An Open Letter to the NOVA Open

TastyTaste’s jab at the NOVA Open with his post on Blood of Kittens piqued my interest. In my rush to prepare for WarGamesCon, I haven't had much time to learn more about the NOVA Open. Let's fix that now!

For those of you unaware, here are the basics on this spiffy new tournament. This is their inaugural year and is hosted by Whiskey & 40K's own MVBrandt.

What I have learned has been mostly excited blog/forum chatter about this being an actual "competitive" event (splitting hairs by casting all other events as "hobby" or "casual" events). Harrumph!

Just so no one gets their panties in a bunch, let me make it perfectly clear that I only wish MVBrandt success with the NOVA Open. It looks like he’s done a fantastic job preparing and it promises to be lots of fun. I met MVBrandt briefly at Adepticon, and he left me with an impression of someone that can truly pull off an event of this magnitude. He definitely has his act together. Personally, I would've attended the event this year if it hadn’t been so close to WarGamesCon. Even as I write this blog post, I’ve checked flights from San Francisco to Washington D.C. – twice. Pricey.

I took some time this afternoon to follow some links and read everything I could find about the event. I'm going to use the following white space to ask some questions, make some comments and offer some suggestions. I sincerely hope my comments are well-received and help improve the event.

Let's start in no particular order.

Each round of the NOVA Open is "2:15+" hours in length. It looks like the goal is to give players enough time to complete a full turn and have each round wind up in the 2:30 range. Assuming 30 minutes for scoring, pairing and posting (which is generous) and 1 hour for lunch, you are looking at a 13-hour Saturday. Any delays (which are in endless supply) could easily push this to 14+ hours. If the first game starts at 9AM (based on the 7:15 check-in), then you aren’t finishing Day 1 until 10PM or 11PM.

That’s a seriously grueling day. Wear comfortable shoes. Pack a snack. Drink lots of liquid (avoid too much caffeine). Keep a good attitude.

Of greater concern, players are going to be rolling dice until 7PM on Sunday. Once you factor in final scores and awards, you’ll be there until 8 or 9PM – too late for most flights out. Expect players that lose games on Sunday to drop like flies.

I totally understand wanting fixed terrain; and it's totally doable in a 15-table tournament. But unless you can affix the terrain to the board (e.g., Velcro) OR dedicate 10 judges to fixing tables each round, then it’s not going to work. With 48 tables to manage, the terrain is going to quickly get out of control: A) the vast majority of players push terrain toward the middle of the board every time they load/unload their armies, B) since you are doing paint judging at the tables, people are going to push terrain around to make room for display boards, and C) unscrupulous players (driven by the need for status and prizes) will arrive early to a table and shift terrain to their advantage.

It's a fantastic goal, but completely impractical unless you have a ton of judges (and an extra 10 minutes) per round.

I can’t find any reference to Sportsmanship in the packet (besides the fact that it's present in the event). No blanks or numbers to circle. Since 1/3rd of the Renaissance Man’s score is Sportsmanship, I hope it’s player judged. If it’s not player judged, then 2/3rds of their score is being determined by the tournament organizers -- which is a bit steep.

List Submission: I also can’t find any reference to list submission or list verification. Jwolf estimated 20% of lists submitted to WarGamesCon contained errors. Most took two exchanges with the player to correct. Being able to check these lists is extremely important in a competitive event. Assuming that each list is accurate, correctly formatted and legible, it will take at least 5 minutes to review each list. With 96 lists submitted, you are looking at around 5 hours of work just to verify that they are valid.

You are most likely going to find 20 lists with errors -- most of which you won't find until round 2 or later.

Competitive Ratings:
The open scoring format for seeding rounds is cumbersome and confusing. Basically, the NOVA Open is going to use a bit of math to determine your seed within your win/loss bracket. For the previous round, you take the user’s win ratio multiplied by 10 (so 0 or 1000?), add it to the achievement ratio of each of the three mission goals. This gives you a number between 0 and 1300, I think. Maybe. Players are then paired in subsequent rounds by matching up players with similar competitive ratings. These ratings are trashed after each round, so only your previous rounds results determine your seed in the following round.

This is a decent amount of math that needs to be computed (and verified) between each round. If the data stuck with the player for every round of the event, then I could see the value. But an individual player's competitive score will fluctuate wildly from round to round. If I massacre my opponent, then I have a high score but if I lose I have a very low score. It feels like you might as well randomly pair winners with winners and losers with losers within their bracket -- or just use victory points you've calculated in the previous round. This is going to lead to delays and confusion without gaining you any real advantage.

The overall format is probably the strongest appeal to the NOVA Open. The fact the event promises a single, undefeated winner (using a W/L format over a P/S/T scoring format) is what attracted the attention of a specific breed of competitive player.

The event supports 96 players, broken into brackets of 16. The six brackets play four games to determine an winners in each bracket (the guy that won 4-0). Then the winners play the next day to determine an overall winner. MVBrandt stated that "top ranked" players with 3-1 results will advance to the Day 2 tournament, which sort of messes up the whole thing (but I'll get to that in a bit).

My biggest concern with the system is 90%+ of attendees are eliminated on Day 1. "Thanks for playing -- feel free to explore the vendor area and open gaming for the rest of your stay." Even losing a single game on Saturday pretty much guarantees you are out of the event for the rest of the weekend.

That's rough, especially considering that 48 players are going to lose their FIRST game. A tough pill to swallow for someone that few across the country to play seven games.

Note: Drops and byes are also going to cause some problems, if you stick to a bracket system. You may require as many as 4 ringers playing games, if you plan to keep the brackets separate.

