Design Theory: Why Points Systems Will Always Be Broken

There he goes again with the contentious statements. Well, not so much, as you’ll see. Here I am talking about design theory, and that differs a little from practice.

The points systems I’m talking about here are those used in tabletop miniature games to choose the armies/gangs/warbands and so on you fight with. Their intent is to produce a “fair” and even game between supposedly equal forces, and in this aim they are invariably doomed to failure, for reasons I will explain. However, despite this, they are still the best tool we currently have for picking reasonably even forces from variable lists. What is important is not that they will fail to be perfect, but that we know that they will do so and do not expect them to always be right.

So why do I say they will fail? The easiest way to explain is to go through the process of producing a points system.

Let’s say you’ve come up with a new tabletop game for fighting fantasy battles. There are many different types of warrior in your game, from lowly goblins to mighty dragons, and everything in-between. You could play narrative and scenario driven games in a rather 1970s sort of vibe, with no worry about the sides being balanced or fair. Putting to one side the debate on the relative merits of different gaming styles for the moment, let’s assume you take the more currently fashionable approach of aiming at a tournament style “balanced” game. Unless we think of something better, this means coming up with a points system.

In a points based system, each type of model or unit in the game is given a cost, and the armies are chosen to an agreed total. If the points are worked out right then everyone assumes that this makes the game fair. The cost of a unit is generally based entirely on its “stat line”: the list of game values it uses to move, fight, cast spells and so on during the game. These values are put into a “points calculator” which gives varying weight to each stat and comes up with an overall value. It’s always possible to do this bit wrong, and there are many debates online about individual units that are seen as being too good or bad for their points cost. Let’s assume this bit is done as well as it can be. There are still problems.

The reason why points systems will never be truly balanced is because this is where they stop. In reality there are a number of other factors that can have a great impact on the value of a unit in a game, and these are seldom, if ever, included in the unit’s points cost. I will give you a few examples.

1) Multiples. Points systems measure a given unit as if it is on its own. Often, points systems measure a single model, and the value of a unit is a simple multiple of the number of figures that comprise it. A more reliable approach is to devise a cost for the unit as a whole, regardless of its constituent parts. If it fights as a whole, then it should be costed as one. A unit of 20 models is unlikely to have exactly the same game value as 2 units of 10 each, even when the individual models are identical.

In addition, the third (fourth, etc) unit of a given troop type is often worth less than the first in terms of adding additional skill or options to an army as a whole. For example, if I add a unit of fast flying scouts then I can zip about the battlefield with them and grab objectives, attack vulnerable units, etc. If I have none of these, then adding one makes a big difference to my tactical options. If I already have 2 then I am starting to run out of places to use them all simultaneously (and so the third is worth less).

Sometimes the third of a given unit type is worth more. For example, if you have a very powerful shooting unit then it is good to have one. However, if your whole army is composed of them then they may be so powerful that they reach the point where they can destroy the enemy at will before they can test their vulnerabilities.

2) Synergy. Certain combinations of troops are more powerful than others. For example, powerful shooting units are generally weak in melee. If they are protected by another unit then that weakness can be ignored, and the discount they were given when their points were calculated is now unwarranted.

In many games a combined arms approach is more potent than a monoculture. Having cavalry for the flanks, artillery and archers to shoot the enemy as they approach and melee troops to fight them when they arrive will generally work better than having only one of these. In other games a monoculture may be more potent. Neither concept is included in the points system.

3) Opposing Forces. There are some armies that have an easier time dealing with certain enemies than others. Some match ups naturally favour one side. Points systems generally ignore the values of an army as a whole, focussing instead on individual units and assuming that the whole is always exactly equal to the sum of these parts. It seldom is.

Of course, one can argue that some or all of these factors are actually to do with player skill rather than points systems. Is it not down to the player to pick and choose the army he will take to confront a particular foe, and to tailor his forces accordingly? Possibly. However, that would be the case whether the points system accounted for it or not. If the points system should not include this then I think it is fair to ask why have a points system at all? Why not just say to players that they should pick a given number of units, whatever they are, and allow them to decide what is good and what is lacklustre? Presumably we have points systems to level this playing field, and if we do then we cannot logically abandon it half way through and say it should be player skill that decides just because it gets fiddly to actually work it out.

Many of the shortcomings mentioned above are to do with points systems focussing on the value of a single unit rather than an army (assuming that the army = the sum of the units). Theoretically one could attempt to calculate the modifiers to this value for multiples, synergies and opponents and factor them all in. This would be a vast amount of work, though it could be done. I doubt, however, that it is worth the time.

In reality, the above failings in the system do not majorly impact on the bulk of games played. If a designer discovers a problem that he feels worth addressing, then he will tend to cover these factors by fudging the costs for individual units, abandoning the mathematical system that is typically used to start with. This is a very slippery slope, and leads to compound errors as the game system expands and develops.

Some of the factors involved in a game are not costable because they are related to the terrain on an individual model battlefield, and a designer can never know that in advance (assuming traditionally modelled terrain). For example, let’s imagine we have two units that have been assessed as being of equal value by our points calculator. One unit is a shooting units that is deadly at range, but rubbish up close. The other unit is devastating in melee, but has no ranged attack. If we place our two units on a flat and featureless tabletop a single move apart and give the first turn to the melee unit, then the shooting unit will probably be slaughtered in the fight before they can loose off an effective shot. Obviously the exact game rules will modify this, but that is the normal overall effect. In this situation, the shooting unit is clearly not really worth as many points as the melee one. On the other hand, if we place an impassable river between the two units then it is the shooting unit that has the advantage and is worth more. This is a detail example, but the same principle can be applied to whole battlefields. Terrain placement has an impact on the relative value of units (as does going first or second in most games) and so logically should also impact points values. It never does, and it is hard to see how it could.  

 So what am I saying here?

Points systems are inherently flawed. However, if we are wanting to play a reasonably balanced game then, flawed or not, they are the best mechanical system we currently have and do a fair job, most of the time. What is important is to remember that they do not account for everything and that the more seriously you take the requirement for balance, the poorer job they do.

