Thursday, 11 August 2011

Can any game system ever truly be balanced? Part 4

The mission objective

Ah yes the objective!!! We've all seen war films with maps and arrows and large 'X's' on them to denote what the various objectives and targets the protagonists have to achieve. You see in war its never just a simple case of obliterate your opponent and you win. Nope its normally go here, claim this, or storm that. We too as gamers like to see this sort of 'mission' in our wargames to provide a tactical element to proceedings and also add a bit of story and narrative to spice things up and an element of entertainment to our games. As I've said before we're a demanding bunch of consumers us wargamers.

I have played so many games and different game systems that to be brutally honest I've lost count and I've more than likely forgotten a fair few games systems along the way. Not all have had missions or objectives as part of their core, or indeed as part of the entire range of rules. While others have had the mission objectives as a core feature of their systems and right at the heart of what happens on the board. I'm not going to say there is a right or wrong approach to missions in wargames because like many of the different elements that go up to make wargames its a case of finding the right fit for each individual game.

Do I like to see missions in a game? Hell yes, you see I'm just as demanding of my game systems as the next guy, if not more so. For me its the only weakness in my favourite wargame of all time, Infinity. You see there are no official missions or objectives in Infinity apart from two, and those aren't great. However I can truly understand Corvus Belli's reluctance to introduce mission objectives to their rules because the game is currently so perfectly balanced and poised... and missions could screw all that up big time if they're not handled properly. We'll all get a chance to see later this year how well they have handled it given the fact that there is rumoured to be a missions rulebook in development for Infinity right now and will supposedly be launched later this year.

So why would they be so cautious? Well you see certain missions in certain games can lead to a clear imbalance absolutely no question. Missions require you as a general to complete a certain task and there is a risk that those tasks might actually be easier to achieve for certain types of troops. When you couple that with the variance we like to see in troop choices between our factions then our intrepid game designers have one serious headache to sort out. So I for one can see why in some game systems the mission book has been released later on in the evolution of the system and in some cases not at all.

I've played games where the mission seems to have spiced things up and added a real zing to proceedings (Battletech) and then there have been others that have genuinely handed one side the victory (40k). Ironically recently I've played a number of Warmachine and Hordes games that have given me the win by virtue of the mission we'd chosen at random, and I say ironic because prior to this I'd have said Warmachine and Hordes only really become balanced with the addition of missions. The reason I feel missions actually add balance to HoMachine is that straight up caster kills are easier to perform for certain factions and casters. However I've recently played a game against an Everblight force whereby before the game had even started the game was so loaded in my favour and my faction the Retribution of Scyrah that actually it was silly even playing the game. The second was against Cryx whereby my fast moving angry elves were able to claim the two objectives in the first turn leaving my opponent no chance again, as he'd need two turns to reach them by which time it was too late as I would have claimed vistory.

Its these sorts of situations that games designers are trying to avoid and I would like to make it brutally clear that these two games I'm mentioning in Warmachine are not the norm. However with the variance in armies and army list choices its almost impossible to make sure that all missions are actually perfectly equal and equitable for all factions and possible army builds. Its impossible BUT you can ensure that they aren't blatantly favouring one side. Some of the Warmachine missions do however favour the quicker armies and that's a dangerous and difficult thing to manage, but other game systems have also fallen into that exact same trap. My other mission based bug bear comes from 40k and the fact that only troops can claim objectives... I'm not going to go into all the arguments for and against this decision, what I will say is that in the real world its normally the Elite troops that do actually take and hold objectives and I find it weird that in 40k this isn't the case. If certain Elite troops were too good at claiming objectives perhaps that should have been ringing alarm bells about overall game balance?

I've always felt that it was somewhat strange that actually choosing what mission you wished to accomplish as a general isn't actually part of many games. For instance I was playing a quick and nippy army why wouldn't that army as it have more reconnaissance or capture and hold type missions? Why wouldn't a heavily armoured and mechanised army not have missions that play to their strengths, like punching a hole in their opponents battle line? I'd actually like to see more game systems actually introduce the call on the general to choose their own missions or secondary objectives and have victory points awarded for completing your mission and also for stopping your opponent achieving theirs. Then at least you only have yourself to blame for picking a duff mission.

One of my more recent additions to my gaming habits, Malifaux does attempt to at least address this very issue of balance in wargaming and missions. They do this by having a randomly generated encounters or strategies and then you choose your own scheme to suit yourself and your faction. While this isn't perfect I'd say its a big step in the right direction in terms of ensuring that you're not faced with a randomly generated uphill struggle. I think we'd all like to keep the missions in our games as it does provide us with more entertaining games and keeps things fresher for us as gamers. My last and final article on game balance will be on language and how the use of language can at times create imbalances. Peace out!

Links to further articles

Game Balance: Part 1
Game Balance: Part 2
Game Balance: Part 3
Game Balance: Part 5


  1. Just to pick up on one point (OK, 2). Generals picking their missions is a luxury real generals seldom have. I, for one, find random missions far more entertaining in a game as they challenge me to do the job with what's to hand. If I could always pick the missions I would take, then I could so finesse the army I was taking that I would be nigh unstoppable at them. That way lies more beard, methinks.

    Second point is more of an observation: why has nobody commented on any of these posts apart from the first? Odd.

