Learning to Lose
By Ben Porter
A friend of mine recently asked me a very interesting question.
‘Do you go to tournaments to win, have fun, or a bit of both?’
Where to some that may seem like a fairly banal question, with a pretty obvious answer, it really got me thinking about competitiveness in our hobby and how we approach that. Firstly, and seeing as I was yet to answer his question, I got to thinking about this particular quandary in the context of a tournament. Let’s say that there about 30 competitors at a Warhammer Underworlds tournament. Strictly speaking, 29 of those people are going to lose.
‘I think if you go to a tournament for the sole purpose of winning, you’re going to have a bad time,’ I reply.
Great. Very philosophical of you, Ben. So, what’s the point of attending a tournament or other competitive event in the first place? What’s the point of even playing anything if I’m going to lose most of the time?
I’m going to attempt to break down the value of losing as best as I can in this article, and hopefully it’ll give you something to think about.
Losing Builds Character
Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with playing to win. In fact, I would go as far as to say that you owe it to your opponents to play as hard as you can. Within reason, of course. Nobody likes a rules lawyer!
That being said, we’ve all played a game where the toys have been thrown out of the pram by a crestfallen loser. It’s okay to get frustrated sometimes; things sometimes go horribly wrong in games, and there are few things worse than watching a carefully laid strategy unravel before your eyes only for your mates’ cabal of nasty Chaos wizards reduce it to a smattering of smoking craters on a field, with little to nothing for you to do to stop that. When frustrations are allowed to rule our actions – even in some cases to give way to rage – then we have a problem. I know, because I’ve been there myself.
I don’t have to explain why throwing a wobbler isn’t okay – I think we all get that. But in the context of gaming, it sends a message to our fellows that they may not be able to articulate but will feel instinctively. That message goes something like this: my enjoyment is more important than yours.
Think back to games you’ve played in the past. I played a game in a Warhammer Fantasy tournament several years ago where my opponent made a spectacular scene whenever something went badly wrong for him in the game. He was an experienced player and I was relatively new to the game. In the end I won, but it didn’t feel like a victory for me because of the ridiculous display he put on. If you’re in the hobby for long enough, you’ve probably played a few games like that yourself. If the opportunity arises, and you have a good enough relationship with someone displaying behavior like this, you should quietly take them aside and remind them that sort of behavior is not healthy – for them or their opponent. If you’re not in a position to do that (if you’re at a tournament, club or other organized event), it’s probably worth advising one of the organisers. Ultimately, however, we’re limited in our capacity to control such behavior in others.
But we can always examine and rectify our own behavior.
Once the realization that going off your chump because you’ve lost a game sends that horrible message that your personal enjoyment takes precedence over your fellow gamers really sinks in, you’ll probably find that you start to view losing a bit differently.
We Learn from Defeat
There are few better ways to hammer home a mistake than a sound thrashing.
But not a literal one. To be clear, we’re not advocating use of corporal punishment against your opponents.
As nice as winning is, the only lesson you can really take from it is that what you did in that game worked. And if you’re going to be up against that same opponent in the future, that realization can give way to hubris and, ultimately, another defeat. I could probably write another article on the subject, but you’ll generally find that people that win lots of games consistently tend to be good at anticipating what their opponents are about to do and adapting their strategy. This is something that comes with lots of practice. And what happens in all that practice?
Bingo. Lots of defeats.
As much as we like to blame the dice, the luck of the draw, or the fact that we’ve got no energy to carry out any of our actions, if you’ve lost it’s more than likely because you’ve made a mistake. Game designers will wax lyrical about the laws of probability and how over several rounds your dice rolls average out, and if you’ve got no energy it’s probably your fault for designing such an inefficient deck.
It’s all fine and well crunching numbers and theorizing about what cards you should use in your deck or what resources you should be concentrating your efforts on, but ultimately, you’re going to have to take to the table to see if your ideas are viable. Even if you’re using a list you’ve found in the internet, you’re still going to have to learn how to use it effectively. And in learning how to use that, you’re probably going to run into a few defeats along the way.
