’s Skorne army in 2 days just to guilt trip him into coming.  I honestly think if we didn’t do that, he would have bailed.  As it was, he showed up, played four games with painted models that looked good on the table, and ended up loving it.  Best thing we ever did.  The point is, harass people, guilt them, give them the dates way in advance, bribe them, do whatever it takes to get them there.   Chances are if they come, they’ll have a blast.
  • Play four games.  This year I had grown the tourney to 16 guys[15] so it was easy.  However, even if you have 8, I’d modify your system to give people four games.  If they are devoting their day (a huge sacrifice for most), find a way to maximize their games.  It seems like that fourth round is when the game really clicks for people.  Also, make sure your vets know that this is not a situation where bailing after 1 loss is acceptable.  They need to value your efforts and the new player’s experiences.
  • I play in the tourney.  I don’t give a Crump about people’s thoughts about this either.  I only get about 2 dedicated warmachine days a year at this point in my life, and so I’m going to play.  As much as I want to make it as nice as I can for people, it’s all for not if I never play.  Since I am the final arbitrator of the clock and rules issues, I do eliminate myself for the final standings.  So what I do is count myself as a normal player, and then once I rank everyone, I just delete my name and (hopefully) slide everyone up a spot.  Again, another benefit of doing an invitation is everyone knows the deal.
  • If you can, put people in a position to succeed  If a new player will let you advise them on list creation, help them create a list that is simple and effective.  I believe Harby is a top 5 caster in the whole game, but she has so many layers and rules she takes serious chops to play, much less play well.  You can help your new players have a great experience by keeping this in mind.  For example, when my best friend played and had the game click, my brother and I had designed for him a pMorghoul list that was dead simple.  Have Morghoul run around and buff and slash stuff.  Then power up Molik Kharn, and launch him at the enemy caster.  Is this the most powerful list would could make?  Of course not, but it was fairly simply in concept, and provided him with some basic tactics he could work with.  By the end of the day, he was doing crazy stuff with the list, and loving it.  A more complex caster and/or list would have more likely yielded a day of confusion and frustration.  Now, he can play whomever he wants like a champ.
  • Finally, be as prepared as you can.  You can’t anticipate everyone, nor should you, but the more legwork you do ahead of time the better.  I send out 8 or more e-mails in the 6 months leading up to the event.  I buy the snacks/food/beverages[16] a week out.  I rehash the rules (game rules, scenario rules, and tourney rules lead up to the event, and even do a dry run of my tourney scoring so I can do it on the fly quickly (no computer program).  I gather extra dry erase markers, tape measures, focus beads, and other items.  I also have created/stole/cobbled together a two sided “cheat sheet” all my players get to help them in their games.  The key is to get ready before the day of your tournament

If you’ve made it this far, thanks.  It is impossible for me to stress how critical NIYF has been in galvanizing a real gaming meta in my town.  We aren’t great, heck; we’re not even that good.  Very few of us have played in a tourney outside of mine, but who cares.  We have an ever-growing group of guys who play the game and enjoy it.  The tournament has not only helped that process, but also provides us all with a great day of warmachine gaming that is fun and close to home at least once a year.  Give it a try, and please feel free to let me know how it goes for you!


[1] Grammatically this is a probably a poor opening, but I  wanted an excuse to link this scene, in to my piece.

[2] I apologize, but I’m making battlebox a word, at least in the confines of this article.

[3] Until mid-February, then it’s three

[4] This is where the beauty of the hobby aspect of the game, podcasts, and internet articles are so great, because they sustain my interest even in the busiest of times.

[5] I have 2 girls; so obviously I’m doing whatever it takes for them to know I love them, and thus have them avoid “the pole” as a future career.

[6] I still occasionally worry I’m mixing rules and my buddy who came over from Warhammer also, was initially pretty unimpressed by going from 100 models to 3.

[7] And before you blow me up on the painting vs. non-painting debate, let me just clarify that I’m talking about the most basic hobby aspect of just putting those models they bought together so they can be used in a future battle.

[8] My nickname is Nitz, and my buddy coined this play on words from one of his favorite ways to describe something he likes… see endnote 5 for a hint.

[9] Though, to be fair to them, some were.  Again, some people will just get hooked, and thank God for them.

[10] Listen, I’m not judging, but think about what you’re doing know versus what you “should” be doing.

[11] Yes, all caps huge.

[12] He’d have never made it four games

[13] I have a sub shop that does 6” subs and a bag of chips for me.  They provide all the extra toppings and stuff.  Works nice b/c it can sit while a round finishes and still taste just as good.

[14] Piss off, old habits die hard

[15] We had 19, but 3 dropped.  I have to take a second to tell you how proud I am of this, but in an effort to not be humble I’m putting this in the endnotes.  I had 16 guys at a tourney that had 8 just two years ago, and that includes 3 guys who dropped in the last week, and 2 guys who always come that couldn’t this year.  It’s pretty cool.

[16] My guys like beer, so I do beer and pop.  My advice, don’t provide free liquor

Author: Nitz

Nitz is a man of many interests. His journey into nerd games began with a fateful purchase of Axis and Allies from Toys R Us, but got in full swing on an even more fateful stop on a whim to Mayhem in Ames during VEISHA '97. He enjoys all manner of games, movies, video games, professional wrestling, and sports. Most of his hobby time is spent in painting and theorymachining, as he lives in gamer no-mans-land, but he's working on that!

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