Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Balancing a Game - Competitive Balance vs. "Who Cares" / "For Fun" Balance - Mythology and Weirdness in 40k and General Game Design

So, something that's always gotten my goat is the question of whether or not the tabletop wargame(s) we all play and love should be balanced with competitive hardcore tournament players in mind.

The common company line response from Games Workshop in regard to this is that the game is not built with hardcore competitive tournament players in mind, and that it was meant to be a fun beer and pretzels game, and that the majority of its players aren't competitive hardcore tournament players.

Let's think about this critically.

What makes Sisters Repentia cool?  Giant chainswords of doom?  Crazy bitches with holy rage?  The Lumperjacks of Battle, seeking forgiveness for their errors by treating the enemies of the Emperor like a crop of young saplings?

Having them walk across the board getting shot to pieces?  Costing too many points?  Not having a sweet anger-management ride to travel around in?

I'm guessing the latter parts have nothing to do with their cool and fun features.  I'm guessing further that if they were properly points costed, properly equipped, and properly protected / protectable (i.e. a transport) that they'd do two things - 1) not be any less fun, cool, beer and pretzels, fluffy, neato, etc.  .... 2) be more balanced and therefore loved by and functional for hardcore competitive tournament players.  Plus, more hard choices when building a dex, which is never a bad thing for sales OR fun (omg I can change my list whenever I like and the new plugins are still going to compete and I have to buy new models!).

What about the polish of the rules?  How many casual players do you think forbid Bjorn the Fell-handed from using his rule to re-roll the dice to go first due to there not technically being a roll to "select deployment zone?"  I think you'd agree it was more common among tournament players, that dispute.  If GW had better edited and polished their product prior to release, and listed that as re-rolling the dice to go first ... do you think it would have negatively impacted the casual players' games at all?  Of course not.

How about the Pyrovore.  What if it had a good armor save, could move faster in some capacity, didn't hurt gaunts when it died, had better stats or a better weapon, or in any capacity was competitively useful.  Would the model suddenly look hideous?  Would the tiny handful of players who currently use them suddenly throw them away?  Would everyone maybe consider using them, from the top to the bottom of the scale of player types?

Do you see where we're going here?  The things required to make this game air-tight and perfectly balanced for competitive gamers are NOT things that would in any way compromise the "fun" of beer and pretzels gamers.

Having the various unit selections in a codex be interchangeable, where your challenge is how to best use good units within a slot and mesh them with an overall army build, instead of simply nominating the "power" units and spamming them ... would also probably make the game MORE fun for everyone - casual players first of all.  No longer would they be faced with the intensely irritating dilemma of whether to take those ripper swarms that they thematically just LOVE or the "obvious" Tervigon and Gaunt troops.  On the rules front and the game front, you'd also integrate everyone better - no longer would you get into a fight over a hinky rules interpretation with a more "competitive" stranger at the local GW.

Frankly, the "competitive" and "fun" differences also don't exist in games that are more balanced and air-tight in their design ... you don't need homogeneity to accomplish it either.

I wonder if GW will ever pick up on what is largely an obvious truth here - that better and more competitive and balanced rules are better for EVERYONE, and more fun for EVERYONE, and reduce divisions within the hobby while increasing sales.  I wonder if the "casual" crowd will figure this out also.  The Dick Move blog had one of its Friday Night Internet Fights with a guy claiming there needed to be multiple versions of the game of 40k - a "fun" version and a "competitive" version and all of that.  I couldn't disagree more, and I think all of us would have more fun with everyone if we found a way to pressure GW or encourage them to build a better mousetrap.  Until that pressure is there, it'll always be a crapshoot and a hope shot ... and every codex will have those "suboptimal" units that no one spams or takes ... encouraging the super casuals to take them to be "different," and subsequently lament the "spam" present on the internet and among the "non fun competitive" crowd.

As always, the secondary point here is when YOU stop to criticize a "fluffy" or "competitive" player ... consider the reason they are how they are ... and consider it's the GAME, not the PLAYER, you should be hating.

