Contest or Context

Martin de Carcasonne, knight of Bretonnia, raised his grime-splattered visor and surveyed the carnage before him. The field was littered with dead and dying, both Bretonnians and foul Orcs, their bodies strewn up and down both sides of valley in which they were fighting. The valorous deeds of his unit had gradually taken their toll – he was the sole survivor. The brave knights who had taken the field with him had fallen one by one – dragged from their saddles by the savage green beasts they were fighting, their noble steeds beaten and chopped down with crude clubs and axes. Three had fallen at the hand of one particularly large brute, wielding a massive axe nearly twice its own height. Martin himself had eventually delivered the killing blow to the fiend, driving his blade through its warty throat.

And now the battle was nearing a critical juncture. Few warriors remained alive from either side; the casualties had been horrific. Even now the shambling remnant of a mob of greenskins was heading his way. Martin could see his lord’s tattered and mud-smeared standard in the vile clutches of one of the brutes. Tears filled his eyes at the thought of returning home without Lord Louis; of recounting to the fair Lady Genevieve the tale of her husband’s fall.

The thought of doing so without being able to at least lay his lord’s banner at her feet did not bear consideration. Looking at the score or so Orcs guarding the precious banner, Martin offered a brief prayer to the Lady. Lowering his visor once more and drawing his sword, he prepared to charge – and then whimpered in dismay as he was shuffled sideways, out of the charge arc of the Orcs, and safe from having his valuable Victory Points plundered in the last turn of the game…

Two Games with the Same Name

There are two ways to approach the game of Warhammer. One is as a competition between two players – a contest of their tactical prowess, knowledge of the game, and luck. Armies are constructed to fight competitively and to provide the player with the tools to complete the task at hand (and hopefully to win the day).

The other approach to the game is to consider it a story. Two armies arrayed for battle, clutching their weapons, presumably fighting for some greater prize, or to protect their homes and families. Every model represents a brave (or cowardly) warrior, and the valiant heroes of the armies have names and faces, a history and (hopefully) a future. Which player wins the game is more or less irrelevant, and what is far more important is how the story unfolds, and whether the soldiers find heroic, glorious deaths or tragic ends.

I don’t believe there is a right or wrong approach to Warhammer – each of these approaches is perfectly valid. Ironically, it was the narrative aspect of a battle report that drew me into the hobby in the first place, however I have only ever really played it as a contest ever since. It is strange how quickly I was able to forget the reason that I started playing, although it has to be pointed out that I have still not lost interest, even if I seem to be playing the game for a different one.

It is perhaps more natural to consider Warhammer a contest between two players. After all, I struggle to think of any other board game or war game where the point of the exercise is not to win, but to tell a story. You do not play a game of chess to then retell the valiant fight the king put up, before being overwhelmed by a mountain of pawns. Nor do you play Monopoly in the hope of establishing a comfortable life for your top hat, thimble or cannon, where they can live out their existences in relative ease.

Perhaps the only other example I can think of that might encourage a player to act out a story rather than to achieve ultimate victory is a role playing game. Ideally, the player is meant to play the part of the character and to react as that person would, even if it means making wrong decisions or taking potentially fatal or less-than-heroic actions. I say ideally because I do not recall any role playing game I have been involved in turning out that way – it is generally an exercise in trying to improve your character, achieve great things, survive, and hopefully one day rule the world! Maybe my friends are all just crazy1 and don’t understand the whole point of role playing, or perhaps it’s the whole contestant attitude showing through again.

Play the Same Game

It is important that both players see eye to eye when it comes to the way the game is going to be played. It will only end unhappily if one player is there for the story and the drama, while the other is there planning to grind his opponent to a pulp. In the end, neither player is likely to be satisfied – the first player will likely find himself up against a powerful, potentially poorly themed force, and one that behaves in manners contrary to its character (Orcs backing up, Flesh Hounds facing away to avoid being drawn into charges, etc); the second player is unlikely to receive a challenging contest, as they will find themselves facing a fairly tame army that fits beautifully with the character of the race, but is ill-suited to the heat of an intense game2.  In a tournament it is fair to expect that your opponent is there to try to win some games, but in a more social environment it might be best to ask first, to avoid complete mismatches and disappointed parties on both sides.

