Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Can any game system ever truly be balanced? Part 2

Choice and the points systems

Ah yes choice, freedom, liberty. All good things yes? Well yes of course they are but for a games designer, choice becomes a necessary evil. You see choice of what force, faction or even side you take actually can sometimes be used as a tool to try and mitigate those natural imbalances that occur in rule systems... and they also add a further imbalance to be controlled. As I commented in the first part of this article into the theory of game balance we want our wargames to be an abstract representation of war with all its imbalances and brutal imperfections in a fair and controlled manor... and we'd like to pick sides. Not too demanding are we?

Lets be honest would anyone play the wargame where all sides are the same? It might be OK for chess or checkers or their ilk, but in a wargame we don't all want to be Dark Elves, Daemons or Vampire Counts do we? Oh right yeah, bad examples, what I'm trying to hint at is that people want an army that suits them. Some will want a defensive shooty army others a highly aggressive horde army and some might like small elite armies full of specialist troops designed to deal death in specific ways. So how do pretty much all wargames deal with our demanding and unreasonable ways? Points systems!

It is not perfect by any means but it is the best tool and system available to games designers for attempting to maintain balance and for that reason it is also extensively used. However again its far from perfect. Take Warmachine and Hordes as a prime example. In the first edition of both games units were pointed and costed in the 'hundreds', this allows for a greater degree of subtle variance than things pointed in the 'tens' which is what the second editon of both games uses. For instance in the old system Warjack A might have cost 132 points and Warjack B 145. In the new system Warjack A might now cost 13 points while Warjack B might cost 15 points. The disparity between the two units as a proportion has gone up but the relative effectiveness hasn't changed. Obviously the later disparity might be a fairer representation of each units true ability. However where do you stop? Should things be pointed in the millions or billions even? As ever its a judgement call and like all judgement calls its not going to be perfect.

Its from these 'points systems' where we get the 'underpointed' or 'overpointed' arguments cropping up that haunt our hobby like the sword of Damocles. When most gamers talk about balance in a game its this they're normally talking about. Yeah we all know these sorts of arguments and is there anybody out there who plays Warhammer Fantasy Battle that doesn't think the Dark Elf War Hydra is stupidly cheap? So far I haven't found them. You see those characteristic charts aren't as simple or as easy as well atribute A = 5 so that's 0.5 points cost because an attribute A of 5 isn't that great. Because if coupled with an attribute B score of 10 and attribute C score of 8 all of a sudden attribute A being 5 isn't a problem, in fact it might be a bonus because its kept the cost of the unit down. I've seen the mathematical equations that have gone into pointing units in various games, and what has always surprised me is how many times games designers break the rules of their own mathematical systems, why?

Well I once had a long chat with a games designer who told me he hated the pointing of units in any game system because you could never get it right, His exact words or words to that effect were 'reality is any points system is a fudge, a totally imperfect fudge because you can't point things right. What you aim to do via games testing is make sure that nobody notices its a horrible fudge because you've only got it slightly wrong rather that fucking horribly wrong, maths can only get you so far and give you a figure to work from' and never a truer word has been spoken. So how can you tell when its gone horribly wrong?

Well turn up to any tournament of any game system you could care to mention and have a look at the armies being used and those not being used. If there are clear biases I'd suggest that there is a serious case of imbalance in the system, to the point that we can all see how horribly fucking wrong they've got it. Or take a look at a certain faction and see if any 'no brainer' units jump out at you, i.e. things that are so good for the points you'd be a fool not to take them. I think almost every game system I've ever played has had 'no brainer' units in it, things you'd be mad to leave out. Thing is this isn't so bad if every faction or army has something similar and equally valid in terms of 'no brainer' units because although they might be internally unbalanced within that faction, across multiple factions it can be balanced out.

There are further tools available to the games designers out there, the chief one being availability of units. Most game systems have this to some degree, the really hard kick ass things in the game have a strictly limited availability. I'm going to use my current love Infinity as an example of how points systems, availability and rules can combine to lead to balanced forces. Not content with having one points system Infinity gives you two, the first system is your standard points system you see in every wargame pretty much. The second is a really interesting one, it attributes a second points cost for Support Weapon choices, or SWC. This also has to be managed as you have a limited amount and it stops your force becoming overpowered and you taking all the nice weapons and stuff. Next up certain troops have limited availability and to top it all off the game attributes every troop choice one order to the order pool whether its a 9 point grunt or a 120 point über TAG. Is it the most elegant or streamlined system? No, but it works.

However this is just talking about the differences in bog standard unit characteristics and the weaponry that they have. So what happens when you start throwing in special rules or abilities? Well for me you're in danger of overly complicating things and are on the brink of the horrible paper, scissors and rock effect. Don't get me wrong I like special rules as much as the next guy, it adds a bit of spice to games and a new level of tactical depth... but what happens when an army with the rock special ability meets one with the scissors special ability? Well it becomes a mess because those scissor units against those rock units aren't quite as effective as they once were and that adds to another nightmare for the games designer when attempting the art of the perfect 'points fudge'. Should it we avoid faction specific rules?

On the one hand I really do think that faction specific special rules should be avoided at all costs, I really, really do. However on the other hand they give character to a faction, but this character should always be tempered with rigorous games testing to the point of insanity. Now I'm not talking about universal special rules here, by all means have special rules like infiltration and so forth and so on and give all factions access to troops with these skills, but limiting certain skills and combinations to only one faction can breed imbalances in a game system that mean in certain match ups both sides don't have a fair chance. Its not acceptable in my book to then start saying 'yeah your army might suck against army A but its awesome against army B' because nobody wants that do they? Because then the game isn't about skill and the challenge of your opponent, its about who or what you're playing with and against.

