Sunday, 6 November 2011

A changing of the guard

The old days
Since the arrival of 8th edition (now well over a year ago), The Warhammer Fantasy tournament scene in Australia has seen some pretty dramatic changes. 7th edition had seen the rise and rise of the game being used in a competitive context. Player numbers were at an all-time high, with a number of tournaments attracting 100 or more players. Large numbers of players were travelling interstate in order to attend the flagship events (in fact this is really the only way tournament attendances can reach the levels we were seeing).

The Warhammer rankings (originally hosted on Irresistible Force, and now found on Rankings HQ) were unquestionably a contributing factor to the vibrant tournament scene. The rankings provided players with a way of gauging their success on a national level, and helped establish some of the front-runners as “the ones to beat”. It helped give competitive and aspiring players an idea of where they stood, and what would be required if they wanted to make it to the top.

There will always be disputes over the validity of the rankings model. There are a lot of different factors to consider when attempting to score the relative merits of one tournament over another – the main ones being the number of players and rounds, and the army sizes involved. Invariably the system will favour the players who manage to attend a number of the largest tournaments, as this tends to be where the most points are available. Whether this is fair has been the subject of debate, with the geographical location of these big events making things easier for some than others.

Leveraging the rankings system, the Warhammer Fantasy Masters is an invitational tournament held toward the end of the calendar year. The general concept is to gather the top 16 players together and have them play off to determine the champion for that year. As with all things, the implementation is never so simple as the idea. Places are held for the reigning champion from the previous year, the top-placed player in the New Zealand rankings, and the winner of a designated tournament in Western Australia (an acknowledgement of the tyranny of distance when trying to attend enough of the larger events on the other side of the continent in order to qualify in the normal manner). 

During the heights of 7th edition, there was a level of prestige attached to the Masters that made invitations highly sought-after. Each year there would be a number of familiar faces (some of whom were the driving forces behind the rankings and the Masters) – around half the field consisted of the same competitive core of players who made the upper echelons of the rankings their own, and had almost a monopoly on the top places at some of the largest tournaments in the country. The remainder of the field varied slightly more, however there was a fairly strongly established order, and a predictability to most of it.
As they are now: The rankings as they appear on RHQ
Enter 8th edition
Last year 8th edition was released, and things changed dramatically. The majority of the dominant core of players found that the new edition was very different from 7th edition, and not really to their liking. There was a period of upheaval as the community struggled to come to terms with the radical changes to the rules and dynamic of the game, and this was followed by something of an exodus. Citing irreconcilable differences, a large chunk of the competitive tournament community and 8th edition Warhammer parted ways. A large number shifted their focus to Warmachine, some went to other systems, and some have dropped from the gaming radar entirely.

I have written before about how radical the change to 8th edition Warhammer was, and how it took a lot of us a period to adjust (even those of us who now really like the new edition). The game is different and it is no real surprise that some players have decided it is no longer the one they want to play. It also stands to reason that the “hardcore” competitive community would reject the game as a group, rather than individually – they wanted much the same thing from their hobby, and found that 8th edition didn’t cater to their tastes. Their similar interests kept them together as they shifted to a different game they felt better suited their focus on competitive play.

Regardless of their reasons for leaving, as the dust settled the Warhammer tournament community found itself in something of a power vacuum. A large number of the dominant players had departed the game, and those same people also had a big hand in organising tournaments, the rankings and the Masters. They provided a lot of the drive to compete, and had been towing a lot of players along in their wake. When they left, it was a body blow to the competitive element in the community. 

When the Masters came around last year, a lot of the invitations went to the usual suspects. After all, 7th edition had still been played for 2/3 of the year, and those players had not yet moved on to other things. These invitations were duly declined, and the resulting pass-downs led to the field for the tournament looking rather different from previous years. With the loss of so many recognised names and with so many players choosing not to attend, the perceived prestige of the event was damaged. Things were not helped by a peer review process of army lists that saw some entrants throwing their hands up in resignation by the end. Despite all this, the event was run and won, and things moved on.

One year on
A year later, and the Masters are coming around again. To an extent the dust has settled after the upheaval of last year, however this does not mean we are left with no drama in our gaming lives. After releasing a player pack that was met with criticism and general displeasure by many players, Irresistible Force decided to dump the event only a month and a half before it was due to run. In some ways this is not surprising – these are some of the same people who had already walked away from Warhammer 8th edition and no longer had any real investment in the Warhammer community. Whilst they may have been willing to continue to host the Masters, what they probably perceived as a lack of gratitude and a wave of negative feedback meant it was no longer worth the effort.

