Design Theory: An Alternative To Points

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.

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41 Responses to Design Theory: An Alternative To Points

  1. Minitrol says:

    What I love about points is we can’t escape them even though WE KNOW they are never balanced.

    Even Warlord grudgingly includes a segment on making points although this is not the spirit that either Hail Caesar out Black Powder were intended.

    Bidding i like reminds me of Apocalypse 40k bid for your time which I felt was a great balancer

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I’ve not read Apocalypse, but it’s good that they include it. It’s been used a few times, though not as much as I think the idea deserves.

      It sounds like Warlord have included this because it’s what people are familiar even though, as you say, the ethos of the systems seems to be more freeform and story driven.

  2. pancake says:

    So if say me and my mate wanted a game of ww2 and i wanted to play Germans. And my mate Americans. We both have 1500 points each. We both then bid the amount we think we could beat each others 1500 points with. And the one who bids the lowest takes his army, the other takes his with 1500 points. Sounds like it will make fun and interest games. You cant moan when your 1000 points gets beat by 1500 points because you bid 1000 would win. Nice concept, lots of ideas for scenarios allso.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Normally you’d have one fixed side, but your idea works too. The important bit for bidding is that the players have control of their own fate. It’s also a fun idea because it’s dead simple (no pages of rules to add) and yet adds all sorts of interesting effects (the bluff and bragging).

      Oh, and the other good thing is that you can add it to pretty much anything.

    • Chrixter says:

      The bidding idea does not work in the scenario described above. The bidding does not contain any real incentive for either player to bid except the satisfaction of “I could beat your 1500 with 1499p”. Compare a game such as Bridge, then bidding higher enables you to gain (or lose) more “victory points”.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        I don’t see why “the satisfaction” should be so poor a reason for doing something. It is great for bragging rights, and sets a bar for the rest of your mates to aim for. If I can do scenario X with 1200 points against a 1500 point enemy then I become the player to beat. It adds to the fun outside the game.

        Of course, you could easily give bonus VPs and so on if you wanted to.

  3. There is an alternative to points and that is scenario based — but what if you want some pick-up games at the local club and don’t know who will be there?

    Just agree on a ratio. Sun Tzu (I think, could have been somebody else) that to attack the enemy you need at least three times his number, preferably five times or more, to be sure of victory. So double the number should be more or less a fair game then? Aha, you say, but saying “double the number” you already are using a crude form of points, yes? Well, that is a valid point (pun intended) but you are not really counting points. You are not even counting men.

    Let’s say you are playing WW2, eastern front. Soviets attacking. The german player has a crack SS-platoon of infantry with an AT-gun, some machine guns and three tanks in support. The soviet player should then get about two platoons of infantry, two platoons of tanks and maybe some mortars to call in. And suddenly you get a very historical-looking game that should play quite interestingly and give a fair chance to both sides. If you know that SS is a alot better than the soviets in your rules of choice then just throw in a third platoon of soviets or make the SS platoon understrength (maybe they have been hit hard in the previous days).

    We once played Lord of the Rings at the club, where people just brought their favourite figures. We had all the heroes from the first film along with some elves and gondorians, against nearly a hundred Orcs and Uruk-Hai. We didn’t bother to count the points because we couldn’t be arsed to do it, quite frankly. Hafl-way into the game we realised that the good guys were in trouble, and the game ended with a heroic last stand, Gimli fell last surrounded by dozens of corpses. BUT WE HAD A BLAST!!! It turned out that the the good guys were “out-pointed” by nearly three to one but the resulting battle had all the epicness of the books in it.

    What it boils down to is that “fair” is only relevant in tournaments, and perhaps when you are breaking in new players to a game. So just get the figures onto the table and start rolling some dice.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Absolutely, Leif. If you want a game you can just pick up and have a go. My discussion here is to do with the theory rather than what I think is necessarily the “best” way to design or play. Personally, I prefer scenario driven games to rigid points systems, but the current fashion is more for tournament and balanced games. Happily, we seem to be slowly moving away from this now, which is great. The wheel will continue to turn, and in a couple of decades we’ll have got the narrative campaigns and freeform stuff out of our system and someone will “discover” rigid points systems again 🙂

      Your WWII example is exactly how I used to put games together as a lad, and it’s great. I’d encourage more people to give this a try. However, as I said, it’s a different solution to gaming and isn’t an alternative to points when it comes to satisfying tournament requirements.

