Sitting Down to Play: Tips on Surviving Tournament Competition

You’ve finally arrived at the convention site, checked in, and unpacked your luggage. Since you were smart enough to arrive a little early, you’ve had the opportunity to wander around the convention site and learn the layout of the tournament venue, and maybe even line up a few “pick-up games” with other attendees for later in the week. Before you know it, the afternoon has passed, so you grab an early meal and head to your room to get some sleep. You rise early in the morning, eat a light breakfast, and then amble over to the convention hall where your first tournament round is going to be conducted. With your game under your arm, you find the tournament Game Master and receive the final instructions and game assignments for the first round of competition. The big day has finally arrived. You draw your first round tournament opponent, and then, after finding some open table space, the two of you set up the game board and counters and prepare to play. Now, what do you do?

1. The first thing that a brand new convention attendee must understand is the concept of tournament “seeding.” In virtually all types of tournaments, whether they use a Single Elimination, Swiss, or some other organizing format, experienced players will always be matched against inexperienced or unknown players during the initial rounds. This means that, as a first-time participant, you are almost certainly going to be sitting across the game table from a very experienced, tough adversary in your very first game. Don’t worry about it. The game is the thing, and anyone, no matter how experienced or talented can be beaten; that is why there are tournaments, in the first place! So, focus on the current game, and not on the previous record of your opponent.

2. The second thing that a first-time attendee needs to be ready for is that unlike your home games, many present-day tournaments require the opposing players to bid (typically victory points) for sides. Since bidding will influence which side each player ultimately controls, recognize the strengths and weaknesses in your own play. If you are better on the attack than on the defense, then bid accordingly. But don’t get carried away. Treat tournament bidding the same way that you would treat a trip to a casino: set limits, in advance, on your bidding, and then stick to them.

3. Approach the match with a positive, upbeat attitude. Be friendly and courteous to everyone you meet during the convention, both inside and outside of the “pressure cooker” of tournament competition. Leave the obnoxious “mind games” for the jerks on the World Poker Tour. You’re playing for fun, not for money; so make a real effort to keep it fun. Do so even if your die-rolling is crummy or you do something stupid, and even if your current opponent seems to have checked his (or her) manners at the front desk. Most of the players that you will meet at a convention are friendly, generous, and fun; so remember that fact when you start to feel your temperature rise. This is only one game; there will be many more before the tournament is over.

4. Be prepared for surprises in your adversary’s play. Tournament competition is often as much about psychology as it is about the actual play of the game. For this reason, an expert tournament player will occasionally try to shake a less experienced competitor’s confidence or concentration by springing an unusual or unorthodox line of play on them. Be prepared for it, and don’t let an opponent’s surprise move rattle you. Take your time and be methodical. Stick to the pace you are comfortable with; do this even if the other player finishes his own move at warp speed, and especially if he seems impatient or exasperated with the pace of your play. There’s usually plenty of time in the early tournament rounds, so use it.

5. Expect to make an error or two in the course of your tournament games. If a mistake doesn’t immediately beat you, then you always have the opportunity to battle back. Whatever you do, though, don’t focus on a past screw-up; there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway. So, keep your mind on the game and in the present. War games are — in this case, at least — a little like the real thing: neither is won by the side that makes no mistakes at all, but, almost always, by the side that makes the fewest mistakes. Remember, even very highly-paid professional athletes occasionally make errors, and this is despite the fact that they practice constantly.

6. Do not attempt to go for an early knockout. Most of the tournament games are fairly long; AFRIKA KORPS, for example, runs for thirty-eight game turns, so don’t expect to establish a winning advantage in the first ten. Too many Axis players — sticking with AFRIKA KORPS as our example — think that they have to establish a dominating position before the Commonwealth reinforcements enter the game in November. If they fail to capture the British Home Base before that game turn, they typically race back to Tobruch. When they get there, they immediately launch a “Hail Mary” series of attacks against the fortress in a desperate attempt to seize the Allied port before the new British units start flooding onto the map. This approach is both foolish and wrong. Play to win, but play with patience. In most games, and in most tournament formats, it doesn’t matter whether you win on the first turn, or the last: a win is still a win; so play accordingly. One other interesting aspect about playing for the “long” game is that many players, because of their own styles of play or approach to the game, have very little real experience in playing through the later game turns. Sometimes, just hanging on, can get a less-experienced player to a stage in the match where his higher-seeded opponent’s experience is no greater than his own.

7. Finally, know when to quit. This doesn’t mean that you should give up the minute that you screw up or catch a bad die-roll or two, but it does mean that, at the point in a match when you can no longer see any possibility of a win, you should promptly and graciously concede. And I emphasize the word graciously. Don’t carp about the role luck played in the game. Just to be clear, this means: don’t point out the good luck of your opponent, or complain about your own bad luck; even if his luck really was good, and yours really was bad. It happens; besides, you knew that luck was a factor when you sat down to play. And speaking of graciousness: be gracious in defeat, but be especially gracious in victory. No one likes a bad loser, but everyone really despises a bad winner!

Of course, even if you follow all of this advice, I cannot guarantee that you will end up bringing a tournament plaque or two with you when you head home after the convention. You may, for the reasons already mentioned, not even get past the first round. But being prepared for the special circumstances and pressures of tournament competition certainly won’t hurt your prospects, and, whether you win or lose, it should significantly improve your chances of having a truly enjoyable time. Perhaps the best feature of major conventions is that, even if you do get knocked out of all of your tournaments early on, you will still be able to line up lots of opportunities for open gaming.

This is the last of three installments on tournament play that I am publishing in advance of the World Boardgaming Championships Convention in Lancaster, PA, on 3 August of this year. I hope that the suggestions that I have offered in this series of posts will help prospective convention goers, both in preparing for, and then in handling, the sweat-inducing stress that inevitably comes with the face-to-face tournament experience. For the dedicated gamer, there is probably no experience quite as enjoyable or exciting as participating in a well-run tournament; for that reason, I strongly recommend — for any of you who have never attended a convention in the past — that you give it a try. I’m virtually certain that if you do, you will end up being glad that you did.


  • Very nice. All solid recommendations, and proven winners. Yet, they are also things that need refreshed from time to time.

    I LOVE your points - it ALWAYS bothers me when people decide to beat 'the person' rather than playing 'the game.' Why? I came to get a chance to PLAY my favorite game. Thus, I often COST myself wins because I will keep opponents from resigning when they get discouraged, but the game is CLEARLY not as bad as they THINK it is!

    Another point I'd like to amplify: I think MOST losses are due to people 'kicking' themselves about a previous LOSS, not the CURRENT game! In line with your point, someone once commented that the reason Pete Sampres was such a FANTASTIC tennis player is because he could 'let go' of a bad shot and not be thinking about it on the NEXT shot.

    All wonderful points in your presentation. Thanks for sharing these!


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