The Balance of Sportsmanship and Competition

| January 15, 2014 | Board Games | 1 Comment
Men shake hands on reviewing stand

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection

The Balance of Sportsmanship and Competition (Among Axis and Allies Players)

Written by “Young_Grasshopper” at Axis and Allies.org forums, compiled and edited by Rorschach of I Will Never Grow Up Gaming

What does it mean to play fair in Axis and Allies?

In a game like A&A 1940 Global which has hundreds of units, a vast complexity of rules, an order of sequences that must be obeyed, and a guaranteed slew of errors from everyone, can sportsmanship and competitiveness share the same stage?

In the past when discussing sportsmanship on these forums, the phrase “it’s only a game” comes up quite often. Well of course it’s only a game; which begs the question, what is the socially acceptable level of competitive behavior allowed if it’s just a game?

OK, enough with the questions, we all agree that the most important thing is to have fun and to contribute in the fun of others, but it helps to have unwritten rules to ensure fun and remain competitive. I’m going to go with the assumption that the players at my table and yours are not cheating scoundrels; you know the kind.  The players that take extra money, lie about dice rolls you can’t quite see, or place extra units on the table when you’re not looking. That said, if you catch a cheater red handed and he meant to cheat, teach him a lesson and never play against or with that person again.

Human Error

In our games we have unwritten rules about what errors are forgivable, and what is irreversible. Using the example of 1940 Global throughout this article, the rule book states that all players must look for and point out convoy disruptions even if it is against you. That is quite the precedent in a game like this don’t you think?  It means that if my opponent has an opportunity to convoy me and he doesn’t see it, the rules demand that I make my opponent aware of his chance to harm my war effort.  Now I know what you’re all thinking; that I am some kind of hard case and a jerk to play against. On the contrary, I just think that the rule is interesting.

In our games we forgive almost everything.  For example;

  • If you have begun your combat movement phase, but forgot to purchase new units first, you may do so.
  • If you have collected your income but wanted to make another non-combat movement, you may do so.
  • If other players have completed their turns after you, and you had forgotten to place your units or collect your income, you may do so.
  • If you forgot your nations entire turn, you may do it!

We even help figure out the game conditions at the time of the missed actions. Imagine it’s Japan’s player turn and they reach for their money, but quickly realize that they forgot to collect their income last turn. Well, we all do our best to calculate the income that player should have received before the tracker changed after a full round, and that’s what they can use to begin their purchase new units phase. I remember a Japanese invasion of Sydney where I scrambled 3 air units, and when it was all said and done, I managed to hold the ANZAC capital with one unit. After a few rounds went by, I noticed that there was only a naval base on Sydney, and no air base making my scramble move illegal! What a head ache! Should I tell him and declare the game broken or should I just play coy and pretend I didn’t know? Well of course I did the right thing and told him.  And I know all my opponents would do the same. Never the less, it was embarrassing, but we back tracked and saved the game (after a re-do, I still managed to save Sydney, but I was prepared for the worst, and ready to accept it).

All these type of errors and miscues are pretty standard and forgiven in all friendly games, however, in our games once the dice are thrown in the resolve combat phase, you may not purchase new units, you may not roll research dice, you may not walk into an empty hostile territory or declare any other attack for that matter, you may not pass go, and you may not collect $200 dollars.

In fact most recently we have even spotted a loop hole in our system that caused a bit of a stir our last game; During America’s combat movement phase which saw them move units into the Philippines for an amphibious landing, the Japanese player said “OK lets go… this is an amphibious landing so we do that before general combat”. His teammate, who was playing Germany, blurted out “wait… you have Kamikaze units available and that’s a kamikaze zone”. The Japanese player says “OK, I’m putting three on each of those aircraft carriers” and he began to roll his dice hitting both of them. The American player who didn’t say anything until this point says”what the hell are you guys doing? I’m not even finished my combat movement phase and your rolling dice, who told you to do that?” at which point he began to pull back his units to reevaluate his attack. This was a fortunate, yet simultaneously unfortunate situation. Unfortunate for the Axis who would have crippled the American fleet if not for the premature outburst. What they should have waited for was some kind of confirmation that one phase had ended, and another begun. Fortunate for the Americans who obviously didn’t see the kamikaze attack capabilities before his opponent explained it, which allowed him to avoid the certain doom of his loaded aircraft carriers, not to mention the loaded transports that would have been sunk by the scramble threat. We learned from this lesson that even if the American player verbally declared his combat movement phase over, the first act would be to launch Kamikaze units due to the mandatory amphibious assaults before general combat rule. At that time the American player could argue that he has not yet rolled any dice which is how our house rule is understood, and could therefore retreat to rethink his strategy based on this new information.