On a personal note, I still use points systems in my game designs. My calculators are absolute and I never fudge values. If I feel a result is wrong then I assume that I need to change the calculator to include some other factor I have missed (and revalue other troops accordingly). Fudges breed inaccuracy, and are best avoided. I have been able to mitigate some of the above issues, but they are all still present. However, as my current designs challenge a number of accepted norms I felt it was important to leave a few touchstones for folk to feel comfortable with. Points values are one of those.

Until someone comes up with a better alternative we are stuck with points systems. What I’m going to talk about tomorrow is a slightly different approach.

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57 Responses to Design Theory: Why Points Systems Will Always Be Broken

  1. Andy Frazer says:

    Gaming maths will always be broken, because unlike calculating universal constants, the powergamer is not looking for something perfect, they are looking for cost effectiveness.

    It’s the “why buy Heinz beans, when value pack are just Heinz without the label? mentality.

    The other thing you can’t really cost for in a points system is the meta-game. If you make a range of miniatures that look really cool, but are actually garbage in the game and everyone plays them because they look cool. When Wee Jimmy rocks up with his army of Soldier X that has an easy time against Cool Soldier Y, then those who own Cool Soldier Y tend to think Soldier X is broken, rather than Soldier Y is crap against Soldier X… always blame the other guy!

    • Quirkworthy says:

      It is always the other guy’s fault. That’s probably why you’re trying to kill him 😉

      I think that it would definitely be possible to include most of these variables in a mathematical points system if one was to spend enough time on it. You’d need way more time that it would be worth though, and it would obviously never address the issues of terrain.

      The variable attractiveness of models is something that impacts army choice. However, I don’t think that this is part of the army points problem discussed above. Aesthetics are notoriously hard to nail down, and what you find good looking may not be to my taste. I agree that some models are widely liked and appear on the tabletop perhaps more often than their game utility would indicate, but points systems are about game value not judging beauty contests and so do not need to take this into account.

      An interesting seed for another post though.

      • GHQ has quite an elaborate formula system in some of its books. And they do a fairly good job. But in the end always some tweaking is needed. You can get90% of the game in a formula, the rest is just feeling. 😉

      • Quirkworthy says:

        In my view, if a system needs tweaking then it’s not doing its job properly. Rather than fudging results the system should be fixed. “Feeling” = fudging, which I think is a bad idea.

        The main problem is that systems like this almost always end up being developed and redeveloped over years. If you have a known and fixed calculation then anyone can produce new work that dovetails well with the old. Fudges and feelings are very personal, and in my experience are often poorly documented. When a new developer comes along a couple of years later, or even the same person who has been distracted by working on other projects, they are unlikely to produce results which dovetail well. Over time the errors compound until you are left with a system that needs to either be stripped back and reworked from scratch or continues to wobble along with ever more fudges and patches. This all contributes to power creep across army books.

  2. Hiya Jake, as you know I agree with you over points systems. I’m not too sure how else you can really achieve something closing on parity without a points system. I’ve heard of people working on a handicap system similar to golf for Warhammer Fantasy battle, so if your army is considered uncompetitive as an overall army oooh say like Wood Elves you’d get a big points handicap against a good army like Chaos Deamons, but maybe not against Beastmen. I think this is also a glorious fudge that just opens up new potential abuses. I think it’s here to stay though, the points system that is.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I’ve come across that army handicap at tournaments. It is a fudge, but given the time that GW army books are asked to serve for it is covering an inevitable gap.

      If you had a proper ranking or handicap system for players (like golf does) then I supopse that could work in theory. I’ve never seen it tried for gaming though it does sound like something that could be easily done with a database.

      I can think of one other way to balance things, and it comes from a completely different angle. I’m writing that up for tomorrow.

      • I look forward to reading it. My articles on game balance actually caused some interesting discussions… sadly on forums all over the internet rather than on my chuffing blog. Ah well. I noticed above you mentioned terrain and again this is something many people don’t realise can seriously unhinge games.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        Terrain causes all manner of issues with games. Sometimes there’s too little, occasionally too much, but in almost every case there’s not enough discussion of how it affects the game and guidance of how it should be used. This impact on points values is just a specisilat corner of the whole terrain topic.

        Funny that people should feel it best to debate your post out of your sight, as it were.

  3. It is the most universally used system in any of it guises, and as a theory it is sound but as soon as you put the most volatile of elements (us! the players with all our preferences….) it starts to become perverted. But you are absolutely right, there is not another system that is as flexible or robust (even with its failings) as the points system. It also sits well with the gamers because of its familiarity. Saying that I am having quite a time of it trying to design a ‘Force Allocation Tree’ which gives you a paterned availability of troop selections. You can unlock certain selections with different combinations which gives balance but predictability. It is all about making the branches of the tree sufficient to allow plenty of diversity. I will let you knowe how it goes as it takes alot of development to match up the balancing aspects that you can achieve with a points system. The frame work for this obviously needs to vary with the size of game, but it is coming along nicely! I may have just confused you totally, but it is working more often than failing !

    • Forgot to mention that this is to replace the current points system on a project that has been calculated to the end of days, there is always tweaks that could be implemented!

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Is the system “perverted” by the players, or are they simply revealing its inherent weaknesses?

      The follow up to this article includes things that sound a little like your chart. If it’s what I think it is then it’s no easier to develop than a points system – a fun change though. It’ll be interesting to see what you end up with.

      • As someone who studied systems thinking, if the system allows it, it’s not an abuse or ‘perversion’ of a system, it is just that system is poor. People will gravitate towards any inherent imbalance in any system you can think of and exploit it, not because they’re bad people, but because that’s what we all do. I think it’s up to those who develop systems to encourage positive behaviour, or make things so there isn’t scope for unfair match ups. Should gamers self regulate? Possibly, I wouldn’t want to be ‘that guy’ who constantly did something that broke a system. However if a system was that badly broken I wouldn’t want to play it. I mean what’s the point?