      • Choosing russians vs. SS is an interesting choice. While SS nominally were full size they very often had only part of the strength they were supposed to have on paper. In contrast a russian unit that is comparable to a german company would have way more men thain its opponent though it would rankwise and organizationally be on the same level. It would be interesting to check whether such huge historical differences can make it into a game without breaking it.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        One facet of warfare that almost never turns up in games is units that have already taken losses. Very occasionally they turn up as a special or veteran unit, but the vast majority of the time all the forces are as they should be on paper. In reality, very few forces contain exactly the men and equipment they are supposed to.

  4. Davey says:

    Interesting and simple idea. Will definitely give both variants of this a try – the one-side-fixed version and the both-players-bid version pancake mentioned.

  5. Varrak says:

    Here’s my idea: after the players have selected a scenario in whatever way they wanted both players write down an amount of points they are willing to drop from their army in order to choose which side of the scenario they play. Now I’m using a known auctioning mechanism: the player that has made the lowest bid has to deduct the points the other players has written down. (so if player A bids 100 points and B 50, player A has to deduct 50 points). This basically forces both players to think hard about their bid.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      This would work too. It seems to be a slightly more fiddly way to get to the same place as just bidding the least you think you could win with that side, but if you want the extra maths then go for it! The idea is really to just introduce a little extra tension and excitement into a game, and it works with pretty much any scenario in any game 🙂

      • Varrak says:

        It has the extra benefit of forcing both players to make a realistic bid. Take for instance your Zulu proposal: let’s say one or both players aren’t really interested in playing the British for whatever reason. He/they could both make a high (or low) bid, intending to only play the British when the situation is really comfortable. In my proposal that kind of behavior is punished/disencouraged because they would risk giving their opponent the advantage.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        True, though it muddies the water as you are then not only bidding to play a partuicular side, but also bidding against your opoponent (and there’s plenty of gamesmanship to be had in that). It’s a more competitive and aggressive version, and I’d rather find a scenario where both really wanted to play the same side so the bid is really about how little you think you can win with. Plenty of opportunities to outdo your opponent in game.

        “Realistic” is also subjective, as what is a realistic option for you may be impossibly daunting or unchallenging for me. Your suggestion encourages people to bid against each other rather than against the scenario, and that leaves them in a position where they feel they have to make bids they couldn’t achieve (just to foil their opponent) and then be double-bluffed into having to actually attempt them (which may well be a less fun game). The original proposal means that you will always be fighting a battle you think you could win as there is no incentive to bid a lower number than you believe in.

  6. Dogui says:

    Are you familiar with the order system in Infinity? It seems like a very elegant and game changing balancing mechanic, supporting the point system built into it, but changing gameplay as well.

    Basically, you have as many order tokens as units on the table (there are a few exceptions but not importan here). So a well rounded force with strong and weaker elements would have more orders (activations) than a force with few, very powerful models. The important part here is that any model can be activated any number of times during a turn. So if you want to spend half your orders (or all!) on a single model during the turn, you can do it.

    Do you have any thoughts on this system as support to balancing the game?

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Yes, I am familiar with Infinity’s order system. It does give you the choice of large numbers of cheap troops (and therefore more orders) versus few elites (with few orders), which is a nice twist to building forces. However, I don’t think it helps balance – I think it is something else that needs balancing.

      The fact that an individual figure provides an order is, in effect, a stat for that model. This order mechanic allows totally useless models (in a fighting sense) to still have value as they allow other models to act, and so even a model with no fighting skill at all would have to pay for the order they bring. One could argue that the value of an order is not fixed either, as the effect of purchasing multiples of cheap models (all with an order for the pool) can be disproportionately powerful, and that the synergies of many cheap models as back-ups for a few elites works better than a few more elites and a smaller order pool.

      In the end the order system offers just one more stat to juggle; no different from weapon mix and hackers, medics, TAGs and so on. Clever though it is, it does nothing to balance the forces. For example, if elites were all 50% of the price they should be, the order system would not help redress the imbalance.

      So in the context of being a “support to balancing the game” I think the orders mechanism is largely irrelevant.

  7. Elromanozo says:

    Interesting thought… Not necessarily as a game system, but as the beginning of a handicap system for any other game.
    When you present it as a challenge, a bid, to the more experienced player, and when he gets to choose what he’s going to fight with, it’s (subjectively) very diffeent than simply saying “Oh,, you’re a stronger player than me, you shouldn’t have as many troops as I do, you’ll have to have a handicap for fairness’ sake…”
    Does that sound right ?

