Thursday, 20 October 2011

Explaining Comp

Cancon is run by the Canberra Games Society. Daisy is their mascot.
Cancon is an annual convention that has been running for many years in our nation’s capital, Canberra. For the last decade or more, a number of us (often around 10 players) have been making the 8 hour pilgrimage from Melbourne in order to take part in the Warhammer Fantasy tournament as part of the convention. At 8 games over 3 days, it remains the only tournament I have ever attended that spans more than 6 games, and is (at the time of writing) the only tournament I have ever travelled interstate to attend.

Relying as they do on volunteers, the organisers of Cancon 2012 were having real difficulty finding someone willing to run Warhammer Fantasy, and it was looking increasingly likely that no Tournament Organiser (TO) would be found at all. With time running out and our annual pilgrimage in peril, we (Hampton Games Club or HGC) decided it was time to take a hand in organising the event.

This year, HGC members have run a number of Warhammer tournaments: Empire in Flames, Book of Grudges and Axemaster (and Satus Bellum is happening this coming weekend). This accounts for a large chunk (about half) of the total tournaments held in Victoria. As a rule, these tournaments have had a few things in common:
  • They have used the rules in the Warhammer rulebook pretty much without alteration (this seems to be something of a rarity these days in the Australian scene)
  • They have used comp scores, generally determined by a panel of judges
These tournaments have been successful, with Book of Grudges actually ending up the best attended tournament in the country this year (take a bow, Brad). Players had fun and came back for more. As such, the decision has been made to use a similar approach for Cancon.

Within a couple of days of the Cancon player pack being released, I have already received a couple of queries from prospective players regarding exactly what we’re talking about when we discuss composition (or comp). The concept is apparently foreign to some players, or at the very least a bit vague as presented in the player pack. I confess the player pack may have been written in a manner that assumes the player has a certain level of familiarity with the tournament scene. Time to address this, then…

What is comp?
I will start by quoting myself a little bit, as I have already discussed comp in a previous blog post. This post is largely to address questions around Cancon 2012. The older post discusses the merits of the different comp approaches in more general terms.
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.
Most players with a reasonable level of experience in playing Warhammer will have developed an opinion around how even the different army books are. In 7th edition the disparity was pronounced, and resulted in players dividing the books into “tiers” in terms of power, with the stronger armies being able to slap their weaker cousins about at will. Despite the situation having improved with the advent of 8th edition and the subsequent re-release of a number of army books, most would agree that not all armies are of the same strength.

The internal power imbalance of a given army book is often more pronounced than that between different books. You see a lot more Swordmasters and White Lions than you do Shadow Warriors and Ellyrian Reavers. Why? Because some troops are simply better value than others. Even when GW get it right and manage to price everything correctly, making all the choices in a book equally good value, some choices simply mesh better with others, and some are made to perform roles that players are simply not looking to fill. 

Between the different strengths of army books and the varying degrees of usefulness of the units within them, it is possible to field armies that are wildly different in terms of power. A player who chooses hard troops with synergies that build on their strengths and cover their weaknesses will have a far more dangerous force than an ill-considered one thrown together from random units and poorly-equipped characters. 

So what’s wrong with that?
You might argue that being able to build a strong list is a fundamental skill of a Warhammer general. This is true. However, if only a few army books really offer the scope for an optimal build, and the ideal army is constructed in an obvious way, how long would it be before only a handful of races were present at the tournament, and all the lists looked pretty much the same? In a world with no comp, this is essentially where things were headed. I do not miss the days when most of the games I played were against Chaos and Vampire Counts, and the same character builds and units turned up again and again. Back in the days before comp was introduced, this was the way things were going. Many players were turned off by the environment, if for no other reason than because their armies were ill-suited to going toe-to-toe with the big boys. They couldn’t win most of their games, they had no chance of placing, so what was there to play for?