 - Mike


  1. Oh man - that is pitch perfect Mike.

  2. Mike, those are all very valid points. GW have been coping out on the rules side for the past 14 years.

    As a mostly casual gamer in a club focused on beer and pretzels gaming I am lucky. Because we can improve and/or change any darned thing we want. In fact we have gotten quite good at balancing points costs.

    So, while I'd love for GW to step up to the plate and do it right from the outset, I am not overly worried about it.

    It is unfortunate for the more competitively minded gamers, cause house rules in a tournament are really hard too impossible to do correctly and have them accepted.

    I feel for the competitive side of the community, cause I just don't see GW doing things in an air tight fashion.


  3. I still think taking a 3-year path to building an open-source generated competitive 40k would be an amazing idea. The money is in the miniatures, not the books (duh). Paizo did a bang-up job with Pathfinder. With the care and heart this community has, I have no doubt we could do the same.
    Create a reference document something like this:
    And then generate the system reference document through iterative playtesting results:
    Here's an example of some of the playtesting formatting:

    We've said over and over, this is a small community. I count the burgeoning blogosphere and have to think we could do a pretty bang-up job if GW had the balls to do what Paizo did.

  4. Solid argument, Mike. I wish someone in game design over at GW would read this post.

    There seem to be multiple approaches to 40k that GW doesn't factor in when making the rules. Whenever I hear them talking about codex design and their thinking behind it, I'm always thinking to myself that they should have some seriously competitive players playtesting their armies before they are released. They need someone like that to tighten up the rules and the unit choices.

  5. PS - Pathfinder only makes money on the books... so there has to be something to it.

  6. Hear bloody hear.

    As far as having a system that's (close to) watertight and still has attraction for silly-bollocks types goes, Warmachine seems to be doing all right (insert trite comment about its story being the same as 40K's, just two chapters and twenty years behind).

    @ Old Shatter Hands - I've long held that part of the problem is the way each Codex/Army Book is credited to and presumably led by a single author. In the absence of a clearly defined vocabulary in the core rules (which they're improving in, but still nowhere near PP's levels of clarity), that allows quirks to flourish, and to continue flourishing in the copy/paste redevelopment culture. Their development model isn't conducive to producing a tight system, and the company's ownership isn't interested in a model that leans more toward good games design than profitability.

  7. Aye, Von - I hear you there.

    My problem with Warmachine, is it's a skirmish sized game. I really like the feel, personally, of a full on army on the board full of tanks and dudes and heroes and walkers and yatta yatta, with hundreds of models in play.

    Warmachine may eventually get there for all I know - I'm not sure if that's in the longterm future of the brand; it certainly has some useful notes to go by.

    I also like the notional basics behind armor saves / cover saves / etc., and how the depth and redundancy of available saves and other mechanics come into play for 40k ... I've never liked systems (and a lot of the skirmish games use them) that "simplify" it to where if you pass a certain numerical figure (i.e. damage capacity + 2d6 vs. armor capacity), you simply do damage equal to the amount you win by. I like the ability to put your OWN dice in the way of theirs, and your own skills/play in the way of theirs ... though I think 40k could better implement this itself. Another discussion.

    Long and short - good points on warmachine, wish it was in play for a fuller, more complete tabletop WAR game (vs. skirmish game).

  8. I don't believe the GW business model will ever allow them to have game design that is as tight as you might hope for, Mike. They decided a long time ago that new books wouldn't be army refinements, but purposeful shufflings designed to cause players to buy new models.

    They do a pretty good job with a lot of the newer codexes all the same, but there will always be that need to re-invent the wheel to keep sales of models going. This is especially true when you consider that in a lot of cases they really don't produce a lot of new minis for the army, just try to find ways to get you to use different minis from what you currently use.

    GW has a tendency to think (I think) that most gamers only collect one army, and that's what they play. My experience has been different from that. If they could get all the dexes equally cool I think they'd sell a lot more minis. But they could only do that with a couple generations of refinement.

