Balance or diversity: you can’t have both

This post by Sinsynn over at the House of Paincakes had me thinking about people’s expectations of wargames. Specifically, that the general mass of people who play Games Workshop’s flagship games aren’t interested in anything else. And because of this unhealthy(?) focus on one particular system and product, they seem to have slowly got a twisted view of what is possible and desirable in a miniatures game. I’ve been investigating historical games lately, and I have to say the difference in attitude towards the games is very interesting. Take this description of GW’s Lord of the Rings from the excellent blog I have just discovered, Delta Vector:

The “bastard stepchild” of GW’s core series, LOTR is the least popular with powergamers the core GW demographic as model differences are less marked and forces are more balanced bland; magic is subtle and not an “I win” button boring; and the rules are cleaner and faster too simple.

OK, so it’s a teensy bit bitchy, but it also made me laugh.  And only this morning I’ve read worse levelled at historical gamers by someone who is primarily a Warhammer player, so I’ll allow it.

It’s interesting because evilleMonkeigh, as someone with a wide experience of wargaming systems, seems to take for granted the fact that simplicity in rules design and similarity in the way that factions play are necessary for a good balanced wargame.  Whereas I think many in the community of GW gamers (and, I would argue, fantasy and sci-fi wargamers in general) think a game is only fun if your factions are wildly varied with completely different playstyles.  Yet these same people often (quite loudly) expect the games designers to deliver inter-faction balance and an accurate points system.

I’m coming round to the belief that you can’t have it both ways.  Historical games are not so prone to imbalance it seems, since pretty much everyone in history was a human being, and people near enough to fight each other tended to fight the same way, i.e, the way that worked the best.  What happens in real life when two forces go to war with wildly divergent technologies or tactics?  One of them inevitably has their arse handed to them.

It might be time to face the truth here.  If you want a game that’s interesting because of the tactical options it presents, you’re going to have to sacrifice things like factional diversity.  You want psychic space beetles to fight cyborg super-soldiers with chainsaw swords?  Sorry mate, you’re going to have to let go of any expectations you might have for a high degree of balance.

I mean that’s why Infinity largely works balance-wise right?  Most of the troops are within a very small band in terms of abilities and have similar (if not the same) weapons as other faction’s troops.

Fantasy is fantasy and realism is realism and maybe we all need to just accept that?

 

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11 thoughts on “Balance or diversity: you can’t have both

  1. The Warlock says:

    Ooooh, interesting thoughts. Haven’t checked out that blog just yet, gonna do so after this. Congrats on finding the systems you want to play, historicals look so fun! Have you seen -that- viking scene from Monty Python, where they raid across the land and so on (it’s about spam, the food)

    GW suffers from 15pts worth of X from codex A not equaling the performance/value of 15pts of Y from Codex B. 15 points of space marine is VASTLY more superior to 15pts of Ork Gretchin. I think this is what lets down 40k. In fantasy, it’s not that much of a deal as points are pretty balanced overall (barring outliers). When you add in the 5+ special rules each dude has, things get messy as just how much is ATSKNF worth compared to say, Hatred: Orks?

    If identical upgrades cost the same they’d go a fair way towards balance. Sure It may make 40k a bit bland, but that’s solved by brackets eg: Power Klaw (Power fist) +XXpts, may take krumpy armour (carapace armour) +Ypts. etc and have the generic terms listed in the BRB.

    A plasma gun in the hands of a guardsman isn’t as effective as in the hands of a Space Marine, but it’s the same cost to produce a plasma gun and give it to some mook. Your savings come from a guardsman costing less than a space marine (ie: say a guardsman is 1/3 effective as a space marine and he’s 5pts. 3 of them =1 space marine, who is 15pts. Should be balance right there, right?)

    Talking out of my backside on that but that’s probs how balance should work for 40k- all identical upgrades regardless of faction should cost the same and all units should have point for point parity against others of their unit type (ie: 15pts of infantry = 15pts of any other infantry, using space marines as the gold standard. 55pts vehicles = 55pts vehicles from any other codex, etc)

    I know you don’t play 40k, but it’d be interesting to hear your thoughts on this

    -Warlock

    • beat ronin says:

      Glad you asked warlock! I think what you suggest would get us part of the way to a balanced game. But if I were to do it, the first thing I’d do is make a unit creation system, like a points-buy based character creation system in an RPG. So not only upgrades, but all stats and abilities would have fixed point values. Then I’d redesign all of the existing units to legally adhere to the system.

      Even then though, you’d run into the problem I mentioned in the post: some factions would be superior to others simply because of what they represent. Synergies based solely in our ideas of what a psychic space bug would be capable of versus a cyborg chainsaw warrior would create inequalities between factions that would preclude a balanced game. The only way to get true balance is for everyone to be similar. Or, as many fantasy and SF gamers would call it, bland.

