Optimizing without optimizing, Part 1

How do you decide on what army to bring for a casual game?

I have been procrastinating on this blog entry for a long time because I am torn on whether I should write it or not. On the one hand I need to write this to present my thoughts and get feedback on the issue, on the other hand this post is probably pointless as it opens a discussion that has no bottom line.

So what approaches are there to decide on what army to bring to a casual/fun/narrative event? Basically, I see these four attempts:

Approach #1 - Beauty Contest.
You are a "fun" gamer (whatever that means exactly) and you pick models/units for reasons like for example their looks, their background story, etc. However, as soon as you have lost one or several games with this army you start wondering if you couldn't turn the odds to your favor if you took units xyz instead.

Approach #2 - Blood for the Blood God!
You are a fluff/narrative player and you simply pick models/units based on how they fit into a certain story arc. This is especially great if you play in a campaign with a detailed background story. The advantage of this method is that you don't have to consider your models' and units' strength, you simply stick to the story. If the story is about your renegade warband Uber-Sons of Death battling it out with the Meek Daffodil Schoolboys, so be it. War in real life is not fair after all either. If the campaign is well done, it could be even more fun to play the MDS although they get brutally slaughtered in every game. Nevertheless you need mechanisms in your campaign to compensate for the player at a disadvantage if you want to keep him/her interested in continuing the game(s).

Approach #3 - I try to be silly but I fail.
Most frequently I observe this approach with tournament players when they attempt to play a casual game. Playing a casual game means for them to swap units in their perfectly optimized army lists for other units that are "known to be not good" in the current meta. Well, since the other guy with his tournament experience still beats you with the "bad" units, all it will do is make you feel even worse. The only solution to this is to play with handicaps. Gergely likes to give weaker players a head start by allowing them more points on their army lists, but once they start to win a certain number of games, that point advantage is being reduced again.

Approach #4 - Optimizing without optimizing
This is probably the most difficult approach as you try to think of what army won't exactly play like the MDS, but won't roll over your opponent like the USD either. In other words, you try to optimize certain aspects while there is a certain point where you decide you won't go with your optimization any further. However, the big question is where that point is reached - and that's where the bottomless discussion opens. Some tournaments try to solve this problem with a truckload of houserulings to ban the most devastating combos, but in the end it just leads to optimization within altered conditions and frames of reference.

By discussing advantages and disadvantages of the four different approaches I hoped to point out there's no such thing as the "correct" approach, but rather a matter of preference combined with a certain care of setting up a game.

Part of this careful game setup is to talk with your fellow player (in this context I rather use this term instead of opponent) about the expectations for the game, but a problem here is that it ain't that easy. If you both agree on a casual game, does it mean the exactly same for both players? I once had a fellow player bring the Doom of Malan'tai to a casual game when it was fresh in the Tyranids' codex and everyone went crazy of how overpowered it is. His explanation for bringing it was that it's pretty harmless as long as I stay out of its range, which was true indeed. Yet when I made an appointment for a casual game the Doom wasn't exactly the first unit I expected.
Most players try to mitigate the blow suffered from their strongest units by explaining their army to you before the game. Honestly, that's good sportsmanship, but at least in my case totally useless as when you give me a five minutes run down of your army I will have forgotten in the end what the first unit was supposed to do. Part of this problem can be mitigated again by sharing army lists way in advance. Once again, this is great sportsmanship, but do you really think I am going to research your units for a casual game?

So what's your handle on bringing just the right list for a casual game?

In the upcoming second and concluding part I will discuss the topic optimizing without optimizing based on a couple army lists.

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