Tournaments and the Game

Tournaments have a big impact on the Warhammer hobby as a whole – possibly too big… 

In Days of Yore

For a long time after I started playing Warhammer, I didn’t know that tournaments even existed. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that someone would organise something like that. Even when I discovered that tournaments did exist, it was only through reading White Dwarf (then an exclusively UK publication, which was shipped across for our edification) – so I assumed that while they may have been happening on the other side of the world, there was nothing of the sort closer to home. 

Eventually we heard about a tournament being run by a small club in the city, because one of our friends had gone along a couple of times for a game. It seemed like a great idea, and a group of 4 of us figured we would go along and see how far behind the rest of the world our gaming talents were. As it turned out, we had nothing to worry about. I came first, another friend came second, and we were suddenly hungry to find more tournaments, full of (as we imagined) unsuspecting victims, ripe for the smiting. 

Our next tournament was Cancon, a far bigger and more established tournament – a regular fixture of the gaming calendar, as we discovered. This was extremely exciting, and far larger than the small affair we had inflicted ourselves upon the first time. We were also less than ideally prepared, and despite strong starts, we found ourselves mid-field at the end of the tournament. Fortunately we could see what had gone wrong, and went on to strike terror into the hearts of opponents (or so we liked to think) in numerous other tournaments after that one.

 The Times, They Are A-Changing

Then the rules changed, and 6th Edition was released. At about the same time, tournaments began to change complexion as well. Tournament organisers began to realise that the attendances at their events might not have been what they had hoped, and it was the same hard-nosed gamers who kept turning up. In effect, the other players had been scared off by the extremely competitive nature of the tournaments, and chose to stay at home (or their clubs) and play in a friendlier atmosphere. Probably to counter this, the ingredients required to win a tournament were shifted. The focus was taken off winning at all costs, and spread to encompass more of the hobby. It became important to play nicely (bah!), to paint your army well (doh!), and to field an army that others felt at least gave them a sporting chance. Scoring was altered, and restrictions started to appear on what balance each army was required to have1. 

Whether people prefer the old focus of tournaments or the new is a little irrelevant. In truth the change was made to attract more players to tournaments, and if this had not worked, the shift would probably have been reversed. We can only assume that more players attend tournaments than used to in days gone by, and if that is the case, then the change is for the better. It does seem a little strange to run a competition where winning all of your games does not necessarily mean that you will be up near the top of the standings, but Warhammer is not in the same situation as most other sports (given that it probably has to be considered a sport if chess is – what other sort of activity runs competitive tournaments?). The hobby does not boast so many players that organisers can afford to appeal to only a small minority of them with their offerings.  

There is still a certain amount of variation between tournaments as to what the balance between winning games, sportsmanship and army presentation should be. Likewise the restrictions placed upon entrants’ armies are as varied as the locations of the events themselves. This makes it hard to make a standard army at the start of the year and use it throughout, although why anyone would wish to do such a thing is beyond me. Surely Warhammer is about playing varied games against different opponents, rather than using the same thing over and over again until nobody ever wants to play you again because they’re sick of your army. This brings me to the whole point of this article.

 Tournaments Rule, OK?

For better or worse, the prevalence of tournaments in the gaming community has changed the face of the game. Even in Melbourne, where there are sufficiently few Warhammer Fantasy events each year that it prompts complaints and statements that Melbourne is a “40K town”2, the focus of many players is on tournaments. As a result of this, even players who do not enter tournaments find themselves making the same changes in order to harmonise with those around them. 

Games played with a tournament-ready army feel like they have more purpose than those played in isolation. Armies made for a one-off game are all well and good, but it is hard to put the same stock in the result as when you’re using an army that you fully intend to use again, and that you’re planning to enter into a competition where it will need to perform as well as possible against numerous opponents. Every game you play gives you further opportunities to get used to the army, to learn its strengths and weaknesses, and discover how to use them against different armies.  

