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Running a Game Competition

by Seamas Mac Daibhid

[Icon for permission to reproduce and distribute] First presented at Cracked Anvil Collegium, February, AS XXIX (1995)
Last Updated April XLII (2008)
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Copyright © 2000, 2002, 2008, Seamas Mac Daibhid; all rights reserved.
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A GAME COMPETITION can add interest to an event of any size. People who aren't occupied by period fighting or arts-and-sciences activities can compete in period games instead, and spectators often enjoy the matches. However, a game competition, if not well organized, can be a disaster for the competitors and a nightmare for the person responsible for running it.

I offer here a guide on techniques I have learned for running a game competition, and on problems I have learned to avoid.

What Makes It Fun

A game competition that isn't fun for the competitors is a waste of everybody's time. Keep these points in mind to keep the fun in:

What Makes It Fail

A game competition that never ends, or where players are being rushed to finish one match and start another, will not be a popular memory. Be careful about these things:

Choosing the Games

What am I?

Select an assortment of period games for your competition. Choose either three or four different games—two will not give enough variety, and five will be too complex to run. All must be two-player games. If you like, choose one many-player game to throw in for a tiebreaker (see Ties in Overall Score below), but do not score it toward the overall winner.

Try to keep the games somewhat balanced in difficulty. Players can pass up one game completely and still qualify for the overall prize—don't give lazy players two dead-easy games while serious competitors are knocking themselves out on a real brain-buster.

Good period and period-style games can be found almost anywhere. Look in The Known World Handbook from the SCA Marketplace ( Look in your children's encyclopedia. On the Internet, THL Moira and I have found links to several sites which give rules for games, such as:

You can easily find others.

Board Games

Nine Men's Morris board

Pick at least one board game such as Nine Men's Morris. Avoid games of pure chance, with no element of strategy—your competition is for the best player, not the luckiest. On the other hand, pure strategy games such as Chess or Go can take quite a while to play (see Modifying Games below).

Games of Skill

Pick at least one game of skill such as Shove-Ha'penny. These are games of hand-eye dexterity, involving pieces that are pushed, stacked, tossed or otherwise manipulated physically. Do not pick games of chance in disguise, such as dice games. A game of skill should involve a definite target, and dexterity should be a factor. (If you can't improve with practice, it's not really skill.) Pick games in which ties are impossible, unlikely, or quickly resolved.


Play-test every game. Find someone who will promise not to enter the competition, then play several matches of each game, with the following questions in mind:

If a game doesn't live up to your hopes in play-testing, don't hesitate to replace it. There are plenty of others.

Modifying Games

If a game is lengthy to play, lacking in strategy, difficult to learn, or just too well known, but you really want to use it anyway, then look for a way to modify it slightly, as with the following examples from The Known World Handbook.


Prepare Yourself

Gather plenty of paper and pencils, and plenty of patience. Make sure you aren't down for any other major activity, such as heralding or serving feast. If your competition actually finishes early, you can volunteer for anything you like, but plan to be busy until midnight. This may sound obvious, but make sure you remember how to play each game you've selected.

Prepare the Autocrat

Presumably the autocrat is aware that the event will include a game competition, but make certain that you are allocated space at troll for game sign-up. You don't want your players being booted aside every time somebody wants to have a tourney or serve lunch, so make certain your autocrat allocates a designated "Game Area" on site.

Prepare the Games

Make sure you have boards or equipment for every game. If you borrow games from other people, get them well in advance of your event—if someone forgets all the chessmen, your whole competition can fall apart. Make sure you've got at least two sets for every game; three or four sets are even better. For games that use marbles or pebbles for men, make sure you've got several spare men.

Don't forget to make or collect prizes for each game. If you are making your own boards or game pieces for the competition, you might consider giving them out as prizes at the end.

Prepare Sign-up Sheets

You will need one sign-up sheet for each game in the competition. Don't make a sign-up sheet for the overall competition; anybody entered in the minimum number of individual games should be automatically considered for the overall prize.

Prepare the Rules

You should prepare signboards with three kinds of rules:

For example, for a three-game competition, you might prepare the following signs:

Tailor these examples to your specific event; for instance, you might not have an IKAC shoot on your schedule. If the examples seem like an awful lot of in-your-face rules, remember that game competitions have no kingdom standard requirements and no game marshals. If you don't tell players your rules, they will make up their own.

Note that the rules for Morris and Chess are not complete. You will explain the complete rules to the players at the event; these signs are merely reminders of the more unusual, confusing, or easily overlooked aspects. As you play-tested the games you chose, you should have observed which specific rules gave you the most trouble; these are the ones to put on the boards.

Running the Games

Sign Up Competitors

Have all sign-up lists and the competition overall rules (but not the individual game rules—don't tell your players more than the names of your chosen games until the competition begins) at your event's troll booth when your site opens. Don't let your lists stay open too long. You have two limiting factors: the size of your lists, and the time available for the competition. For a one-day event, take entries for the first hour or so after the site opens. For a weekend event, close your entries no later than about 10:00 on Saturday morning. If time passes and scarcely anybody is entering, have your herald call for entrants.

