Thursday, 19 May 2011


Ah, Greater Daemons. Nothing polarises opinion quite like them
For a number of years, Warhammer tournaments in Australia have included a factor called Composition. In its simplest form, Composition (or comp, as everyone refers to it) is a handicap system. Its intent is to provide a relatively level playing field in a game system where the army books (and even armies chosen within those books) are often anything but equal.

The intent of comp is not to stifle the variety of armies that can be fielded, but rather to ensure that one army does not have a massive advantage over another. The idea is simple, but the execution of the idea can be very difficult.

Games Workshop have always stated that Warhammer is not a game designed for tournament play. It may work OK a lot of the time, but it was not the primary intent. The army books are designed to be able to produce a wide variety of armies, giving the player greater scope for experimenting or building his or her force around a particular theme. Offering this sort of flexibility can obviously come at the expense of game balance. Tournament Organisers (TOs) then need to either accept this, or try to prevent the worst mismatches with a comp system.

There are really 3 ways to approach tournament comp, with varying degrees of crossover between them. Players are invariably divided between these approaches, with each system having its advantages and disadvantages.

Comp Through Restrictions
This approach was the first one I encountered in tournaments. In fact, I believe the firs t tournament I ever entered had some restrictions in place (regarding the use of powerful magic items and the like). The idea behind restriction-based comp is that through the application of a set of army selection rules, most of the worst imbalances in the game can be removed. The restriction might be upon the number of war machines permitted in an army, the use of Special Characters, or the amount of magic the army can generate.

The advantages of this system are as follows:
  • The system is completely transparent. Players can look at the player pack and know that, if they adhere to the rules presented, their list will suffer no further penalties based on its composition during the tournament
  • The system is not reliant on the opinion of one or more army judges.

The disadvantages of this system are as follows:
  • I am yet to see the perfect set of simple restrictions. There are at least 15 army books out there, often with their own unique approach to army construction. Making a small set of blanket restrictions invariably fails to rein in one army whilst crippling another.
  • I am yet to see the perfect set of exhaustive restrictions. As above, there are so many different armies in Warhammer that trying to make a complete list of restrictions is a momentous task. Ideally, restrictions that are specific to each book can provide the fairest playing field. However, the tome of restrictions you produce is never going to be perfect and will never be to everyone’s satisfaction. There are even times when TOs take it upon themselves to give some armies a leg up, rather than just restrictions (I have seen examples such as extra points, alterations to selection restrictions, and even altered deployment zones). This is particularly dangerous ground.
  • There is no resolution within the rules. Having a hard set of rules tells players clearly what they may not do. However, within those rules, they are able to do whatever they like. This means one player may field a list of fluffy bunnies frolicking in the meadow, whilst on the other side of the table, a horde of ravening daemons looks forward to devouring them. Both lists are legal, however one has pushed the very limits of the restrictions, whilst the other has gone nowhere near them. The lists are not a fair match-up and a slaughter ensues. There are 2 aspects to this:
    • Different army books are never created equal. A cap on unit size will affect a Chaos Marauder and a Goblin almost identically (even based on cost). But that does not put the 2 models on a level keel. Stronger army books tend to come out on top in a restriction-based system, unless they have been mercilessly hammered under a comprehensive system.
    • The system has a ceiling, but no floor. As I stated above, if one player decides to push the limits of the rules and the other does not, the lists will not come out evenly. Admittedly this is effectively one player knowingly handicapping himself, however should he be discouraged from fielding a softer list because the system will see him suffer for it?
Fluffy Bunnies - to be encouraged.
Comp Through Assessment
This system is based upon players submitting their armies in order for the TO to assess them and decide how powerful they are. This approach is a more recent development (still years old), and one that can only really work when a level of trust exists in the gaming community. Players are effectively putting their tournament in the hands of the TO, as a very harsh comp score could cripple the player’s chances in the tournament. To reassure players, more tournaments have started to engage an entire panel of judges to try to ensure that lists receive a fair mark. This is obviously harder to organise, but offers a fairer system to the players.

The advantages of this system are as follows:
  • The system serves as a handicap. Rather than just preventing the worst a player can put out, a TO has the opportunity to assess the strengths of each list and can decide whether they were indeed all created equal, or whether some lists need to be pegged back and others need a boost. The system provides the resolution that a pure restriction-based system lacks.
  • Lists are often softer. Players tend to be cautious when they don’t know how harsh the TO will be in terms of comp. Fear of having a freight train of TO wrath descend upon their list will drive a lot of players to shy away from the nastier combinations for their army and to play it safe. There are always those optimists who are convinced their list with 2 Hellpit Abominations is all hearts and flowers, but they are in the minority.
  • The TO need not write a comprehensive how-to manual for players to follow when they make their lists. A restriction-based system will live and die by the list of restrictions, whereas this system is more flexible.

