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.


“Mister Ballbusch”


“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.

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  • Knight_of_Infinite_Resignation

    Nice article. The CAD was 40K’s version of that balanced combined arms list. I guess thats why, since CADs are almost a thing of the past, the game is now in such a pickle.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      40k is a rather sad mess. I admit I have not followed the game much since 7th. Frankly, it is so much change I can now hardly follow discussions about it.

  • The Warlock

    I suppose that’s where things like the old High Elf “speed of Asuryan” wreck balance in the name of the fluff. Elves have faster reflexes than humans, given as I5 vs I3 for basic troops. The problem then is the always strikes first -and- re-rolls to hit if the initiative value is higher than the opponents. Suddenly you have lowly elvish archers hitting chaos knights first in combat; or striking first and rerolling to hit against a mob of orcs who are undoubtedly supposed to be better in a melee than a dedicated shooting unit.

    The old FOC of both old GW games helped curb most of the madness and coupled it nicely with 0-1 restrictions and 5-20 unit caps for some of the more elite units. I’d think the combination of force composition restrictions, unit allowances and hard caps on unit size helps make balance a reasonable prospect. Failing that, the designers shoulder playtest, playtest, playtest.

    • The Warlock

      MANY HOURS LATER… I’d like to argue that while 1000 pts of infantry may not equal 1000 of tanks, the addition of anti tank grenades or portable anti tank weapons make them at least able to stand a chance. Still, a canny player attempts to eliminate threats to his threats. Very scissors paper rock.

      • Cedric Ballbusch

        Yes. The addition of anti-tank weapons should make infantry able to stand a chance. But, that assumes 1) the player took anti-tank weapons and 2) anti-tank weapons are available. Which still brings us back to the basic problem: equality is based to some extent on the player’s ability to use or manipulate the list system. Which means that while have equality in toto, things are not actually equal.

  • Thuloid

    Good post.

    I play with a guy regularly who is prone to taking rather extreme lists in any game. All heavy cavalry, all fliers, all TO Camo, etc. These lists tend to play havoc with local balance, as they don’t win, but they do force strange responses. Shows up the problem you’re speaking of rather nicely. He’s very comfortable going into a tournament with a list that’s virtually guaranteed to go 2-3, if it means taking down one player who ought to have been a contender.

    GW’s re-introduction of Blood Bowl intrigues me, as that’s a game I’ve both loved and loathed. On an individual match basis, most lists are, if not equal, in spitting distance. But campaigns are a different story–since players really only accrue SPP by scoring, completing passes and inflicting casualties, factions that do those things in bunches are at an enormous long-term advantage. Can Dwarfs win matches? Sure. But they don’t complete many passes, don’t wipe the opponent off the pitch, and don’t rack up 4-0 victories. Over a season, they’ll end up far inferior to a good Elf or Chaos team. I doubt that basic problem has been fixed to any significant degree.

    • Cedric Ballbusch

      Campaigns and the like are a whole different ball of wax. Perhaps this is a cop-out, but once you’ve agreed to linked games balance is to some extent out the window since players who win a lot tend to accrue more advantages over time in more campaign systems.

      ‘Spoiler’ armies is an interesting concept. Shows how complex making actual, fair, balanced tournaments is.

      • Thuloid

        Spoiler armies are a really odd deal. For example, in most of WHFB 8th edition, Chaos Warriors was a spoiler army. They hardly ever won big tournaments, especially after 8th edition’s High Elves came out. But a number of armies had trouble with them, they tended to place, and were enduringly popular. Tournament winners often came from the basket of, “turns Warriors of Chaos to paste” lists.

        In a truly fluid competitive environment (no consideration of sunk costs, no purely aesthetic choices, just rational calculations leading toward better performing armies–this is very far from wargaming reality, of course), top players might have abandoned them. Of course, the subset of players who might literally say, “This looks competitive right now–I’ll play it” with zero thought as to money or time was always very, very small. Even in flavor of the month 40k world, not that common a thing except for myriad counts-as Space Marine blue/green/red/grey/light blue lists.

        Campaign balance has to be defined differently–obviously not in terms of the individual match. In Blood Bowl, clearly better players will end up with far better teams by league’s end than the less skilled. That’s by design. But it’s hard to say that it’s by design that a supremely well-played Dwarf team that wins regularly early in the league should by league’s end almost always fall behind certain sorts of competition. Chaos teams have an ugly habit of losing for a while and then steamrolling to the end.

  • Benderisgreat

    Is this site defunct? It seems like no one posts anymore…

    • The Warlock

      Considering new.member days dropped off and it was about 3 of us posting all of last year, I’d say that yes, probably 🙁

      Even sinsynn has moved to gmorts

    • MerryVulture

      On the bright side, it appears I can comment again. Well, bright for me, any way.