Monday, August 5, 2019

Wargame Design: Trying to Create Balance

Balance is one of the most challenging aspects of wargame design. It is frequently an area of contention between players and causes friction within the gaming communities. I personally think this topic and HistoricalScenarios are the most difficult aspect of wargame design to get right. Therefore, let's take a closer look at the process.

Perfect Balance
Many gamers will bang on about the idea of “Perfect Balance”. The idea is that any unit of a given points cost can perform just as well as any other selection of the same points. Quality can off-set quantity, damage output can be off set by damage resistance, speed can be off set by control, etc. Essentially, perfect balance would be that two players could choose any options they want and their abilities would off set enough that the game would still be completely fair and even. Only the skill of the two players would impact the outcome.

Many beginning game designers think balance, army lists, and points is simple algorithm or code. Once you crack the code and create the perfect formula then all units will be balanced. They spend a lot of time considering points scales, skill levels, damage output, special abilities, and hundreds of other factors. They make elaborate spread sheets and calculate various variables. They spend hours mix and matching and testing these variables against each other.

Unicorns and ROY G. BIV
To quote the famous philosophers They Might Be Giants, “You'll never see a unicorn, but you can see a rainbow. Inside every Rainbow is ROY G. BIV!”

Perfect balance is the unicorn. It does not exist. No matter the system you put in place.... someone, somewhere will break it. Someone will tell you how wrong you are. Someone will tell you all the flaws in your logic. A wargame has too many variables a game designer simply can not control to build and implement them into any magic formula. Some examples of uncontrollable variables include:

  • Variability of Terrain- No one has uniform sizes and types of terrain. I may have lot's of hills, while someone else uses all ruins.

  • Model Availability- Players have all sorts of different models to play with. As the designer you can not control that.

  • Player Skill- Some people are just better at calculating risk and odds on the fly than others. Some can judge distances really well.

  • RNG- The Random Number Generators designers build for can be imperfect tools.

The list can go on and on. These can not be planned for in any formula. Some games can control these variables better than a free form tabletop wargame. For example, board games can set the “terrain” and provide a set group of models. Card Games can control the RNGs much better. The fewer variables, the closer you can get to “Perfect Balance” however no game controls all the variables. It is impossible.

On the other hand, there are tools a game designer can use to simplify balance. These are the ROY G. BIV. In the song, you can see ROY G BIV inside every rainbow as ROY G BIV is just an acronym for the color spectrum. IE, the tools game designers use the ROY G BIV of balance is Points, Army Lists, and Scenarios.

In the olden days of wargaming yore, there was no such thing as points. Wargames were firmly based on actual historical encounters. You see wargaming was originally serious business. Military and General Staff Colleges used wargaming as a way to test doctrine, theory, and teach officers. Therefore, armies and forces were not balanced in anyway. Instead, players were expected to research what forces were actually at the battles and provide them some sort of stats to match their performance on the field.

Eventually, some bright spark decided that limiting yourself to only historical match-ups was kind of limiting. They wanted to see what would happen if alternate units were present at the battle. Would it change history? To help facilitate these “what if” encounters some system was needed to provide relatively even levels of troops on the field. Sci-fi and Fantasy wargames only added to this momentum to create some way to measure the effectiveness of units and allow for matched play on a relatively fair playing field.

I am not exactly sure of the timing or the creator, but eventually points became a way to balance armies and forces against each other. Granted, it is not the only way to do it. Some games use scenario specific forces, others allow a structure based on role, or others allow selections based on an order of battle. However, points has become the most popular method.

What are points? Points are an arbitrary value placed on units, models or equipment designed to model their effectiveness on the tabletop. Players can then add up points from a force to a set level. In theory, two forces of equal points have the same on table effectiveness.

Army Lists
In days of yore, army lists were simply the actual units in the battle gamers were trying to play. However, games of today people want to play what-if scenarios, different scales, sci-fi, fantasy, and other non-historical encounters. Therefore, Army Lists were created to allow players to make selections for their army or force within the boundaries that the game allowed for. They help folks understand what is or was available to the forces they are trying to represent.

Historical games try to match closer with what units may or may not have been available at a given time or place. Sci-fi, Imagi-Nations, or Fantasy have no such limitations. However, players typically do not have free reign to choose whatever they want. You know some cheeky git would choose to bring an omnipotent being or a nuclear ICBM to a street level game. The Army List is an attempt by the game designer to put boundaries on what players can and can not put on the table to play the game within the parameters of the rules.

Now, these lists are simply guidelines. Players can always do what they want with the rules. After all, they are their rules. The dirty secret is that these lists are not mandatory to play the game.

List Building
List building is taking army lists and point values and using them to construct a force to play on the table top. In theory, every point is of equal value and the list lets you know how much units are worth. List building is simply assembling all component elements of a force and finding out their total cost and aligning it with your opponent.

However, here is another dirty secret of wargaming. List building is a hobby in and of itself. It is a statistical method to try and get the most in game value out of every point so that you can build a list of units that is superior to any other similarly pointed list. It is essentially looking for a method to exploit the the guidelines the games have placed on units for advantage and many players LOVE this aspect of wargames.

One of the best tools to create balance is in strong scenario design. The number of Wargame scenarios are finite. There are only so many objectives that can be completed. However, there are enough variables you can add together to create a distinct set of win conditions that any game can have a different wrinkle. The more variable elements you enter the exponentially more the scenario changes and avoids being “same-y”.

Good scenario design in the core rules will help add variation to scenarios. However, these elements are actually in opposition to Points and Army Lists for creating balance. Points and Army Lists are pre-planned items. The Scenario adds unplanned elements to a battle. In essence it helps create Clausewitzian “friction” that helps off-set any potential list advantage. A player needs to create a well rounded force to potentially handle what any particular scenario may throw at them, therefore good scenario design helps balance out potential army builds and acts as a counter to list building.

Once you have built your Points, your Army Lists, and your scenarios the only way to test them is with playtesting. You can read all about that process in a different blog post. You are looking for where imbalance exists between units, especially ones that are theoretically equal.

There is no such thing as perfect balance in a wargame. There are too many variables that a designer can not control, and should not try to. Instead, there are a set of tools you can use to try and get your game closer to being balanced, and these tools are the building blocks for balance. If you use Points, Army Lists, and Scenarios properly you can set the right tone for games to be played in a balanced way. Varied scenarios are best way to offset listbuilding, while list building is an important method to attract players and put some parameters on game play.

However, if someone wants to break your game and its balance” system they can and will be able to find it. Like a designer can not account for all variables such as terrain, models available, imperfect RNGs, etc; the number one thing variables is the player themselves.

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