The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames


Dave Shapiro

December, 2004

Primal Urges

Somewhere, sometime, eons ago, two men squatted down to scoop a few depressions into the soft earth. From the moment the first pebble fell into the pit, the result was inevitable. An idea, a concept of non-violent competition; the simplest of actions that would spark a phenomenon. Millennia later the clickity-clack of dice hewn from animal bone followed by the invention of cards expanded the opportunities to compete. The psychological composition of Homo Erectus mapped the course; hunters may have become gatherers but the compulsion to hunt, the taste of blood, never completely evaporated. There is no denying the influence of the id. The desire of the human creature to demonstrate dominance through competition, the quest to be the best, is an integral component of Man.

Civilization has channeled and focused these impulses into acceptable alternatives: sports and games. Unfortunately in this "enlightened age" there continues to be greater and greater restrictions on competition as social pressures prohibit more activities that may be "harmful". However, there remains that back street, that dirty little secret seldom spoken of , where pure competition, not social growth, reigns supreme. This is the ghetto of gaming, an arena comprised of driven gamers with but one goal: the desire to be the best. This is where Ayn Rand would game. It is in this arena that the id resurfaces, claiming a place.

For those of you who have never participated in competitive (vs. social) gaming or sports, most of this will be unfamiliar territory. In this arena, board gaming has more in common with a sporting match than a weekly game night. It is difficult, demanding, complex, grueling, often lonely and both emotionally and physically draining. It is an altogether different dimension of gaming. This is the world of tournament gaming.

The sole purpose in tournament gaming is to win, to defeat all other opponents. Obvious? Of course, but in the politically correct climate today, many gamers espouse distaste for competitive gaming and any effort at this is treated with distain. So be it. However, I am convinced that any attempt to completely eradicate hard core competition will ultimately fail as there will always be a group of players who enjoy a winner-take-all competition. Society enjoys watching the World Soccer Cup, the Olympics and the Super Bowl but eschews personal competition. I believe that a good portion of this is simply due to a lack of understanding; a deficit of information as to what tournament play actually is and what it does for gaming. This article is an attempt to explain tournament play for the uninitiated.

Battlegrounds (Size Counts)

To comprehend tournament play there are three main facets to consider: the games, the scoring system and the types of tournaments. The first of these is the simplest to examine. There is a tournament for almost every type of game published. You may have to search a bit but with the internet it is probable that you will find one for any particular game. Of course there are more tournaments available for popular games such as Settlers or Magic and fewer for more obscure titles.

Every tournament must develop a system for determining the winner. This varies widely and some systems are more balanced than others. There are single-elimination tournaments (one loss and you're done), Swiss, double-elimination, drop-down, round robin, total points, total victories and many more. The system used is determined by the sponsor/organizer and should be known prior to entering. (It is not wise to travel seven hours to enter a single-elimination El Grande tournament.)

The tournament format or structure influences the intensity of the games played. Some tournaments are unforgiving while in another format it is possible to win the tournament without even winning a single game! The list below summarizes the most common systems. Many tournaments combine attributes from more than one format.

  • Single Elimination - One loss results in elimination from the tournament. This is most often employed when there is a large number of entrants and time constraints prohibit additional games. Occasionally referred to as "feed 'em and bleed 'em" style.
  • Double Elimination - A player continues until he has lost twice. It is possible to win the tournament after suffering a single loss.
  • Swiss - Following the initial round, winners play winners and losers play losers. This is similar to the single elimination system but allows gamers to continue gaming. It is often employed where there are official rankings involved.
  • Total Victories - Entrants play a set number of games in a specific time period. For example, 25 games played over three days. Normally, there then follows a reckoning where the tournament sponsors determine the "cut point"- the minimum number of wins required to progress to play-off matches. This format is common in tournaments where the game is relatively short (Magic, Blue Moon, etc.) or where there is a long or indefinite time period established for game play. Often this format is used for internet tournaments.

The final two formats are best for someone new to tournament gaming though occasionally inconsistent or strange results can occur.

  • Drop Down - This is a variant of the Swiss format but it provides for multiple winners! Initially everyone plays in the same level or division. Following the first round, players are relegated to new levels depending on their performance. All of the first round winners remain in Division 1 while the losers move to Division 3. Following the second round the winners remain in their respective levels while the loser of the match in Division 1 drop to Division 2 and the loser of the match in Division 3 drops to Division 4. On one occasion I saw this carried five divisions deep. Once the divisions have filled, it becomes either a single or double elimination format until a winner in each division has been determined.

