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.