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Monday, June 27, 2016

Iron Sharpens Iron: Meta Gaming Courtesy

By Troy A. Hill

…[Meta] is something that breaks the game and gives players an unfair advantage.  Having been a gamer for a long time I never believed in the “Meta Myth” and feel the term is improperly used by gamers.
-Mitch Reed

Mitch Reed’s piece on Meta Gaming was published the week I got to face my first Eastern Front all Panther list. That was a learning experience. Even though the all Panther list is legal and has been played countless times, this was my first time facing it. Had I been faced with that list one or two years earlier, when I was a raw recruit to this hobby, I might not have returned to play again. Now, having faced it once as a semi-skilled player, I have an idea of how to play against it, and welcome the challenge next time.

Reading through Mitch’s piece on why the “Meta” doesn’t really exist in Flames of War, I thought back to my last three years learning to play the game, and what some of my challenges with these “meta” lists have been. This article is not a refutation of Mitch’s philosophy, but, rather, a look at the how to play with such lists and still provide a fun time for players on both sides of the table.
While Mitch did show that the definition of the “Meta” doesn’t fit FOW, I haven’t found a better term for types of army construction he listed. Those lists are designed to maximize one aspect, and minimize danger to the list. Min/Maxing in games has been around a long time. But, the term “meta” still fits in a loose way, so I’ll use that term throughout this piece to refer to those lists outside the types normally seen.

Seeking every advantage
Back in the Able Kompanie group in Indiana, where I learned to play, one of the players is known for his Meta lists. He described his philosophy of list building as “I want to eliminate as many die rolls of my opponent as possible.” His lists were renowned for big tank+ big gun lists. If he can have a bunker buster or breakthrough gun on an armored fighting vehicle, with thick armor, he will. If he has to take infantry, and points allowed, pioneers with maximum flamethrowers fill the roster.
The question isn’t really whether such lists are rules breakers, but rather how fun they make the game for both players, not just the one who has filled their list with the latest greatest min/max combination. Here I’ll present some common etiquette to keep in mind when bringing your “Meta” to the table.

Don’t squash the newbies
When Bridge at Remagen came out a few years ago many folks thought it created a new “Meta”; and while my Wesfallen list did enjoy some success, good players found ways to kill my Jagdtigers, and nullify my Panzer Trap teams.  So much for the “Big Cats” meta. -MR
I was fortunate to have a solid group of friendly players with the Able Kompanie group back in Indianapolis. That group has many experienced players who enjoy teaching new players. But, they also have a player or two who excel at finding those meta-gamed army lists that can be built around the idea of denying their opponents some ability. 
In the quote above, Mitch says “good players found ways…” Unfortunately, not all players are “good.” Some may be inexperienced “newbies” while others haven’t been exposed to the tactics in their groups to effectively counter strategically.
The newer players haven’t always learned to bring a balanced list – do you have something to hold your own objective? … something to smoke? … recce for getting rid of gone to ground? … guns big enough to punch the odd Panther in MW? Early on, my own attempts at list building were “what do I have painted?” and “What can I proxy to see if I want to buy the “new shiny” group of models?” I had no concept of list balance until I had played against the appropriate units from my opponent’s lists.
Any war game has a LOT of numbers, rules, and variety of tactics to learn. Sticking a low experience player against a skilled player with a tricked out list may be a "learning experience" for the newbie, but this type of situation has to be handled with diplomacy.  Hopefully, most gaming groups will spend enough time training up their new players, teaching them tactics as well as rules before unleashing the Meta list on them.

When faced with a new meta list, my natural reaction is to groan and moan about it. But, there are better ways to handle the situation once the lists start showing up.
Able Kompanie does well with post game deconstruction. “You should have deployed those 8.8s over on this ridge to get better area denial with them…” or “Keeping that unit in reserves would have made me keep a stronger asset over on the other side of the table to deal with it…” Points like these are good discussion to have with your opponents any time you play.

As Mitch indicated, there are tactics to use against almost every Meta list. Isolating and boxing in big tanks with infantry assaults to eventually win combat and make them unable to breakoff, is one such tactic that seems sensible, but takes a while to learn the nuances of.  Deconstructing the game afterward is a good time to replay some of the techniques, and work through how a different strategy, or tactic could negate some of the min/max ability of these lists.
Don’t forget to add other players to the deconstruction. Breaking down the after action report with an extra skilled player or two will help all players at the table learn from the experience. The meta player can gain valuable insights about the potential threats to their list from a good deconstruction.

Avoid Boring Games
The downside of blindsiding a player with a meta list is that forces the player into a defensive posture. Since they’re not always able to effectively counter such a list with what they’ve brought to the fight, turtling up becomes a very viable, and sometimes only option.
Once they turtle up, very little strategy happens. They park on their objective, dig in and trade fire if doing so doesn’t cost them a gone to ground save. In a tourney setting, turtling up may be the only way to win a defensive battle or limit the number of platoon casualty points to their opponent. How can you avoid boring games against turtles?

Communication and Variety
You’ll know you build meta-lists too often, when your gaming buddies start naming that type of list after you.
Once you’re in a gaming group for a while, you figure out the favored lists and styles of your fellow players. Unless you’re THE guy or girl that has the list named after them, consider giving your opponents a friendly “heads up” that you’re trying something different before list composition is revealed. If they see your force and ask to swap out a platoon or two from what they were prepared to play, go ahead and let them. Iron sharpens iron.
If you can, give your opponent the heads up prior to list building. You can even maintain the air of surprise by simply letting them know you’re going to design a force outside the norm. Be open and up front that you want to play the “vagaries of the battlefield” in this game. If you’ve got a friendly opponent, they will probably agree, and then work toward a much more balanced list than they might have otherwise played. With this opportunity to build a list that can be challenging for you to play against, you’ll likely have a more entertaining game. Iron sharpens iron.

This doesn’t mean you have to give away surprises, but a friendly warning that you’re “trying something different” lets them know they may want to have a list ready to meet a wide variety of threats.

A second part of Iron Sharpens Iron courtesy lies in being able to plan ahead and test the Meta list against specific types of list. Coordinating with an opponent that you want to try a new list against a certain type of regiment – but not disclosing list details beyond that — can let you playtest your new list against a wide variety of lists before competitive play in a tournament.

All of the above is to remind us that this hobby is mostly friendly games. An out of balance list can be fun for one player, and decimating to the other - or, if both players know going in that a list will be more challenging, the game can turn into a fun learning experience.

When we encourage table talk, planning and helping each other understand the ins and outs of what's on the table, we can grow our skills as players. Our goal with each game, after all, should be to have fun on both sides of the table.

Troy recently relocated from crossroads of America, and home of Able Kompanie – Indianapolis Indiana in the USA — to the “Western Front” of North America — Los Angeles California. He is a long time gamer, having dabbled in almost every type of gamer-crack. His small claim to fame is editing a Forgotten Realms supplement, “FR-16 The Shining South” back when TSR still existed.

*I would like to thank Troy for his very insightful look at this aspect of the game.  At WWPD we value the thoughts and feedback of our listeners and not only did Troy speak to me about his thoughts, he contributed an article to help further this conversation and provide a very articulated view point for all of us in the Flames of War community.  As people, but especially as gamers we do not always see eye to eye, but it through honest, open discussion that we grow and enrich our hobby.
Thank you - Luke

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