  2. I'm going to agree and disagree about the general's point Quirk. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and generals are given quite loose objective like be at point X by X time. Its up to the generals and commanders on the ground to decide how to do them. I also play tested a few 40k scenario's I'd written years and years ago whereby you actually got more points for stopping your opponents mission than you did achieving your own. It actually didn't lead to beard at all and by creating faction specific missions we were able to actually balance out any slight advantages contained with certain factions who just seemed way to hard!!! Its like most things I guess it requires testing working through. Even if the Prime mission was set via random roll I think there is more than a case to be made for secondary missions and the general / player choosing what they are.

    As for comments... I know, its interesting. However these articles have sparked further discussion on the Spartan Games Forum and on Dakka Dakka so I'm guessing that's where all the discussion is going on, which is cool. Either that or my articles are all so awesomely spot on that everyone agrees with every word I've written... yeah no I don't think that's bloody likely either. Have had many PM's from Peeps saying they totally agree re scenery and rulebooks so I think that's certainly something game designers should think about in the future.

  3. I agree.

    I once played in Warhammer tournament where the organizer stated that you could turn up with anything between 2500 and 4000 points, to encourage more people to sign up, even those with small armies. The difference in points would then be compensated in the games by giving the guy with more points some special objectives and maybe some defensive terrain to the other guy. It sounded good on paper. It was an utter failure. It turned out the organizer hadn't thought through any of the "compensations" and made decisions on the fly.

    In my first game my 4000 points of dwarves faced off 3000 points of undead. The undead player got a castle wall straight across his deployment zone to hide behind, and lots of houses in front of it to break up line of sight since I had max amount of cannons in my army. My objective was then to kill his general. Halfway through the game I realized that I couldn't even reach the walls, due to the dwarves low movement combined with the need to go around the intervening terrain. Luckily my opponent, who had realized the same, was a good sport and actually went out of his castle to meet me, in order to get a good game.

    In my second game I met 3500 points of chaos. Since I had just a little advantage in points, the objectives were just to beat the snot out of eachothers armies. However, the organizer placed a ridge line across the middle of the whole table to compensate for my dominance in ranged combat (lots of cannons, two bolt throwers and a plethora of crossbows and throwing utensils). Well, if you take a close combat oriented army, against a shooty army, and then take away the shooty army's only advantage, what do you get? Not a fun game.

    Needless to say I didn't go to that tournament the next year.

  4. @Laffe, I think that sort of thing is fine between mates, just 'having a laugh'. However at a tournament... well its just not fun. Sometimes people think making up balanced scenarios and scenery layouts is easy, but its not. Its an art form in its own right, especially balanced scenarios in rulebooks, it actually always surprises me how close or spot on games designers get it. I know that obviously there are the tried and tested scenarios, Ambush, break through the line etc. etc. etc. but to get them balanced for multiple factions for each game type show there are some quite talented people out there.

    I think some people think well I've played lots of games, and I've been gaming for 'x' amount of years I could do all this better, or I know what I'm doing. Its easy to fall into that trap. Back on the first blog I left a comment about the fact that some people I knew reenacted the Alamo with miniatures. I'm going to be honest, it kinda gave us all a new appreciation of what those Texans achieved!!! Because let me tell you that was NOT a balanced fight. Fun though it was to play if it was like that every week I would quickly tire of the hobby.

    I think choosing either your main mission or a secondary mission could potentially be a way forward for some games. Say both sides are after say battlefield dominance claiming board quarters, one side is quick nippy and evasive, and not likely to be able to hold any board quarters for long because their opponent is a heavily mechanised force. That game is going to rapidly because hide and seek and then rush the quarters on the last turn to get a draw. On the other hand if both sides could pick a secondary or side mission and get points for those then it might draw people out to play the game how they intended to when they chose their forces.

  5. FG: Have you given any thought to auctions and bidding as a way to balance games? (This supposedly has a long history, but I can't recall where I learned than now.)

    The idea is to to have a scenario with one side determined in advance (nominally the defender) and two players create attacking forces. The players then hold a reverse auction, alternately reducing the size of their forces until one player thinks the have a better chance of winning with the defending force than if they lower their bid any further. The player who so "quits" and plays the defending force.

    Thinking this through a bit more, I can see some obvious problem when it comes to a game with faction abilities like W40K or Malifaux. I done this with Battletech though, where all players had essentially the same resources and abilities, and it worked nicely.

    If you are up on your Battletech lore, the Clan "Batchall" is exactly a reverse auction.

  6. I haven't been involved / played any Battletech for over a decade now. I keep thinking that its something I should really try to rectify... but there are so many lovely games out there that I just haven't had the time to get back into it. I've also lost touch with most of the people I used to play Battletech with and I'm not sure many in my gaming circle would welcome me trying to add yet another game to the mix. Plus I'm not too sure I have the funds or time to take it up again. Isn't a 'Batchall' a challenge of some sort its been some years and I've imbibed much alcohol between now and then?

    As for reverse auction's yeah I've heard of it but have never used it myself. It is however a valid method for trying to get both sides to feel the game is balanced I guess, and in scenarios it could work almost certainly. However for a straight up game at say a tournament I'm not so sure it'd go down too well. I personally wouldn't mind it as the 'bidding' would add just yet another skill to the game to master. Perhaps I'll try it on a few games to see how it works.

    Not too sure though that I'd like to see it become part of any actual game system proper because potentially the 'bidding' process could end up being a really long winded way of getting a game started, amongst friends I'm sure it could work quite well, but with a stranger at a club or some other venue... hell no!!! lol. Some people take hours deciding which miniature to move first and to where every turn!!! I still think the best way to balance games is via math and rigorous games testing but also field testing games. As a researcher more data is always better!!!