      • @Chris, I hear an awful lot of bile and hate directed at people for choosing decent army lists, call them WAAC, or spammers or whatever you want. Playing a game to win isn’t a bad thing, but the stigma people get is harsh, and WAAC players are often judged as ‘bad people’, hence the use of the phrase. It’s just a thing. At the risk of pimping out some of my older blogs, perhaps to give you a better idea of where I’m coming from can I direct you towards the first in a series of blog on the theory of game balance:

        http://thefrontlinegamer.blogspot.com/2011/08/can-any-game-system-ever-truly-be.html

        As somebody who is interested in systems thinking I can often sit down with a game, and break it, or at the least find optimum strategies. Sadly EVERY system will have optimum lists or strategies, obviously we’d like games to allow us to stamp our own unique style of tactical genius on proceedings, but an awful lot don’t really. Also after playing Dreadfleet recently I can happily contest that the most random element in any game is player you’re playing against!!! lol.

    • That sounds really interesting and I am looking forward to see it someday in use.

      I imagine such a system would need a broad test-base for it to really work ?

      • @Frontline Gamer, systems do not have to be poor for the players to abuse army lists, in my experience every wargame I have played has the player who meticulously picks apart every list or new release just because it may have a weekness ripe for exploitation. It is obviously down to the developer to eliminate this as much as visibly possible and the key element to this is obviously an immense amount of playtesting. Different groups of gamers, over and over again before anything actually gets released. This way you also eliminate as much as possible the need for FAQ’s, errata’s et al. I am confused why you use the phrase ‘bad people’ ? No one designs a game to bring out the worst in people, and playing any game should be a positive endeavour, it is a hobby, a positive way to spend time. I like playing varying systems, getting involved with playtesting and it is the mechanics of a game that interest me. I am a gamer rather than a painter or a sculpter.
        It would also be blatently obvious from the outset if a game or army was completely broken,just look at Dark Elves in WHFB….there were even covert apologies from the author, but people still play with them. Like any hobby, it is what you put into it in a positive way. Being active in the community to help with development, feedback, ideas etc. It is a community and the new wave of gaming companies are using the community in a much larger sense,in essence to help with issues like imbalances. The main thrust of the points argument is that every gamer is different. They have different gaming styles, different interpretations of how to solve tactical problems, different attitudes, different wants……in a game where probability and playing to your strongest odds of success is paramount, the most random element in any game is the player you are actually playing against.

  4. Davey says:

    Very interesting points. I’m not a great fan of points systems, but then I’m not a fan of tournament style play at all – I guess I’m a ‘1970s vibe’ kinda guy! Points systems are obviously worth while in general, of course, but… but… I just can’t get away from the idea that all this should be about playing the games WITH someone rather than AGAINST them! Ergh, I’m so old-fashioned 🙂

  5. Good & interesting article.
    One of the problems I find in many points-construction systems is what I think of as ‘exponential returns’. Example: a magic item gives a character +2 attacks. Items like this usually have their own point cost, as if they are static items, but they are not. Give it to a goblin hero and it will be worth a lot less than if given to a chaos lord simply because attacks from these characters are not of equal value.

    We had an issue like this in our league game we’re developing for WWWII, where the trait of regeneration cost X amount but the fact is it is worth more the more powerful the character that has it is. So we made the cost relative to the player’s mitigation stat. It is closer to fair for items like magic swords and armor to have a variable cost based on the character’s point cost or other stats.

    Similarly, a lot of points systems arrive at their values with a set amount of points per stat value, but don’t take combination of stats into account. If a model in a game like warhammer, has a strength of 3 and 1 attack then to give him 2 attacks might cost ‘3 points’ in the equation but if it’s for a model that starts with strength 5 a second attack is worth more. Many of the stats effect each other, and I’m not so sure most points systems take that into account.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      You’re right, and most systems don’t seem to reflect these relationships well at all.

      In my latest games I’ve been using a points system that costs most abilities as a multiple of another stat (or sometimes a multiplier of the sum of more than one stat, or the total cost) rather than a fixed amount, for precisely these reasons.

      • Easy to see how a points system would be a ongoing balance problem that could become a frustration.

        Has anyone ever done a system where you draw cards with option to discard and redraw? Kind of like playing poker but in place of building a hand you would be building an army/war band? Each race/faction would have their own set of cards and some of the balance would be in the custom card deck?

      • Quirkworthy says:

        I have an unpublished WWII game that uses a similar idea, but I’d not say that is was balanced in the strict sense that people usually mean when they say that in referencce to points systems. I used cards to give a random but credible series of attached units for a base type of force. It was more of a storytelling approach for me.

        If every card was balanced then it would, in effect, be a points system anyway as that would be what you’d used to balance it.

      • I was think along the lines that a card system would be harder to exploit even if it was a a little broken (broken to much and your win/loss would be luck of draw so you still have that problem). I was also thinking about a base force that was are larger portion of the armies total points. Not that this would be a complete solution but in combination might mitigate some of the problems with points. I am thinking it might be sort of a built in fudge factor. If I am making my own cards adjusting the cards or the base force seems like the easy way out if balance is off. The easy path always attracts me. 🙂

      • Quirkworthy says:

        Any system that removes choice from the player will be less exploitable. The trick then is to convince the players that the benefits outweigh their loss of control.

        One of the approaches I adopted with my latest games was to have a 2 tier army selection. This gives you a fixed army core to start with (so the army is guaranteed to include some appropriate units) and then allows you to choose extra units to add on top of that. This is intended to ensure that an army looks appropriate for its type, whilst still allowing a player to tailor it to his personal taste.

  6. wachinayn says:

    A very inisghtful post. I’m eagerly awaiting for the inevitable follow-up.

  7. Pingback: Design Theory: An Alternative To Points | quirkworthy

  8. Simulated Knave says:

    There were two great tragedies to Stargrunt, in my view. The first was the organization of the rulebook, which was painful (the thing that makes or breaks a wargame great is the indexing, I swear). The second was the lack of a points system. Indeed, Stargrunt has convinced me that I should not play any game that lacks a points system (or at least some army building mechanic). This is for two reasons.

    First, games that historically lacked points systems seem, to me, to have been structured around playing pre-built scenarios (usually historical reenactment). With historical scenarios, you have the advantage of a built-in goal – do better than your side did historically. This limits the need for a point system – imbalance is OK, since overall victory is not necessarily the point. Any game that is not built around pre-built scenarios is going to lack that to some extent. Most modern games are most certainly not designed to use pre-made scenarios, and so trying to avoid a points system (or some other balancing mechanism) is rather a cop-out (IMO).