    In a business model like that you can only manage so much refinement, I think. It really does work fine for beer and pretzels gamers, but it's always going to give tournament people heartburn, and there will always be a couple "killer" builds that won't get faq fixed, leading to more seal-clubbing and hard feelings towards hard competitors.

  9. I think the reinvention of the wheel isn't something you can necessarily avoid - although, they've figured out that codex creep is no longer required; the newer dexes are all on par with the other "newer" ones ...

    That said, the larger point here is not to say they should stop that, but that when they release each new dex, they'll sell MORE models and have less division in the hobby if they do not include "crap" units.

    To the points in the original article, Joe - even with the "next" codex having better units (if Codex Creep were still their business practice), or the next version of the same Codex having newer better units or new structures to the FOC, and the like ... there's still really no reason other than laziness not to have each successive dex be also INTERNALLY balanced, so that units like Sisters Repentia and Pyrovores and the like that many casual (and competitive) players will think are "cool," but which will get players curbstomped if they actually field them.

    That's the thing to avoid, and therein lies the rub and the purpose of the post - not the removal of a model-selling business practice that we really can't avoid, but the "pointless" components of their codex design that CAN be changed to the benefit of GW's profit margin.

    It won't actually happen, most likely, but the notion that it's an inevitable and invariable byproduct of the way in which they sell models is, I think, incorrect - it's not relevant to it, the issue of "throwaway/worthless" units and poorly written / edited rules and special rules.

    So to wit - and in short as rebuttal - whether or not GW makes newer Codices "better" to sell more models, they should and CAN still make every unit WITHIN a codex a viable and competitive choice. I don't think the problems arise so much because of old codex creep ... but because the lack of internal balancing leads to spammy "netlists" and the counter-cultural and more casual types being angry that their "different" lists aren't able to compete without themselves spamming at least some of the same units "everyone else" is taking.

  10. As addendum, and I really need to find a way to put an edit feature on here - You never see people complaining that they can't do their fluffy veteran-heavy imperial guard ... because Veterans are a well-designed unit entry in the dex (though, some of their options could have been better costed and their rules better done, so that the "only" way to run vet squads wasn't trips melta). You'd solve a lot of the "fluff vs. competitive" problems if you simply playtested better, wrote better, and avoided "bad" unit entries. It's invariably THOSE entries that the fluff-lovers and super-casuals fixate upon (or, the other ones simply don't feel the need to be "only" fluffy). Remove their existence by internally balancing properly ... and presto.

  11. I don't think every unit needs to be "competitive". There is adequate room for both "competitive" and "fluffy" in codices so long as every codex has multiple competitive units to create competitive lists.

    Everything is graded on a curve. It's almost impossible to make every unit "competitive". Making unit A competitive makes unit B less so. It's a zero sum game since we can't have lists with infinite units. There are lots of units that exist in 40k that are good in a vacuum but simply don't match up to other units in their slot and therefore aren't "competitive".

    As far as more balanced or better written rules? Yeah I completely agree with that sentiment but it's a different topic entirely.

    Serious competitive tournament players are a rarity in almost any game. I don't think 40k is any different. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be supported, but just remember that likely the vast majority of players aren't playing at tourneys with "competitive" lists, they are playing on their kitchen table with whatever they have available.

  12. Excellent post Mike.

    Now we just need to chain mail it to

  13. Kevin - I think i actually disagree about your a/b example.

    What's superior, an Imperial Guard Infantry Platoon or an Imperial Guard Veteran Squad?

    Depends on the list, right? There's no "right" answer b/c it's the rest of your build that determines the place of the FOC choice, NOT the "duh" caliber of the units.

    To my point, let's swap some units in the question above. What's superior, an Imperial Guard Veteran Squad or a Penal Legion Squad?

    While you COULD fit a Penal Legion Squad in a list and make it useful, the Vets are ALWAYS better, almost regardless of the list. What if you gave Penal Legionnaires limited special weapon options and limited transport options, for appropriate points? Would they improve? Probably, and I don't think at serious threat to their fluff.

