GWS 2020: Are wargamers competitive?

By Jon Freitag

Referencing the 2020 survey is no typographical error. I am revisiting the Wargames, Soldiers, and Strategy 2020 Great Wargaming Survey (GWS). Why? Well, the 2020 edition of the GWS contained a battery of additional questions to support academic research by Robert Körner and Astrid Schütz from the University of Bamberg. Their paper was published in 2021 with summary results shared on WSS' blog at Personality and Motivations .

The study uses psychometrics to examine a collection of personality traits as a driver for engagement in miniature wargaming. Six types of motivators are considered. They are, socializers, completionists, competitors, escapists, story-driven, and smarty-pants. In this exercise, I explore only the Competitor trait.

Why single out the competitor trait to begin this analysis? Curiosity mainly. I am interested to see the motivation behind competition and why we game. The survey includes three questions addressing the competitor trait. The three questions are:

  1. Winning is a big reason for me to play miniature wargames.
  2. It is important to me to be the strongest and most skilled person playing the game.
  3. I play to win.

All responses are on a seven-point scale from (1) Strongly agree to (7) Strongly disagree. Let's see what the survey data suggests. 

The first two questions (as shown in Figures 1 and 2) show a decidedly skewed response profile with much of the response weight collecting into the “Disagree” categories. Broadly speaking, winning and being the best player at the table, are not so important to the majority of respondents.

Question 3, relating to playing to win, produces a much different profile (see Figure 3). Here, responses are evenly distributed across all choices with the exception of Agree strongly.

These results suggest that while wargaming in a “play to win” contest runs the entire gamut of degrees of agreement, actually securing victory and being the most skilled player are distant or even discouraged considerations.

A refreshing and encouraging result to which I agree and endorse. While we may give our best efforts in an attempt to gain victory by playing to win, seeing success on the table takes a backseat to the camaraderie that social wargaming offers. A result I see frequently reinforced at the gaming table among a wide cross-section of wargamers from all over the globe.

While this analysis focuses only on the overall assessment, are there differences between age groups or wargaming genres? Do historical and non-historical wargamers present a different competition profile? What about possible differences between gamer location or game type? I leave these questions for another time.

What about you?


Justin, very interesting take on the inherent “fuzzy” nature of wargaming. Good points on both the need for a give-and-take due to both chance and rules interpretations. Much to think about. As for ratings in wargaming, there once was a rating system for hex-and-counter wargaming for games published by The Avalon Hill Game Company. The rating system acronym was AHIKS (if I remember correctly) and gamers’ ranking were published in the bi-monthly house-organ magazine, The General. I still see rankings for competition, miniature wargaming within the Society of Ancients’ publication, Slingshot.

I agree that most of the wargamers I have known over 50 years of wargaming have been nice people.

Jon Freitag

I suspect that wargamers are generally nice people thanks to wargaming needing a lot of goodwill, for two reasons:

1. Most rulesets require give-and-take interpretations, especially free movement systems (no grids) where millimetres count (ZOC and all that). Whenever I make an important move I ask my opponent if he’s happy with where I’ve put my stand.

It’s easy to cheat in the grey areas but it’s obvious this is dishonest play and so quickly becomes unpleasant. Gamers end up shying away from those kind of players. The ability to bend the rules creates a necessary modus operandi of NOT doing so if the hobby is to continue being fun.

2. The effect of chance. Bad dice throws or useless cards mean a player is never fully in control. His brilliant plan can fall apart from one turn to the next and he must rely on luck as well as his scintillating intellect if he is to win. This creates the necessity of losing with good grace as wargaming becomes impossible otherwise.

Notice how different things are with a yes-no chance-free game like chess. Impossible to fudge the rules and nothing interferes with one’s mental prowess. So people play chess to win and demonstrate their ability. One’s chess rating is important – how good one is compared to other players. Whoever heard of a rating in wargaming?

Introduce a wargame with unambigious rules and gameplay where chance plays no part and the field will be wide open for the Bobby Fischers. Not sure that that’s an improvement though.

Justin Swanton

Dean, wargamers’ perspective on how they view others with respect to competitiveness would be an interesting follow-up question, indeed. Would the graphics look similar to the distributions illustrated in Q1 and Q2 or more like Q3? Are respondents honest with themselves in answering this question? That answer may reveal itself if we take all of the psychometric questions as a whole. As for using gaming frequency as a proxy for competition gamers, that does not hold in my case. I game frequently but am no competition gamer. None of the gamers I interact with regularly are in the competition bucket either. Good questions but not so many answers…

Jon Freitag

Dave, the paper I reference in this post concludes that one determining factor for why we wargame is based upon an individual’s personality profile. That motivation is different for different gamers.

Jon Freitag

really interested to see this reanalysis of the 2020 data. I suppose the additional question to follow the data is ‘why do we wargame’ as that will add context to the results (possibly). For instance, i am definitely in line with the broad findings ie I am not a competitive wargamer in the ‘win at all costs’ side of the equation. From my own personal experience, I have shied away from competitive gaming for a couple of reasons. 1. I am not that skilled and so often find that a drubbing by a win at all costs gamer is quite soul destroying. 2. When I do play with others it is for the social aspect as well as the historical representation in miniature of a battle I have some interest in. I am also more of a historical wargamer than a ‘what if’ or ahistorical match up wargamer if that makes sense.

Dave Hollin (Editor, Slingshot)

Always find these intertesting. With this one there is consistency between the 3.9% highest agreeers (top two categories) in Q1&2 and the 4% in the highest agreement in Q3. You’d be able to see if they were the same respondents but my hunch is that they are. An interesting question to follow up on this would be regarding an individual’s perception of others around competitive play. My hypothesis would be that there are way more than 4% highly competitive players, although this wil vary by era/system as they will graduate towards suitable games (skill vs luck) with bigger competitive scenes like 40K. Your data shows there is clearly a social stigma attached to the perception that you are a win at all costs wargamer; it therefore doesn’t give us a clear idea of how many in our community are so driven, only how many don’t mind admitting it. We’d get an interesting comparatison for how many are primarily driven by competitveness if we asked – what percentage of gamers you encountered this year came across as primarily driven to win?
As a side note highly competitive players will likely play more often, and by winning also be more represented in competitive games than those who are less driven to win, so there will be some natural distortion of data due to the nature of the competitive environment.


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