Tournaments are common in the gaming world. Magic Protours give away cash prizes, Hearthstone tournaments are taking off in the esports world, and basically everything from My Little Pony to Warhammer can be played in a tournament setting if that’s what you’re looking for. However, miniature games face some particular challenges when it comes to creating a fair, competitive environment.
The first and foremost difference between miniature tournaments and those held for other games is the need for terrain. As we all know, terrain has a huge impact on the game, so how it is set up in a competitive environment is very important. It needs to be fair to both players while still being interesting and varied from board to board. However, this means that the table a player is assigned to can actually affect his or her performance in the tournament. Think about that for a second. Imagine for a moment that a Magic the Gathering tournament was held where, at certain tables, red decks would get an advantage while at other tables blue decks would get an advantage. The tournament organizer would be lucky to escape with their life. Yet this is something we take for granted with miniatures tournaments. If you have a shooty crew and end up on a forest table, you just have to deal with it. The heart of competition is measuring your skill against your opponent’s and, the more elements that are outside of your control, the more difficult this is to do.
All of that said, terrain also adds a lot to the miniature tournament scene. Although varied terrain can sometimes mean that the results of the tournament don’t perfectly reflect player skill, it forces the player to use that skill in new and creative ways. Take the shooty player stuck on the forest table as an example. Although this player may have reduced odds of winning his or her match, they will also be challenged in different ways and, if they overcome their unfortunate situation, they will have good cause to be proud. So while the results of miniature tournaments may reflect player skill less accurately than tournaments for other gaming genres, they also encourage players to apply that skill in more interesting ways than simply how to play their list to counter the current meta. How would your gremlins deal with a sniper on the magically floating water fall?
Another huge factor in miniature tournaments is time management. This is, of course, a huge issue for any tournament, but miniature games frequently require an hour or more, putting significantly more time pressure on an event than a fifteen minute card game would have. In fact, in most card games, a round with one opponent is usually determined by best out of three games. The more games two players play, the more often that the skilled opponent will come out on top as sheer bad luck is ironed out over a number of games. This is another reason that the tournament systems for other games are generally a better indicator of skill; in miniatures tournaments, players will be lucky to finish one game which means that one round of bad luck is more likely to skew the results. Also, due to the serious time constraints, certain lists are more restricted than they would be in casual play. For example, you may not want to take a 300 model ork army to a 40k tournament as the sheer amount of time it takes to move and manage all of those models will result in your games coming to time more often than not. This means that sometimes the best list to win a casual game is not the same as the best list to win a tournament game. For years Games Workshop has even claimed that 40k was simply never designed to be a tournament game and, although I believe in supporting players fully in however they choose to play the game, I can understand the basis for this statement.
Miniatures games also have a heightened level of imprecision compared to other games. Players can move the wrong distance, have differing opinions on whether a model has LoS, accidentally bump something with their elbow, etc. These all create situations that the tournament organizer potentially has no concrete way to judge. For example, if the organizer is called over and two players are arguing over whether a model was moved too far, the organizer has nothing to go on but the conflicting story each player presents; the model’s original position is already lost. The same can be true of situations involving LoS, etc. This doesn’t mean that anyone is cheating, these situations can come up completely unintentionally. This would never happen in Magic the Gathering, there is no point where the organizer is forced to take a player’s word for anything unless blatant cheating is involved (for example, one player claims the other looked at his hand, etc). Nobody cares if one of the players moved one of their cards a quarter inch too far.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. One place where miniature games (particularly Malifaux) really shine is in their win conditions. Most competitive games (particularly card games) have a hard coded win condition. Playing Magic? Deal twenty damage and get the kill (yes, I know stuff like Poison Counters exist, shut up). With miniature games, the win conditions tend to vary from round to round. This forces players to adapt, which is always interesting in a competitive environment. It also gives tournament organizers a powerful tool to influence the meta. Are static, shooty crews too dominant? Pick win conditions that require movement. This is a tool most games simply don’t have access to.
Tournaments provide many benefits to players and to the community as a whole. They force players to meet new opponents and deal with new situations, they encourage everyone to play at the top of their game, and they make a great excuse to give yourself a painting deadline. They are a ton of fun, and they are an (admittedly imperfect) indicator of player skill. However, the results of any single tournament for any gaming system are never a definitive statement about the players or the meta, and this is even more true for miniatures games.