    Another discussion, to a degree, but I hope the point is a little clear. Similarly, Plague Marine vs. Khorne Berserker? Plague Marine vs. Thousand Son? KB's have a use in some lists regardless of their "in-a-vacuum" comparison to PM's. Not so much the 1ksons - they fail in most lists, AND fail compared to PM's, from points to stats to functionality, power, and durability. Changing their stats, rules, and load-outs could put them on the level, where their inclusion is a choice relevant to theme and overall army cohesion ... and NOT relevant to them simply being crap in comparison (as they are now).

    These changes can all readily be made, without harming the fluffiness of the game or the units, and in the process have a DRASTIC impact on the divides within the hobby, and on the quality of the game for ANY players (the basement bobs and the tourney tims).

  14. Oh no doubt Thousand Sons could certainly be improved but would they be "competitive" if they were? My point is that if they were buffed to point that they were, they would supplant either KB or PM in the pecking order.

    So yes we can improve 1k sons. And they could still be a third tier troops choice in CSM. OR we could buff them to the point that they are now the best troop choice, but now KB are never used in a competitive context.

    These are simplistic examples but I'm making the point that achieving true parity with every unit in every FO slot is neither possible nor is it even desirable. As if they truly are on par then they are homogenized to the point where it's just the same effective unit with a different name and paint job.

  15. So quit yer whinin' and write a game system. Geez! some people. Waste all their time blogging.

    By the way, what is your goat's name?

    Seriously, changing a proprietary game system like 40k is a complete time waster. Unless you work for GW, even proposing changes is foolish, like the eternal angels on pinheads spiel. Open Source projects at least you can fork the project if you disagree with stuff, but even there, development is uneven at best. For a tabletop game I don't see it as viable unless the dev group is small and stays small. And agrees one with the other all the time.
    Like it or lump it Mike, you either write your own system, find a better system, or suffer the caprice and incompetence, and poorly written English, of GW. They don't even understand their own game engine. FFS!

  16. KN - If that stance is so rigidly your position, then you believe either Vets or IG Platoons - one of them is ALWAYS the best choice. Slugga boyz are ALWAYS the best Ork troop over Shootas. Plague Marines (?) are ALWAYS the only competitive CSM troop choice.


    This isn't hte case - in many cases GW has accidentally happened upon widely different units (hetero vs. homo, heh) that are cross competitive, and fit very different/perform very differently within different builds.

    That's the point here - you could make 1ksons not "Better" or "Worse" than PM's, simply different and filling different roles in different builds, which is the point of creating truly internally balanced heterogeneous codices - it's actually not that hard, as in a lot of cases GW has done it with or without true intent. Same reason Vulkan isn't the ONLY HQ to take in a Marine list, or Logan isn't the ONLY HQ to take in a Wolf List, yatta yatta, yet for even those lists things like Cassius and Wolf Priests could be worked on more to make them as hard a "hmm, I'll bet I can make a rocking use of those in a hardass list ..." choice as the currently "well done" units are.

  17. Here are my thoughts. First while I'm probably well in the minority I think GW does a good job writing the rules. The 5ed rulebook is in my opinion their best yet. A major problem I find, especially in regards to the codices are the rules lawyers looking to exploit rules. This is a burden on everyone who plays. There are also the fluff bunnies who say things like "Well I dont think it should work like that, I just dont like it." Case in point I was recently playing in a local RTT - often I will disembark a Furioso (Blood Talons) from my Stormraven, pop smoke on the dreadnought then assault. The Furioso will typically chew through a the enemy unit then has to survive a turn of shooting. I beat a fluff bunny in the final round and went on to win best overall. The fluff bunny then tried to go through a list of things I had performed in our game in an attempt to get me DQd. Popping smoke on the dreadnaught was mentioned. The TO thought about it, agreed he didn't like that the rules worked that way but agreed with me that it was a legal tactic. These are the kinds of things that can hurt the game and it comes from both ends of the spectrum - rules lawyers at one end of the line and fluff bunnies at the other. If people would spend less time trying to get over on the rules it would be better for everyone. It is what it is. I will say there are no hard feelings between myself and the fluff bunny - I think he eventually came to the conclusion he needs to design more competitive armies that fit into his own framework (his opinion of an army's background). That's cool too .


