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Saturday, 14 July 2012

Perspectives: "Balance" in Wargames

Hi all,

I've been thinking recently about "balance" in wargames. It's becoming more common on comments and forums, for people to cry out for balance in wargames- I'd just like to explore, for a little while, what they seem to mean.

Balance in wargaming is a funny beast. At its extreme is Chess, where the armies are set and are perfectly equal. This is not what most wargamers mean by balance though- there seems to be some ephemeral golden mean out there that everyone is striving for, and never reaching. After trawling through comments, forums, blogs and my own memory, I've come to one conclusion- that balance, in most cases, means the chance for both players to win at a game. That's it.

So what are the unbalancing factors of a wargame? Well, a wide variation of statistics, and free availability of units, is a big one. An Elite unit is inherently better than a main-line unit. If armies were composed entirely, on one side, of elite models vs grunts, in equal numbers, then you can see the imbalance straight away. In general, this is limited by points values- units are worth different values. So you get a "balance" of numbers vs quality- a unit which is better is worth more points.

Of course, no points-based system is perfect. Complexities of the various statistics, freedom of choice of units (army restrictions), weaponry all factor in, and create inherent imbalance. It basically boils down to player choice when creating the army list- any points system can be abused to a greater or lesser extent, by creating combinations of troops, min-maxing, using redundancy etc. As soon as points values are used, the game is essentially unbalanced in some areas.

The next unbalancing factor? Theme. Different forces are better or worse in certain situations. Take a historical example- an urban-specialist unit fighting in a winter environment vs native units is at a disadvantage. The only time that balance would be achieved is on neutral terrain (desert, maybe?) or if the forces had the same specialisation. equally, an armoured company fighting Home Guard Infantry has a distinct advantage. These situations can be played in most WW2 historical wargames, given equal points and full lists- but they aren't balanced, in any way. This is more or less extreme in any wargame- either whole races have a given theme, or units within that list do- if they come up against their counter, then they will likely lose.

I touched on the third major factor- terrain. Whatever battlefield you are fighting on, it changes the environment and will be an advantage or disadvantage for either force. If the battlefield is empty, then units with projectile weapons have the advantage. If the terrain is too dense, they have the disadvantage. This is a fairly basic example, but there are dozens- my personal favourite is Agincourt.

Add into these three areas of concern all of the complexities and quirks of an individual ruleset, and in any given situation one player will have an advantage over the other at the start of the game, unless all of them are stripped away. Then again, take away points values, individual unit stats and terrain and you get.... Chess. So the conclusion is that all wargames are unbalanced- it's up to the players to use or abuse the rules to get a good game out of it, and enjoy the hobby. Different things appeal to different people, and that's fantastic- the hobby, now has such a broad array of games, most importantly different styles of games, that we can all pick and choose what we want to play. Grab the game that is right for you.

So if a degree of imbalance is going to be present, is it important at all? It is the key to success in Tournaments and other high-competition style environments- players will look for the most "broken" list, to secure the largest advantage. That is not to say that player skill does not come into it- but a skilled player with a list built for advantage will usually beat a player using a list that is not. When Mr.Harris and I were discussing it earlier, he came up with this response:

"...everyone's going to look for the most unbalanced army they can get thus achieving balance and remember that they chose that army, it wasn't randomly selected for them so they had an equal chance at the army selection stage. Then outside of the tournament why should it matter? You pick the army you want to use, you select a random scenario or make one up to fit your story or what you want to do and then you see where the game takes you. As soon as you bring in differences in deployment with attackers and defenders you also lose balance but without the imbalances, it would become a much duller game. The enjoyment isn't winning, it's doing the best you could given the situation you were in..."

I struggle to disagree with that as a sentiment. Balance is something that players strive for, but rules-designers sacrifice it at every level of complexity in order to produce a game that will sell. Some go for tic-tac-toe style "balance" (where some lists provide an equal chance, but there are examples where specific lists and themes have advantage over others.) Others strive to force balance with heavy restrictions, and some games treat balance as secondary to theme and mechanics. I don't have a problem with any of these- in fact, I enjoy the variety, and depending on the style of game I want to play, I'll pick up a particular game and play it.

So please, let's stop asking all of the companies to look for balance, and instead embrace variety, and play the games that we, as individuals, want to play.

Comments, as always, are welcome.


  1. "The enjoyment isn't winning, it's doing the best you could given the situation you were in..."


    1. Or analysing where your mistake was afterwards!