Amidst the resultant recriminations and finger-pointing, Good Games in Canberra stepped in and volunteered to run things in their stead. The player pack changed little, although it did see some additions in regard to comp scoring, as well as the reintroduction of the “sealed section” – two rounds where the entrants are allocated another player’s army at random, rather than the one they brought with them. This concept was present in the earlier years of the Masters, however it had been dropped in more recent times. The sealed section was brought back due to popular demand, showing the new organisers were willing to listen to feedback from the community, even as they scrambled to pick up a tournament at the last minute. Kudos to them.

And so, after another round of drama that saw one more connection to the old world order removed, we have a shiny new Masters event and a list of invitees. This is the first year where the rankings are based entirely on 8th edition Warhammer, and the list of invitees is quite different from what we’ve seen previously, although about half of the field have attended the Masters at some point in the past. 

I finished the year ranked 10th in the country and as a result I will be attending my first Masters. I did receive an invite a number of years ago, however I was unable to attend due to a family event and so I had to decline. To this day my main regret was missing the “sealed section”, so I am delighted that it has been reintroduced. 

Things are changing
It is a sign of the times that I have managed to qualify for the event with a rankings score of 335.878 (out of a possible 400). In previous years, this score would not have put me anywhere near the top 10. In fact, in 2009 (the last full year of 7th edition Warhammer), you needed a score of closer to 360 in order to make it. That is a score that only one player has managed to achieve this year. The scores are much lower this year than they have been in the past. Why is this the case? It can largely be put down to tournament sizes. No Warhammer Fantasy tournament managed to break the 50 player barrier this year (Book of Grudges came closest with 46). Given that 50 players was the cut-off for a tournament being worth the full 100 points, this was always going to affect the scores that were possible. Many tournaments were half, or even a third of the size that they were in their 7th edition glory days. All of this means that points were hard to come by, and it means a lot fewer people were racking up points in general, which has reduced some of the congestion on the rankings.

The other thing to note is that Victorians are everywhere. In previous years, attendance at the Masters was dominated by players from New South Wales and Queensland. This could largely be attributed to most of the largest tournaments taking place in these states, and players travelling freely across the border to attend both. On the other hand, Victoria only played host to a single large tournament each year (Convic), and Victorian players were less willing to fly interstate regularly in order to attend enough major tournaments to boost their rankings. As a result, I believe the most Victorians the Masters ever saw was 2 of the total 16. 

This year, 5 Victorians received invitations. This represents something of a power shift, and can be attributed to tournament sizes. Unlike the majority of tournaments in NSW and QLD, tournament sizes in Vic have not really changed with the shift to 8th edition. The Victorian community was less tied to the fortunes of those core competitive players discussed earlier, so didn’t feel the force of their departure in the same manner. Whilst some players in Vic have stopped playing, those numbers have been offset by newer players giving the game a go. The drop in tournament sizes elsewhere has meant that those in Vic are comparable or larger, and this has directly impacted the rankings. 

Where to from here?
It may be that the tournament scene will never recover to the point where it was a couple of years ago, where serious enthusiasm for playing Warhammer as a competitive game drove attendances to record levels. It’s no doubt true that some effects are still being felt from the competitive exodus after 8th edition arrived, and presumably we will see further recovery as the community recovers its balance without a perceived dependence upon a select few. There are also still arguments around how best to run a tournament under the current edition (hard vs soft comp, rules as written vs alterations to fix perceived flaws). If these things settle down and the community embraces a more consistent approach, the tournament scene will benefit. And maybe taking a step back from the ultra competitive mindset and reassessing is exactly what the community needs to move forward and ensure events enjoy a more lasting appeal.


  1. Just found this blog.

    Excellent run through of the "Days of Our Lives" that Australian scene became over past eighteen months.

    Big thumbs up to the Vic guys for soldiering on.

    However must say that I think the whole sealed section idea has always been flawed and I'm not sad to be missing it.

  2. Not having actually played in the sealed section, I can't really criticise or defend it. However, I can say it appeals to me personally, and it sounded popular with the other players.

    I don't know if you don't like the concept, or the execution?