Lock, Stock, & Two Loaded Dice: Dealing With Cheating

Disclaimer: I am neither a behavioral economist nor psychologist. As such I refer to established experts in their field and cite their works where appropriate in discussing theories of dishonesty.


Possibly the most serious accusation someone can level at another during a game. Over the past couple of years, the problem of misbehavior in 40k has seemed to increase and controversies regarding it have extended all the way to the top tables of major events.

In some form or another, dishonest behavior has likely existed in human psychology ever since the first concept of rules and ethics. But why do people cheat? What does it really mean to cheat in 40k, and what should you do if you suspect someone of cheating?

In this article we’ll explore these questions and outline steps we might take to create a better, fairer, competitive 40k community. The intention is to raise awareness of cheating and how it might manifest, delve a bit into why people might cheat and what it means within our community, and then close with tips and suggestions on how we might better understand and mitigate cheating behaviors as players or tournament organisers (TOs). We’ll explore this in three parts:

  1. Part One: What Does It Mean to Cheat in 40k?
  2. Part Two: Why Do People Cheat?
  3. Part Three: How to Mitigate The Impact of Cheating

Before diving in, I what to extend a special thanks to Vince Weibert for his sage advice and thoughtful contributions. Thanks Vince – you the man.

Part One: What Does It Mean to Cheat in 40k?

Is one of them plotting something devious? (My money’s on the Drukhari)

Merriam-Webster defines cheating as, “to practice fraud or trickery” or “to violate rules dishonestly.”1 Both versions independently manifest themselves in competitive 40k, but while the former speaks of a player’s systematic attempt to deceive their opponent to unfairly gain an advantage, the latter refers to a knowing, singular violation of rules to gain an unfair advantage. These are important distinctions because most people envision the latter when someone is accused of cheating, but the former is much subtler but just as impactful to the game. It’s vitally important that when considering cheating, the concept of “unfair advantage” is understood as key.

In the past, some have attempted to downplay the amount of cheating that occurs in competitive 40k. Citing their broad experience as officials, top competitors, and/or persons of status within the community they have proclaimed that top-level cheating in 40k is rare. However, as we will review in part two, instances of cheating are likely to be much more common than believed, especially given certain social and environmental factors. Before I continue, I wanted to take a moment to address some misconceptions that I believe are damaging to the concept of policing cheating within the community.

First, if someone has misplayed a rule to your detriment, intentionally or not, it is NOT your fault. The primary onus for ensuring your opponent plays a fair game is on your opponent. This idea gets to the heart of setting a standard for behavior and raising the bar in competitive 40k. This shouldn’t need to be written out, but it’s an opinion that’s pervasive in competitive communities across traditional gaming hobbies. You have zero responsibility for the actions of your opponent, and while it would be wise and advantageous for you to understand your opponent’s army to the point that you can “call out” erroneous play, the fault for misplay can only ever be on them. To claim otherwise is a way of shifting the blame for poor behavior and absolving the perpetrator of that behavior. Full stop.

Second, the mindset that judges should not be active in policing events but involve themselves only when called upon and further, that table settlements are the ‘highest law’ is wrong. It is an idea that sounds reasonable on the surface, however there are two critical flaws:

  1. An individual who is actively and persuasively cheating may simply steamroll a less experienced or more reserved player. Should you be allowed to get away with cheating if you pressure your opponent into accepting it? This goon says no.
  2. If a passing judge observes a rule being incorrectly played to one player’s detriment, the above assumption would dictate that they do not intervene because they haven’t been requested to. This derives from the same mindset that makes catching unfair play the duty of the victim, rather than wanting the community held to high standards and correctly holding the perpetrator responsible. Other than being a cowardly approach to judging, it shirks the fundamental responsibility for enforcing the standard of play.

Coming back to our dual definitions, in both cases the key is a determination of intent – and therein lies the inherent problem. How do you determine whether someone acted dishonestly rather than by ignorance or mistake? Ultimately, true intent is unknowable without an admission, but it also doesn’t really matter. Whatever the reason for it, a mistake that harms the integrity of the game is the responsibility of the person who makes it. It’s vital for the health of the community that all players are ready to accept that responsibility when it happens, and after weighing all of the factors contributing to the situation, the judges and tournament organizers need to be able to adjudicate on that basis. That is why it’s so important to make clear that every player is responsible for their own behaviour.