I know that some of you may say “what’s the big deal if he didn’t see the attack option, just let him take it back to rethink his move, it’s only a game”, but our club doesn’t play like that. Our collective perception is that the Japanese player saw an opportunity to strengthen his war effort using rules within the game, and we congratulate that move. We don’t punish him for seeing something his opponent didn’t. The American player knows that he dodged a bullet, because if the roles were reversed, he would have wanted to be rewarded for his savvy awareness as well. The rules don’t state that all players must look for and point out Kamikaze opportunities, even if they are your enemy sailing blindly toward your kamikazes (faint pictures on the board are not an excuse with our group, because my custom game board has enhanced symbols for easy visibility). Never the less, our group has adopted a new system, instead of a hard line of “when dice are rolled”, each nation will get a combat card (solid red) which will be placed anywhere on the game board so players can formally indicate when their combat movement phase has ended, and when their resolve combat phase has begun. Once it hits the table, all is fair in war and there is no going back.

Dealing with Discrepancies

There are other areas of discrepancy in games of A&A Global 1940, such as scrambling orders. In the example above the attacker had a momentary lapse of awareness, but it can go the other way as well. If a defender finishes a sea battle during an amphibious assault, but realizes before the land battle that they had 2 fighters on an air base that they could have scrambled they can’t now say “I want a redo… I didn’t see the option, and I wasn’t given scrambling orders”.  The rules don’t say that it’s the responsibility of the attacker to point out scramble opportunities that will ultimately harm their war effort.

I fully understand that their are groups out there who are dealing with a significant gap of skill and experience between players, or don’t wish to see a game in it’s infancy become greatly unbalanced due to game changing mistakes. There are friendly games out there between father and son, or between good friends that make long trips to play each other, and don’t want to see a game end from such trivial details. I totally get your social logic behind the phrase “it’s only a game”, but this article is not for you, it’s for those who wish to play a competitive friendly game where their strategic genius (or their opponents lack of attention) is recognized without losing all their friends.

Learning from your Mistakes

I don’t know about you guys, but when I was in chess club nobody ever said to me “don’t move your queen in that position, because my bishop can take it”, instead, they were licking their chops while they watched in slow motion as my fingers released the prized token. That said, I learned from mistakes that I’m not allowed to take back and I’m privileged to play with a group that is of the same school of thought.  Although we are strict about 10% of the game mechanics, we are very forgiving when it comes to the other 90%, and we are not monsters, when new players game with us we give them all the rope in the world. However, when the veterans meet and a mistake is made, when all those involved know that it’s irreversible, and it’s clear that one has out witted the other then there is no argument.  What’s done is done.

A Balancing Act with FUN as the pivotal point

In such a complex game of strategy that can take as long as 14 hours to play, mistakes become as tangible as the plastic pieces in your hand, and in our games if one of those mistakes fall within the unforgivable 10% category it could be game over. That’s how our wars are waged but our games couldn’t function without basic decency and respect.

We all know the type; jerks who are incapable of fun because all they see is the importance of winning. If the balance between sportsmanship and competitiveness was a see-saw, than the center pivot point would be “fun”. There are some people that can suck the fun out of a room by bullying others when they say “I’m losing because you haven’t helped me with reinforcements” or “If you did what I told you to do, we would be winning by now”. Or how about those immature players who throw their dice across the room swearing because they rolled a few sixes. This kind of behavior has no place in friendly table top games, and say what you will about our club’s hang ups and strict house rules, none of us treat each other like that. I’m sure players who can’t conform to having fun in a social environment because they are so consumed with the goal of winning have migrated to forum play due to their alienation of fellow table top players. However, like minded people have an uncanny way of finding one another, and those are the games you hear about when boards gets flipped.

Conclusion

It’s safe to say there has been, and always will be, a difference of opinion on what is considered “socially acceptable competitive behavior” when playing Axis and Allies (or any tabletop game for that matter). Sure our group hears the odd outburst of “In your face France!” or the soft praying chants “miss, miss, miss, miss, miss”, but if it’s all done with good intentions, a bit of humour and that all important ingredient called fun, than I believe sportsmanship and competitiveness can function harmoniously when playing this great game among friends.

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  1. Chris Willcox says:

    Nice article.

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