A question of balance

With the arrival of the (so far) points-free Age of Sigmar, game balance is popping up in forums, pod-casts and facebook as well as at clubs and shops. It is the topic du jour.

demon and dude

The demon is blind-folded, so surely that is fair. And the guy has a feather as well as a chain-saw …

The focus of discussion is often on points and lists, which are the by far the most common way to bring balance, but I think these overlook several other ways that people can bring balance to games. Also, as we have all experienced, points don’t necessarily bring balance even if we allow that a consistent scheme is possible.

Points do have advantages. One is about setting expectations on the size of the game, which I think is at the heart of the AoS discussion. Another is that finessing an army list is enjoyed by a lot of people. It is almost a game in itself. Regular readers will know this is not how I approach armies, but I acknowledge many seem to get real enjoyment from this, and list-optimising has the advantage of being an aspect of the hobby that you can do by yourself between games.  Players who like this aspect simply cannot do it with AoS. Nor can they can’t really do it with Black Powder, Hail Caesar, or Force on Force.  There are plenty of systems where points optimising remains: Bolt Action, Flames of War, 40K, etc.
It is a diverse hobby, that is part of the attraction.

Army lists bring several dimensions to a game. Restrictions on building lists are most often used to bring a particular flavour to a game, mostly historical, e.g. restricting the number of units of cavalry for Romans or not giving Parthians access to armoured infantry.  40K does the same with variant lists that highlight various aspects of the background. That this can interact with points may cause angst but it definitely allows players to “forge da narrative”. List restriction that is integral to the rules is another way of achieving balance (and I guess is an almost hidden part of many points systems).

Missions can generate balance.  Too many missions are mirror images. Not just meeting engagements for kill points, but missions where the mission objective is the same for both players. This can be fun, but by changing the mission, different challenges and armies can be tried out.  All the factors of the game can be considered when designing a mission: list restrictions, terrain, deployment and victory conditions. I’m sure there are others.

Terrain is a factor in creating or upsetting balance.  An extreme case is an amphibious assault, where the defender waits in bunkers and the attackers face a stretch of sand to the dubious safety of a sea wall.  Tables do not need to be this extreme to create a challenge but a smaller, dug in defender facing a larger attacking force is more common than most games reflect.

Deployment. Who is on the board?  Who has access to reserves? How safe are your flanks or rear area.  Mix it up, and again it doesn’t have to be symmetric.

Objectives. This is the big one. How do you win?  I like scenarios where there is a clear attacker and defender. This is something that has to be given up at most tournaments, and I’m OK with that. The trade-off is a guaranteed number of games with generally great opponents on often good-looking tables. All wins in my book. But I love it when there is a good story that goes with a game. Ancient enemies facing off in a battle that is plausibly part of a wider engagement.  We don’t play for sheep stations but I like the illusion that we are.

All of this can be fitted into an ordinary game, but does require a bit of planning. I reckon it is well worth it.

In some ways a campaign is the natural habitat for these sort of ideas. But even without that sort of committment there is a lot of dimensions that can be explored.

Saint Celestine's finest moment: purging the heretics with fire and sword

Saint Celestine’s finest moment: purging the heretics with fire and sword

For pick-up games in stores or clubs the simplicity of: “What have you got? How many points? Cool – I’ll leave this unit out or make these dudes veteran, let’s go … ” is attractive and leads to games. This is a good thing. Of course, even without points this conversation can happen and I guess is for those playing AoS.

None of this will necessarily bring balance. One problem that points don’t solve is the dick-factor. I feel that underlying a lot of the passion about balance is not just a desire to have a reasonable chance (in some undefined sense) of winning but having a high probability of having a good game. Feeling competitive is part but not all of this story. Judging a winner is only part of balance.  Wheaton’s Law and its derivatives is an attempt to solve this, but this is changing the topic.

Happy gaming.
D.

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6 thoughts on “A question of balance

  1. Thoughtful post, but I’m firmly in favour of points. They’re a very useful tool for people like myself who want either a balanced or fair game as much as can be worked out. They provide a guide for creating our own scenarios, particularly in made-up games that aren’t attempting to replicate a real-world battle.

    Or to put it another way – if I’m playing a straight-up battle with a friend and they’re running High Elves and I’m running Goblins.. well, we know that Elves are more than equal to a Goblin. So there should be more goblins. But what ratio? How many goblins (or squigs) makes a fair fight against a lion chariot? One of the first AoS batreps I watched showed a game that seemed a bit of fun, but was horribly unbalanced despite even numbers/wounds. Just between a pair of mates trying it out, one with Dwarves and one with Elves. The Dwarves got pummeled, because they were just normal grunts while the Elves were Legolas. Points help alleviate that. And of course, with points as a thing, you can easily ignore them for scenarios as wanted or needed.

    Even for scenarios and making it interesting, they help to balance the sides and therefore make objectives achievable. I’m not one for Listhammer, but sign me up for games with mechanics in place to allow for a fair fight. Or to tweak just how unfair the fight will be with more control than a wound count. 😉

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  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
    I agree about the utility of points helping to create a fair game. At the heart of what I was saying is that points, or at least points alone, are not the only way to acheive balance. I think the mechanism of the instant win in AoS is not sufficient to bring balance to the game and I suspect that the game will either sink or, similar to Black Powder, have supplements published -fan based or otherwise- that supply points.
    You make a good observation that points can actually support good scenario design.
    cheers.

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  3. I agree that they’re not the only way to achieve balance – and that “balance” is often not even a thing in historically-based scenarios where other “win” conditions may apply. To use a current geek-favourite, the battle of Thermopylae would likely be a good “timed win” scenario, where the Spartans and their less-filmed Greek allies “win” if they hold out for a certain number of turns, etc.

    On the other hand, when my mates come over and want to push toy soldiers around on the game table while I GM (or maybe get to play), we need a simple and efficient means outside of pre-worked out scenarios of *not* handing the guy who took ogres an overkill victory over the goblins.

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  4. Let’s face it. Unless we’re playing chess, the game will be unbalaced. Rock beats paper, paper beats scisssors and Spock conquers all!
    Some games introduce balance through scensarios and I always think back to the Zulu type of game where you’re horribly outnumbered and it’s about surviving for a period of time or until your reinforcement/evac arrives. StarCraft had a mission like that, limited marines and a hoarde of Zerg and you had to make do as well as you could until the rescue came along. You knew out of the starting gates that it was a meat grinder and that made the mission fun.
    Our games try to introduce balance through points costs for troops/models. One Space Marine should always decimate a single Guardsman, dice rolls aside.
    Removing the points cost when you’ve spent twenty-five years building the behaviour and the expectation is a bit of a dick move. Especially when you don’t even try to put anything in place. Sure, it is only toy soldiers, but it’s a game and there are rules and we expect certain things from a game. Balance not withstanding.

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    • nice thoughts: I agree that goals like lasting a certain number of turns can be fun. I think Memoir 44 does this well, some scenarios are very unbalanced but play so fast that both players have a turn up the poo-creek.
      And, marines should beat a guardsman. Almost always – it is the small chance of that heroic blow that can make a game memorable.
      AoS is certainly an interesting experiement. If this wasn’t a well known game but beta rules for a kickstarter I think they would sell a few minis but not gain so many players, but I’m getting off topic now …

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