You see for me its the army lists and points systems that different game systems use that really adds the biggest chunk of imbalance to any system, or at least the imbalances we all see and talk about. The more choice and variance you have the greater the risk of imbalance and unfairness creeping in becomes, simply because you've added more variables. Personally I still think many game systems struggle with this and I think its the games from the two largest market leaders that seem to struggle with it the most, Games Workshop and Privateer Press. Part of me thinks its a function of their popularity and that there are in effect more people out there trying to 'break' them than there are for other systems... but then part of me thinks some of the imbalances might even be deliberate, and that the playing field wasn't meant to be level in the first place, but that's a whole different topic for another day. Speaking of playing fields... Peace out!

Links to further articles

Game Balance: Part 1
Game Balance: Part 3
Game Balance: Part 4
Game Balance: Part 5


  1. >"I've seen the mathematical equations that have gone into pointing units in games, and what has always surprised me is how many times games designers break the rules of their own mathematical systems, why?"

    Because they are doing the math wrong.

    That's sounds like harsh criticism, but that's not my intent. It a REALLY hard math problem, and most people don't understand it. I understand parts of it (working on more) and it's still a nearly intractable problem. Your game designer is correct that you can never get points right in general*, and that it will always be something of a fudge. What I think most gamers fail to understand is that point system are a rule by which we decide to set up scenarios, and setting up scenarios this way is also a game. Players will strive to set things up to their own advantage, so if a particular unit is undervalued, players will choose to use it more. Change that units' cost/rule, and players will make different decisions. If that system is a "good rule" it should lead to fun scenarios.

    You make a good point about the rock-paper-scissors problem, and limits on unit selection. If you know that your opponent is going to choose scissors, then choosing paper is going to be a bad idea. Limiting the choices players have in unit selection will make it easier to balance the game. An extreme case of this is having both players take exactly the same units. It's fair and it's balance, but it takes away all the interesting choices of setting up a scenario.

    Out of time, but I'll stop in again in a day or two. --- Dan

    * You can get it right for specific scenarios, but changing one aspect of the scenario may change the balance considerable.

  2. I'm a researcher and statistician my trade Dan and like you at the time I said it was because he was doing the maths all round. He laughed and politely told me to 'go forth and multiply' in far more colourful language than that. :P

    However he ran me through an equation for a fairly well known game and said to me how many points do you think 'thing A' should cost. I added it up and was very surprised to see that it had severely under pointed the unit. However when looking at other units the same equation was spot on. Now I'm sure if I'd sat there with the math I could have looked at the balance of the equation and maybe found the exact problem with it... I'm terribly humble and all that and not at all arrogant ;) but its how long it'd have taken.

    You're point about scenario is absolutely spot on as well. So many times I've seen people set up in Malifaux and just go for the wipe each other out scenario and in that instance certain choices and gang leaders are way better than others, but with scenarios it becomes, or at least feels like a far better balanced game!!! Talking of Malifaux though I am totally at a loss as to whether its balanced or not or how its balanced if it is. There are just so many variables and permutations at play that I gave up trying to work out is it was balanced a long time ago. It kinda feels right, although the steep learning curve and the 'knowledge' obtained by veterans of that game can make it seem very unbalanced to the new comer. I haven't seen many games that reward gamer knowledge quite as much as Malifaux, whether that's a good or bad thing is verty much down to personal opinion.

    I've found it really interesting reading your thoughts, please do pop back again!!! :)

  3. >"I'm a researcher and statistician my [by?] trade" ...

    Really?!? So am I. --- This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. :-)

    I too have had long discussions with a game designer friend, and I managed to convince him to make some changes to his (very complicated) point system for Squadron Strike. He didn't change everything (as is his right), but it now has at least a theoretically correct basis for him to build on.

    I'm not familiar with Malifaux, other than what I just Googled, but it looks interesting. Diceless combat should moved it towards being more strategic, like Chess. Presumably there is still some randomness to the card draws, which should help to keep one strategy from becoming dominant.

    I used to play the Pokemon card game with my son when he was young, and for a kids game it has some surprisingly deep strategies. Something like Malifaux would be much more complex. From this post and your previous, it sounds like you have a lot more experience with these games than I do.

  4. Well I'm currently unemployed because it turns out the UK Government doesn't want people like me producing statistics that prove things are getting worse... I mean people could just take a look outside at the riots and see it for themselves so why the fuck do they need me? :P

    Malifaux is a weird one because of being able to cheat fate from your hand. The probability isn't too bad to be honest with you in terms of the deck of cards... but its how all the masks etc work and how special abilities interact etc. I have no idea if its balanced or not but it is fun. I had a quick squidge of your blog and I really think you've got some cool articles so kudos.

  5. Sorry to hear about your employment situation - hope that turns around for you soon. However, it appear you are putting your time to good use in games and blogging.

  6. Well most of my time is dedicated to the search for employment. Much of the crap that pop's up on my blog was actually written weeks and in some cases months ago and is timed to appear magically as I'm working away on job descriptions!!! Still it give's me something to occupy myself with rather than vegitating in front of a TV and wallowing in self pitty. Stiff upper lip and all that. ;) Something will turn up soon hopefully.