Monday, October 7, 2013

Game Balance: A Comparative Analysis


I played in a local Warhammer 40k tournament the other weekend, and ended up facing the least fun list I've encountered in a while. (It consisted of, I think, four flying Necron croissants and three Heldrakes; oh, plus Abaddon and Typhus and some cultist buddies.)  Anyway, it stomped my face hard, and in a most unpleasant way.  If you don't have enough AA for your opponent in 6th ed. 40k, you basically can't fight back. I've puppy-stomped a few opponents in my time too, and not always because I've played better, either. Sometimes their list just had no chance against my list.

Now, I've played a lot of games, winning and losing, of 40k, WFB, Flames of War, and many others, and this sort of helpless mismatch seems to characterize Games Workshop games a lot more than Flames of War.  

So, I've been thinking: what makes the two games different?  How do they control how many and what sorts of models their players can field? And how do they attempt to make certain that, once lists are selected, the players face a relatively even match?  And how do I want to use or avoid their relative techniques in my own game?

Point Values and Bring and Battle

Both Flames of War and Warhammer 40k are "bring and battle" games.  Players pick their forces from a list of available options.  Each choice costs a certain number of points, and two armies at the same point value are supposed to be at least reasonably fair match-ups.

Ideally, I suppose, players of equal skill, fighting at equal point values, should have a 50/50 chance of winning.  But, of course, this is never so: point values are an abstraction, and, of course, units have strengths and weaknesses.  In practice, list selection can grant a significant advantage to one player: the only question is how significant and at which point the potential disparities become so farcical one can only fault the game designers.

The Woes of Warhammer 40k

Warhammer 40k has three main methods of balancing and controlling its army lists, which are fine in principle, but which seem in practice to have serious flaws.

The first, of course, consists of point values. Bigger, tougher, more powerful models cost more points.  Strangely, Warhammer 40k does not seem to have a usefully consistent scale.  The history of the game is filled with examples of undercosted or overcosted units -- of which the current offenders like croissants and Heldrakes are only the latest examples. Now in fairness, 40k is incredibly complex, so it's not surprising some units turn out to be better or worse than designers anticipated -- or for the practical value of a unit to change as army lists or rules enter and leave the game's meta-enviornment.  But even so, the Games Workshop designers seem at times massively negligent.  Even if they can't anticipate errors, they could at least fix them.

The force organization chart constitutes 40k's second major game balancing mechanism. One can only take a fixed maximum number of units of a particular type, regardless of cost.  You can only take two characters, six troops, or three of anything else. A player cannot load up with an infinite number of Chapter Masters, Heldrakes, Whirlwinds or whatever.  So even if a unit is massively effective, a player can only take so many of them. Presumably, to the great relief of his opponents.

Thirdly, a player needs to have a spread of unit and weapon types in their army in order to counter different types of potential opponent.  Every decent 40k army needs to be able to counter armor, heavy infantry, massed light infantry, flying things, and monsters.  So it can't (in theory) load up too much on one type of weapon or troop without creating vulnerable gap in its own capabilities. In practice, however, one can easily defeat an opponent's "all-comers" army by loading up so much of a particular goody that the enemy cannot hope to stop you.  (The 7 aircraft army is a good example of such a list.)   

There a few other, more subtle, balancing factors at work in Warhammer 40k as well. Some unit types have intrinsic strengths or weaknesses that enhance or limit their viability.  Only troops, for example, can hold objectives.  Vehicles, conversely, can never contest objectives (barring an unusual scenario) and are vulnerable to being charged. This sort of soft balancing among unit types isn't a big element of 40k compared to Flames of War, but it is present.

For casual games, between players with limited collections or a sense of self-restraint, 40k's system of point values and force org works pretty well.  In a highly competitive environment, however, between players with large collections (or copious wallets), it can produce some really grotesque mismatches, in which player skill on the table can become a minimal factor. (At least till one Hell-list encounters another.)  

40k is what it's always been: a platoon-sized infantry skirmish game.  Add too many tanks, airplanes, transports, or monsters, and the whole thing just falls apart.

The Hidden Strengths of Flames of War

Structurally, Flames of War imposes a system of limits on players that's almost identical to Warhammer 40k's.  The players must choose their units from a list, where each unit has a point value, and their total selection of duplicate or rare units is constrained.  Lists need to balance anti-armor and anti-infantry capability.

Flames of War has made many of the same kinds of errors as Warhammer 40k over the years.  Some units are over or undercosted.  (Remember the old Brummbar?  Or the first version of the EW British Cruiser list?)  There have also been some problems with the force org charts -- notably, lists that limit the number of tanks or anti-tank options have a tendency to be uncompetitive.

Overall, though, these sorts of errors have not thrown the whole game as far out of kilter as they have in Warhammer 40k. Why?

Because there is a robust balance between unit types baked into Flames of War's very game mechanics. In Flames of War, there are essentially three types of units: infantry, tanks, and guns.
Infantry and tanks are the most important of these two, and they each contain situational counters against each other.  Infantry are resilient (bordering on the indestructible) when stationary, Dug-in, and Gone to Ground.  They are excellent in area terrain.  Tanks by contrast, are awesome moving and in the open, but are vulnerable in terrain or when overwhelmed in an assault.  No how matter awesome your tank, it is still vulnerable in terrain.  No matter how skilled or equipped your infantry, they don't like being machine-gunned in the face.  The counter to tanks is infantry and the counter to infantry is tanks.  So their relative effectiveness really depends on deployment, terrain, and movement -- factors on the table top and under player control.  (We could also call it playing the game, yeah?)

Flames of War's unit balance is in fact so well thought out that you can play pretty much any type of force imaginable without breaking the game.  Want to run nothing but tanks?  You can do that.  Want to run nothing but King Tigers?  You can do that.  Want to run all FV infantry?  You can do that.  Want to run an army made up mostly of 88s?  Hell, you can do that too.  These sorts of extreme lists  are not only possible, they actually aren't even all that good -- compared to the old mainstays of average infantry and medium tanks, Flames of War super units seem to suck a bit.  Some of that it points values.  But some of it lies in the nature of the game mechanics.


List design is one of the things that makes a bring-and-battle wargame fun.  It's fun to buy new models, try them out in new combinations, and build different forces that reflect your play style, aesthetic preferences, or just plain whim.  But the very flexibility inherent in a bring and battle game is also its potential downfall.   If a game system permits too extreme a mismatch of forces, the game will cease to be very enjoyable, except perhaps as an exercise in competive list design.

Where and how does one find a balance?

 It seems to me that points values alone cannot ensure a fun, reasonably balanced game.  Neither can a strict limit on force selections, although both of these will help immensely.  I think the key is to have appropriate point values alongside a game mechanic that produces mutual, situational advantages and disadvantages for different sorts of units. If one type of unit is going to have clear game-mechanical advantages, then that unit type should be subject to a hard limit such as a force org chart.  Indeed, it's probably a good idea to limit multiples of just about everything except core troops.

 My game is mostly about infantry: so I want to be sure the basic game mechanical "grammar" of troops attacking and defending remains sensitive to player choice and to terrain.  The natural counter to infantry will be support weapons, which should behave differently on the attack and on the defense.  Tanks, armored vehicles and big monsters will have a natural advantage, and so should be limited in number.  They should be an interesting secondary element, not the focus of the game.

That's the plan.  The hard part will be executing it.

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