    Second, points systems limit the need for me to understand your game before playing it. If I have to know enough to design a scenario before I can really play the game, that’s going to slow down my learning and (most significantly) my enjoyment. Furthermore, the game designer should probably understand his own game system better than I will. Shouldn’t he be doing your best to balance things for me, in that case?

    Obviously, they’re not perfect. But people who try to eliminate them altogether always strike me as lacking in understanding of how many people actually play games.

    Anyway. Very interesting piece. 🙂

    • Simulated Knave says:

      Supplementary note – to me, a really good points system would include advice on tailoring the points system for particular scenarios. Points systems should facilitate understanding and use of the game system, and that seems the logical step for them to take.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I think that suggesting the lack of points system in Stargrunt II a “cop out” is unfair. To me, that phrase implies a laziness and lack of effort, whereas here Jon Tuffley (Stargrunt II’s author) was making a deliberate point by not having a points system, as he explains in the rules (page 10). He thinks that they are “horribly artificial – none of them really work properly”, encourage people to look for loopholes and exploits rather than win the game by “tactical skill” “the way REAL commanders have to”, and “lead to unimaginative games”. To be honest, I’m inclined to agree with his general sentiment. Unfortunately, he then fails to support the alternative sufficiently and provide a selection of scenarios, or at least more guidance on making your own. For better or worse, points values are the current norm, and to do anything different you need to either lead people away by small, easy steps, or alternatively hold their hand while you explain exactly what they need to do differently.

      Your second comment is, I think, an illustration of the general lack of helpfulness for new players that is common across most games. I agree that points make it easy to make armies, though even when there are points this is not always true. I found the Dystopian Wars rulebook to be laid out terribly and very hard to follow, so that even with units being clearly labelled with points costs I had no idea what most of the stats did and was lucky in being able to be taught by someone who knew how to play rather than struggle by with the rules as written.

      Teaching people to play games is a whole different ball game to making rulebooks easy to reference by experienced players, and getting this balance right is tricky. You will never get it right for everyone, but I think that overall the industry could do better than it does at present. The “get you started” pamphlets seem to be less common than they used to be, and I think this is a shame as it is key to getting a new game started in a new location. With most people relying on other gamers to show them how to play, how else do you get a foothold with a new game in a new group?

      • I see a cop out as any occasion where you avoid your responsibilities using reasons that are insufficient to justify it. To me, Tuffley (like all game designers) had a responsibility to provide some guidance as to what will produce a fun game (a balanced fun game is a bonus). That’s a critical responsibility, and you need a reason a lot better than “I don’t like point systems” to justify having no guidance whatsoever.

        I’m not sure he necessarily needed to lead people by the hand. But generic science fiction wargames (unlike historical ones) don’t have enough context to give people much guidance in making their own scenarios, and so some guidance really was necessary. It’s not the modern paradigm as much as it is that, frankly, he should really have a much better idea of what the relative strengths and weaknesses are of units in the game he designed. Instead, he dodged that responsibility entirely and left me to figure it out for myself. I was unimpressed.

        I ended up making a post that’s sort of about this, since you got me thinking about the appropriate solution to the whole “scenarios vs. points” thing.

        Re: unhelpfulness to new players, I admittedly haven’t bought many recent wargames. The most recent one I bought was Heavy Gear Blitz, where I found a similar problem to what you mention in Dystopian Wars – there are a hell of a lot of acronyms for a hell of a lot of different weapons, and their relative values are very hard to determine (the game needs a slight pruning, if you ask me). They do, at least, have a rather useful starter package, though since they’ve been producing games for a decade or two at this point, that may be more habit than intention.

        I think the most practical solution to balancing the competing interests of new and experienced players would seem to be laying out the rulebook for new players and laying out the index for the experienced ones. That certainly seems to be what most people opt for.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        Whilst I agree with your sentiments, I think you’re being a bit harsh on Mr Tuffley. He does provide a thoroughly explained reason for his actions, and then includes a series of brief but complete organisational charts (ie, army lists) and histories for 4 armies from his own science fiction background, so you’re not left entirely on your own. There are many discussions throughout on different weapon types, meanings and game effects of different stats and so on. When I read it I understood his reasoning, and though I’d have preferred a more fully fleshed-out background I played many a happy game by using and tweaking the example lists given. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because the game was so good, and because I am used to writing my own backgrounds.

        Very glad to hear that these posts have got you thinking, because that’s why they’re here 🙂

        I am increasingly a fan of the idea of programmed instruction (as Squad Leader used to call it), though it seems somewhat unfashionable. In games where I am writing the brief for myself this is what I’ll probably be doing. This is basically a series of scenarios that gradually teach the new player the rules as they go along, adding a bit extra at each step.

        Having an index and glossary is nice, though a great deal of work to do well.

  9. On points, i think the points Value Build system in Warmaster ancients is very good.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I’ve not read the ancients version of Warmaster. Could you explain how it works, and what bit you particularly like?

      • With warmaster Ancients, at the back it gives you options for creating your own units.
        you’d start with a basic point cost depending on either cavalry or infantry unit.
        Then armour would be added, higher points cost for better armour as you’d assume. also you get special abilities to add to your units, such as Shock , legion etc. each
        its also worth noting that not all abilities are positive, and will reduce the cost of the unit if given , eg: Slow, unreliable etc.
        so in essence if you wished to create your own list, to re fight the battle of thermopylae but instead of Spartans, you use your own created units for Minas Tirith or the Army of Eddard Stark.
        As far as not equal points games are concerned, because the game is historical you can easily create re-enactment battles using this ruleset. Also two fully painted armies in this scale (6mm -10mm) look truly epic

      • Quirkworthy says:

        Thanks for the explanation 🙂

        It’s a very old system indeed. many of the earliest wargame books I read as a child had this approach, paying points per piece of equipment. The way I recall Reaper (the precursor to Warhammer) was that it had a very elaborate version of this, where each piece of armour and equipment was costed separately. The system works well enough and can be a lot of fun to make up your own armies. However, it still fails to deal with the issues of Multiples and Synergies mentioned above.

