As with my previous article on points systems, I’m talking here about the mechanisms used to produce balanced and “fair” tabletop miniature games. Those used in board games are slightly different.
The more I thought about possible alternatives, the more obvious it became that logically there were none. If you stick with the parameters I defined in the first article and ignore the storytelling and narrative approach (for now), then you must use some variant of a points mechanism.
If you want the sides to be equal, fair or balanced (pick your dubious and debatable term) then you need some form of measuring stick to quantify the varying abilities of the myriad troop types available. Regardless of whether you define them as individual models or units, and whether or not you accurately account for the synergies and multiples I spoke of in part 1, you still have to allocate each feature a value, ie you have to use a points system.
Most often, a game will use this in its “raw” state. Model/unit A costs 5 points, model/unit B costs 10 points, etc. Both sides agree on a total for the game and choose models for their army until they meet it. This supposedly makes things “fair”. This system is familiar to most gamers.
You can try to hide this approach by sticking another mechanism on top. A few options were mentioned in the comments for the previous article. For example, you could have a system of card draws. Each side has a deck and a scenario calls for a certain number of cards for each side. You may be allowed to swap or refuse a number of cards. However, despite the fact that each card may be different and drawn at random, what you have changed here is not the points system that must underlie the things that are on the cards, but the means you use to choose an army. Varying army selection is another (related) topic and doesn’t change the fact that if you want to have games that are at all balanced the items on each card must (at least roughly) equate in game value. In other words, they must be based on a points system, however rough.
I once devised a hugely baroque and involved flowchart for army selection in a fantasy game about mercenary armies, but despite the fact that it looked very different on the surface, and felt different in use, it was still based on points underneath. This was just changing the army selection rules.
My thinking here is that we cannot escape the logic that in order to balance something we must quantify it, and quantifying it means a points system. It doesn’t matter what you measure things in, it’s all logically identical. This, in turn, suggests two further thoughts:
1) as they are inevitable let’s do them properly. “If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well”. Trite, perhaps, but I do believe it. The first article covers a number of common failings.
2) even though the core concept remains the same, it can be dressed in a variety of interesting fashions to engage the gamer in different ways. The points system is only part of the army selection mechanics, and other parts can be varied to advantage. Perhaps that’s the subject for another post.
Of course, all of this is only relevant if you feel that gamers should be playing balanced and fair games. It is by far the most familiar format these days, and I still use it because of this familiarity. However, perhaps my favourite variation of presentation for points systems borrows heavily from a more freeform approach: bidding.
In this system, you have a conventional points system and army lists. These should be balanced and calculated accurately as normal. When it comes to playing a game, the players agree on a scenario to play from the selection offered, and this defines what they were bidding for. Let’s imagine the scenario is Rourke’s Drift in 1879, where thousands of Zulus besieged a tiny force of British redcoats. For the purposes of bidding, one side is fixed. Let’s say the Zulus get 3000 points of warriors. Both players then secretly bid to play the other side. What they are bidding is the minimum number of points they think they could win with. They player who bids lowest gets to play that side using however many he has bid. His opponent gets to prove him wrong.
The nice bit about the bidding system is that it reduces the importance of the points system and allows the players to define what is fair for them (thus accounting for their varying skills, etc, which they know, but which the designer cannot hope to factor in). It’s also a fun way of setting up a game and introduces an entertaining extra element of bidding, bluff and bragging rights.
As you can probably tell, my personal preference is for the more storytelling and narrative approach, and we’ll come to that next.