Once we’ve accepted that, we can then acknowledge that not all misplays are equal. Players who make a mistake out of ignorance or because they’re hungover and are remembering an iteration of the rule from five editions ago are unlikely to make that mistake again by accident. We’ve all done it. It’s embarrassing and sometimes shameful but it happens. A game this complex, with the velocity of additions and changes that we’ve seen in 8th edition, will naturally lead to confusion and misplay. However, it’s when behaviors and mistakes become a pattern that we can start to discern intent, or at minimum, a willful level of negligence.  So, with that in mind how might cheating manifest itself in competitive 40k?

Violating the rules dishonestly

First, we look at the more obvious and common form. These are outright, sometimes flagrant attempts at gaining an unfair advantage by breaking rules. Examples of this type of cheating include, but are certainly not limited to:

  1. Tools which have been altered for advantage. Examples include ‘loaded’ dice or rulers/measurement devices that might be longer/shorter than otherwise indicated. Modelling for advantage may also slide into this category.
  2. Misrepresenting or claiming rules or characteristics erroneously. This may include claiming an ability/stratagem works differently than is actually stated in the rules, claiming higher or lower attacks/strength/toughness/etc, or utilizing equipment that isn’t otherwise listed or available on a model.
  3. Failing to comply with a rule. Simply ignoring the application of a rule altogether or omitting certain components of it that may negatively impact the player.
  4. Loose measurements. Most commonly gaining additional movement on a move or charge by moving ‘roughly’ but may also include measuring movement from front of base to back of base.
  5. Loose rolling. Adding extra dice when rolling large numbers to mask the true number of dice rolled, picking up dice quickly before an opponent can see. Another form is picking up “hits” rather than “misses” which may result in picking up misses as hits.

It’s important to take a moment to note that violating rules isn’t necessarily limited to proactively violating the rules. Passively violating rules can spill over into cheating given the right context. If your opponent MUST take an action by the rules of the game (they do not have a choice) but do not do so for whatever reason (overlooked it, forgot, etc) to their detriment or to your advantage, you recognise this and allow it to go past, that is very much cheating by omission. The key to this is the mandatory vs optional nature of the action being taken by your opponent. Alternatively, it could also be cheating to allow an opponent to take an action you know to be illegal, but is to your benefit in the situation.

To practice fraud or trickery

This form of cheating is much subtler and more systematic in application. It’s also difficult to define clearly because bluffing and misdirection, trying to put your opponent into a situation where they mess up, are an otherwise perfectly acceptable form of play in many cases. The key to understanding the fine line is to keep in mind that cheating is predicated on gaining an unfair advantage. Examples might include, but again are not limited to:

  1. Slow play: Probably the most notorious example of systematic attempts to cheat. In effect, one player is denying their opponent the chance to play their game in equal time during a time-limited match. They may do this by intentionally slowing their actions, excessively deliberating on options, and/or questioning every action or rule you might take. The classic example here is using a large model-count army and being overly careful with movement, such that simply proceeding through basic actions takes excessive time.
  2. Jostling models and terrain: The game is all about dice and placement. As such bumping models and terrain or claiming models have been bumped and placing them elsewhere can result in critical differences in charges made or lost, things in range or not, and gaining the benefits of cover or not.
  3. Avoiding Verification: Picking up dice as hits before an opponent has read them, moving models after rolling a charge without clearly measuring. Anything that gets around an opponent being able to double check the legality of a situation.
  4. Consistently forgetting and/or claiming intent: Playing by intent is common and generally harmless. It entails speeding up the game by eliminating time-consuming measurements and placement by having a mutual understanding between players on what is taking place. However, this can be co-opted by people seeking to probe you on where they can stretch the rules or take advantage. Commonly it manifests as a repeated “I forgot” or “my intention was” when you inquire as to an action they’ve taken. This is a red flag and it should put you on alert for the rest of the game. Playing by intent should generally involve clearly declaring what it is as actions are taken, not retroactively using “obvious” intent as a cover for mistakes.