There is a significant problem that arises in that, through a poor initial draw it is conceivable that the best players may not be playing in the top divisions. Consider Bob and Bill, both top ranked players in their game. Through a bad draw the two oppose each other in the first round. Bill loses and drops to Division 3. At the same time Mike and Pete entered the tournament without even basic knowledge of the rules. Through the same bad draw, Mike and Pete oppose each other in the first round also. Mike wins and continues in the top division of play. It is possible that half of the players in the top division are amateurs. In addition to this, when the tournament is complete, the second place (Division 1) and the first place players from Divisions B and C have each lost only a single game throughout the entire tournament!

  • Total Points - The total point format is common in multiplayer games or tournaments where more than one game or variant is scheduled (Risk, El Grande, a Kniziathon, etc.). Points are awarded for the position a player finishes in the game. These points accumulate over the span of the tournament. Unfortunately, if the points allocated for the finish positions are not appropriate it is possible to win some total point tournaments without ever winning a single game in the tournament. (Welcome to the Twilight Zone.) Consider this example using a two game/three player tournament. A, B and C play and conveniently win in that order. After the first game the scores are A=5, B=3 C=0. The second game in the match reversed the results. C=5, B=3 A=0. This was a two game tournament so we total the scores: A= 5+0= 5 points, B= 3+3= 6 points and C= 0+5= 5 points. Player B wins the tournament with 6 points yet he never won a game. The proper point allocation is critical to success in this type of tournament. When administered properly this can be the best tournament format as it permits less than optimum results in one or two games without fear of elimination or "dropping".

A simple method for differentiating the types of tournaments is to group them by the "purse" or prizes awarded as there seems to be a direct correlation between the size of the prize and the level of competition. Applying this method results in three types of basic tournaments.

Level 1

The first level is the most social and these events are commonly held at local hobby shops, small conventions or as an alternate event at a large convention. Prizes, if any are awarded, range from discounts on products, copies of older games and tee shirts to simple bragging rights. The competition and the intensity found at these games is not significantly greater than that of a typical game night.

Level 2

Climbing one level introduces a completely different experience that ratchets up the competition and complexity considerably. These tournaments are usually organized by the game's publisher or a large organization. Examples of publisher organized tournaments include the Frontline Series from Avalon Hill, many of the Wiz Kids and Decipher contests. The winners in these types of tournaments often receive a trophy or plaque along with some unique item. Avalon Hill, for example, awarded expansion packages for winners in their Risk 2210 A.D. matches. Decipher presented some winners with card art proofs.

Large groups that organize tournaments include the Boardgame Players Association who administers the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) each year and Game Base 7 who oversees a variety of tournaments at many conventions. The prizes are often trophies or plaques. There is a small problem that results from the lack of "official" status at these types of tournaments. Often there may be more than one "world champ"! For example, there was a Risk tournament held at the WBC in July and then in October there was the World Risk Championship held in Pennsylvania. The same problem cropped up with Dominoes as one "world champion" was determined in Jamaica this year and another in Texas. There are several more examples available but these two should suffice to demonstrate the problem.

These second level tournaments offer more competitive play but remain principally social tournaments. All of these events are national and many are international in that people will travel just to participate. In some instances there may be certain prerequisites that must be accomplished prior to submitting an entry. Certainly at this level a player is expected to be fairly well versed in the game unlike the level one tournaments where players are often taught the rules at the game itself.

Level 3

A level three tournament is worthy of, and often receives press coverage. These tournaments have prize purses that, though they don't rival golf yet, are growing every year. These are serious tournaments. Magic: the Gathering recently crowned the new world champ, a player from Amsterdam. Culled from a field of more than 300 qualifiers hailing from various countries, the World Magic Champion left the hall with a check for $35,000 (USD). Each of the Team Magic winners received checks for $10,000. The total prize purse was worth $400,000. Pokemon, another Wizards of the Coast product, followed a similar pattern though the purse was intentionally designed for the anticipated, younger audience. The top 16 winners received a combination of toys (Game Cube, Game Boy, etc) and scholarships ranging from $1,000 to $7,500. Recently, in an attempt to forge into the base of established Magic players, Upper Deck introduced the Pro Tour for the VS system that boasts $1,000,000 in prizes.

The world of Scrabble tournaments has been thoroughly documented in the excellent book Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, a sports/business reporter for the Wall Street Journal. (Though I am not a fan of the game, the book is fascinating and I strongly recommend it.) This year more than 800 players participated, each playing, roughly 30 games. The total purse was $92,000 with $25,000 awarded to first place. ESPN2 has broadcast some of the event and PBS telecast a special on Scrabble.