  18. A very well written post and one that I agree with whole heartedly.

  19. The problem with plague marines vs. thousand sons is that they both fill the same role within the army of tough shooting units that are hard to kill. They just use different game mechanics to reach the same result.

    So, one unit will be better via it's cost to effectiveness ratio than the other, when the army their in is placed against different opponents.
    It happens that most people think that Plague Marines are a better unit.

    There is no way to make them exactly equal to one another.

  20. Excellent post there sir! Coming from M:TG I've always been confused as to how GW does its business. In Magic there are weak cards for sure... but they're designed that way as skill testers for players in both deck building and in draft. Since there's always a new set coming out and getting new cards is relatively cheap the mistakes of the past go away quickly and help you develop more.

    GW, on the other hand, just makes bad units. No real skill test is needed here as the limited number of options available in a codex don't change for years- so why not make them all good?

  21. @BBF,
    That's exactly Mike's point. If the rules were written more concisely, the argument of the dread popping smoke and charging would never come up. There's no room for individual interpretation if the rules are precise. And that's exactly where all the disagreement comes from. some people play a rule like they think it was intended whereas other play it exactly as it's written. If GW just wrote the rules to say exactly what they intended, there wouldn't be an issue

  22. Taking the long view, GW has improved drastically on this front as both flagship games have evolved. Earlier on, 2nd and 3rd edition 40k era, army balancing rested heavily on gentlemen's agreements between players not to build abusive combinations that did not fit the storyline of the game. This was explicitly mentioned in the rules, WD, everywhere. It was an understood aspect of the game.

    That is not really the case any more in 40k as a design philosophy, with the sole exception of Apocalypse. There the company again says that social pressure is intended to prevent people from pushing army lists to the limit, and as such restrictions on lists are waved. You will still see people pushing this idea in standard games, but the company itself is no longer driving it forward in the same fashion.

    Mike has already pointed out that codex creep is dramatically reduced in comparison to the past, so I think what we are really talking about are lapses in codex internal balance and the occasional poorly written rule. The poorly written rules (see Bjorn, Mawlocs) are more or less inexcusable - presumably they have editors/playtesters who should spot this sort of thing.

    Internal balance I suspect is a much tougher problem. How many distinct roles are there for units to fill in a codex? If that number is not large, you are left with the choice of making all units useful but some are essentially clones, a mix of optimal and sub-optimal units, or a small number of non-overlapping useful units. The small number of useful-only units solves the competitiveness problem, but then you have fewer things to sell and the players grumble that the codex doesn't give them enough options. Given this set of choices, it seems clear GW has gone for the mix.

    I want to be clear that I am not absolving GW of guilt here by saying this is a problem that cannot be avoided and that everything they have done is fine within those constraints. The Pyrovore is Exhibit A. One glance at its unit entry is enough to tell you it will never take the field, except possibly in the occasional Planetstrike game. Why they would create a new metal box for a unit that no one in their right mind would field indicates something went seriously wrong in the design of the codex. But I am saying that big misses like that are much fewer and farther between now than they have been at any point in the past, and that it is probably not possible to produce a large number of codex entries, have each one of them fill an independent role, and have them all be equally useful.

  23. I wholeheartedly agree with your post. I would even go so far as to say that the lack of competitive balance and rules polish is a big part of CAUSING the rift between Casual and Competitive players.

    If units were designed so that they were all competitive with other choices in their list, then there wouldn't be any handicap to fielding a "fluffy" list over a "WAAC" one. I think a lot of conflict arises from people who really want to field Sisters Repentia and Pyorvoures get stung by their awful, awful mechanics. This is exacerbated when they go up against people who take units with strong, proven mechanics, which easily exploit the glaring weaknesses of these sub-par units.

