Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Can any game system ever truly be balanced? Part 3

The battlefield

You see many of us rarely have to think about it, I'm sure a lot of you will turn up to your local gaming store or club to play your 1 or 2 wargames a week, and be limited to the scenery they have out for display purposes or to hand. In short you're highly likely to be playing on pretty much the same sort of battlefield every time if you do this. However scenery or terrain, and there is a difference as a really good little article by Quirkworthy (Jake Thornton) points out, is vitally important to the playing of any game, if it wasn't why have rules for it and why place it on the board in the first place?

This picture contains 15 Way Watchers, 5 Oniwabans and a goat!!!

Most people just chuck the old scenery down onto the table and have done with it. There might be some discussion about the rotation of a building or the precise placement of some woods, but mostly people don't care and just want to put their toy soldiers down and roll some dice. However scenery is a HUGE part of any game you'll ever play. I remember a discussion I had when I was about 13 with a store manager of a Games Workshop and a friend of mine about Man O War. We'd come to the conclusion you see that High Elves were far too powerful, well they would be, I was the one commanding them and I'm awesome.

 Commander Obvious was 'concerned' there was only one bridge

Thing is this manager couldn't understand it, he'd genuinely had no problems with High Elves and neither had a few regulars. We got down to list building and nope that wasn't the issue. Were we playing the rules right? Yes turned out we'd got them spot on. So are we both equally good gamers? Although my huge ego would say no I'm just simply awesome, the fact is in other game systems we were quite evenly matched. Then another staff member said 'how big is the board you're playing on and how much scenery do you use?' well I'd never really considered it until then... but the reality was we were using way too much scenery because my faster and more maneuverable ships were at a huge advantage amongst the myriad of islands we were using. In short the scenery and 'terrain of play' had loaded the games in my favour.

What followed between me and my friend was possibly the first gaming experiment I ever tried, and the longest. We got a number of games, not just Man O War, and started playing them all with no scenery and slowly started adding more and more elements until we were playing on ridiculously detailed boards. Thing is we found that scenery elements actually rapidly began to unhinge any balance in any game system you cared to mention. So it is somewhat surprising to me that more rulebooks don't spend more time on how much scenery should be used and what sort of scenery should be used. Because from my experience with our experiments I've been left with no doubts as to the effect on balance within a game scenery can have.

Fido couldn't help but feel the game would've been more 
balanced if there was more scenery

Take Infinity, here is a game that I think most people would assume requires a lot of scenery, and it does. However what sort of scenery? You'll hear Infinity veterans talk of 40k terrain as leading to Swiss Cheese Syndrome, whereby the open nature of many 40k ruins just doesn't do an effective enough job of blocking line of sight. Its not until you play a few games that you realise how important this is. As an example I showed a friend of mine what Infinity would be like played on a typical 40k board. Now I got the first turn and by the end of it he was at his retreat value and looking quite pale. However height of buildings relative to their surroundings is also important in Infinity.

Commander Obvious feared that maybe cover might be a problem...
especially as he was playing Infinity!!!

Yet had he not had me there to explain all this too him I don't think the rulebook would have done anywhere near a good enough job at conveying the importance of terrain on a game of Infinity. How the game of Infinity plays out as well is changed significantly by the type of terrain you use. Built up urban conflicts plays very differently to a board full of jungle terrain and different units and weapon loads outs will be more or less effective depending on the setting of the terrain. I'd like to make it clear though that this change in game play resulting from differing terrain is a good thing, but it needs to be explained more in the rules, and I think games designers do need to spend more time taking us gamers through setting up battlefields and scenery properly.

Although Commander Obvious was happy he'd brought a jeep
He wished he'd brought a few more for his troops.

In fact I personally think the Battlefield really needs a lot more explanation in all rulebooks because it is a fundamental part of any game. How big should the table be for instance for a 2000 point game of 40k compared to a 5000 point game of 40k? How much terrain should be on the board? What sort of terrain? But most importantly where should it be placed? You see because depending on what each army does the terrain of a Battlefield can really effect how the game plays out. For instance going back to my archipelago game board for Man O war, it favoured me massively over my friends Orcs. What we found was reducing the scenery down from 9 Islands to 4 made our games far more balanced, but for us that was trial and error. Surely it would have helped to have a better explanation of the scenery required in the rules to help us. However we found 4 Islands weren't enough when playing High Elves against Bretonnians. Scenery though can play a part in the next part of the heady mix of imperfections and imbalance that I'll be talking about tomorrow, the mission objective! Peace out

Links to further articles

Game Balance: Part 1
Game Balance: Part 2
Game Balance: Part 4
Game Balance: Part 5


  1. Scenery makes all the difference.

    Playing many editions of 40k ago I had a tyranid army and I could tell you the result of most games by the amount of cover on the board. A sparse table and I would be gunned down easily. I dense terrain table and my opponents would be in serious trouble.

  2. @Vomkreig, I know. I've played so many games now where the scenery or terrain has been the biggest factor. Thing is most people don't give it a second thought they really don't. I really do think game designers should give the terrain and scenery way more thought and explanation in their rulebooks, and give us gamers more guidelines.

  3. Something I've noticed is that over on WWPD they use a lot of terrain in their FOW games, which looks great. However, when they give tactical advice it seems attuned to their 'metagame' i.e. relatively short LOS. Unless they're playing a desert game things like 88s, with their commanding ranges, don't fare as well as in other gamers and bloggers AARs. Apparently Germans do considerably better in games with longer LOS whilst forces like Russians generally do better when there's more limited LOS due to their assault focus. As you say, terrain matter!

    1. It's one of the reason I chuckle about all these netlists for certain games. Sure if the scernery is just a bland couple of trees a blown out building and a hill everytime you play a certain game it is possible to create lists that optimize that set up... oooh say for competitive tournaments.

      But I'd argue in most game systems I've come across scenery is vitally important and how you use that scenery is also vitally important. FoW being a case in point... as is Infinity. That's why I find it really frustrating when I don't see clearly defined guidlines for how to set a board up for a game. Sure I can muddle through and work things out via trial and error, but when a games designer can just tell you I don't get what they bloody don't!!!

      Any who, good comment and thanks for reading.

  4. Hi,

    Scenery has been a bugbear of mine for a few years now as well. For me it comes down to immersion- to really get into a game, you need painted models and a good looking table. That doesn't mean 4 beautifully rendered buildings- it means scatter terrain, walls, roads, hedges, rough ground, parks, whatever. This means that I tend to play on quite dense tables- but I always make sure that there's not too many big scenery pieces (buildings, hills and the like ) unless the game or scenario call for it, as Necromunda and Infinity do.

    On a more specific point- I've noticed that GW when I started playing WHFB and 40K in the early 90's insisted on a 8' board. Then the army sizes increased. Then the points values changed, so you needed even more. Now, they insist on a 6' board. So 15 years later, we are using more models and units in a smaller space. I'm still working on how this has affected their games design.

    1. It's all relative though to the game you play. With Infinity yeah the game is designed for modern urban conflict, with sniper alleys and lots of cover and built up areas. Play 40k on a similar board and nothing would ever happen... plus you wouldn't be able to fit your tanks down the roads. :P