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Top players and their views on balance


I have for a long time had a very narrow scope when it comes to competitive gaming, it has been fighting game exclusively. I have played some other games from time to time, but probably since 2010 at least, I have almost ditched the thought of playing other games seriously, and to some extent even casually.

Since I started streaming this year however, things has kinda changed a little. I have started watching different streams to see other type of games, and some of the ideas and rhetoric of the people playing is so out of this world when coming from the fighting game scene.

Two games in particular, Dead By Daylight and Total War: Warhammer.

I have written passionately about Dead By Daylight before, and I still think it is a great game in principle, but I have to agree that the top level play seems to be … slightly off balance. There is this whole system of perks and items that you get randomly between matches. But most of the good players in that game aren’t playing to win, and don’t appreciate when people do play to win. Complaining that certain items that skew the favour of either the killer or the survivor are used instead of accepting it as a feature of the game. (Tho, Angrypug is one of the exceptions)

Yesterday, I was watching the top ranked player in Total War: Warhammer for the first time, while he was playing online. He boldly declared that he was, indeed, the top ranked player in the world. Then took up a spreadsheet of his victories, where he boasted over 300 games with each race and a 70-90% winrate with each of them. Then he enters into online match, and he plays against a big ball of death, where all units are tightly packed in a square formation with some sort of small area of effect booster thing. He is playing the same style, acknowledging “oh yeah? I guess it is my blob against your blob”, and then he promptly precedes to go into a loosing battle and he just concedes and says that is a “boring tactic”. Then he goes into a new game, where the other guy is playing some sort of hit and run stuff, where nothing is really happening for 5 minutes, and he goes on to concede that match again, with some other form of excuse.

So this makes me think, is this common? Are top players scrubs? I know from within the fighting game community there is the whole “ban the testers” thing, and from Playing To Win also says that top players aren’t the best to give balance points as they have a more weighted interest in balancing it in their favour and all that, but we wouldn’t say that Justing Wong, Chris G or Snake Eyes are scrubs.

But … is top level players in other types of games usually scrubs? How do you become a top level player in a game, but end up still being a scrub?


Most games can’t survive competitive play and get boring when you take them seriously and really try to win.

The rallying cry of the scrub is often “it’s so boring to play that way” or maybe “I’d rather have a fun game”. It’s an idea I see all of the time in tabletop wargames where EVERYONE is a scrub and non-scrubs are derided as WAAC gamers. That’s “Win At All Costs” where the implication is that they win the games but in such a way that neither player enjoys the game. They win at the cost of fun.

And the thing is, the scrubs are right, the game isn’t fun when you seriously play to win. It just breaks and turns into this boring trash.

Well, in that case what’re you going to do?

Play to win for real and have no fun? That doesn’t sound good.

Play another game that is similar but actually balanced for competitive play? In many genres that game might not actually exist. So that’s out.

So then I guess you just play sub-optimally and aim to sort-of try to win, but not too hard because then it’s lame and boring. Or maybe you patch in a bunch of tacit scrubby, morality rules about what is cheap so you can still have fun? Or maybe you have official community rules that try to make the game playable at a high level, somehow?

The thing is, games that’re balanced for serious play are super-duper rare, most games just aren’t fun if you take them remotely seriously and have like, half a brain. So yeah, high level play will either be really scrubby or really boring or not exist at all.

You’ll see a lot of support online for the idea that if there’s a one sided stomp or an unfun, unbalanced match up in a game with any kind of customisation then it’s the player’s fault for choosing to play the overpowered thing. Around here we know better. That it’s the designer’s fault for not making a game that was robust enough to have compelling counter-play in all of it’s match ups. (You know… within reason).

But for most people they’re not prepared to accept that argument because it leads inevitably to the conclusion that most games just… well, aren’t very good. Like, you’d be limited to so few games if all you bought were games that were genuinely deep. And you need to buy a lot of games to have fun because most of the games you buy you get bored of pretty quickly… for some reason…

In summary, I hope everyone here really appreciates Sirlin’s philosophy of trying to make games that’re finely tuned for competitive play instead of games that just fall apart and break when you try to win.


