Why the new player experience sucks, and what can be done about it.
Imagine this: You walk into a game store on a Warmachine tournament day and see a crowd of folks playing with some amazingly painted models spread out on half a dozen tables. The game looks complex, but you are shown a smaller table with a demonstration game set up. It’s less intimidating, so you try it out, and enjoy the basics of it. You buy your first box set, enter the Journeyman league, and work your way up to 75 points. In the two months you’ve been playing, you’ve lost most of your games, and the old hats tell you that you probably will lose a hundred more before your next win. That sucks. But fortunately, through player rating and handicapping, we can overcome skill level disparity, creating an even playing field where the old hats are challenged even when facing new players, and new players aren’t overly challenged by the old hats.
Player Rating and Class Divisions
Capability based ratings and class divisions exist in all sorts of competitive environments. Scholastic Action Shooting splits their competitors into Junior, Senior and Collegiate divisions, with the assumption that new shooters start early. Pop Warner uses weight groups to assign kids into the right leagues, which is not so much skill based, but a capability based assignment. Assignment into a category of capability helps ensure new players compete against new players.
These divisions prove successful when a large pool of competitors is available, such as in Texas football. However, when presented with a smaller pool of competitors, it’s advantageous for all competitors to participate in an event. Scholastic Action Shooting faces small pockets of competitors spread out over the country, and allows all their competitors to participate in an event, regardless of division. It’s fairly common to see beginner and collegiate shooters on the same range.
Because skill in Warmachine isn’t necessarily based on physical characteristics of a player, or the amount of time a player has been involved in the game, another method must be decided upon as a determinant for division classification. Chess associations, like the FIDE (International Chess Federation) rate players based on performance against an opponent. The Elo system, named after its inventor, Arpad Elo rates players based on performance against other players. Officials report the games to a system where a calculation is performed, and ratings changes are reviewed by officials.
How can Warmachine do this?
Warmachine can benefit from a tiered ratings system, based on player capability, measured by the Elo rating. Beginner, Novice, Intermediate, Advanced and Master levels may be used to divide players into groups for comparing performance, setting up initial tournament pairings, and awarding performance in a tournament setting. A Beginner would be anyone unrated, or with an Elo rating below a certain number. Each higher division would be separated by a range of Elo ratings. A Master would be someone who probably gets invited to WTC, qualifies for Wargames Weekend, and has a high Elo. Initial tournament match-ups could be based on classification, rather than randomized. The ranking of players helps set up expectations prior to a game. A beginner wouldn’t expect to win over a master, and the master would understand that they are probably in for a teaching game, rather than a contest of skills and wills. While teaching games are fun for some people, it’s possible to level the playing field a bit, making the game less of a teaching game, and a bit more of a challenge, through application of handicaps for new players and against veterans.
Score based handicaps
Many games use handicaps to level the playing field. Polo (https://www.uspolo.org/sport/spectator-guide) uses a handicap to adjust the scoreboard prior to starting the game. A lower skilled team gets a couple points added to their scoreboard, which the other team makes up during the play. The scoreboard adjustment is easily adaptable to Warmachine. Rate the divisions 1 through 5. The difference of skill division divided by two (rounded up) would give the number of points added to the lower rated player. A Beginner would receive 1 point against a Novice and Intermediate player, or 2 points against an Advanced or Master. A Novice would receive 1 point against an Intermediate or Advanced player and 2 points against a Master. An Intermediate player would receive 1 point against an Advanced or Master. An Advanced player would receive 1 point against a Master. A Master, when facing another Master, would not receive an adjustment.
Time based handicaps
In Chess, the clock is sometimes adjusted to compensate for player skill, where the more advanced players give up time on their clocks to their opponents. In Warmachine, we could take the scheme from above, with a twist, to modify the time allocated to each player. For each point difference between player classification, a player would receive that number in minutes from their opponent’s clock. So, a Beginner against a Master would gain 4 minutes, and the Master would lose 4 minutes, giving the Beginner an 8-minute advantage. Novice vs Master would see 3 minutes added to the Novice, and 3 minutes taken from the master, granting a 6-minute advantage, Intermediate would see a 4-minute advantage, and an Advanced would receive a 2-minute advantage.
Other advantages could be considered, such as playing points down, by adding or restricting requisition models, affecting the starting roll, or moving the deployment line. Each of these has their merits and disadvantages, but the least likely to be implemented is the points down or requisition adjustment simply because the infrastructure of the game (War Room, namely) would need to be modified to incorporate the change. The starting roll and deployment line changes run counter to the changes implemented when Oblivion released, and resistance to that change could be expected from the community.
Although a player rating based classification system with appropriate handicaps could solve the issue of getting new players into the game by creating a level playing field and fostering realistic expectations, convincing older players to embrace the change could pose a problem.
Technological challenges, such as running the Elo registry, setting up the tournaments to consider ratings, seem daunting. However, a rating system does exist (WHM Battle Reporter). They’ve been running for a few years now, and they’ve faced the problems typical with operating a fan site. The data is at times suspicious, due to the random self-reporting of games, and the site sometimes disappears from the internet due to funding or domain name issues. They aren’t currently set up for tiering, and if the Elo is used for ranking matches in a program like PG Swiss, they’ll need to set up an interface for reporting official games and setting up the matches.
Technology seems easy. The biggest hurdle is convincing players that they aren’t sacrificing their gaming experience by yielding an advantage to a less capable player. My personal experience has been that top tier players aren’t afraid of giving newer players a few advantages during a steamroller. I played in Dallas a few times against some much better players, who were more than willing to offer takebacks and even run the clock on their end when it was really my question that needed a judge during the tournament. The difference between clock times at the end of a game was usually higher than 15 minutes between their meta and the meta I travelled with. The exceptions to this behavior, the problem players, were usually close in level with us. They were often willing to take an advantage offered, but unwilling to grant one in return. Those types are the most likely to say “you won because you had an advantage,” in order to discredit the win. That type of toxicity already exists, because they’re also the type to say “you won because of dice.” Combating it is easy though, if you understand how the game works, and that the advantages given make up for the lack of experience a player may have when playing a more advanced player. The toxic players might be convinced that their higher level is a place of honor, and they carry the responsibility of being representatives the game.
How to gain support for ratings and handicaps?
Community discussion of the merits of ratings and handicaps is a must. It’s the first step, since the change would be community driven. Prize support and Privateer Press embracing the change would be the second. Tiers could have badges, like the Journeyman league did. There could also be achievement awards given to players in the Beginner and Novice classes for meeting certain objectives on the battlefield, such as “Throwing x models,” or “earning x CP.” Win types could be tracked, with appropriate awards for “Ace Assassin” (killing 5 casters), the “Major Victoria Haley award for excellence in time manipulation” (winning 10 games with 10 minutes or more on your clock), and other creative achievement awards.
The point is, we have to something as event organizers to keep players from being alienated. It isn’t fun facing the same group of people over and over again, knowing you’re going to lose. The “100 game” rule should be something we try to eliminate. Ratings and handicaps can help. Prizes other than “won the tournament” should be considered. And as a community, we have to be willing to try new things.