I'm also worried that allowing 3-1 players into the final day is a mistake and seriously breaks from your format. There are three ways you can allow players with 3-1 records into the Day 2 tournament -- and all of them cause problems:

A. Every 3-1 player advances: This model leads to 30 players in the Day 2 event (still eliminating almost 70% of the attendees). In this model, there is NO way to determine a clear winner in 3 rounds. A W/L tournament needs 5 rounds to determine a single winner from 30 players.

B. A single 3-1 player from each bracket advances:  This model leads to 12 players (eliminating 88% of attendees). A 12-player event requires 4 rounds to determine a single winner, so this won't work either.

C. Two 3-1 players advance: If you use some scoring system to pick TWO of the 30 players with 3-1 records, then you have 8 players. In this model, 92% of attendees are sent home and the 8 remaining players can be sorted to a single winner in 3  rounds.

But this leads to a ton of problematic scenarios. It is very possible for the overall winner (and two other players) to end the event with a 6-1 score. It's even possible to lose the event to a player that I beat the previous day. Those victories don't lead to the clear-cut winner that makes the event so appealing.

Take a look at the attached graphic for a clearer explanation of Day 2:

(Click image for a larger version)

So my advice is to stick to your original format and prevent the 3-1 players from advancing. They are just going to cause complications and undermine your event.

I noticed that TastyTaste took a shot at the NOVA Open for using Victory Points. I assumed it was just a bad joke on Tasty's part. But I was wrong -- Victory Points are back with a vengeance at the NOVA Open.

While I totally get what you are going for, I feel like there has to be a better way than Victory Points. Not only are you calculating and reporting each players total VP each round, but you are using the totals to determine if there's a wide margin (250+ points). And then, you are having the players calculate the number of VP each player has in each table quarter!

So at the end of a 2:15 minute game, I have calculate my total VP, verify my opponent's, determine if I have 250+ more than my opponent, then I have to calculate my VP in each table quarter, verify my opponent's in each table quarter and compare that to my opponent's totals to see if I won those table quarters. That's a lot of math -- and worse, that's a lot of opportunity for mistakes.

Players at WarGamesCon had relatively easy objectives to score (i.e., nothing that required them to add and subtract columns of numbers) and it often took players up to 20 minutes to get their results to the judges. Verifying the results was pretty easy on our part (e.g., we never had to add more than two numbers together). Verifying VP games is going to take some time!

I could totally see using VPs to break ties. I could even see using VPs to seed subsequent rounds. But using them for objectives makes me worry.

Judge T-Shirts: Judges wearing black t-shirts and volunteers wearing gray t-shirts isn’t ideal when you need help and are surrounded by 100+ people mostly wearing black and gray. We found that really bright (and unpopular) colors helped tremendously. This year WarGamesCon started using yellow trucker hats (with giant letters spelling "JUDGE") to make judges easy to spot.

If a player can't quickly find a judge, they'll generally blow off the question -- this almost always leads to at least one unhappy player at the end of the game. You want your judges to be proactive -- roaming the floor looking for people leafing through books; and you want them to be visible.

Tabling Your Opponent: If you table your opponent, you continue to play and score as if your opponent were still on the board? Does that mean I can wipe out my opponent and yet fail to meet the mission objectives? Am I missing something?

Terminology: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary “Goals” are very different than #1, #2 and #3 “Goals”. This is confusing on the scoring sheet. For example in the first mission, the Secondary Goal is Goal #3 and the Tertiary Goal is Goal #2.

Punishing Players: It’s fine to threaten to give zeroes out for incorrectly filled out sheets, but you certainly don’t want to enforce that rule. It would really suck to travel across the country and lose a game because you made a boneheaded mistake on your scoring sheet. At WarGamesCon, we corrected fully 20% of the sheets that were turned in. Expect to 20 score sheet corrections per round.

To make it easier on the judges, we required both players be present when the results were turned in and wait until a judge reviewed the sheets before they were allowed to leave. Even with that examination, we had to call players back to the judges table every round to make additional corrections. Two judges worked full time on this piece of the pie.

Similar Objectives: The Vital Locations and Dominate Territory goals feel very similar. Since the 5 Vital Locations are essentially table quarters (the objectives must be placed in the exact center of each table quarter), you are going to have lots of players win both of these objectives when they win one of them. It's also going to be very difficult for one player to win the Vital Locations objective while another wins the Dominate Territory objective.

I know that you playtested these missions, but these two goals are poorly differentiated.

Random Mission 4: Randomly determining the mission before Round 4 is interesting, but I recommend you determine the mission before the packets are printed so you don’t have players referring to previous round rules.

You can keep the mission secret until the packets are handed out, so it’s effectively the same as determining it randomly – but minimizes the confusion (and the page flipping).

SCORING SHEETSProper formatting of the scoring sheet is critical to a smooth tournament. If players are confused or screw up, you need to be able to recover from that without causing delays.

More Player Data: Both player names on each scoring sheet. Many players use nicknames, initials, chicken scratch – and table numbers are easy to transpose or get wrong. If you have three pieces of data (e.g., both player names and the table number) then you have a much better chance of getting it right when you enter the data. I recommend dropping the opponent signature and putting the opponent name there instead.

Matching Columns: Your score and your opponent’s score for each objective should be side-by-side. This allows you to quickly compare each column to minimize errors. Your current score sheet staggers those numbers and will lead to reporting problems.

>>MVBrandt, best of luck on your event and I hope there was something helpful in the above article. I can't wait to hear how the event turns out and feel free to contact me directly (, if there's any direct assistance I can offer. If you can manage to move it further away from WarGamesCon (and GenCon and QuakeCon), I'll be there next year!

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