The Ballbusch Experience: Another Look At Balance
A couple of months ago I set out the proposition that a wargame could not achieve balance while retaining the basic character of a wargame. For anyone who doesn’t want to read to original post, or wants a refresher the Cliff’s Notes version is a follows:
War is fundamentally unfair and any simulation of war will necessarily tend to be unfair. Further, a balanced point system will not generate a setting where all armies have a 50-50 win-loss ratio. Rather, between opponents of equal skill the game will tend towards stalemate. Simply because victory comes from tactical advantage, and tactical advantage is gained from exploiting some fundamental imbalance or instability. In other words: hitting the weakest link.
I stand by this analysis. However there is far more to explore. The mighty, mighty Sandwyrm (insert fanboy squeal) observed that there must be incentives for movement and maneuver. In other words, the game requires more depth than simply blazing away at each other. I find he makes a good point, but that it is only half the equation.
“If Sandwyrm said you were missing important details, and you’re saying he’s only half right. Doesn’t that mean you were only a quarter right…or less? Even completely wrong?”
“No more questions. Anyway. Moving on.”
Yes. The players need motivation to do something in the game beyond blaze away at range. I immediately question any set of rules that allow players to attack units in the opponent’s deployment area on the first turn. So, simply launching an attack should require some amount to movement even if it is just a charge up the gut. Though I am aware that some rules allow weapon systems to engage units anywhere on the table. Still, I think that points to a fundamental issue in the scale of the game.
Accepting arguendo that movement is forced upon the player by the nature of the game we find whole new enemies of balance. Namely the play area itself. This goes back to my original point that wargames are unbalanceable. Wargames are not boardgames. They feature terrain which not only effects troops, but effects different troops differently. Therefore, the effectiveness of a given unit is not simply its stats or even its stats relative to its opposition. Rather it is its stats in relative to both its opposition and the enviroment.
Wood Elves (RIP) are (were) a prime example of this. GW blessed them with all sorts of nifty abilities that worked in woods. This meant that the army’s effectiveness depended on the nature of the table. To some extent this was mitigated by letting wood elves take woods no matter what. But let us explore the concept a bit further.
If a Wood Elf in a vacuum, by virtue of his stats and equipment alone, is worth 10 points then on a board that is 10% covered by woodland maybe he is worth 12 points. If the table is 50% woods, maybe he should cost 20 points. This applied to almost anything. Tanks struggle to operate in rugged terrain. Heavy cavalry an only charge in open country. Half-trained paramilitary forces with local knowledge and good field craft are deadly in tough country, but would disintegrate if engaged by regular troops in the open. A system that attempts to balance a wargame would have to account for this. Either by establishing a set standard layout of the table or by including a sliding scale that altered the cost of various units based on the nature of the terrain.
In their day the Thracians were considered a major threat to Hellinistic civilization if they ever united under a single banner
To take DBA as another example. Irregular troops are very good in rough terrain and far less in the open. On the other hand, tightly formed regulars are at their best in the open. So if you have an army that ‘needs’ difficult terrain and you find yourself on an open field, you likely to lose. But, it is a historical game so such outcomes are ‘correct.’ If Thracians engaged a phalanx in open country they would be slaughtered. Likewise the same phalanx would come to grief chasing the rag-bag hillmen around their home mountains.
Relative maneuverability is another issue. Obviously basic movement is factored into a unit’s cost. However, how fast you can move is less important that how fast you can move relative to your opponent. Moving twice as fast as normal troops is an advantage, but if the enemy also moves twice as fast the advantaged is lost. Does that mean that a tank should cost more when used against an infantry force than another tank force? Perhaps.
‘Prone to catching fire’ is something you never want to hear about a tank
Moving on to Flames of War. Consider the humble Stuart. Bluntly it was a piece of junk. Poorly armed, poorly armored, and worryingly prone to bursting into flames. In FoW it is hardly a world beater either. However, it is also really cheap. The main gun is worthless, but the little sucker can be loaded down with an insane number of machine guns. A Stuart platoon can wreak havoc on infantry. In theory this is counter-balanced by the fact that they utterly suck against any sort of medium tank.
But, therein lies the rub. It presupposes that the other guy has a balanced list. Yes you can argue that making an effective list is a player’s responsibility. However, if my 1,000 points of infantry get rolled over (literally) by your 1,000 points of tanks. Guess what? I didn’t really have a 1,000 points of infantry because 1 point of infantry =/= 1 point of tank. Maybe it does within a combined arms list. But again, we’ve hit the issue of context. Any possible combination has to be balanced against any other possible combination.
The solution is more restrictive lists, granting advantages to forces automatically disadvantaged by their opponents, or some combination thereof. The Battle Group series takes the first approach. By compelling players to follow more-or-less historical OoBs the designers can be fairly sure what’s going to appear on the table and balance accordingly. On the other hand, Lasalle gives a handicap to players who take elite formations. If you take a guard division anything less than total victory is counted as a loss. After all, you’ve committed the best troops the regime has to the operation, success is expected and defeat unforgiveable. Back in 5th, Grey Knights could have used a similar handicap.
In sum. Yes, there is much more to balance that who would win in a straight up firefight. However, the moment we step beyond a stand up battle in a theoretical football field we have actually introduced a whole new set of factors that themselves must also be balanced.