On the other hand, if the lists fill up quickly, have the herald announce that sign-up will soon end. Don't set a deadline in advance—just close the lists when they start getting too big. If one game fills up much faster than the others, close that list earlier, but don't close more than one game early—the very last entrant you accept must be allowed to enter enough games to qualify for the overall prize.

Once your lists are closed, do not take late entries. Be firm about this right up front, or you will have trouble later.

Teach the Games

Once sign-up is closed, move to the designated Game Area and set up all of your signboards, game boards, and playing pieces. When the Game Area is ready, have the herald call for all of your players to gather there. I do mean all players; this is when you explain the rules. Anyone who fails to report at this time may need to be disqualified from the competition.

Briefly describe the overall competition rules and scoring, then give detailed explanations of individual games. Show the players how the games are played; have an assistant to play against if needed. Concentrate on any confusing points, using your prepared rule boards as visual aids. Give the players ample chance to ask questions.

While you are explaining, get to know your players' faces and garb, so that you can find them later when you need them to play. Also, emphasize how much of the day they will spend playing—this is the best time to discourage people who are likely to drop out. Try not to let anybody past this general meeting who won't stay to finish the competition. Drop-outs after the games have started are a serious headache for you (see Drop-Outs below).

Organize the Lists

The best competition allows each entrant to play a large number of matches, both for enjoyment and because the overall winner is determined by total number of matches won.

Whenever possible, use round-robin lists (each player plays one match against each of his opponents) instead of elimination lists (each player plays until he loses his first or second game). Round-robin play is also easier for you to run, because the matches may be played in any order. However, the number of matches in a round-robin game increases very quickly with the number of players. (See Table 1 below for number of matches for up to twelve players.) Unless your game plays very quickly, I don't recommend using round-robin lists for more than six or seven players.

332 + 1 bye
5104 + 2 byes
6155 + 1 bye
7216 + 1 bye
9368 + 3 byes
10459 + 2 byes
115510 + 2 byes
126611 + 1 bye

Table 1: Matches in Round-Robin vs. Single-Elimination Games

Round-Robin List

For a round-robin game, draw up a full chart of all matches to be played. The simplest way I have found to do this is to make two lists of names (on a full sheet of paper) and draw lines between them. Down the left, list all players except the last one; down the right, list all players except the first one. From each name on the left, draw a straight line to each name on the right that is on the same level or lower. Thus the first name on the left will have lines to every name on the right; the second name on the left will have lines to every name but the first on the right; and so on. See Figure 1 below for a five-person round-robin chart.

Such a chart has one line for every match to be played. As matches are finished, write the name of the winner just above the line for that match. At the end, count the number of times you have written each name to score the matches.

Five-Person Round-Robin Game Chart - One line for each match to be played

Figure 1: Round-Robin Match Chart

A possible alternative for a large number of players is a partial round-robin, where each player plays a fixed number of his opponents, rather than all of them. The simplest variation on this (for an even number of players) is to make two lists on a full sheet of paper as above. But down the left side, write the names of half of the players, and down the right, write the names of the rest of the players. Then draw a line connecting each player on the left to every player on the right, so that each player plays half of the total entry. For instance, for ten players each player would play five matches, for a total of 25 matches in the game (as opposed to 45 for a full round-robin of ten players). However, if a player drops out, you must schedule extra matches for anyone still scheduled to play the drop-out, so that all remaining players have the same opportunity to score match points (see Drop-Outs below).

Single-Elimination List

For the first round, take pairs of players as you can get them; once your first-round matches have been started, build your tree from there. If you have an odd number of players, the last player must play a bye match. Play bye matches yourself, or get volunteers from non-contestants. Don't give any player more than one bye match; spread the byes up and down the tree. See Figure 2 below for a list of 9 players to see how the byes can be distributed; matches are indicated by joined diagonals pointing to the winner, and byes are indicated by horizontal lines.

Single-Elimination Match Chart - 9 players with 3 bye matches

Figure 2: Single-Elimination Match Chart

Bye matches must be played—remember, the overall award is for total match wins. A player who wins a bye match advances in the list and scores a match win; a player who loses a bye match advances in the list, but does not score a match win. In Figure 2, Helga won her bye in round 3, but Isadore and Beorn lost their byes in rounds 1 and 2. Their names have been X'd through to indicate that these matches should not be scored.

Score match wins on a single-elimination tree by counting how many times each name is written after the first column; do not count names that have been X'd for players who lost a bye. Don't let a player skip a bye match; remind the player how the overall award is won. Note in Figure 2 that although Isadore won the game, Helga scored as many match wins, because Helga won her bye match while Isadore lost hers.