Most of the games I see now are played using armies that might pop up at any tournament you care to name. Often they are armies that have already been used at a tournament, or (more often) are going to be used in an upcoming one. They have been carefully selected to adhere to the criteria laid out by the tournament organisers, to be competitive, and (hopefully) to not upset their opponents too much. Below are some of the characteristics you might expect to see in a tournament army (and by extension, nearly every army you’re likely to see).

 Standard size

Your average tournament will be somewhere around 2000 – 2250 points. Some tournaments are smaller than this (perhaps 1500, or even 1000 points), however they tend to be the shorter one-day affairs, and do not register such a large blip on tournament players’ radars. Rarely will an event involve armies larger than this – the games become too large and take too long, thus making them unsuitable for multiple games each day.  

As a result of this, you do not often see 3000 point games being played at the club. Part of the reason for this is that 3000 points is on the high-side for a normal game, and a lot of players can’t field that large an army. But even those players who do have big enough armies do not often field them, because it feels like there is no point. It will be a one-off game, and then you’ll need to put it all away again and get back to tuning your tournament force for the next big event.3

 Balanced Forces

Anyone who has been to a tournament can tell you that a completely unbalanced army is not ideal. There are a few reasons for this – they are not restricted to the mantra of some gamers that a balanced force will perform best overall. An unbalanced army will lead to unbalanced games, regardless of whose favour they end up in. Due to mismatches with its opponents, the army will win or lose big, racking up a lot of “massacres” both for and against. It can also result in some games that are less than fun for one party, as his army gets demolished by an enemy he was ill-equipped to face. And, as is always the case with tournaments, unhappy players will result in unhappy sportsmanship scores. 

All of this leads most players to field what they perceive to be a “balanced” army. This really is a term that is subject to your point of view, and also changes from army to army. A balanced Wood Elf army (as determined by a broad spread of units) will likely have a whole lot more shooting than a balanced Chaos one. On the other hand, a balanced Wood Elf army might have no shooting at all, but rather be a list that will challenge every opponent without walking right over the top of them. Talking about balanced armies invariably leads to disagreements, but most players would agree that an army with a lot of different unit choices is most likely to be balanced, rather than specialisation in a few select types. 

Players try to anticipate the responses of tournament opponents when they assemble their armies. They will look at the list they have assembled, and decide how people will react when they see the army and what it does. Naturally the easiest way to assess something like this is to try the army out beforehand, and so players use “warm-up” games and the like to work out their armies.

 Restricted Choices

In times gone by, units of troops were all one and the same. You could spend anywhere from 25% of your army upwards on units, be they elite cavalry or lowly grunts. Separated from this were chariots and war machines, monsters, and characters. This meant that you were free to field whatever types of units you liked, so long as you spent enough on them.  

This changed with the arrival of 6th Edition, and we were introduced to the concept of Core, Special and Rare units. These categories were designed to ensure that all forces fielded at least a few units that were typical to all armies of that race. Gone were the armies comprised solely of Wardancers and Treemen, or Boar Boyz and Giants. Instead, a player must ensure that he has at least 3 Core units in a 2000 point army, thus giving him a reasonable number of standard warriors before he invests in something a bit more special. 

This change has been further exaggerated by tournament organisers, who generally feel that these restrictions are inadequate, and leave too much room for a player to manoeuvre. The temptation to field 3 of the cheapest Core units possible and then splurge the rest of the points was too great, and additional steps had to be taken. In many tournaments, Core units must comprise half the army, or at least as much as the Special and Rare combined. In addition to this, there are often caps on war machines, magic, characters and missile fire. Tournament armies will be made with these restrictions in mind, and some armies tend to disappear altogether, too hamstrung by the rules placed upon them.4

 Official Rules

There was a time when it didn’t matter if rules were “official” or not – if the rules existed, you would use them where appropriate, and they tended to add variety and flexibility to games. Fairly left-field ideas would pop up in White Dwarf and be promptly applied to games by eager players who liked nothing more than to try a new rule and see how it worked. It didn’t really matter if a rule had not been 100% tested – if the players decided it didn’t work for them, they would simply agree not to use it again. 