Over time, you’ll get to a point where you’re able to evaluate a game that you’ve lost; you’ll be able to look back on the game and pinpoint exactly where you made a misstep in your deployment, or when you should have played your cards in a different order. If you play a game enough, and continue to learn from mistakes, eventually you will be noticeably better; you may even eventually surpass other players you previously struggled against in skill.
But the intention of this article is not to teach you to win – it is to help you adapt to a player so that you can see the value of defeat.
To harken back to the beginning of the article where my friend was asking me about how I approach tournament play, let us look once again at the organized play question first of all. If we are no longer attending tournaments solely to win, what value do they hold for us?
Whilst we’ve already looked at how defeat has value as a learning exercise, to truly get the most out of our hobby we often have to see past simply winning or losing. For many, attending a tournament is simply a chance to meet up with people they don’t get to see very often to play some games; a little break from the business of life. Simply purchasing a ticket for an event can therefore be an excellent motivator. To use Warhammer as an example again, I may sometimes go several months without painting any of my models or playing any games; I suddenly buy a ticket and find that my motivation for both has been revived. I have a milestone to work towards, and by the time the event comes around will have painted new models and tried out different strategies. And so the event suddenly becomes a celebration of my hard work – any silverware I get to take home on top of that is just a bonus.
Knowing that the odds of actually winning a tournament overall are pretty low, I will often have in mind some performance-oriented goals, too. Quite simply, I aim to win 50% of my matches (or just over if I’m playing an odd number). As mediocre as that may seem to players who compete at a high level, there’s something to be said for a consistent performance – and it also means that you’re seldom disappointed.
But enough about stats and tables!
Losing sometimes makes for the most cinematic and memorable moments in narrative driven games.
Our regular readers will recall the article I recently wrote about the Warhammer Fantasy Battles campaign we ran several years ago. There was a particular game that we played that was fought in a battle royale style, which saw a whole load of us fighting for control of an ancient temple. As my dwarf lord, Folkvar (who still appears in many of my games, by the way), ascended the steps of the ziggurat, he was set upon by my friend Hugh’s gribbly, overpowered slann (a fat, frogman wizard), who cast a cheesy Death spell on him to take him out in one go. I think he used some gross magic item in combination with it to make it even worse.
What could have been a real kick in the teeth for me in that campaign became this really cool narrative beat. Hugh and I talked about the events of the game afterwards and came up with a story that was eventually typed up and published for the rest of the guys to read. Our interpretation was that the slann didn’t want to kill Folkvar, but that the dwarf lord’s presence at the temple didn’t fit with the Great Plan (which is the big cosmic conspiracy the slann are all embroiled in). The wizardy frog man is forced to dispatch Folkvar (we made him say something really cool along the lines of “You do not belong here, child of the stone”). But rather than simply taking the dwarf lord out of action, we wrote up this sequence about him going to the Hall of the Ancestors (where all good dwarves go when they die), where he finds himself turned away by Gazul, the dwarf god of death. Flash forward several weeks later, Folkvar awakens from a coma, surrounded by his allies, and finds that he now has a black ancestor rune marked on his hand that he didn’t have before. He essentially becomes a sort of champion of the dwarf god of death as a result of his contact with the deathly magics of the slann.
Nerdy? Yes. Awesome? Yes.
The best stories have fallible heroes that encounter struggle. It’s why the Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire are both so compelling. The same goes for our games – the best stories and the most memorable moments come from struggle. Like when your roided out dwarf lord charges into the middle of the enemy force atop his dragon to bisect your mate’s daemon wizard after all the hell it put you through for the campaign. True story. (Folkvar again.)
I hope I’ve been able to make some of you reading this think about defeat in a different way. If you’ve got any stories that you’d like to share about epic defeats you’ve suffered or valuable lessons you’ve learned in losing I’d love to hear about them. I’d also love to answer any questions you may have – gaming related, of course. Drop me a message on the comments, or feel free to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.