Monday, March 1, 2010

Player Variance & Its Impact on the Game and Balance

Good Morning and Happy Monday,

I was prompted to write this entry based upon a thread over at BOLS that I responded to. Interestingly (or not), I may not really be topical with what I wrote, but it will spin off into more of a commentary here.

To that end,

Balance is one of those things that bears scrutiny b/c it varies so much from player to player. It is all well and good to view the game only through the lens of your own impression of what the "best" way to play is. Case in point: ... Stelek is on point with a lot of his evaluation, and it's a good place to go for primers on the game at a more fundamentally competitive level.

Regardless, when you're thinking about how other people view the game, and the subsequent impact that has on how a tournament is run, on how people talk about other people (the classic branding of hardcore competitive players as "bad," or casual players as "bad," or whatever), and on balance is important.

Let's take a simple example.

Tyranid Termagants with their T3 and 6+ save are base costed at 5 points. For 5 points you get a model that will die to almost anything that wounds it, regardless of source. Lasguns, bolters, close combat attacks, whatever, right? I would say wrong. It's a rare occasion that you'll ever go up against me in even a fairly terran-less board and find numerous Termagants who do not have cover saves. Since the cover save of 5th edition is almost always a 4+, these 5 point models now only die to half of the attacks sent against them from almost any ranged weapon in the game.

This plays out heavily when you consider individual players, and differing levels of terrain at various locations, and other sorts of variables.

A couple of weekends ago, in the first round of a local tournament I participated in, this issue brought itself forward in extreme clarity.

I went up against an extremely casual player in my first round with an Eldar list that, while it had plenty of teeth, was far from optimized and had a very significant "foot" portion in the form of a walking farseer, 3 squads of walking guardians, and a squad of walking avengers, plus an avatar and a wraithguard. My army was fully mechanized ... a pair of demolishers, a trio of chimeras, and 5 vendettas (which I probably would have fielded less of, but my newer chimeras are not yet painted). I am familiar with having cover often, and knowing how to use it and how to acquire it when it's scarce on the board.

You could tell right away that my opponent was used to a casual group of players who utilized cover very sparsely, and rarely granted it ... more noticeably, they appeared by some of his actions to be a "4th edition" group. Cover was harder to come by unless you were clearly in it, and foot armies were a little more plausible. Regardless, whenever I would fire at him through partial obscuring terrain, I would have to argue politely with him to allow HIM to have a cover save - he was so used to not ever having any. Similarly, I had to bite my tongue and pass on having cover saves when he'd fire at a leman russ 75% obscured by a fence (for example), b/c his group clearly viewed things like "fences" as silly cover, and utilized realism over rules in such instances.

Note - I don't disagree with that approach, but the point is here to highlight that playstyles vary widely among players, and not all players are built - via group, and/or personality - to take advantage of all the rules of the game to their fullest capacity.

So let's reference this back to the inclusion of homebrew rules in a tournament setting, attempts at rebalancing the game, and the inclusion of army amplifiers like IA rules.

If you give my opponent from Round 1 a Wraithguard, and you give me a Wraithguard, mine will survive most games far longer than his (which bit it to a single vendetta round right off the bat, since he never tried to give it any cover ... just a wraithguard waltzing across the board). This isn't b/c I'm necessarily smarter, but b/c my playing background and mental outlook encourages me to fully grasp the impact of the 50% cover rule and apply it whenever and wherever possible. Fight tooth and nail for every wound on every model, and you're more likely to come out of the game in one piece.

This is an extremely simple example, but hopefully renders a point clear - that the more competitive the player, the more advantage he will take of rules in the game to achieve an advantage for his army. As a result, while it would *feel* like changes to make units more competitive would benefit everyone, they actually benefit more competitive players (who already do not require an advantage) on an exponential level. If you were to make gaunts 4 points instead of 5 (just as an example), you're making a unit slightly better for those who always get them shot up with no saves, and you're improving the unit twice as much for a player who always ensures they have a cover save. That one point of savings goes twice as far for the better player.

Maybe others might see it differently, but it takes a lot of careful thought when it comes to balance to utilize rules beyond those already in the codices (which are already questionably balanced). Excellent players do not require an advantage, and poor players are not going to be better off for it. These rules changes and "extra" rules (like IA) seem to therefore have their best place within normalized play groups, where the style and level of play usually equalizes over time for the most part, and so where changes benefit everyone equally, instead of increasing the disparity between players (and therefore reducing competitiveness, instead of improving it).