Comp seeks to prevent the downward spiral into Attack of the Clones. Whilst some players may not mind everyone going hell-for-leather and trying to field the filthiest lists possible, it’s an environment that turns a lot of players off. If a tournament wishes to retain mainstream appeal, it needs to put a leash on the worst excesses of the armies.
Cancon in full swing.
Mission statement
I was asked today how I would define the overall “mission statement” for comp. My response was as follows:
To provide as level a playing field as possible, without heavily impacting the variety of armies that players may choose.
To expand a little bit on what I’ve said above, comp is ultimately intended as a handicap system that helps to give weaker lists a boost, and stop stronger lists from rampaging off into the sunset with the trophy cabinet, leaving a trail of broken and twisted players in their wake. However, ideally the system used will not heavily restrict the sorts of armies players want to use. Warhammer is a game with a great deal of variety – it’s unfortunate if the comp system serves to cripple this aspect of the game.

How will it work?
Cancon 2012 will be using the following elements. The headings are from that earlier post I mentioned. Refer to this if you want a bit more explanation.

Comp Through Assessment (using a panel of judges) 
Each list in the tournament will receive a comp score of between 1 and 80. An average, competitive, balanced, tournament strength army will receive a middling score of around 40. Lists that are considered softer than average will get larger scores, whilst those that are harder will get less than 40 points. A ridiculously soft list that it is hard to imagine ever winning a game might get a score of close to 80, whilst a rock-hard list with a nasty array of combinations that will be very hard to beat will be closer to 1.

A list that is considered extremely nasty may incur the wrath of the comp judges and result in them requesting a resubmit. This is most likely to occur when a list is so “tuned” that many lists would have little to no chance of beating it, or when the list is highly unbalanced, ruining the game for opponents. A list may not actually be unbeatable before it qualifies for resubmission; if it is sufficiently skewed as to result in an imbalance in the game that would make playing it a downright unpleasant experience, it may be rejected.

Comp in the Draw 
The comp score allocated to the army will be divided into 8, and added to the army’s running battle score after each round. This means it will be used in conjunction with battle score to determine your next opponent, using the Swiss Chess system. A player with a soft army and moderate battle score might find himself facing a harder army which is doing slightly better.

Eg: Player 1 is getting 7 comp each round, and managed a draw in his first game (10 battle points). This gives him a running total of 17 after the first round. Player 2 has a hard list and receives only 2 comp per round, however he had a solid win in the first round and scored 15 battle points, for a total of 17. They may well face off in the second round, despite their different game results.

This is a slightly self-regulating feature, and is preferable to having the hard armies duke it out all tournament, only to have a soft army with fewer battle points (and an easier run) leaping them all and taking the title with a huge comp score. Ideally a player should not be able to win a tournament without having to face the other contenders. Comp-battle means anyone within striking distance of the top should be facing others in the same situation. This goes further toward putting a player’s fate more in his own hands, rather than those of the comp judges.   

So what’s an “average tournament list”?
People ask this question a lot, as it is stated as a benchmark without really being explained. It is a difficult thing to define, however most experienced players should have an implicit feel for what this might encompass. For those who lack this level of familiarity with tournaments, or those who insist on asking these questions even when they really should know better, I will give you a very rough example below, with an explanation.

As a general principle, an average tournament army should have the tools to compete in any game it finds itself in, without being built in such a way that it is simply too strong for other armies. If you go in knowing that you’re practically no chance against certain types of armies, your list is either unbalanced, or it might be under-strength. If you’re expecting to trounce some armies because they won’t have an answer to yours, either you once again have an unbalanced army, or you’re over-strength and heading for a poor comp score.

If you have never been to a tournament before, here is the sort of thing you might expect to find in a lot of armies, and how players normally run afoul of the comp judges in the various areas:

Command – Most armies will contain a decent general and a BSB, giving the army its spine and often providing decent fighting ability to boot. Excessive numbers of fighting characters may be seen as funny or rude, depending upon how good they are and what they’re backed up by. Often a hero will be found on a flying monstrous beast, however putting a tough lord character on something like a dragon may push the army towards a comp hit, depending on the rest of the list.