        Oh, and I agree entirely that 6/10mm armies can look great as armies on the table – often far more like a real army than larger scales.

  10. HI Jake.
    Thanks for a detailed analasis of the ‘damned if you/do damned if you dont ‘ point value dilemma.

    I agree that if you use point values they should be done as accuratley and consistantly as possible.
    (Rules written for ‘competative play’ should define playing area and ‘terrain density’.IMO)
    Game elements should be costed as accuratley as possible at the level of interaction.
    (Eg units are costed as ‘complete units’ not the composite of multiple models + equipment.)
    And that a fixed formula to determine ‘in game’ worth, is important.
    And masses of playtesting is required to find synergistic issues and adress them.(Releasing Beta rules to the gameing public is key here, IMO.)

    However, ‘tactical worth’ has nothing to do with point values, but army composition.
    Anyone ‘fudging’ point values purley to reflect ‘tactical worth’ is just WRONG!

    Anyhow, on to my main point.
    IF a game has limited its ‘measure of sucess’ to compare points at the end of the game .(Unit kills /specific terrain feature held etc.),
    Then accurately applied points values is IMPERATIVE to the game ballance.

    However, IF the measure of sucess is NOT so tightly linked to pv.But on acomplishing an objective.
    EG like a real world mission objective.
    If we used 6 attacker mission cards and 6 defender mission cards.That gives us 36 random ‘narrative’ based senarios.
    And the spread of objectives across the mission cards, mean no units are no brainer choices. And players learn how to us thier favorite units in a variety of ways.

    Then micro managing super accurate point value alocation may not be so important,and less fidely and clubersome methods could be used perhaps?

    Just a thought….

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Hey Kevin, thanks for that. It’s a good thought too. Missions and scenarios are a very worthwhile idea and can help mitigate imperfect points systems, as you suggest. They also add to the narrative, which I personally rather enjoy.

      One slight problem is that many such mission systems can be sidestepped by simply destroying the opposition forces and so imbalances in points remains an issue: I hold the objectives because you’re all dead. Even more confusingly, destroying the opponent is not an unreasonable tactical option to have and is probably something that should be available – just not the only option or a guaranteed one.

      For example, I was talking to someone recently about Warmachine/Hordes tournaments. They use missions and so one would hope for a more balanced approach. However, in some cases (particular combinations of armies) you’re actually more likely to win if you ignore the mission and simply go for the caster kill instead.

      At the end of the day, whatever mechanical system you come up with will be exploited in some way if folk are out to do that. It comes down to the attitude of the players as much as anything else. What kind of game do they want?

  11. I agree, some players want to play competativley , and for these type of players , a ‘pitched battle’ at a set army point value,is the most popular option .
    And the headache of provable game (im)ballance,becomes the default problem for this type of game.
    But do you belive this is the only option that should be available?
    Does every game have to try to follow this format for ‘pick up and play games?’

    I was trying to propose a method for ‘random senario generation’, that would be more suited to the players prefering more narrative games.
    A method to allow ‘pick up and play narrative games’ might be a weclome option for these players?( The players not quite so focused on list optimisation and winning based on comparative values at the end of the game.)

    I apologise if I am not explaining myself that well. (Or mis understood your responce.)

    But by inclusion of ‘fine point values ‘,do we not inadvertantly focus the players on point values, and thier relative accuracy?And inflate thier importance to players and game developers in turn .

    Where as more focus on force/army theme and narrative missions , and ‘broader strokes’ with in game values, might allow us to make the level of provable ballance more of a non issue?
    Simply by replacing the focus on ‘end game result’ with ‘in game narative.’

    A game fully developed for narrative play could be just as valid as one fully developed for compatative play , perhaps?
    (Could ‘co-operative narrative games’ with ‘competative ballance methods’, be just as inapropriate as ‘competative games’ with a ‘narrative ballance methods’?)

    • Quirkworthy says:

      One of the issues designers have to deal with is the difference in stridency of the varying lobbies. I reckon that a reasonable estimate of tournament players for popular games is well under 1% of the total audience. This is arrived at by looking at the size of the events and the fact that many of the people who attend one will attend many, and then comparing this to the size of print runs and so on. Add to this the many gamers who are competitive but are not tournament goers per se, and you have a much larger group. However, even added together these are, I believe, in a minority. The silent majority just get on with the game and don’t worry overmuch about game balance and “broken” units, or the like. They are the ones who will put what they have on the table and set to, muddling along with the rules as they understand them and not fretting about the fine detail.

      The problem with the silent majority is their silence. The feedback, comments and critique of a game are largely from the voluble and passionate tournament/competitive players who really care whether it is balanced or not. So do you change things to suit the louder minority, or guess what the silent majority actually want?

      And, you are right to say that including points focuses people on that. The problem is that there needs to be something to replace points with if you remove them, especially now the gaming public as a whole is so very used to them. See the comments above about Stargrunt II’s refusal to use them as an example of what happens when you rock the boat. Now this may sound like I am all for points systems, which is not really my view. One of my side projects at the moment includes a big mess (at present) that is a partly written system that tries to avoid needing points, but its tricky. I’m trying to come up with a system that feels reasonably balanced in the sense that either side could win, but without the points system and the obvious exploits, fudges and imbalance that often entails. Time will tell if I can get it to work properly or not, and whether it can please both ends of the spectrum.

      You said that “A game fully developed for narrative play could be just as valid as one fully developed for competitive play”, and I agree. “Just as valid”, though I’m not sure it would be just as popular – at least not for some time. When I started playing games many years ago it was all historical. The norm was that you’d read up on a real event and then translate that into a scenario on the tabletop, with the same objectives and narrative drive for the armies. Very few people do that any more, and nearly all of them game in historical periods. What I used to do in my SF games was the same thing (except I had to make up the history) because I didn’t know any different – that’s just what you did. These days it seems that the majority of people have been taught to expect things all nice and easy: “plug and play”, as they say in the video gaming world. I reckon you get out what you put in, so I think that it’s worth the effort, but maybe I’m just old fashioned.