The challenge of addressing this type of cheating is that in most cases there is plausible deniability and victims can begin to doubt themselves over what they’re witnessing in real-time. However, over the course of the game the impact becomes substantial and at that point it’s simply too late to correct or address.

There are many more examples than the above, but these are some of the most common forms. Cheating is controversial, so it’s important to reiterate that cheating is defined by an unfair advantage either through the practice of fraud or trickery or by a dishonest violation of rules. Misplays are often innocent, so we need to be able to establish a clear pattern or intent to identify when behaviour crosses this line. Unfortunately, that also means that outright cheating is usually only caught in retrospect. It begs the question though, why do people cheat?

Part Two: Why Do People Cheat?

Every year we see someone get caught cheating on camera and people wonder how someone could forget they were being filmed when they decided to draw an extra card or change a wound counter or tactically manoeuvre their water bottle. The reason is because cheating has become a habit for them. I guarantee you that anyone cheating on camera cheats so often that they did it without thinking when the time came. From – Start Competing at Warhammer 40,000: An Intro to Tournaments, Part 2

Immoral people cheat while honest, upstanding people do not – right? Simple enough. Well, in all actuality, cheating and dishonest behavior is remarkably prolific in human society and something of which we’re all at least occasionally guilty – just not most of the time for most people.

Historically, dishonesty to a person’s benefit was conceived as a simple, external calculation of the potential reward, the risk of being caught, and the magnitude of expected punishment. This is largely still true in criminology today. However, the study of unethical behavior has increasingly become a focus for academics from psychology to economics and has resulted in some fascinatingly complex theories and findings for why people behave dishonestly. While too varied to be summarized in a non-academic review by a non-academic, we will highlight one leading theory which may be particularly apt for competitive 40k – the theory of self-concept maintenance championed by Dr. Dan Ariely.

Time to learn

I want to note that this is not the only theory on why people cheat. It is meant to spur thought and provide a possible explanation for some of the behavior we observe in the world and at the table.

Published in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2008, Nina Mazar, On Amir, and Dan Ariely proposed the theory of self-concept maintenance in which they hypothesized that people are weighing the gain from cheating against maintaining a self-image of honesty in what appears as a zero-sum game.2 That is, if you trade self-image for the gain of cheating, you’re in a win-lose scenario, and vice versa. However, they propose that people may seek to balance this equation by establishing a range of behavior that is acceptable for both gain and maintenance of self-image. Dan Ariely would later describe this range of behavior as a “fudge factor”. You can see him describe this concept in brief here, or more fully here.

To summarize, Ariely et al found that the number of people who cheat does not directly relate to increasing the financial incentive, or decreasing the risk of being caught. Instead, most people tend to cheat “a little bit” with the magnitude of their cheating varying with positive or negative incentives. They hypothesized the existence of a “personal fudge factor” – the amount which we could cheat without substantially harming our ability to feel good about ourselves. They aimed to test the existence of this “fudge factor” by demonstrating that circumstances could narrow or widen the fudge factor.

First they aimed to demonstrate a narrowing of the factor. They compared the behaviour of a cohort of subjects who were made to forcibly recall an ethical symbol or code (ten commandments, bible, honour code) against an arm who were made to recall a more mundane subject, both of which were then given an opportunity to cheat. They found that the arm who recalled an ethical symbol or code beforehand did not cheat in the experiment. At all.

They then sought to demonstrate a widening of the fudge factor. During this experiment they established three arms where subjects were variously:

  1. Given a sheet of paper with problems and told to solve them, hand it back and report the number solved
  2. Given a sheet of paper with problems and told to solve them, shred it, and then report the number solved for $1 each
  3. Given a sheet of paper with problems and told to solve them, shred it, and then report the number solved for 1 token each, which could then be exchanged for $1 per token

They found that subjects who were one-step removed from the direct $1 exchange (the token arm) doubled their rate of cheating over the $1 exchange arm.

