Sunday, 14 August 2011

Can any game system ever truly be balanced? Part 5

The imperfections of communication and Language

Well it might not seem like the most obvious of things to talk about in article based around game balance but it is nevertheless an important part of the inherent inconsistencies that exist within all game systems. You see the point of language is to communicate the thoughts and ideas of one person or a group of people to another person or group, and here's the rub... the message as read, or heard and interpreted by those that receive it can be different from what the sender initially intended and, more importantly for a wargame, the message can be interpreted differently by every single person who is a recipient of the message. A very clever chap called J.A. Austin actually managed to come up with an equation for miscommunication in an article entitled 'How to do things with words' in 1962, an interesting read if you're a nerd like me, otherwise stay clear. However Austin also noted later that some people can 'intentionally' misinterpret communication too their own benefit. Yep I'm taking about errata, FAQ's and those delightful individuals we all like to refer to as rules lawyers.

So while I might say the topic of this article is language its not entirely true. No its more about the extent to which we as gamers go in bending, twisting and outright cheating when 'interpreting' the rules. Have you ever had such a heated debate about game rules that you've not been able to finish a game? Have you both been so perplexed by a situation that neither person knows how to resolve a rules conundrum? Has an argument ever made you so angry you shouted at your opponent to 'fuck the shut up'? Well two of the 3 have happened to me, while the third I witnessed, during a game of 8th Edition Fantasy, I watched two gamers get so enraged by the awful wording of a rule that one of them got so tongue tied that they screwed their lines up badly and invented a humorous retort.

You see though I once didn't complete a game of Battletech with a friend because we just could not agree on a way forward. Both of our arguments at the time seemed incredibly plausible and neither would back down, I offered a dice roll but my opponent said no way, he was adamant about being 100% right and wouldn't trust that to fate. Turns out after an FAQ neither of us were right. This episode though very early on in my gaming life emphasised to me how a badly worded rule could lead to huge imbalances in games but also open the door for us gamers to abuse the rules. Sadly though its a thing that's here to stay. Sure games designers can make things easier by using clear and consistent language and to be fair they normally do. Visual aids such as diagrams etc. can also be a great help, but the thing that no game designer can ever do is actually govern the way their rules are received and interpreted by all the brains of the great unwashed masses (that's us gamers if my language is a bit too colourful).

So who is to blame for this mess? Well I think that depends on the mess. In the case of our Battletech argument the reason the game wasn't completed was because of how stubborn we both were as young teenagers, however the reason things got to that state was because of how utterly dire the wording of the rule was. The FAQ in that instance was so far removed from the wording it was actually an errata at best and more likely a volte-face and actual rule change. Yet at other times these arguments have been more down to individuals 'interpretations' of the rules. I once actually got into a very heated argument during a game of 40k over cover and whether somebody was in cover or not. Sounds simple enough right, except that the cover he was claiming was some clumped together flock that had fallen off of a tree we'd moved so he could fit a unit in the forest.

 This clumped flock didn't even cover half the height of the characters base. The character wasn't touching the card base the forest was on, in fact he was about 3 or 4 inches away from it. Yet these 'fallen leaves' in his mind constituted cover. He even got out the rulebook and read the cover rules to me. Now never mind the fact that the rules themselves stipulated that what he was claiming as cover was actually insufficient for cover and all the rest of it, this situation was purely down to my opponent and their willingness to bend the rules. Was that problem created by the people that wrote those 40k rules? Hell no, that was all on him for being an utter douche bag cheat.

I once wrote an article for a local fanzine that was entitled 'In the spirit of the game' and it was written because I'd got well and truly fed up of seeing people bend rules. I still do get fed up of seeing people bend rules, deliberately misinterpret things and just be complete and utter dickheads about it. However I did have a conversation with what most of you would term a 'win at all costs gamer' who actually made quite a convincing argument that its not his fault if people don't know the rules as well as he does, and therefore allow him to twist the wording to his advantage. He also made a very convincing argument about a number of games systems where the ambiguity of the rules was a direct cause of them being badly written and worded and was that again his fault?

I took both points on board and on his first point I still disagree, if you know the rules better than your opponent, then you know what you're doing when 'bending' them, and you know it is wrong and is outright cheating. No excuses for it and if you do that to somebody else you are a complete tosser or as us Brits say, a wanker. I personally wouldn't want to win a game because I'd used somebody else's lack of knowledge on the rules or their general ignorance meant I was able to bend the rules and cheat. However on his second point I think he's right, badly worded rules can be manipulated quite innocently to mean something the original author didn't intend. I've done it myself unintentionally. As have my opponents and after FAQs or Erratas come out you feel a little bit guilty about it. Yet if game systems allow these ambiguities to exist and go on for far longer than is acceptable then I guess for those people who play those games its open season to 'interpret' away. Just to be clear though I personally prefer to stay clear of such badly written games because I don't want to spend half of my gaming time locked in arguments, its just not my idea of fun.

One final point though that I thought I'd made in the original draft of the article but clearly didn't make strong enough, after Jake Thornton pointed it out... 'read the bloody rulebook', hopefully that's clear enough now. The amount of times I've played games against opponents who have claimed to have a good working knowledge of the game and then proceeded to break every rule in the book or ask questions every time they wanted to do stuff is insane. I know sometimes we just want to get our toys onto the board and play, we've all been there. However when it's 6 months into 'playing' a game then you're just a lazy bastard! The other thing is, if you get stuck mid game, take a pause for the cause and sit down and read the rules together. I've found 9 times out of 10 most rules disputes or ambiguities can be clarified by calmly reading the rules around the dispute again. Yeah sure every now and then you'll end up with a curve ball that seems wrong or unsolvable... just don't let it ruin your games like I have in the past. Its really not worth it because at the end of the day we're all gamers out for having a bit of fun with toy soldiers, and shouldn't we all just be able to get along?


You see I really do think its impossible to get the perfectly balanced game in reality, where by the only inequality that exists is that of the relative skills of the opponents. Maybe its possible in some mathematical equation kind of way that nerds like me might like working on but out there on the gaming board? Its difficult. Not even chess is without its controversies (player who goes first more likely to win). In wargaming these inequalities and imbalances have more scope to appear and be abused by us the gamer, whether deliberately or subconsciously. The thing we're all after is a fair crack of the whip as I said back in the first article, and for that to happen we need to try to communicate as gamers and be fair to one and other. If you know a mission is biased towards you then its on you to say whether you play it or not. If there isn't enough scenery on the table to give your opponent a cat in hells chance, then again be fair about it. After all do you want to win a game because you deliberately set things up to be imbalanced? Now I take the point that its a totally different kettle of fish if the game itself has unbalanced factions, but do you want to play those games anyway? Peace out!

P.S. Sorry its two days late but I had Hell Dorado arrive along with my Fennblades and Covenant of Antarctica Fleet, so I was hobby busy and didn't have time to do a once over of the article and insert witty / funny pictures.

Links to previous articles

Game Balance: Part 1
Game Balance: Part 2
Game Balance: Part 3
Game Balance: Part 4

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