      Your last comment is particularly intriguing, and probably right. It’s not quite a Zen koan because they deliberately have no answer, but it’s close, and certainly worth more pondering on.

  12. If we work on the theory game developers are making games to suit the ‘vocal minority’, and in doing so ‘artificialy’ place limitations on what they can produce, and change the expectations of the players.
    This begs the question WHY do game developers feel they have to ‘please both ends of the spectrum’.When thier actions by default alter the market , and make thier job even harder?
    If you only loose 5% of the potential audience, to appeal to the other 95 % , is that not more effective? (I am sure there already games that have the amount of balance competative gamers can live with.And many that have ‘tournament packs’ to adapt the ones that dont.)

    I belive the only ‘problem ‘ with Stargrunt II is it lack of ‘easy in’ for new players.
    A ‘straight forward pick up and play senario generator’ for narrative games would be more aprorpiate than a ‘pitched battle at set points value’ , or expecting the less experianced players to’ work it all out’ themselves,(IMO.)

    I would like to briefly mention ‘finese’ of point values.
    In ‘Firefly’ the battles are played at 12,000-15,000-20,000 points,(early middle and late war.)
    However, this is to allow the finer difference between a unit worth 521 points and one that is 528 points.(As the game is written with competative play in mind and has detailed PV allocation method in the back of the rule book.)
    A game played at 120 ,150 to 200 points , with similar amounts of units ,there is only the option to have 5 or 6 point units.(Loosing the ability to differentiate as finely.)
    Therfore , there is a link between ‘accuracy’ of point values and the amount of ‘resolution’ in the system.(As you are probably aware.)

    I belive that if the ballance of a game is purley dependant on point values, it is bound to fail.
    Because no amount of maths can determine what is ‘fun.’Only people can determine that by playing the games!(Playtesting is so important for so many reasons.)

    If the ballance method is a combination of composition listings ,limiting available unit options, and ‘disguised’ points values. It often lets the players enjoy the process of playing without worrying about whats ‘ballanced’ or not.Especialy if there is a ‘easy to use senario generator*’ that re-enforces stronger narrative play.
    (* I belive this to be the core element to solving the problem of ‘dependance on point values’ )

    In short (disguised) point values are fine ,if they are not the be all and end all of the game balance .But just a small part of the process used to reach a well defined rewarding game. (They just allow acceptable levels of in game performance comparison.)

    If the depth of the game play is too shallow, only the end result concerns the players.Obvious point values can take on inflated importance , and the game development has gone terribly wrong IMO.

    (I apologise if this is not coherant in places, or inadvertantly caused offence.But my darling childen have shared thier ‘rotten head cold’ with Daddy.Bless them!)

    • Quirkworthy says:

      What generous children! Hope you shake the cold soon Kevin.

      You may have to steer me back onto your point again, but to answer what I think you’re saying; yes, points aren’t (or shouldn’t be) going to work on their own, and they don’t define fun. I don’t think anybody has a universally agreed definition for that which isn’t unhelpfully vague.

      SGII lacked an ‘easy in’, which was a crying shame as it is a good game. If anyone’s not seen it, it’s still available for free if you want to look at:

      http://www.groundzerogames.net/mambo/index.php?option=com_content&task=section&id=9&Itemid=50

      Playtesting is a vital step, but also a flawed and difficult one in many regards. Perhaps the topic for another blog if people are interested. Or even if they aren’t ;P

      The degree of finesse and accuracy that points systems can have is debatable. In general I think you can rapidly approach a point where the fuzziness caused by things like multiples and synergies that I mentioned in the article (and which are almost invariably ignored by points systems) are bigger factors than you can account for. What’s the use of adding another decimal place to the values so you get 100 point units instead of 10 points ones, if you cannot then believably define the value of a single point? There isn’t one, and as it’s so debatable, I think it’s not worth doing. In any case, the varying levels of skill between the players is likely to be a far more powerful unbalancing factor than whether a give unit is 102 or 103 points.

      • I will try to and stay on topic and make my points a bit clearer.
        (I might be able to concentrate a bit better due to a large amount of ‘Beachams powders’ .)
        Side note.
        In competative games the accuracy of ‘comparable in game worth’ is more important, and the finer levels differentiation is often prefered for the more competative minded.
        (Accurate assesment of in game worth is only stage one of game ballance for competative play.Finding and dealing with synergistic issues , by compensation/ restriction is the other far more labourious part .I totaly agree with you on this.)

        However , why can we not still use ‘point values’ in narrative based games , but in a less ‘obvious and fiddely’ way?
        Eg Battletech (Mechwarrior on PC, )used ‘overall tonnage’ and the load out restrictions on set chassis types to arrive at balance good enough for its more narrative focused games.(Still a cool game 20 years later. IMO.)

        For narrative games I belive the following points are important.
        Main point 1.
        Any game that uses ‘Gold pieces’, ‘Interstellar credit’, ‘Tonnage’, ‘Requisition value’ , etc are still using ‘point values’ of sorts for comparison of in game worth. But it is less ‘obvious’, and doesnt scream ‘suitable for competative play ‘ at the players like ‘… this is worth exactly 127pts…’, does.
        if a ‘less obviuos’ method of comparing relative in game worth is used,with more defined/restricted load outs in unit chioce , but in wider thematic chioces.
        This may focus the players on the more narrative aspects of the game perhaps?
        (Eg the way Blood bowl uses ‘chunky’ GP values , has quite limited chioce of player types , but a wide range of team builds and themes.)

        Main point 2 .
        The game play has to have enough depth,(tactical interaction,) for the players to imerse them selves in the narrative .Playing the game is far more engageing and becomes more important than the ‘final score’.

        Main point 3
        I think a ‘striaght forward senario generator’ is the best way to give players an ‘easy in’ to narrative games..
        Eg
        1) Set up the playing area (and terrain if aplicable ) in a mutualy aceptable way.
        2) Randomly determine deployment areas.(Dice for along,across,or diagonaly )
        3) Determine attacker-defender.(Mutual agreement or dice for it.)
        4) Defender picks deployment zone first
        5) Attacker goes first.
        6) Attacker pick a random attacker mission card, defender pick a random defence mission card.
        7) play and have fun.