    More than anything, the Rules need some serious polish. Way, WAY too many hours and internet bandwidth have been spent arguing issues that should have clear, well-defined answers - for example, does Telion grant his unit Stealth? Can PotMS be used when firing Smoke Launchers? Do Astropaths provide a bonus while in Reserve? I guarantee you that you can walk into any given gaming club (or internet forum) and find at least 2 opposed opinions on any of these issues. Even rules that are crystal clear by the letter of the rules - such as passengers firing out of a transport that has popped smoke (they can) - are subject to interpretation and local house-ruling. Many TOs turn to the INAT FAQ not because they agree with it, but because it at least provides consistent answers to these questions. That fact alone should indicate that GW needs to do more to prevent these questions from coming up, and if they do, to provide official answers for them ASAP.

    GW owes it to their "casual" players to make a ruleset that isn't subject to constant, incessant bickering due to poor wording, poor foresight, and general vagueness. They also owe it to their "casual" audience to make sure that each and every unit in the game has a reason to be put on a tabletop. GW seems to lean on "casual" gaming as an excuse for poorly designed rules and units ("Hey, the rules don't need to be that clear, after all, agreement between players should be simple and easy!"). This poor design is what CAUSES conflict between casual and competitive gamers, and fixing it is the best thing they can do to make the game better for all.

  24. @Max. M:TG makes cards for everyone though. Some cards are for serious tournament constructed play. Some are designed for limited. Some for Vintage. Some for Legacy and some for Standard. Some are skill testers in draft like you said. Some are for Multiplayer. Some are for casual.

    Not all cards that M:TG publishes are designed for hardcore competitive "spike" players. Similarily, to make a successful product, not all 40k units need to be "competitive" either. Some can be for apocalypse. Some for planet-strike and some can be for a golden ticket tournament.

    @Mike. Yes you vet vs. platoon argument is true. They are both good units in different lists and both have role. Vets are mobile, a platoon isn't. But as you even mentioned Penal Legion troopers aren't competitive and if you make them competitive you've created a codex that can assault like Orks and shoot like well...IG and that creates a balance problem. They are wacky on purpose, they aren't for serious play at least in 99% of all guard lists. Feel free to use them in apocalypse.

    I challenge anyone to take a codex, like CSM for example and make all of their troop choices equally competitive in any meta-game simultaneously. They aren't allowed to be the same unit with different fluff either. They must be distinct. I posit it's impossible to do that. What you'll wind up with is a good unit, a couple specialty units that probably aren't as good all around or good in a specific role (please see scout marines) and you'll end up with some units that are just weaker. To buff one will weaken the other.

  25. I've actually already done that, KN - and I'll share our homewbrew Chaos Codex changes in another blog post soon.

  26. The game engine upon which 40k sits is circa 1980's and constructed for a much different sort of game, (Warhammer Fantasy Battles, IIRC) and GW has not fundamentally altered it, or updated it. It is not really designed for the type of game that 5th edition is. Think of it as a two stroke engine. (English made, so it leaks oil, the gaskets don't seal, and every time the weather changes it needs tuning.) Now put it into a Winnebago. Now you have fifth edition 40k, and to a lesser extent WHF.

    They tried a serious overhaul of WHF, but they forgot the most important thing. Any good cook will tell you that the water is the most important ingredient in soup. (and apparently in baking too.) When they ditch the underlying mechanics of the game for something better, many of the problems will solve themselves. But they are self-bound to their legacy engine. And they need better editors. (and a decent couple of project managers too.) Sometimes I think that they have no publishing experience whatsoever.

    Now Mike, not a temptation but rather a challenge: (I thought the language I used was a bit too confrontational to be viewed as tempting. Looks like I need a better editor too.) Design a game engine, or at least the outline of one. Don't need to do an entire game. I would be curious to see how a power gamer would built such a thing. No boundaries except: Plays in ~2 hours, uses 40-50 miniatures (28mm-32mm on 30mm bases, the current standard, but you can go old school w/ 25mm bases), and measured in inches. (not cm). Type of dice used, etc. are all up to you. Present it in a multi-part blog post. You'll get alot of response from the commentariat. Look at how many have commented here. We all know that GW is not going to change.