Magic – Many armies field a level 4 wizard as this provides both magical offence and defence. The army will generally have a dispel scroll, and sometimes a small backup mage. Some players will add items or abilities that add bonuses or dice to either magic phase, extra wizards, and items that tamper with enemy magic. These things will often be seen as leading to a hefty magic phase, and affect the army’s comp. Not fielding a level 4 wizard will often be seen as a concession, as can choice of Magic Lore.

Shooting – A lot of armies field a couple of war machines, supported by one or two shooting units. Players that start to negatively impact their army’s combat effectiveness in order to field more shooting will generally be regarded as a “gun line”, and may be scored accordingly. You will often find a player with a bit more shooting to compensate for a lack of real magic, as is the case with many Dwarf armies. Other armies can’t get war machines and will throw in an extra shooting unit instead. If it all adds up to overwhelming firepower, you might have over-done it…

Combat – Most armies will field at least a couple of very capable fighting units, be they solid units of elites, or hordes of slightly weaker troops. Depending on the player’s approach, units will either be expected to perform a holding role, or an attacking one. Many armies will have a mix of both, but some will favour one or the other. Unless units are particularly horrendous or massive, excessive numbers of combat troops tend to attract the least wrath in terms of comp. Right or wrong, this is probably due to the fact that magic and shooting can remove a target without it getting to retaliate, whereas combat is fought by both sides and hence there is a risk to being there. Also, some armies are poor at shooting and some have no real magic, but all armies have access to combat troops (though some are better than others).

Other – Armies will often include accessories to their larger units, such as small diverters, skirmishers and scouts. Excessive numbers of these may lead to an avoidance approach, which I will discuss later. There are also individual choices that get hit quite hard by comp – things like Hellpit Abominations, Hydras, Hellcannons, Treemen, and others. Often an army will include one such thing. Adding two will often result in a massive drop in comp or even a resubmit, depending on what else is in the army – the choices are often very dangerous, hard to get rid of and good value for points, and putting too much of that in will be seen unfavourably.

By definition, the points system used to select armies should dictate that no army can cover all the bases adequately and still go overboard. However, an “average tournament list” need not cover all bases perfectly. You may prefer to focus more on a particular aspect of the army at the expense of another. For instance, a list with no shooting can spend a lot more points on combat troops. These things can be shifted around to suit your style or army, so long as your focus on a particular aspect doesn’t result in a severe imbalance that can ruin the game.
What to watch for
In addition to the rough guide I have already provided, there are a number of principles that are worth considering when you’re putting your list together.

Unbalanced lists
As I have already said, a list need not cover all the bases. However, if you start going all-out in favouring a particular phase or approach, it may start ringing alarm bells. The most frequent offenders are shooting and magic. As I’ve stated before, most players are not too fussed about an all-combat army with no magic and no shooting. However, present a player with a gun line of 100 handgunners and 5 war machines, and he will rarely be pleased. Nobody enjoys being blasted off the table without making combat. Similarly, if you’ve built up a magic phase that can easily total 15+ power dice with little chance of miscasting and cream half the enemy army in a turn, you will make people unhappy. Yes, you can field a bit more shooting or magic, but if you go overboard, your comp scores will probably take a dive.

Lack of variety
As a general rule, it’s not a good idea to construct an army entirely out of a single thing. Whilst it may be “themed” for your force to consist entirely of Ghouls, Bloodletters or Knights, it’s worth considering what this will mean for the dynamic of the army, and whether it’s going to make for boring games (for both players). Often having an army heavily based around a single unit type won’t make for a particularly powerful force (unless those troops are very good at what they do), however it’s still undesirable to head into a tournament with an army that will bore everyone to tears (see “the fun police”, below).

Points denial
An army that goes out of its way to prevent opponents gaining victory points may be looking at a comp hit. This is generally achieved in one of two ways – avoidance or unkillable units. An avoidance army will generally be based around delaying the enemy as much as possible with expendable units, whilst picking off valuable targets with ranged attacks. This may not be an invalid tactic, however it can be an extremely frustrating one for opponents. If the judges decide the list is going to be effective in this manner, they will take it into account. The “unkillable unit” may be a single model that is nearly invincible, or it could be a kitted out unit loaded with characters, resulting in a “death star” worth 1000 points that opponents can’t go near. If you have constructed your list in such a way that opponents are unlikely to be able to get points out of large chunks of your army, expect to be comped accordingly.