In a second experiment, subjects were prepaid in an envelope and were asked to pay back the money that they did not make (via solving problems). During this experiment, an actor stood up within a far too short period of time and claimed to have solved all the problems, despite this being obviously impossible. However, the subject was told that they were then free to leave and keep the money.

The impact of this subject’s clearly erroneous claim depended on how the group perceived the individual, in terms of whether they were a member of their group. The experiment was run multiple times with the actor dressed up to trigger a different reaction. If the actor was wearing a sweater that showed them as a fellow student of the school, cheating went up. However, if they wore the sweater of a rival school, cheating went down.

Ariely et al conclude a few important things from these studies:

  1. A lot of people cheat – but just a little bit.
  2. Reminders of morality discourage cheating.
  3. Degrees of separation between an action and the reward encourage cheating
  4. Social conformity can drive behaviors of cheating up or down.

These are not a comprehensive list of factors, of course, but they elicit some very real implications for our community and the competitive scene. Their conclusions raise a valid concern that cheating might be more prevalent than we assume. Just as an initial example, there are multiple degrees of separation between your score in any one ITC mission and the ultimate reward for it – a clear risk factor, based on the studies. However, as well as flagging that there might be a greater risk of cheating than we assumed, these studies give us some ideas for how we might start to push back against it. So how do we deal with this issue both at the table and systematically?

Part Three: How to Mitigate the Impact of Cheating

Keeping on top of what’s happening in the game can be the best defence

“Only human beings can look directly at something, have all the information they need to make an accurate prediction, perhaps even momentarily make the accurate prediction, and then say that it isn’t so.” – Gavin de Becker

I open this section with a quote from Gavin de Becker, the author of ‘The Gift of Fear’ because it does a good job of illustrating an important idea. We, as humans, are very good at intuiting or instinctively identifying a problem, but then cognition kicks in and we’re equally good at rationalizing our initial intuition away. In terms of the topic at hand, we might instinctively ‘feel’ that something isn’t quite right about an action or sequence of events. Maybe it was the way something was said, maybe it was the hesitation by your opponent, or their body language during the action, but either way it was noticed at a level somewhere below conscious thought. Perhaps you even took a moment to question that intuition, but then what?

Identifying cheating is hard; it takes a measure of awareness and developed skill. A cheater is doing their best to deceive you and not get caught, and to a degree they inherently have the upper hand because they are willing to cross lines you are not. It’s for this reason that mitigating cheating in 40k requires some key components at a personal level:

  1. Knowledge of the rules
  2. Knowledge of tactics
  3. A understanding of dishonest play
  4. Trust in your instincts
  5. The ability to see the big picture

The good news here is that none of the listed items are innate; they are learned skills. They do however take practice and experience. Fortunately, the whole point of writing this article is to assist in developing these skillsets and bring some ideas to the forefront of discussion. I’ll walk through these to elaborate:

Knowledge of the Rules/Knowledge of the Tactics

Simply put, this is how well you understand the game of 40k. This includes how well you know the core rules, your opponent’s army, how they’re like to use their list, and how well you understand their abilities/stratagems. It’s a heavy lift. It’s a lot, and its a moving target because 40k is constantly evolving. This knowledge is developed by engaging in the materials – reading, putting it in practice, and playing games. The best lessons are taught when you get absolutely crushed at the table, but make sure to learn from what went wrong to come back stronger another day. The key is that you remain inquisitive and ask questions, especially when you don’t understand something. This is the base for building your defense against cheating. Editor’s Note: I am obliged to mention that Goonhammer’s Start Competing Series is designed to equip you with exactly this sort of broad knowledge.

Knowledge of Dishonest Play

Understanding and awareness of dirty tricks and devious behavior at the table. This is unfortunately most commonly learned by being victimized and finding out after the fact. However, you can also proactively seek out content that helps to raise your awareness. This article is intended to help with that but again, stay inquisitive. Seek to learn and identify dishonest play. By doing so you may also find gaps in your own play that you need to address to be a better, more honest player or to correct habits and styles that give the perception of dishonest play. An example of this may be clarifying with your opponent how you track wounds (up, down?) and remaining consistent – rolling dice where your opponent can see, etc

Trust in your Instincts

Cheating is nothing special – it’s just fraudulent, dishonest behavior. It happens in all aspects of life and probably occurs multiple times in a given day around you. For this reason, most people will have developed a measure of instincts from their everyday lives that serve to protect them. The key at the table is learning to engage your instincts – did you notice something that raised a red flag for you? Take it to that next level, bring it out of your subconscious and think about what you experienced. Then get in the practice of asking the appropriate question, “Can you explain that for me?”