Just a few Monday morning $.02
- Mike


  1. Mike,
    If I'm understanding you correctly it seems as if you are saying that good players will be good players regardless of what army they are playing with. A good player can use a 5 point gaunt better than a bad player will use a 5 point gaunt and a good player will use a *cough* 35 point wraithguard better than a bad player will.

    I think what you are trying to get about is that good players are good players because they understand how the rules can be used to benefit their army and will put themselves into a position to take advantage of those rules. A bad player may take advantage of rules that benefit them, but they will not work to put themselves into an advantageous position, they may just end up in one through chance.

    In your example the eldar player didn't work to put himself into cover at all times, he just happened to be near cover so went into it. A good player would ensure that his units either moved from cover to cover, or had an intervening model that would provide it cover, say speeding jetbikes for instance.

  2. Truth, in part.

    The other truth of the issue above is that when you "improve" armies with homebrew rules changes, or the utilization of Imperial Armor, or what-have-you, you're going to benefit the good players more than the ... I don't like "bad," but "players who don't take full advantage of the rules."

    The premise is that while some codices have far more limited breadth of builds that are "competitive," none of them are purely noncompetitive (yup, not even DH, largely due to ally rules). Adding more variety to the codices via homebrew or IA will improve the spread of builds you can field, but it will not make players better. So, you're not going to improve competitiveness or balance, oddly enough. You're just going to add more variety of build.

  3. Honestly, the only reason for having home brewed or IA lists is so that you can have a good players with a competitive army playing against a not so good player or a not so good army and give the not so good 'whatever' a leg up.

    "You are playing guard, but you aren't that good. We will let you shoot your battle cannon twice, i.e. slick loader".

    I agree EVERY army can be competitive. Some are just easier to make competitive than others.


  4. I'd like to offer another perspective on that, Dave. I think we can distinguish between two kinds of homebrew and IA rules - those that are designed to fix something perceived to be broken, and those that are designed to enlarge the game. The IA2 update brings its vehicles into line with the current state of the art, for instance - that's a fix, and it's subject to the effect that Mike is talking about, where (to the extent it makes those units better than they were before) it benefits the "good" players more than the "bad" players.

    But other homebrew and IA rules aren't designed to fix anything. Slick Loader, the entire IA1 ammunition system, and lots of IA units such as Salamanders are added not to give one player or another a leg up, but to make the game more closely fit the fluff. Those should be included not whenever a player needs a handicap, but whenever the *players* are interested in making the game more closely fit the fluff. With this sort of thing, Mike's other point is right on - a good tactician is good tactician even if you change the rules of his army on him, or enlarge the sphere of action his opponent might take (by corollary, even a good player can be a bad tactician, and changing the rules on him is in my opinion the best way to figure that out).

  5. Mike I'm being yelled at by my fiance to come to bed (it's about 3:30 am here) but instead I find myself reading and responding to your post. As before I find the quality and tone of your writing to be excellent but feel that you often skip the explanation of the point you support so well.

    In this case you've skipped why it is that rules desingers should concern themselves with how well their changes to the rules are implemented. Aren't some players *always* going to take advantage of rules where other don't? Why should this affect custom rules and expansions more than 'official' rules?

    "So, you're not going to improve competitiveness or balance, oddly enough. You're just going to add more variety of build."

    I found this comment deeply perplexing. Is not "adding variety of build" the same as "improving competitiveness"? Namely for us player that add self-imposed restrictions by adhering to a theme. You mentioned DHs being competitive due to ally rules but what about the player that only wants Grey Knights? Said player benefits from additional rules such as Forgeworlds GK version of the Redeemer. It expands the fluff while presenting the player with another viable choice within the Grey Knight list.

  6. Natalie - I generally agree with you. When the players as a whole want the game to be a different way (such as meeting the fluff), it's usually a reflection of players' group, and hence a reflection of a roughly comparable set of skills across the participant players. This makes new rules totally "OK."

    Atrotos - Good commentary in general, and a good point to me about explaining the foundation that I'm defending before I go into my furious defense!

    I think to a couple of your points that it demands a little bit of a reiteration on my part ...

