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.
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.
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.