In addition to these examples, there are many other games that present players with substantial monetary rewards. Chess and Monopoly probably enjoy the strongest history in this area but we cannot ignore the recent resurgence in the interest for Poker. ESPN and network television broadcast competitions regularly and have even telecast celebrity Poker tournaments. Recognizing the popularity of Poker, Eagle Games (Bootleggers, Age of Mythology, etc.) introduced a computer Texas Hold 'Em game this year.

Level three tournament play is not limited to board and card games. Following card games, video and computer games comprise the largest segment of the gaming community. Tournaments for twitch gamers were first introduced in the eighties and are often found today at non-electronic conventions. (Gen Con held a Halo tournament this year.) There are some fairly substantial purses for some of these games. For example, in 1997 the winner of the Quake championship, sponsored by id, won a cherry-red Ferrari 328. (Of course this is possible due to the gross sales figures for some of these games. Halo 2 grossed $125,000,000 in the first day of sales. This is more than most movies gross in their entire run! The largest gross for an opening day movie release was $116,000,000 for Spiderman 2.)

These level three tournaments are the most intense and provide the greatest challenge. The quality of the competition is fantastic; these are people that understand all of the nuances to a particular game and have honed their strategies to the finest detail. If there is a flaw with the game, they will find it. This benefits all games in that it "raises the bar" for the designers. If a game is to have some "staying power" then the game must offer enough depth and balance for tournament play. These tournaments are national and very often international. There are some players that work part time in order to devote more of their resources to wining. It is a long journey from that original pit and pebble game.

Though there may be other methods for distinguishing the various forms of tournaments, this prize allocation method is the best. Each of the three levels as defined in this manner requires different participation and devotion as the intensity of the games and the quality of the competition varies radically while almost always corresponding to the size of the prize. In short, it is a fair indicator.

What follows is a description of my personal experience and information garnered from other tournament players. You may find some of it distasteful, boarder line fanatical and certainly politically incorrect, but I assure you, it is real. Thirty years ago I was substantially more competitive than I am today. Now I game as a social activity (just as "normal" people do); I game to relax. Years ago I viewed the boards as a battle ground, an extension of the court (sports) where the quest for dominance was both a blessing and a curse. Over the years I have played in more than 25 tournaments, wining a few, losing most. On rare occasions I consider re-entering the tournament world (but I usually sober up long before having to commit). It is not that I fear losing or that I don't find the competition enjoyable; it is the effort required to become competent that dissuades me... I have become too lazy.

The Hunt

A popular pastime today is to "out" one's deepest, darkest secret and if I am to enjoy any credibility then I must confess: I was a Risk fanatic. (I realize that every sophisticated gamer reading this just lowered his estimation for my intellectual capacity and gaming abilities. Risk is so very blue-collar.) Today there is a much more diversified selection of games available, from war games to Eurogames. In the early seventies there was significantly less variety. While in high school and college I played the game regularly and, in the groups I gamed with, I often won; certainly well above the statistical expectations for the game. There was a Risk tournament being held at Gen Con and I was determined to enter, confident that I would be returning a champion. There are two ways to describe the result of this initial attempt. The first is to simply admit that I was defeated. Of course that fails to relate the actual experience—I had my ass kicked.

Cursed with a Type A personality, the loss failed to deter me, if anything it served to provoke me, increasing the intensity of my purpose. I established a plan; I observed, analyzed and considered the conditions required to succeed in my subsequent attempt. Eventually I discovered that the regimen I practiced is relatively common among tournament players even today.


As with competitive sporting events, preparation for a tournament begins weeks, even months in advance. The first step is to learn the game. It may appear obvious but I discovered that knowing the rules and mechanics was insufficient for my purpose; I did not know Risk. In order to develop viable strategies I needed to attack the basics, the core of the game. I started with an analysis of the map, determining the attractor for every territory on the map. (An attractor is the number of possible attack routes for a given territory. The same method can be employed when examining the maps for Condottiere, Vinci and a host of others. All areas are not created equal.) Following this it was necessary to complete an analysis of the combinations of areas and their relation to continental passages attempting to determine the strong and weak points. Armed with this information I was able to consider viable alternatives to the Australia-only syndrome that plagues classic Risk.

Next I examined the cards. Many tournaments use a fixed set system for play; three infantry always provide a specific number of reinforcements that is different from three cannon, cavalry or a mixed set. Though it may appear trivial, it is not. In any game where cards are a critical factor, card counting, knowing the mix remaining in the deck, is important. Serious competitors will know the mix and to forego such knowledge provides a slight advantage to the opponent; to balance the game this information is a requirement.