Battle Reports

Having spent many years playing Warhammer with the sole intent of winning games3, I think I am ready for a change. On several occasions I have entered tournaments intent not on winning the event, but on having fun. Unfortunately, each time I do this I find myself in the same predicament – I play each game to win it, and end up being frustrated by any inadequacies I built into my army in the name of fun (and telling myself than I didn’t need a perfect army, because I didn’t plan on winning every game). While this is partly a reflection upon me and the combative attitude that I have no doubt honed over the years, I think it is also an illustration of the fact that tournaments are perhaps not the best environment in which to try to temper your competitive instincts. Playing against people who want to win makes me want to stop them. Maybe I am a killjoy.

I believe that the solution to my problem is battle reports. Battle reports bring a different aspect of the hobby out, in that you know you will be explaining the game in a way that others can understand it, and you also want to present them with a game that will hopefully be entertaining. If the report is being written in a narrative style, this may also affect army selection and even tactics. Most players will not want to read about a game that is fought tooth and nail with minute adjustments to maneuvering and tensely discussed rules issues4. My love of the narrative-style battle reports found in old White Dwarf issues is something that I have retained, and now that they seem to be harder to find5, I am inspired to write my own. With any luck, the additional motivation provided by the knowledge that someone else might read about my game will help me to shake the must-win attitude and allow to me more fully embrace the story aspect of the game.

How Far To Go?

What I am unsure about is how far playing style should be altered in the name of character. I recently played a game using Dwarfs, and I twice fled from charges. This received disdainful sniffs from a Dwarf Longbeard6 when I recounted the tale, and no matter than it was definitely the tactically correct thing to do. How far do you need to go, in order to be playing in character? If this game had been a battle report, would I have been jeered for my decisions despite managing to salvage what looked at that point to be a disaster? No doubt these things depend on who you ask – clearly this Dwarf player considered it beneath him to flee from a charge, no matter the outcome of the combat that follows. I, on the other hand, would have trouble making myself hold when it means certain death for my troops, who I could be saving by pulling them out of there7. Can I never be a true Dwarf (my relatively average height notwithstanding)?

Ultimately there should probably be some sort of compromise between playing to win and playing in character. Few people want to watch or read about a game in which one player throws his chance away in order to play in character (or at least, not if it means that the game is ruined as a result). The contest is part of the game, and a close battle makes for better reading anyway. I know that I find it frustrating to read reports where players make terrible tactical blunders that cost them the game8.  I suppose it all (once again) comes down to a matter of preference as to what sort of battle report players want to read. I shall be aiming for armies that are properly in character, and then playing as well as I can with those armies. Who knows – when the time comes, maybe I will find myself making the “wrong” decisions because it is the “right” thing to do during the game and being happy about it. That would be a step in the right direction.


1No, I’m not talking about anyone in particular. Who knows, it could be you…

2 This is assuming that the competitive player actually wanted a real contest, and was not hoping for a complete whitewash, with which they can bolster their reputation and continue their winning streak. The less said about such attitudes, the better.

3Well not the sole intent as such. I always play games in order to have fun, but for me the contest has always been part of the fun. I am talking in terms of having ignored the narrative aspect of the game all this time.

4I am making assumptions here. Maybe that is exactly what you want to read, but I get enough of that in my games without then reading about it from the games of others.

5The battle reports I find in White Dwarf nowadays seem to be far more focused on the players than on the story, and are generally compressed to the point that I find it quite difficult to follow the battle (presumably to fit greater amounts of other material into the magazine).

6OK, his beard may not be all that long (certainly he doesn’t have to tie it around his waist to keep it out of the way), but he has been a Dwarf player for a very long time.

7I suppose this matter also depends on how you view fleeing from a charge – whether it can be seen as a relatively controlled or pre-meditated withdrawal, or only as headlong flight. There is no real distinction in the game, and this makes it all even more subject to opinion.

8Perhaps it is not so bad when they do so because that is what the Orc Warboss would have done, and the player was just acting in character; however it is certainly true that only some armies are assumed to lack the tactical know-how to play perfectly. It does not seem fair that the Orc player is expected to make blunders, while the Elf player can make nothing but correct decisions, all based on the character of the armies.

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