I play Warmachine, a tabletop war game. Do you know Warhammer? It’s like Warhammer, only nobody wears skulls on their kneepads. You move little plastic dollies around a table, rolling dice, bashing up one another’s armies, and scoring points for occupying zones. Each army is led by a Warlock, a wizard who brings special monster chums to the fight, or a Warcaster who has robot pals. Think ‘roid-raging Pokémon and UFC rock-em-sock-em robots. If your War-noun dies then you instantly lose the game. In 2015 I moved to a new town, joined a new war games club, and discovered that all the Warmachine cool kids played in national and even international tournaments. I was determined to make a good impression, but the competitive Warmachine scene is intimidating – it has a well earned reputation as a shark tank. I had a five-year losing streak under my belt. If I wanted to play with the big boys I needed to git gud.
Board and videogame designer Dave Sirlin offers this excellent definition of a scrub: “A scrub is a player who is handicapped by self-imposed rules that the game knows nothing about. A scrub does not play to win.” This may seem counter-intuitive; if you’re playing a game where it’s possible to ‘win’, how can you possibly play it to lose? But Sirlin demands a very close analysis of our motivations before we can claim that we’re playing to win.
“The first step in becoming a top player is the realization that playing to win means doing whatever most increases your chances of winning. That is true by definition of playing to win.”
The more I thought about it, the more I realised only 50% of my play-style was determined by the rules of the game and what I knew would help me win. The other half was dictated by my own, invented code of play: to play with models I liked irrespective of their utility, to not play with an army list if a famous tournament player used it, to play casual. These were not rules I was being forced to obey, and they were clearly impinging on my chances of winning. I was handicapping myself. I knew that memorizing the stats for popular enemy units would prevent me from falling into traps set by my opponent, but I hadn’t done this. Practising with the same army rather than chopping and changing would make me quicker and cleverer, but I had yet to settle into a single list build for more than two weeks. I was complacent. I was playing to lose. I was a scrub.
“I was playing to win, and winning is not sentimental.”
But being a scrub is a matter of attitude, and I could change it just by becoming conscious of it. I’ll spare you the rocky montage – I got gud, with a lot of help from the tournament pros at the club. Not that good. A happy tournament result for me is to match my losses with my wins. But I can look at those losses and chalk them up to a lack of practice, to mistakes, to good opponents – not to a self-defeating attitude.
Learning what it meant to be a scrub and what it means to really play to win made me examine how I was playing other games. Was I a scrub at them, too? Obviously there are games where winning doesn’t even come into it – it’s not as if you can win in The Walking Dead. You can complete Journey but it’s hard to say that you could win at it. All competitive games, however, do offer the chance to win and lose — and most single-player games offer at least a score, a progress bar, or achievements to give some objective measure of victory. You could always decide to fly to the center of the galaxy in No Man’s Sky and call that winning. Yet I was surprised how many games I played for reasons other than winning, and how often gitting gud seemed like a really bad idea.
Dark Souls, for instance. I’m not garbage at Dark Souls; I wouldn’t attempt a soul level zero run with a Guitar Hero peripheral, but I’ve learned the core skills of observation, preparation, and decisiveness necessary to progress through the single-player. I play Dark Souls to discover its world, to be terrified and awestruck, to gradually unearth little hints of story. There’s no way to do that without mastering at least a little bit of the combat system. But to compete in multiplayer I would need to plumb the wikis, research optimal character builds and farm loot drops. Breaking open the world of Dark Souls to peer at the machinery would kill much of what makes Dark Souls special to me. So I’m a scrub. I accept that if one of Rosaria’s Fingers invades my world, they’re going to kill me and take my tongue. The price of the win is too great.
I’m considering getting good at Duelyst, but that has a literal cost. Playing for free might be the fiscally responsible choice, but it’s also the scrub choice. The game won’t give me a consolation prize when my underfunded deck loses me a game. Yet at the sharp end of that logic are the people so determined to git gud at Clash of Clans they bankrupt themselves pouring money into its bottomless maw; or the professional poker players who, obeying the statistics, keep ten thousand in their bankroll to ensure they can come back from a losing streak. As a kid I would skip lunch to buy Magic: The Gathering cards. Getting good at free-to-play feels dangerous.
“I was surprised how many games I played for reasons other than winning, and how often gitting gud seemed like a really bad idea.”
Now I play games to think about them and write about them and perhaps form a critical opinion of them. I had to git gud at Slain: Back From Hell just to see the final boss, but I don’t know if the final review is more useful or authentic than the personal commentary I would have written if I bounced off the difficulty spike in the middle of the second level. Playing Sunless Sea: Zubmariner I was terrified that I would fail and fail and fail to even reach the expansion content before embargo lifted. To proceed I needed to watch carefully for the unspoken rules of the game, lay bare some of the machinery behind the curtain and then drive forwards in as rigorous and focused a manner as possible. It gave me an insight into the limits and strengths of the design; but it’s not how I would normally experience it. My reviews are more analytical than personal because if I want to see most of what they have to offer before review date I must approach them in a way I don’t usually play games.
And so it goes. Gitting gud at a game requires a new perspective on it – dare I say a more objective one, if only of the functioning of gameplay systems. But it’s a perspective slightly outside the game. About halfway into my year gitting gud at Warmachine I stopped painting the models I used in my army of toy soldiers. Painted models look lovely on the table, and up to that point I had a fairly well coated army of blue trolls, but contrary to the popular myth painted figures don’t produce better dice results. A few models I had painted years ago that I now knew were sub-par were moved into a storage box, their places taken by bare metal newcomers. I was playing to win, and winning is not sentimental.
But will I ever truly change? I’m not sure. The other day I picked up some goblins that had been languishing on my shelf for several years. They weren’t for any game at all. I got out my green paint and set to work.