I honestly still don’t know if I just solved Splendor on my first play, or if I was playing with other people who just weren’t as good, or if I’ve just been lucky every time I’ve played it.

Games that are just as interesting when played to win, instead of just to play a game, are surprisingly few and far between.

I’ve played Splendor regularly for the last couple of years (I don’t think it’s a particularly good game, although it’s not bad - but the others in my group like it and it fills a nice 20-30-minute gap) - and I don’t see any sign of a way to “solve it”. I’ve seen wins (usually from the other players - I’m BAD at that game) both from collecting lots of low-value cards early to build up “virtual chips” and go for the nobles, and from saving up to get the high-value cards. I’d be interested to hear what your “wining formula” is (so I can try it, and if I then start consistently winning I can agree with you :smiley: ).

Honestly, I don’t know if it was a formula so much as just being good at valuation of the stuff on the table. I seem to recall I won basically by just minimizing buys that didn’t award points, and didn’t pay much attention to the people cards? It’s been a while since I last played, admittedly.

I feel like I didn’t dislike it as much as Ticket to Ride, but that might also be because TTR takes 3–4 times as long to play and inevitably ends with me feeling like I have just completed a task, rather than enjoyed entertainment. I am Ameritrash.

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I guess I have just been spoiled with relatively good balanced games for a while AND a community (the fgc) that shuns scrubby viewpoints? Or at least they tend to come from the lower tier players instead of the better ones?

Of course, and I guess you could argue that playing ranked on ladder is “playing casually” as well, but I feel rethoric is a large part in what we call scrubbdom.

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top players can probably follow playing to win without realizing it consciously.

Probably this. Top level Splendor is about calculating the most efficient (fewest total actions) way to get to 15, and risk management regarding what cards (and gems) will still be available in the tableau as the game progresses. It’s kind of a slow motion pigeon hole game, where the object is to have a strategy that doesn’t conflict with anyone, but also have the most efficient strategy for the cards available. Usually that means putting yourself in a position to benefit from new flips off the top, while still having a viable plan for spending every gem and card you acquire.

I don’t really think it’s something that is especially prevalent in games as a general rule, but it’s hard to say for sure. I think that generally speaking it’s more that most games have a relatively small group of consistent winners, so if someone is in the “top” of that then it makes it seem like there are more people like that than there might normally be if the group was larger. Not quite sure if I worded that accurately though, it’s difficult to express it concisely.

I do agree that most games aren’t necessarily built with the excessively competitive in mind, and you don’t typically want to have one person playing like that when the rest are playing casually. It tends to suck the fun right out of the game. I don’t think that makes them bad games in any way though, the target audience typically isn’t that competitive crowd. It’s only if that is what the game was going for that it makes things bad.

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This second part is why I think Apples to Apples is a great game - each player can be playing anywhere from whatever-casual to cutthroat competitive and it still works and is fun for everyone (as long as judges don’t literally shuffle all the red cards and pick a winner at random on a regular basis).

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I’m not even sure what competitive Apples to Apples would even look like, but it is a good game. Just a funny thought to me. I think generally that games with a small time component are also good ones for that kind of thing, something like Magic and Codex can require a significant amount of time potentially, and it makes people more frustrated then by that friend.

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It’s basically just playing to win (ie, trying to figure out what card each Judge is most likely to select, rather than just putting in what seems best; and also, as the Judge, thinking about which card might have been put in by another player who is doing well, and shying away from picking that card, even if it seems like the “best fit”)

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Apples to Apples isn’t a very good Playing to Win game, much like how chess isn’t great as a fun-time party game.

I think part of the issue here is that, as I see it, there is a broad spectrum that “game” covers, from “strict test of skill and mastery” on one end to “fun activity that people can enjoy” on the other, and it’s important to not try to force one to be the other.

Honestly I think there’s a potentially really cool social deduction game buried in that core mechanic. I’ve noodled over how to make A2A a game where “playing the game” in a way that makes sense also means being able to play it competitively.