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Monday, September 30, 2013

Sandbox Games and Bring and Battle Games

There are two basic approaches that beer and pretzel wargames take towards balance and competition -- elements that I have been thinking about for my own game.

The first, I'll call the sandbox games.  A sandbox game provides a rules structure, but expects the players to create scenarios and forces to use it.  The players are largely responsible for making sure that the sides in the scenario are balanced (or not -- sometimes you may want to play a last stand or something) and that everyone has fun.  This sort of setup is quite common for historical games, especially those that focus on modeling a particular historical conflict. 

Warlord Games'  Black Powder, Hail Caesar and Pike and Shotte are a recent mainstream, casual set of sandbox games. The core rule books lack army lists or points, and (for the most part) expect players to make up their own ratings for the models in their collection.  I really love this approach -- it's hugely freeing.  It is also, however, a lot of work, and puts the burden on the players to  pool their collections and do some design work.

For this reason, most sandbox games begin to transition into the second type of game, the bring and battle game. A bring and battle game comes supplied with army lists and points.  Flames of War, Warhammer, Saga and so forth exemplify this very familiar type of game. Each player can look at their collection, independently, and assemble a force based on published points and rules.  Then the two players can meet at a mutually agreeable time and place (usually the local game store) and play a game at a set point match. They do not need to negotiate or design anything ahead of time, and they don't need a game master.  Bring and battle games are also natural for tournaments.  Send out a call on the internet, assemble some players for the weekend, and people from a larger-than-local region can meet new players, see new armies, and have some fun.

Bring and battle games have a huge social and organizational advantage over sandbox games, which is one reason that games that originated as sandbox games tend to accumulate lists and become bring and battle games.  (Anyone remember the old days of Warhammer 40k, when you needed a game master?)  It's what's happening now with Hail Caesar, too. 

The disadvantages of the bring and battle format, however, start to become apparent as the limits of the games are tested by ever larger numbers of people in a competitive environment.  Bring and battle games depend on the game publishers to create a fair, fun set of lists and to "balance" the power of the different factions involved.  As a bring and battle game grows in complexity, the task of controlling and balancing the meta-environment becomes ever more daunting.  Moreover, because the job of balancing lies with the publishers, it is inevitably slow, unwieldy, and top-down.
Players in a bring-and-battle system cannot easily affect or change the system unless they just want to return to being a sandbox game, by introducing their own local house rules.

A bring and battle game should (ideally) have a tight, limited set of lists, which have been play tested to destruction.  Because many bring and battle games started as sandbox games, they often lack a systematic, well-thought out mechanisms for balance. Herein lies the root of the problem with many large tournament games such as Warhammer 40k

So what does this mean for my game?  Well, right now it's a sandbox game.  It kinda has to be, since I'm writing it all myself and don't have (m)any playtesters.  But at some point, I'd like it to become a bring and battle game -- it must, if it is going to grow and attract players.  And that means I need to think about major questions of balance, now, while it's still small.

To that end, I intend to spend a column or two analyzing existing games, to see what makes them work (or doesn't).

1 comment :

Alyssa Fernandez said...

Great awesome bit you got there. Me and my kids love games like Minecraft and Roblox. I say try the new Roblox Helper and get free robux.