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  • Writer's pictureAlex Payne

Pick-up games, the Warhammer niche, and the need for balance

Updated: Sep 22, 2023


Warhammer 40k aeldari

Let's be honest: right now, 40k is not in a great shape balance wise.


With the advent of 10th edition, the state of the indexes is far beyond even the highs (or lows) of 9th edition in terms of competitive. Aeldari, GSC and Custodes aren't just better than the likes of Votann and Death Guard: they feel like they were written for a different game.


As a reaction to this in some spaces online is to move away from competitive and to focus on narrative play. That, at least for the next couple of months, competitive 40k should be actively avoided and your efforts should be put into playing more casual, story driven games until the dust settles on 10th. Hell, that to expect balance from GW is in some way, naive: that the compettive side of the game has never, nor will ever, be their focus; don't you know, they're a model company - they're here to sell cool models? That's their sole focus - balance be damned.


It's a sentiment I find super interesting. Yes, the real nature of 40k and all GW games is narrative and fun at heart, and yes the game has always struggled for true, competitive balance. But to disregard the need for balance as something ancillary, or even not in keeping with the real nature of the hobby, feels misplaced to me.


Indeed, I think that not only is that perhaps not the best approach - it is one that is not open to the majority of 40k players.


It is a view encapsulated by a comment I've heard bounded around a fair bit online recently: "It's a lot easier for two strangers to add narrative to a game, than it is for them to make it balanced."

"It's a lot easier for two strangers to add narrative to a game, than it is for them to make it balanced."

That really resonated with me, and I thought to myself, hmmmm - someone should write about that. So I did.


Here's my thoughts on why balance, competitive 40k, in the real world 40k experience, needs to be the absolute focus.


Let me explain.


Playing strangers - or warhammer in the real world

Warhammer has never been as popular or acceptable as it is currently, and yet it will always be a niche within a niche within a niche. And within that tiny niche, folks who actually play the game is even smaller still.


You don't have to look far to see evidence of this: the biggest youtube channels for 40k are all lore-focused. Next in scale is painting. Then casual and friendly game channels (perhaps with a little competitive edge thrown in). The hobby funnel of those who paint to those who play is still vastly in favour of painting first, playing a very distant second.


Now there's a good chance that maybe you know a couple of folks in the real world, so to speak, who play. But in finding the time to get together and play can be difficult enough, even within a dedicated gaming group, let alone for a friends with all the pressures of work and the real world to contend with.


If you have a group of dedicated friends you play on a weekly or monthly basis; if you know and trust those players enough to craft a true, narrative scenario with them that's in the real spirit of the game then, fantastic. Lucky you.


But in my experience - as I believe it is for many - the best way to meet new people in the hobby, and to actually get to play the game I enjoy so much on a semi-occasional basis, is through pick up games. Be that through a local store, via more competitive formats such as tournaments and leagues, and joining gaming groups (a whole other topic I really want to write about) are the most likely bet for a new or experienced player to actually get games in of 40k.


Essentially, that means that for many either starting out or looking to expand their gaming experience, organising a game with someone you've likely never met before.

"For many, the best way to meet new people in the hobby, and to actually get to play the game is through pick-up games."

And because, when you rock up to the table you don't know that stranger (yet), in any and all of those circumstances, selecting as balanced a game is likely to be the least painful experience. It is much easier to select a competitive mission and setup, even if neither player is necessarily a tournament-focused, competitively-driven player at heart, so as to limit gotchas, and level the playing field to let your own personalities as players to shine through.


Competitive 40k has, accordingly, become the default game mode as a result. Narrative and crusade exist, but out in the real world, in tournaments and one-off games, the use of a competitive format is not just more likely, it's a given.


Putting yourself out there, standing across the table from someone you've never met before, and throwing dice together for around four hours is a daunting enough experience. Trying to accomplish that while navigating the potential unfairness of accounting for someone's potentially tailored list, or a one-sided scenario, is going to create a really un-fun experience for one or both of the players that at best is going to sour their experience of the game and at worst, put them off playing entirely.


No one wants to jump into a game against an opponent who states "oh well, I always use these homebrew rules with my other friends." Or, "I want to play this particular scenario, where I get twice as many points as you and you have to survive. Ok?" Those narrative, super-involved rules and scenarios can be brilliant, amongst a trusted player group. But when you're playing a total stranger, they're a surefire route to having an unfulfilling time.


But if you do meet someone with the same vibe as you, who sees the fun side and the silly story of the little plastic soldiers on the board, even in the most competitve of environments, the narrative will flow.

If you do meet someone with the same vibe as you, who sees the fun side and the silly story of the little plastic soldiers on the board, even in the most competitve of environments, the narrative will flow.

It would be wonderful to state that, in an ideal world, every game of 40k would be a fantastic narrative scenario, where balance is managed by both players taking care to assure their opponent has a good time. But we all know that is a utopian ideal - one to strive for, absolutely, but not one that is ever really likely to come to pass.


Balance and fairness between armies is paramount to the game. 40k needs balance, more than it needs narrative. Because the narrative in this wonderfully silly game will always shine through; but it won't survive the un-fun nature a lack of balance can bring.

40k needs balance, more than it needs narrative. Because the narrative in this wonderfully silly game will always shine through; but it won't survive the un-fun nature a lack of balance can bring.

I'm sure, in time, the meta will shift, as it always does, and that 10th edition will ebb and flow. I have my gripes about the game in these early months, but there's a lot to admire there from an accessibility that is desperately needed. I'm sure with that will come greater variety and flexibility and


Am I saying that the game should lose narrative flavour in favour of balance? Not in so many words. But I do seriously think that might have to be an option if some of the more egregious issues between the top-performing factions and the rest aren't sufficiently addressed in the September data-slate.


I for one hope that it doesn't come to that. But I do know that competitive 40k is likely to remain the default form of the game going forward. And that balance is not just a neccessary evil - it's integral to the appeal of the game. I really hope that GW can build that into the very core of the game in the future: after all, they'll sell a lot more models if their game retains players beyond a single game.

 

Thanks for reading! I'm hoping to write more regularly on here in this sort of essay(ish)/opinion piece in the future.


I'll have more ill-advised internet opinions for you soon!


Until next time


Alex




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Welcome to Death by D6 - your hub for all sorts of nonsense about the grimdark worlds of tabletop wargaming.

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