Competitive vs. Fair

Just about everyone has played “Rock, Paper, Scissors” (RPS) before, right? If nothing else, it’s a great way to decide with your buddy which one of you is going to have to step away from the gaming table to go order a pizza (or which one of you will be paying for it). The rules of the game are simple: players both simultaneously reveal and compare hand signals for rock (defeats scissors),  scissors (defeats paper), or paper (defeats rock). Believe it or not, there are some groups that play RPS competitively, a bit far-fetched for me, but rock on for having the competitive spirit.

Now I’m going take a bit of a trip down memory lane… Back in primary school, I remember quite clearly playing RPS as a daily ritual at the lunch table, and it never got old. Why? Because we didn’t stick to Rock, Paper, or Scissors as our options. We had hand signals for a Tree, which Scissors couldn’t cut and would crack a Rock in half if it fell on it. We had a Chainsaw (that one was a complicated hand sign). that could cut down that tree, and worked pretty well on most other things.  We had Dynamite, that would blow up almost anything it faced (a decidedly overpowered ability), but would have its’ fuse cut by Scissors. We had Fire, which would burn a Tree or Paper, and make Dynamite blow up (which we determined made Fire win). Half the fun was figuring out how to contort your hand into something that looked like your weapon of choice, and then debating about how it interacted with whatever your opponent came up with for their selection.

Apparently, adding more hand signs is a real thing, causing such combinations as “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock”. This change recreates a conundrum from my childhood games. Spock loses to Paper, but defeats Rock and Scissors, so the first player to introduce Spock has a 2:3 win chance, as opposed to the 1:3 chance from games with 3 choices. Adding in the Lizard makes things fair again, and levels the playing field. But what if you couldn’t select the Lizard or Spock, only your opponent could? Believe it or not, it’s pretty common to run across those sorts of situations. In particular, “Free-to-play” video games tend to do this a lot; players with free accounts playing against one another is a balanced fight, and it’s (usually) a technical possibility for a free player to win against a player who is paying money in to the game, but the paying player usually has major advantages in abilities, equipment, or power level.

Today we’re seeing this effect in tabletop miniature gaming. Games such as Warhammer: 40,000 make it a straight-up cash grab, as the player who can buy up the newest army released and paint it up and get it on the table quickly tend to have an advantage over all other armies until the next release, at which point the newer release tends to once again have an advantage. This is known as “power creep”, or “codex creep” specifically in reference to Warhammer.

But that’s not the only place that I’m seeing it. Star Trek: Attack Wing has created a permanent disparity between highly competitive players (or those with the money for eBay), and the more casual crew with their Organized Play prize ships and blind booster ships. These ships are generally (but not always) alternate versions of other ships that have already been released at retail or will be available in the future, but the ship abilities and included upgrade cards are different from the retail version and aren’t available anywhere else.

This adds prestige to competing in and winning events, but some of these abilities are really powerful. For example, the P.W.B. Aj’Rmr, available only to winners of OP #3 of the Dominion War, is the same model and base stats as the I.R.W. Khazara out of the starter set for Attack Wing, but has drastically better action economy towards the end of the game, essentially getting a free target lock out of each attack once the ship has taken some damage. The Aj’Rmr also includes some great upgrades like Romulan Pilot, a 2 point Crew Upgrade that can be discarded for a free Scan token and a free green maneuver on top of your normal actions for the turn. I would LOVE to have the Aj’Rmr in my Attack Wing collection, but I wasn’t playing at the time this was available, and won’t be buying one off of EBay.

While neat and occasionally powerful, none of the ships with limited availability really break the game or significantly alter how it is played. Do I think it’s fair? Not at all. But it’s an accepted and semi-agreed upon part of the rules for Attack Wing. I also don’t think Attack Wing is successful because of a strong ruleset or balanced competitive play. I’ve come to expect and accept this slight imbalance from Wizkids with Attack Wing.

Fantasy Flight Games, on the other hand, is a group that I have come expect much better meta-game management from, and they’ve created a no-win situation for players and tournament organizers. This year at the GenCon gaming convention, Fantasy Flight Games sold convention attendees the next two months of releases for Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures, and it’s been a headache for me as a TO.

The Rebel Aces expansion wasn’t such a huge deal, as it was releasing to the public soon and the ships themselves are alternate paint schemes of existing ships, so they could be used fairly without introducing the new cards in the expansion. The upgrade cards and new pilots would cause a competitive imbalance between players who did and did not have access to them: A-Wings got a huge boost to their ordnance upgrade slot out of the Proton Rocket and Chardaan Refit cards. Jake Farrell moves like no other A-Wing pilot. The B-Wing-E/2 title gave B-Wings access to upgrades that had previously been closed to them. Keyan Farlander’s unique ability turns the B-Wing into a stress-eating machine gun. This expansion made significant changes to how these ships worked, and some of the upgrades, like those Proton Rockets, could be shared with other ships as well.

The bigger deal was the VT-49 Decimator and the YT-2400 Outrider, which wouldn’t release to the public for two months after their limited sale at GenCon. As of the writing of this article, they still haven’t been released, and won’t until after the next X-Wing tournament to be held at my home venue, the grand prize for which will be a copy of either ship upon its’ release. And for the third event in a row, I’m having to defend my position that players who purchased these ships at GenCon shouldn’t be able to use them.

At first, the argument was based upon a loophole in the tournament rules for X-Wing which states that all expansions would be considered tournament legal at events held in the U.S. once the ships were available for sale, and players argued that their sale at GenCon should qualify these conditions. I stuck to my guns on this one, because not everyone could have traveled to Indianapolis to buy them. This argument was upheld by the fact that these ships were not allowed in the 2014 World Finals tournament for X-Wing earlier this month.

Now, I’ve been reminded by a player that we’re trying to encourage more competitive play in our area, and these ships will be a part of the next major round of tournaments, the 2015 Store Championship series kicking off in January. “Shouldn’t we get as much practice against these as possible?”, goes the argument of the day. Sorry, but I don’t buy that one either. This is a competitive event, which should have a level and fair playing field. I’ve played in over a dozen casual X-Wing gaming sessions since GenCon, and I’ve yet to see either of the release wave 5 ships on the table. Anyone looking to use them in tournament play against people who haven’t had an opportunity to see these ships in action, let alone be able to buy their own copies, is looking for an unfair advantage in that event, and it saddens me that this is argument is made while flying the banner of being more “competitive”.

We’ve got 2-5 months in front of us before the 2015 X-Wing Store Championships, depending on the scheduling of the individual venues. There is plenty of time to figure out how to use and fight against these two ships.

If you’re worried about something upsetting the tournament scene, look at the Scum and Villainy faction’s upcoming release first, which will bring entirely new play styles to the game, and will release even closer to the start of the Store Championship tournaments. One more event and roughly one week’s further delay until the retail release of the VT-49 and the YT-2400 isn’t going to make any significant difference. My answer to these players wanting to use these ships early in tournament play is “no”, it will always be “no”, and I doubt that I would find myself playing in competitive events where the answer was “yes”.

I want to match wits with my opponents, not show off how much I can afford to spend time and money to gain an advantage. I want to compete and I want to win, but not as bad as I want a fair fight. I want to prove myself against my opponent, and I’m proving my wits, not my wallet.

Discuss.

– The Tabletop General