        6 narrative mission cards for the attacker ,and 6 narrative mission cards for the defender listing victory conditions INDEPENDANT to the oposing forces actions.Gives 36 possible ‘random senarios’.

        This way NO-ONE EVER ‘LOOSES’! .
        They just run out of time, or have to wait for re-enforcements.This might reduce the ‘pressure’ on proving balance perhaps?

        (I have put up some rough outlines for narrative mission cards on B.o.W, under the name Lanrak. , ‘WHFB- Solving the starter kit problem ?’/ ’40k -Alternative rule set ‘If you could have a quick look It will save me embarasing myself by showing how rubish my writing skills are here…)

      • Quirkworthy says:

        I’m afraid the search engine on BOW doesn’t give me any joy for Lanrak or the title of the post you quote. Could you give us a link please?

        Main Point 1: Yes, hiding points under gold, tonnage, etc is all part of using language to evoke the atmosphere and style you want, and it should help remove a little of that hard-edged competitiveness.

        Main Point 2: I agree, though the players themselves are critical here too. Some people want a narrative and will find it anywhere, others don’t.

        Main Point 3: some form of easy way to roll a dice and play something other than run forward and fight is a good start. Alternatively, one thing I tried recently was assuming that people would play that run and smash game regardless of what you offered, and tried to add more story elements to that. Sneaking in some narrative, you might say 😉

        What you suggest is one of the many possible permutations. I am unconvinced that independent objectives work better then jointly held ones, and certainly when it comes to real battles it seems that nearly all of them are fighting over similar objectives. Myself, I could suggest a combination of the two processes might be better.

  13. Hi Jake.
    I suppose my reasoning is that to break the aparent ‘conditioning’ to playing every game ‘competativley’.
    Then a TTM game that is a ‘totaly’ co-operative narrative game AND easy to pick up and play is going to champion the cause.

    To paraphase Dr ‘Patch’ Addams.
    Treat a game as a competition , you win /you lose.
    Treat the game as an exchange of insiping ideas between people , you always ‘win’.

    Some people are happy reducing thier gameing experiance to W/L/D.
    And they will simply reduce ANY game they play to this IF they can.
    Perhaps thats why Mr Tuffy made Stargrunt II ‘unplayable ‘ for those totaly competative minded players?(But in doing so made it dicfficult for less experiance players too.)

    Anyhow , I despite being as atristicaly gifted as ‘…a cluster of blind hedghogs in a bag…’ I shall simply copy paste my rough ideas for some mission cards for WHFB from the BoW thread ‘Solving the starter kit problem’….
    (My user name is lanrak,{no capital letter,Oops}.The 40k thread was Developing a new rule set.I just used some simple alternatives to arrive at an outline for a tactical modern wargame some players might like 40k to be,have a look if you like ….)

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I think games are inherently competitive, and that’s probably true of most “cooperative” games out there. In most cases they simply replace competition between players for competition between players and the game itself.

      There are truly cooperative games with no winners and losers, though I have to say that the ones I’ve seen never seem very interesting. Also, the majority I’ve come across have been educational games for small children.

      I have a feeling that gaming will always be inherently focussed on winning and losing because humans are competitive by nature. That doesn’t mean we can’t experiment with alternatives though, nor that individuals must always conform to one behaviour.

  14. Defence missions.
    Anvil of death,
    ‘The ‘Hammer of the North’ shall soon fall upon us,But fear not !
    We will be the Anvil that smashes the hammer!’
    It is vital the enemy force is stopped.

    Victory !If no enemy units occupy the defenders deployment zone at the end of the game.

    Major Victory!If the defender has over half thier starting force left at the end of the battle , AND keeps the oponent forces out of thier deployment zone ,(as above.)

    ‘Broken Arrow.’
    ‘The constant enemy raiding and scouting has to stop.The elite of the enemy army is inspiring these cowardly acts in the other ranks.Destroy the source of inspiration!

    Victory !Damage ALL enemy Special and Rare units .(Inflict at least 25% of starting wounds.)

    Major victory ! Desimate ALL enemy Special and Rare units.(Inflict at least 75% of starting wounds/ or force the unit to flee )

    ‘The Chosen One’.
    ‘ Once in a milenium the Chosen One will arrive to lead us to the conquest of the world!’
    Unfortunatley it has been found out too late the ‘Chosen One’ is an ordinary trooper in your biggest(or most expensive,) core unit ! The Chosen One must survive!

    Victory ! , The unit with the Chosen One in it, MUST stay on the field of battle ALL game ,and NOT use flee as a reaction to a charge.If the Chosen Ones unit sufffers less than 50% casualties it is assumed the Chosen One has survived.

    Major Victory ! As above bit the Chosen Ones unit suffers less than 25% casualties.

    I hope you determine from my poor examples how each army having independant objectives , AND trying to keep thier mission secret from thier opponent.Could add far more narrative and interest during the game .
    And much better missions (6 attacker -6 defender,)written by profesional game develipers,might result in a easy to use random senario generator?

    What I am trying to get at ias a game like golf where you play the game WITH an opponent.Rather than a game like football where you play AGAINST an opponent.
    A game where BOTH sides can achive thier objectives .
    Which is great for narrative play, and the more competative players can try to scupper the opposition plans if they want to.

    You are in a much better position to fully evaluate this idea, and I respect your judgement .

    (PS sorry about derailing this with my poorly explained ideas.I apreciate your patience and interest.)

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Your suggestions are all in the right sort of place and I think you should give them a go. Some seem harder than others, but that’s without having tried any of them so it’s only a guess.

      There have been games that used hidden missions like this, and they work well enough. My experience of them is that it is usually pretty easy to work out what the enemy is up to when you know what the options are, which would suggest that they need to be more variable in option, or mutable in detail to make them easier to hide. However, I think that these will probably work best when combined with more traditional scenarios. That will give you a multi-layered effect that will pose the players many more interesting tactical conundrums. The best thing to do is work out a rough set and give it a try on the tabletop. When you’ve played a few games (with varying combinations of missions) you’ll have a much better idea of what works and what needs tweaking.