  2. Joe Toal says:

    Warlock

    I think you do get that in 40k a power weopon always cost 15 pts a power fist is always 30 pts a meltagun is always 10 pts the problem with that particularly with cc weapons is what there worth is dependant on who wielding it a seargent with ws4 and 2 base attacks gets less out of it than a chapter master with 4 base attacks and ws6. The base cost of the unit should compensate for this

    The imbalance in 40k comes from the USR’s which are essentially wsys to break the core rules 6th edition went batcrap crazy for them and as most are situational they are quite difficult to price but the dev team went to hard with them to try and establish ”character“in the codexs tau ignore cover leaps to mind. Also with 80+ usr you get some whacky interactions and the allies rules allowing different army’s to stack USR’s it was bound to get out of kilter.

    Here’s hoping that they do something with seventh to sort that out and hopefully trim the usr’s back a bit maybe more individual special rules unit specifically and a ban on stacking effects.

    I think a lot of 40k issues balance wise is the fact it was built as a skirmish Rpg and has developed into a company scale wargame without a major revamp of the core structures in the game. The other thing is the game was supposed to be played with a GM which made it a collaboration not a competition and a good gm could put balance back into the game got an unkillable unit well apiece of debris from the void battle in orbit just fell and squished it see how many times that happens before people stop bringing broken combos.

    James

    I think your right about some people being gw players not wargamers and I think it’s a product of gw’s massive expansion of there store network in the late 90’s an noughties a lot of players only exposure to table top games was the GW when I started a long time ago in a galaxy far far away it was clubs in scout huts church halls and after school that provided the way in and these were often set up by historical and rpger types ofcourse way back when GW were the fresh upstarts and the historical types sorta looked down on us. I don’t know if that’s changed.

    • beat ronin says:

      Hey DC. I can tell it’s you because your middle name is McConvile and you don’t have much punctuation lol!

      I’m only sniffing around the edges of the historical wargaming community at the moment, but from what I’ve read and people I’ve spoken to at larger events, I think it’s fair to say that some historical gamers still look down on GW gamers. You can imagine the stereotypes pretty easily I’m sure: childish, silly, lacking in tactical acumen. But I’m sure you’re also familiar with F&SF gamers stereotypes of historical gamers: stodgy, small-minded and boring greybeards who don’t care about painting their models nicely. I guess there’s bad blood on both sides, as well as a lot of people who are into both of course.

      I once read a geek flowchart one of my mates put on facebook. I wish I could find it. It was all: Vampire players are cooler than D&D players, who are cooler than anime cosplayers, etc. The very lowest rung on the ladder was Warhammer 40,000 players 😀

  3. Kelly says:

    When I think back to Necromunda and GorkaMorka, I recall a system where the different factions were very similar in terms of game play (and hence very well balanced), but nuanced enough to make each one unique. The more divergent factions (such as the Spyrers) were imbalanced against them in many ways, but canny players figured out their weaknesses and learned to exploit them eventually.

    • beat ronin says:

      Hi Kelly, nice to see you. Yeah, I always really enjoyed Necro, and in many ways I’ve been trying to recapture the experience for many years now. And you’re spot on: I used to complain about the gangs all being similar, but that, to a large extent, is what made the game work and gave it such exciting moments.

      Now I feel as though games are abstract things, anyway. I’d rather balance through similarity and simplicity than the mess that lots of diversity and over-complexity brings. Balance is what creates excitement.

  4. Joe Toal says:

    Yeah it’s me you can call me Joe if you like or dc ill answer to both and nah I’m not big on punctuation my thoughts kind of fall out of my head and onto the Page if its serious I go back and put punctuation in but I try not to take the interwebz to seriously

  5. Smoke88 says:

    I was reading through the article thinking ‘Infinity seems to be ticking a lot of these balance factors’ and then I get to the end. You are right, weapons are more or less the same and evenly matched battles are easier to come by. Of course it is easy to get whupped by an experienced player who knows his tactics and has a mind like a steel trap, but balance issues can’t help much there!
    GW did a huge amount of work getting a customer base together back in the day, but that base has gotten older. I can’t help but feel GW simply cannot maintain pace with multiple demographics and be everything to everyone. I almost feel sorry for them.

    • beat ronin says:

      Hi Smoke, yeah I know what you mean. I’m starting to think that GWs community of gamers needs to take some more responsibility for their own fun, to put it bluntly. People grow and change, and the world changes. The context that GWs flagship games inhabit now is totally different from that of 30 years ago.

      I can’t help but feel a lot of people think they want warhammer, but actually just want a modern miniatures game like Infinity or any of the others. So they kick and scream at GW and it never occurs to them that maybe it’s not actually possible for a game to be their childhood hobby and a tight, modern adult past-time simultaneously.

  6. Smoke88 says:

    Good call about the perception of GW by its players. I have issues of WD spanning quite some time that chart this evolution and what games workshop has become. I made a comment on HoP about this and it seems pretty clear that most of the players that have stuck it out with 40k just don’t want to let go of what they enjoyed when they were twenty years younger. If they only gave some other systems a go they might get that “gee, that is awesome” feeling back!
    I used to be pretty sceptical about historical, but now it seems a lot more interesting. I look forward to hearing about your adventures in this field of hobby.

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