    Improving choices, making more competitive builds, etc., is not going to help the people who are incapable of building competitive builds. Contrary to popular belief, most people who go to a tournament believe their list can be competitive. Those guys that go with a pure fluff list and go "I KNO I'M GUNNA LEWZ" are not the norm, or even a significant minority.

    Regardless, no matter what you do to DEEPEN or BROADEN the game, or even to simply improve unit balance, it's going to help the sharper / more advantage-seeking players exponentially (not proportionally) in comparison to their antitheses.

    The point is, that the game will never be made MORE considerate to the "average" unless it becomes more homogenized. Most homebrew rules and certainly the IA expansion make the game more colorful, but not more homogeneous.

    This isn't a knock on them, just a rationale for not utilizing them in a tournament setting.

  7. "Regardless, no matter what you do to DEEPEN or BROADEN the game, or even to simply improve unit balance, it's going to help the sharper / more advantage-seeking players exponentially (not proportionally) in comparison to their antitheses."

    Ok this did it for me. More rules = more rules for good players to take advantage of and poor players to ignore. I understand what you're saying.

    I still hope though that we can agree that player should not be forced to take units they don't like just to be competitive. I don't disagree with the above comment but I feel it's eclipsed by the aforementioned Grey Knights players that are "forced" to take non-GKs to augment their force when attending tournaments.

    Everyone's army should be "realistically"(not perfectly) balanced even within it's own theme-imposed limitations. Shouldn't we cater to the needs of themed army players before we worry about Eldar players that don't use cover?

  8. Well, now we get into an interesting place. Suppose what I really, really, really fuggin' want to do is have an army that's Grey Knights allied with Orks. The GK get stuck in the Octavius system, and an Ork weirdboy screws with their brains using the crazy psychic power of the waaagh, and they all get along and go on a rampaging waagh of their own after milk and cookies.

    If you make me take ANY units that don't equate to that theme, you're forcing me to take units I don't like just to even be legal.

    The game can't be happy for everyone ever ... and it's open ended and non-homogenized enough that there's always going to be "optimal" choices and suboptimal ones. While it's noble and I think pursuit-worthy to balance units against each other and make numerous builds playable within your own group - I've mentioned to you before that my own group completely rebalanced numerous codices mostly for shits ang giggles - it's not something that functions at a tournament level, if you will.

    Re: catering to anyone ... I think a themed army is a misnomer. It's simply the desire of someone's imagination to suit a theme, and the willingness to sacrifice competitiveness for that.

    I utilize a themed Catachan army that focuses on aggressive, in your face hard hitting play, which is basically Straken to a T. It's also competitive enough to win with. Cool as it is notionally to try and make "every" theme equal, I'm not sure it's a realistic goal ... b/c we each have a different opinion of what a theme is. There are people who think Catachans should never have flying vehicles in their theme. Says them.

  9. I agree with Mike here. "Theme" is really just a say of saying "The story I came up with for my army," and some stories that people come up with for their armies describe not very effective military formations.

    To give a personal example, I run a tribe of Snakebite orks called Da Circus Rukkus that is on the cusp of becoming a full-blown Waaagh! My friend runs a band of misfit sisters from a tiny order called the Order of the Kingly Raiment who are following a misguided inquisitor. His "theme" is intentionally describing a less effective force than mine. How are we supposed to make his theme as competitive as mine without breaking his theme?

  10. Good post. What's interesting is how interesting the comments are! I have nothing to contribute to the conversation though, so I'll leave you to it.

  11. Again, Natalie, Mike, I can't disagree but there must be a middle ground. If I want to run an army of hobbits maybe I shouldn't win every GT but I don't think the same can be said of the Grey Knights player whom I've example-d to exhaustion. There are themes the *game* promotes that are not competitive but should be.

  12. I've actually seen a mostly-GK finish 4-0 in a tournament and come .03 points shy of best general. He had almost all GK, with no thematic compromise when ensuring his force was competitive. There should be a compromise between "RUN THEMATIC ACCORDING TO FLUFF THE WAY I REALLY THINK IT SHOULD BE" and "thematic but still competitive." You can't make everyone happy, and you will cause harm trying too hard.

    It's good food for thought on the back and forth.

  13. so can i use a IA book volume nine in the tournament with my team or by my self