Double-Elimination List

I don't recommend running a double-elimination list, mainly because I get confused trying to do it. But if you are more organized than I am, I would suggest using a procedure similar to a single-elimination list, in which the initial pairings on both the winners' side and the losers' side of the table are taken as players become available. It may become impossible to keep some players from getting more than one bye match; try to limit each player to one bye match on each side of the table.

A loss in a bye match should not move a player from the winners' side to the losers' side of the table.

Run the Games

This is the part that will drive you crazy. Expect to spend much of your day searching around the site, hunting for the one player that everybody else still needs to play. The most important advice I can offer is to be patient. You are running the games for the players' enjoyment, not the reverse. No matter how confused it gets, remember that it could be worse—you could be the autocrat. (If you are the autocrat, please don't try to run a game competition.)

Next most importantly, be organized. Know if a player is needed for several successive matches, so that you don't let him walk off after the first one. If a single-elimination list is getting down to the last matches, warn the surviving players that their next match may not be far off, so that they will stay close while other matches are being played.

Third most importantly, be available. Never leave the games unattended for more than a few minutes. If players turn up ready to play, and you aren't there, they will wander off, and won't be as cooperative next time. Also, if players finish a match, and you aren't handy, they may not wait around to tell you who won.

Tips for Running the Games


Score Individual Winners

When the last match of a particular game has been played, identify the winner of that game. For single-elimination lists, the winner is the last player unbeaten. For round-robin lists, the winner is the player with the most match wins.

Round-robin lists may end in ties; run a tiebreaker round of the same game. For a two-way tie, have the two competitors play a 2-wins-of-3 round. For a three-way tie (rare), play a separate 3-match round-robin tiebreaker. For a four-way tie (never happens to me), play a 3-match single-elimination tiebreaker. If the tiebreaker round somehow results in another tie, play it over until you have a winner. Do not score tiebreaker matches toward the overall score.

Score the Overall Winner

Once all games have come to a winner, tabulate the number of regular matches each player has won in each game. Add up the total number of match wins for each player in all games; the player with the most wins in all games combined is the overall winner. Again, do not score tiebreaker matches toward the overall score.

See Table 2 below for an example. Aedward wins round-robin Byzantine Chess with four matches, but is out of the overall because he only entered one game. Isadore wins single-elimination Twelve-Men's Morris, although Helga has also scored three match wins (see Figure 2 again). Franz, nimble fellow, takes round-robin Shove-Ha'penny by winning all five of his matches. But since Franz was shut right out of Morris, Helga is the overall winner with 6 total matches in 2 games. (Note that the horizontal and vertical grand totals differ by the 4 matches of Aedward's which are disqualified from the overall scoring.)

Sometimes one game requires substantially fewer matches to determine a winner than other games in the competition (for instance, a small single-elimination list with only 7 games, up against round-robin lists with 21 or more matches). When the number of matches played in one game is one-third or less than that of other games, score each match for that game double.

Don't be surprised if, as in Table 2, the overall winner is someone who did not win any of the individual games. A good all-around player who comes in second or third in every game is a prime candidate for overall winner.


When a player drops out of a game, or out of the competition, you may have to adjust the scoring for one or more games. The important thing is that all players remaining in the game or competition have equal opportunity to score match wins.

If the drop-out player has already played all of his matches for a particular game (been knocked out of single-elimination games, or played every opponent in round-robin games), then no adjustment is necessary for that game. No remaining player could have scored any additional matches against that player.

However, if the player is still unbeaten in a single-elimination list, or has played only part of a round-robin list, some kind of adjustment is required. For a round-robin game, simply do not score any matches the drop-out played. Players who defeated the drop-out lose one match win from their overall score, but will be left with the same number of matches played as those who had not yet played the drop-out; if any player complains about this scoring, point out that that player got one practice match that his opponents did not.

For a single-elimination game, treat the drop-out's next match as a bye. For instance, if Helga in Figure 2 above won one match, then dropped out when scheduled to play Caitlin, give Caitlin a bye match to play. Caitlin will advance in the list regardless, but must win the bye to score a match win. If another player in the same round is scheduled for a bye and hasn't yet played it, that player and Caitlin could play each other.

As you can see, the easiest way to handle drop-out players is to discourage them up front, before the competition begins. However, please be patient with players who drop out, as they might have a valid reason.

Ties in Overall Score

If two or more players tie for the overall award, there are several ways to handle the tiebreaker. In choosing a method, keep in mind that the overall competition is for the best all-around game player. Try one of the following:

If you pull out a new game for the overall tiebreaker, use a game requiring only dexterity and strategy, with no element of chance. A player who has fought through to a tie in the overall score will not be happy about being beaten by luck. Also, if you use a crowd game, make sure the non-contestants can't influence the outcome by favoring or ignoring one player (Plague Frog, for instance, where a particular player can be made a special target, would not be a good choice).

Don't get arbitrary. In my experience, players in a tie prefer to play it out, even if it takes until midnight, and won't appreciate it if you meddle in the results to speed things up. If you don't break the tie the first attempt, just play again.

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