The final tool in my arsenal was a statistical study of the probabilities for possible dice rolls in an attempt to maximize the result of a battle given varying groups of armies. Without giving a detailed account, it is minimally sufficient to understand that attacks of less than 3 to 1 are seldom successful. As these were pre-internet years, I was forced to perform all of the analysis with pen, paper and calculator. Snail mail with Parker Brothers provided additional information including a list of clubs and leagues.

At this point I was prepared to begin practicing. Anyone that considers a serious attempt at winning a competition must practice... and practice... and practice. I played several Play-By-Mail games simultaneously while playing solitaire games daily. Each was an experiment, testing a variety of strategies. However, nothing is an acceptable substitute for face to face play which meant traveling to every Risk outing I could locate. It was at these events that I met other tournament players who readily offered advice. There were discussions on various strategies, playing variations and advice on improving my performance at a tournament. After 1000+ hours of Risk in a single year, I was armed and ready.

The Hunt II

It may surprise you to learn that tournaments are very social events filled with excitement and anticipation; it is a gathering of equals. Similar to sporting events, the game stays at the table never encroaching into non-game activities. At the end of a typical match, the players shake hands and then depart for the nearest Mickey-D's for a game of Bohnanza, Spades or Clash of the Lightsabers. Generally the first two rounds serve to weed out the less qualified players so it is on the second day that the "real" tournament begins. There is no need to burden you with tedious reports on actual play however, there are a few observations I discovered that appear common to most tournaments. These do not apply to Risk tournaments alone as I have witnessed these same factors at many events.

  1. The games are intense; no quarter is given for minor errors.
  2. With one exception, I have never witnessed improper behavior. Even during the games players were always polite and congenial; no anger, rancor or whining. Setbacks during the game were something to be countered, not material for complaining. Good sportsmanship was the order of the day with players complimenting astute play by an opponent.
  3. Amateurs blundering about the board were more difficult to compensate for than players who knew the game well.
  4. All of the rules used for a particular tournament were clearly stated prior to the start of a match. There was no place for "rules lawyers" with their obscure interpretations of the rules of the game.
  5. Caffeine and fresh air are gifts from the gaming gods.
  6. The most enjoyable and accommodating players are the under 20 or over 50 years old. Often tournament games are specifically designed variants. Teenagers simply accepted what new parameters were detailed without comment. During play they rapidly adjusted to their changing fortunes; the future always appeared rosy even as their positions were being decimated. The older players appeared to have a realistic approach to the possibility of winning the tournament. With 180+ players the prospect of victory was possible but not bankable, so enjoy the festivities and the competition—if it happens, it happens. These "mature" players often play a meta-game with willing opponents wagering on the result of die rolls or player positions at the end of a turn. (I am willing to wager that there isn't any tournament that condones this activity.)
  7. Many of the players are characters, having developed a reputation over years of repeated tournament performances. It is not unusual to see good luck charms (troll dolls with wispy hair) or special dice introduced. The flavors of the different personalities range from vanilla (quiet and unassuming) to spicy (bold and brassy).
  8. There are very few female tournament gamers.

After the Feast

In my Twilight Zone youth I fantasized that my name would stand side-by-side with Bobby Fischer and Mark Spitz—Dave Shapiro, the World Risk Champion. (Hey it was the 1970s, not all roaches had legs.) Well my last attempt proved to be the most successful as I placed 13th in the World Risk Championship—just beyond the play-off round (damn dice). As I left that particular tournament, I suspected that this was the end, my fascination with Risk had passed. I was burned out on the game; I was done with it. As with so many other gamers of that period, I gravitated to other games, eventually entering new tournaments but never with the same passion as I had developed for Risk. Following this, on the rare occasions that I played a game of classic Risk, I simply could not generate enough interest to even attempt to play competitively. This too, is quite common among tournament gamers; the inability to continue, to return to take the field. Though I continued to game as much as I had previously, it is doubtful that over the next twenty years I engaged in more than four or five games of classic Risk. Of course when Hasbro/Avalon Hill released Risk 2210 A.D. the addiction resurfaced. (Note: In a weak moment I recently completed a partial analysis for Risk Godstorm which has since been posted to BoardGameGeek.) Ah, the fever still burns.

The Embers Flicker

Tournament play is certainly not for everyone but it can be very enjoyable and rewarding. To attain even a modicum of success requires devoting your time to a particular game forsaking alternative entertainment. You must enjoy the competitive experience for what it is, a different type of gaming. For many it can be the ultimate game experience.

- Dave Shapiro

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