      And don’t worry about hijacking things. You’re talking about an alternative to points, so it’s entirely relevant. I post this stuff to hear your ideas, not just admire my own writing 🙂

  15. Cyril Walker says:

    Have you looked at DBA.?
    In DBA you have no points.
    You get 12 elements/units, no mater which army you choose.
    Which 12 you get depends on the army list. As does the terrain.

    Cheers,

    Stan.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I’m very fond of DBA. I think it is one of the best wargames ever written.

      The 12 element army system is a neat one, and I think it works well, though it has its detractors. As it is designed to limit the armies to reasonably historically supportable army builds, some folk take exception to the restrictions. Still, I think it works well, is easy to understand and simple to use and gives you armies that look right.

      Having said that, you could argue that it is a points system: you get 12 points, but have lots of restrictions on how to spend them. It’s not presented as points, but that’s effectively what it is (with every element worth 1).

  16. Hi Cyril.
    We played ‘Hoards of the Thing’ quite a lot when we were introducing new players into gaming.
    (I belive it is a derivitive of DBA.And we could use any of our 15mm minis …)

    One of my other ideas was based on this set number of units to set the game size.
    But to use a simple composition method to allow more freedom of chioce and themeing.(To cover the variants of more modern/scifi warfare.)
    Eg
    Every race/faction has different HQ unit chioces that sets the playstyle of the force.(Airborne, footslogging ,mechanised, armoured etc.)

    The player selects the aprorpiate HQ unit that suits thier pefered play style.

    A single HQ chioce is compulsory and allows the selection of ;-
    1 to 3 Support units.

    2 to 6 Common units.

    For every 2 Common units you may select 1 Specialised unit.

    For every 2 Specialised units you may select 1 Restricted unit.

    And the simple ‘balance’ method I was thinking of using was , some units count as 2 or 3 unit selections!.
    Eg
    ‘ Light’ units count as 1 unit chioce.
    ‘Meduim ‘ units count as 2 unit chioces.
    ‘Heavy’ units count as 3 unit chioces.
    (I am testing this out in a WWII game setting as I am more familiar with this period.)

    Obviuosly this is no where near ‘fine’ enough for competative play.But perhaps good enough with a more narrative game focus?

    Hi Jake.
    You are probably right.Mission cards are a good way to add extra narrative ‘flavor’.
    But a basic reason for fighting the battle is required to set the motivation of the game.
    Ill try out setting 2 objective markers in each players half to fight over , that give 1 point each.
    And then narrative missions based on particular unit survival/destruction/capture that give 2 point for a victory, and 3 points for a major victory.

    Hopefuly, relegating ‘unit costing’ to a lower priority/visiblilty, might allow the narrative and tactical interaction take up a greater part of the players focus.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Let us know how it goes. You might also want to experiment with different numbers and values of objectives. The game will offer different challenges depending on whether there are a few, high value objectives, many low value ones, and how many “VPs” the objectives are worth compared to killing the enemy. A lot of variables to play with there 🙂

      On the subject of DBA variants, I once wrote a Warhammer DBA version. In that I started with a 12 element army and then allowed people to fiddle with this slightly by taking heroes and so on. All units were worth 1, like DBA, only the powerful characters were worth more. I offer this suggestion not as a “better” way of doing things, just another alternative approach: start with a fixed set, and allow mutations at a price.

  17. maxxon99 . says:

    It really depends on what you want from the point system…

    I used to play a LOT of Car Wars back in the day. Just about the first thing about the game you realize is that all Division 10 cars are not built equally. Yet the players are equal, how is this done?

    The metagame of building your car is an integral part of the game, roughly equivalent to list building in other games. Every player gets the same amount of money (points) to build their car and has access to all the same parts at the same cost as everyone else (this is important!).

    Are some parts better than others? Sure. But everyone has the same resources and the same access to parts, so the players are equal.

    Yes, sometimes the disparity in builds is so great that the actual battle in the arena is a total cakewalk — this is fine as long as building your car is viewed as part of the game: you lost because you screwed up the build phase of the game just as you might lose for screwing up the deployment phase or whatever.

    IMO, this is the way to do totally balanced point systems.

    Did this mean that a single dominating build emerged and everyone ended up using carbon-copy designs? No. The game was varied enough that no single design was best suited to every play style, every map or every situation. Plus they did fuel the arms race by constantly publishing new parts, making old designs obsolete… (not such a big deal when it’s just a sheet of paper you need to redo).

    Any game that allows players to (somewhat) freely choose their forces has a points system. Saying “bring 3 platoons” is fundamentally just the same as saying “bring 300 points”. You’re always counting something, whether it’s points, dollars, tonnage, or men.

    At the other end of the scale, recently I’ve played a lot of Force on Force. Like Stargrunt 2, that game also has no points system. However, unlike Stargrunt 2, it has superb support with published and PLAYTESTED scenarios, starting with the main rulebook. In fact, basically all the published supplements are “just” scenario books with very little in the way of new rules and such. Without that support, IMHO the game would have died out.

    After lots of play, I can now design a fairly balanced FoF scenario — but without a ready supply of them I would never have acquired the necessary experience to be able to do so. As I grow older, my appetite for banging my head against the proverbial wall has diminished greatly — I will no longer stick with a bad game just because I like the concept.

  18. Pingback: Deadzone Points Values |

  19. Steve Price says:

    Hi Jake, have you looked at Guildball they have no points system – they have 3 classes of players : Captain, mascot, other players – selection is captain, plus mascot, plus 4 others. Limited models at present but balance seems good. Be interesting to see your thoughts

  20. Pingback: The Best Game of 40K Ever | The Law of Game Design

  21. bittermanandy says:

    Reading this post, four years after it was written, in the light of the current largest furore in wargaming, is *fascinating*. It almost predicts the current debacle!

    I won’t expect you to comment on something that isn’t anything to do with you, from somewhere you’ve not worked at for years… but I was still amused to read this. Basically you’re right: (1) points will never be perfect, (2) they’re still usually the best option we’ve got. Where one might conclude from that, that the best thing to do is just not bother (for a game featuring lowly Goblins to mighty Dragons, no less!) is quite beyond me…!

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