As tournaments gained prominence, “official” rules became something of a bugbear for Games Workshop. Where previously they had been able to publish rules with little fear of whether they were 100% right or not, tournaments meant that the stakes had been raised. Suddenly people could get quite upset if an obscure rule from White Dwarf was pulled out unexpectedly mid-game, that changed the course of the battle. The level of testing that went into each rule became important, and players wanted to know which rules were considered absolutely safe, and which were “experimental”. From this, we received the Warhammer Chronicles and Chapter Approved sections in White Dwarf, which were effectively GW’s stamp of approval on the contents.  

Obviously in a tournament it is important that the players are using the same rules, and that any modifications that have been made are known to everyone. It is also important that any home-made changes or scenarios are properly tested and fair, or players will get into a tizz and start complaining to (or about) the organisers. Apart from the fact that it’s a little disappointing that players are willing to boycott (and effectively sink) events because they’re unhappy playing with some slightly strange rules (and yes, I know we have all been stung at some point), it is understandable that people want a level playing field.  

All of this is far less important outside of tournaments, where players should be willing to experiment a bit in the name of fun. Always playing Pitched Battles is somewhat dull when there are so many other options available. The lack of scenarios in the 7th Edition rulebook is a testament to players’ unwillingness to try a slightly different game. Once again, if the rules are not being used in tournaments, players are not really interested.


One of the real positives to come out of the tournament scene is the painting of armies. Tournaments often state that all miniatures must be painted, or at the very least will ensure that you are penalised in some way for fielding unpainted figures. This is done partly as an acknowledgement of the important part that painting plays in the hobby as a whole, and partly because the tournament will look nicer and be more fun if everything is pretty. 

I know that I often struggle to get my miniatures painted, and a tournament presents the ideal motivation for getting a force ready by a specific date. This invariably leads to late nights and not enough sleep, but it is satisfying in the end. I don’t know how much painting I would get done if it weren’t for tournaments, but I am fairly confident that it would be less than I do now.5

 Tournament Rules OK?

The fun aspects of tournaments aside, I think it is unfortunate that players feel obliged to follow the rigid laws of the next event every time they make an army. The game is designed to be more flexible than that. A lot of themed or potentially fun armies will never get used if players feel like there is no point to making them if they’re not legal for tournaments. Scenarios other than pitched battle can be fun from time to time, and players should be able to use their judgement in making a suitable list for their opponent, rather than adhering to rules laid down to stop the most unscrupulous players from exploiting the system.  

It is easy enough to understand that players want a tournament or campaign in order to give their games some continuity, but these things are not always available. It is up to players to find some other motivation for playing some more varied games, or it is likely that they will eventually tire of the pattern and move on.6


1 Organisers have got better at this over time, although efforts still vary. In the last days of 5th Edition, we managed to enter a Bretonnian army into a tournament that included 2 enormous dragons, ridden by some of the hardest characters ever to take the field. The performance of this army notwithstanding (rather absurdly, it did not do well), the look on the organiser’s face when he realised the army was legal was absolutely priceless… I told you we were evil! 

2 I am told that there is a prevalence of 40K players in Melbourne, however the balance of players at HGC actually seems to be the reverse. This probably impacts my perception of the community as a whole. It is true that there are not that many Fantasy tournaments on the calendar, though. 

3 I am hoping to get some more battle reports happening at the club, and if we get that going, maybe it won’t feel so pointless to play a game that has nothing to do with tournament-ready forces. A battle that will live on in print might be more appealing to some players. 

4 I know from personal experience that I will often disregard High Elves as a viable option upon seeing the tournament restrictions – it is an army that requires a certain amount of flexibility before you can do anything interesting with it. Of course, the fact that I never seem to get around to painting any Silver Helms doesn’t help either, but it doesn’t change my point – I would not necessarily need Silver Helms if I had the scope to field something different. 

5 Yes, it is possible to paint less than I do now! How could you ask such a thing? I may paint armies at a speed so slow it borders on the ridiculous, but they do get done eventually! Well, some of them do. Sometimes… 

6 Maybe battle reports are the way to go, or there is another way to provide the motivation to play stand-alone games, but nothing occurs to me right now. People should feel free to post suggestions on the forums, and maybe we’ll come across something that is worth putting into action.