Nasty combinations
Some individual things might seem relatively innocuous (or at the very least, quite reasonable) until they are brought together, resulting in them morphing into something else entirely. An example of this is a Dark Elf army with a solid array of shooting, backed up by a powerful mage with the Lore of Shadow. The Withering will see the shooting going from a threat to removing the target unit in a hail of (suddenly effectively high strength) bolts. Other examples might be a rock-solid regiment of Chosen, being backed up by a pair of War Shrines, or a Steam Tank backed by the Lore of Life (which can heal it). This sort of support can quickly send the unit from tough to almost invincible.

If you’re aware of a combination you’re building into your army that can result in some form of irresistible force or immovable object, it’s worth bearing in mind that the comp judges will probably see it too, and you may find yourself losing points.

The best of everything
A competitive tournament army will use units that are fit for purpose. If you need a unit to inflict damage in combat, you fill the slot with something that can generally get the job done. However, there are examples in Warhammer of units that are exceptionally good in their chosen roles. Examples are Tzeentch Flamers, who can put out a withering barrage of shots for such a small unit (assuming you roll OK), or High Elf Swordmasters who (against many targets) are the ultimate blenders. There is nothing wrong with choosing units like this, however if your army is packed full of them, you might have gone too far. Even if the list is otherwise relatively balanced, if the units you have chosen are a bit too good in their roles, the army may take a comp hit. In some ways this is the most basic of mark-downs – it’s a strong army that will overpower many others, even on their terms.

The fun police
It is not the stated intention of comp to try to ensure that all games are fun, however the process is sometimes utilised in this context. It may not be fun to be torn apart by an army that is incredibly powerful, but it is also possible to make an army that is not necessarily likely to win games, but can still suck the enjoyment out of the game for both players. An army based around massive blocks of Zombies or Skaven slaves might not win a lot of combats, but it can bog the game down into a stalemate and make people wonder why they bothered playing. In some ways, this sort of scenario is a difficult one for a comp judge. You may even find situations where the player is asked to alter and resubmit the list, even though it didn’t merit a really bad comp score. 

It might be funny to experiment with lists like this for the odd game at home, but it’s not really fair to make a chain of unwitting opponents miserable because you constructed an army that nobody in their right mind would want to face. If you think your list might fall into this basket, you may wish to adjust things a bit.

It goes both ways
The focus of my discussion has been around how to avoid getting a poor comp score with an army, however there is also the other side of the scale to consider. Half of the possible comp marks are above average. This is not to say that half the field will necessarily be scoring above 40/80 for their armies – that is up to the comp judges and depends upon the strength of the field. But the points are there if people want them.

Some players intentionally enter tournaments with armies that they know to be under-strength. This could be because they were adhering to a theme that restricted choices. Alternately, it could be because the player simply doesn’t want an army with all the usual tricks, and wants the challenge of entering games with a potential disadvantage. Less-than-optimal lists are often some of the most entertaining, even if they may struggle against stiff opposition. Some players are more interested in scratching out the odd unexpected triumph with their woefully under-powered all-goblin list (and spending the rest of the tournament laughing at their self-inflicted misfortunes), rather than going all-out to challenge for first place overall.

The comp system is intended to cater for players who want to field a hard list and play competitively, as well as those who would rather field something a little less tough and then try to make the most of it. Both are valid approaches – it’s up to each player to decide how they want to do things.

If you have not entered Cancon 2012 but would like to, you can find the details on the Canberra Games Society website, here. The full player pack can be found here.


  1. This is really interesting actually- good work :)

  2. Glad to be of service.

    I think those of us who are used to playing in tournaments with comp tend to forget just how confusing the concept (and execution) might be for newer tournament players.