Most of the time there’s absolutely nothing wrong – but importantly there was something you didn’t understand but now you do. However, if there is something wrong you just broke through the deception, noted it, and forced your opponent to steer back to honest play or dig even deeper to conceal. Both of those are advantageous for you, because the deeper an opponent needs to go to cheat the more likely it is that they will be ultimately caught.

The Ability to see the Bigger Picture

As we’ve previously discussed, cheating is a heavy accusation. It requires intent and true intent is unknowable without an admission. For this reason, it’s important that you’re able to take a moment to step back from any one situation and place it in context. What happened? Was there an advantage to be gained? How many times has this occurred and does it fit a pattern? Only once you’ve been able to think about it in these contextual terms can you really begin to truly address the issue. This is especially the case for situations where cheating is more systematic than an individual violation of a rule. Once you’ve concluded that there is a problem, it’s time to act and proactively address the issue.

How you choose to pursue action to address what you believe to be cheating is up for some measure of debate and personal preference. I like to hold to the idea of “the lowest level possible.” I’m an adult, and presumably so is my opponent, and I’ll treat them with the respect they deserve until they prove to me otherwise. By this measure I recommend the following increasing levels of severity:

  1. Engage them on the issue – let them know that you’re not comfortable with what you see and explain it to them. Then recommend something that would put you at ease or work with your opponent to find a solution. Settle it at the table – this will resolve the overwhelming majority of the issues you’ll experience in your 40k career.
  2. If there are ongoing problems or points of contention, particularly game-defining issues, then request a judge. Their purpose is to maintain standards of play and adjudicate issues at the table. This is important because it also forms a sort of record at the event. Again, cheating is not generally caught in the act, but because of a pattern of behavior. Without establishing a record there is no pattern once  you walk away from the table.
  3. If something is so egregious, then you may also want to include the TO. TOs have a responsibility for their event and its integrity within the competitive circuit. Something like loaded dice, or flagrant and unflinching violations of rules across multiple events, should rise to their level. Ultimately, the impact of the player on the event and the implications for the wider community will be decided here.

In all of this, it is important that you absolutely remain calm. Accusing your opponent or getting aggressive will only raise their defenses and lower your credibility in the eyes of a third party. Articulate your concerns thoughtfully and evenly. In high-stress situations it becomes difficult, especially after the stress of trying to keep your opponent on the level, but it is vital to getting a satisfactory resolution. You’ve played your game on the higher moral ground, don’t give it away when you’re trying to address the wrong.

A Final Note

No one is perfect, and everyone has their moments of weakness. I think if you polled the community of players most if not all would be hard pressed to say that they’ve never cheated at some level. What is important is to understand is that it’s not acceptable and if you do it, to take responsibility rather than shirk it, accept the consequences of your misbehavior, and most importantly, not to do it again. Cheating should be shameful, and we as a community need to uphold it as such, and work to drive that behavior out. That doesn’t mean that we should drive people who have cheated out of the competitive scene forever – as we’ve seen here, human psychology can serve to legitimise cheating until it is properly confronted. However, sad though it may be, part of confronting it is accepting that yes – there has to be a point where a pattern of behaviour requires a temporary or permanent exclusion from the community to demonstrate that it is not acceptable.

End Notes:

  1. (n.d.). Retrieved August 14, 2019, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cheat
  2. Mazar, N., Amir, & Ariely, D. (n.d.). The Dishonesty of Honest People: A Theory of Self-Concept Maintenance – Nina Mazar, On Amir, Dan Ariely, 2008. Retrieved August 14, 2019, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1509/jmkr.45.6.633