The disadvantages of this system are as follows:
  • The system offers no transparency. Players submit their lists and then hope that when they see the final scores, they have not been ground into the dust beneath the iron heel of the TO.
  • It can be very difficult to assess the acceptability and strength of an army list without your own experiences or opinions colouring your judgement (and let’s face it, you have to base your assessment on something). You will never have a tournament where everyone agrees with the comp score they received – it is simply a fact of life.

Peer Comp
This has rather gone out of fashion, and is probably seen as a lazy way out by the TO. Peer comp involves each of your opponents assessing your list (generally before the game) and giving it a score accordingly to some very basic guidelines.

The advantages of this system are as follows:
  • It takes the pressure off the TO. Apart from setting up the scoring system to begin with, the TO has no other involvement in determining a player’s comp score. This can be particularly advantageous where the TO is not knowledgeable enough to score every list fairly.
  • Mismatches may be covered. Theoretically, a player about to be massacred in a horrible mismatch could take this into account when giving a score. However, whether mismatches are meant to be considered, or simply objective marks of an army’s strengths overall, can be an issue.

The disadvantages of this system are as follows:
  • Players are biased. As mentioned above, terrible mismatches or perceived mismatches may be reflected in the comp score delivered by a player’s opponent, which may not be how the system is meant to work. Players also tend to have favourite and least-favourite armies to fight against, and often mark accordingly. There is not the same incentive for a player to give unbiased marks as there is for a TO or panel.
  • Player knowledge varies. Many players openly admit to not knowing anything about a particular army going into a game. This makes it very hard for them to make an informed assessment of their opponent’s army.
  • Players may not like the marks they receive. Having your opponent slap you with a poor comp score before a game does not really set your new friendship off on the best foot. Players vary in terms of how open they are when assessing an opponent’s comp score, and some players seem to think it’s an opportunity to campaign for Chummiest Chum Ever in the History of Chummy Chums. This does not make their list any less heinous.

List rejection is where the TO reserves the right to refuse an army list entry into the tournament, based on its horrendous composition. The player may then resubmit the list after adjusting it, sometimes with an inherent penalty for having submitted something so disgraceful in the first place. I believe having the option to reject lists is a must for a TO. You may not need to use it, however it is nice to have the option, and to let players know that you have it. Sometimes a comp system alone is not enough to discourage players from submitting an abomination that will ruin the tournament for every opponent.

List rejection is really something that should only be required under a “comp through assessment” system. Any decent set of restrictions should be able to pre-empt lists that cannot be permitted to enter the tournament.

Comp in the Draw
This is an interesting development that I have only seen recently. One of the gripes players have about comp scores is that it can happen that a player who was not in contention on battle results alone will leap the field of contenders and claim the prize, due to a massive comp score. This can come as a shock to the players involved, however it is really unfair for one reason – the player who won the tournament might have avoided all of the toughest opponents, then leapt them all at the end. Players like their fates to be in their own hands, so this sort of situation is quite undesirable.

The solution to this problem is to integrate comp scores on a game-by-game basis, rather than applying them all at the end. This means a player with a soft list and a solid result from his first game may find himself fighting a player with a hard list and a great result, with the former having been effectively boosted by his comp score, whilst the latter has dropped slightly. Under this system it is less likely that the eventual winner can get there with a soft list and a “bunny run”. If he’s going to be in contention at the end, the other leaders will have seen him coming (and probably played him).

A little-known comp loop-hole. The Greater Bunny!
 All Things in Moderation
As with most things in life, comp probably works best with a compromise. If a TO can come up with a blanket set of things he doesn’t want to see in his tournament, he might as well have some hard restrictions in place, so players know what to avoid. However, provided a TO is prepared to back his own judgement (or can assemble a team of knowledgeable players he can trust, who are not playing in the tournament), having comp scores ultimately encourages more variety in lists and encourages players to field some less than optimal choices in the hope of the odd extra mark.

No system is perfect and even if it was, not everyone would see it that way. So long as compromise and common sense prevail, people will continue to enjoy entering tournaments.


  1. I should probably state that my personal preference is for a comp panel (or even for the TO to take it on himself). I don't want to field the hardest list I can within a set of restrictions, and I also like fielding stupid things like a horde of 80 orcs (so sue me, it was funny). The sort of thing that will crash head-first into blanket restrictions, but is really not going to hurt anyone...

  2. commenting on your own post just to look popular again eh? theres an edit function you know

  3. I thought I would keep my personal preference separate from the post. And yeah, if I don't comment on my own blog, who will??

  4. Shut-up, that's who.