    • Quirkworthy says:

      It’s one of those simple ideas that has a small rules “footprint” and comes alive mostly in the subjective and presentational “feel” of the way it plays, as you suggest. And it has the happy ability to be applicable to almost anything 🙂

  8. James S says:

    Hi, I’ve just discovered this site through the Frontine Gamer, great stuff 🙂

    There are a couple of other ways you could go with this sort of idea maybe. Randomizing points values before the game could work as an alternative to bidding. You each start with a conventionally agreed-upon force size and then each roll to see if your force is reduced by 0, 1, or 2 units, chosen by the opponent. Sort of like in card games where you lose your best/worse card from your hand before the game properly begins.

    Another way to mitigate imbalance is to simply have all mechanical options available to all armies, as equivalents with different names and fluff. It’s hard to describe what I mean here . . . Sort of like a more open version of chess, or a video game where all the troops on different sides are different only cosmetically. You may be able to choose Veteran Heavy Infantry for x points, or Irregular Tank Hunters for y points. This may seem boring, but if the background and models are presented with enough imagination I don’t see how it’s a problem. A system like that is perfectly balanced. Everyone has the exact same tools to play with, and the flavour is provided solely by the accompanying models/flavour text.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Hey James, thanks for the suggestions. Both are worth thinking about, though I’m not sure they would work for me.

      The first idea is an entertaining thing to try, and I’ve used a similar idea to show attrition over the previous (unfought) battles to have units that weren’t always pristine and complete. Yours is a simpler and more brutal approach to the one I used, and it would work just as well if not better. However, I don’t think it is particularly balancing. You can remove the most outrageously unbalanced of your opponent’s units, but you will also be just as likely to introduce new imbalances as your opponent removes all your anti tank weapons, for example. It would be entertaining for a more story driven game though. Oh, and I’d make it a fixed number (or at least the same for each side) or you’ll have the potential for introducing major new imbalances.

      Your second suggestion sounds a bit dull to me. You say that presentation might cover up their identical nature, but I am not convinced. For me, it is the very differences between armies that make them an interesting challenge to play, and your suggestion would mean that there was no variation and only one tactical challenge in the game. I’m also unconvinced that it would actually help the imbalance. Of course, both sides would be able to take the same “broken” units, but that wouldn’t necessarily make it more fun or balanced. For example, if this imbalance has anything to do with shooting power then it will make the roll for first go even more critical than it often is already. In one game I had an army that routinely wiped out 60% of the opposing force on my turn 1, regardless of the opposing force composition. The brokenness there wasn’t to do with the options available to the opposing force.

  9. James S says:

    Ha ha you’re right, neither of them really address imbalance. I guess that’s why I’m a player not a designer!

    With the second of my suggestions: Infinity seems to have identical or near-identical stats for many of the basic light infantry in the game, and I wonder if this (plus the “always your turn” thing) is what gives Infinity the balance it is often praised for?

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Game balance (as opposed to points balance) is a very complex interplay of all the rules, stats and turn sequencing that all go together to work or not. Units with similar stats are obviously easier to balance than those with widely disparate game values, though I couldn’t say whether this was the root cause of Infinity’s balance.

  10. Kevin Wesselby says:

    HI all.
    What do you folks think of bidding on ‘control elements’.EG Players bid on limiting thier control of units under thier command.

    Eg shorter command raduii, lower morale , reduced communications/off table support.etc.

    Its just an option to bidding on PV , and may be a better fit with more narrative senarios.
    EG winning a senario with weary/poorly trained troops ,or without the support of higher command.(Cut off behind enemy lines.)

  11. Kevin Wesselby says:

    Hi Jake.
    I was thinking about historical senarios where players want to use historicaly acurate forces.
    So the option to loose units is not realy ideal.(Especialy for games/senarios that dont use PV.)

    Where as loosing control elelments (in defined increments ) may be an alternative?
    We used to play quite a few rule sets with lots of granularity of control elements , so it doesnt sound as drastic as it seems.(For the rule sets I had in mind.)

    I only metioned it as a possible altenrative .For games with depth and granularity of control that allow bidding on this to be praticable.
    ( I probably should have explained this in my original post , sorry.)

    • Quirkworthy says:

      There’s nothing wrong with your idea Kevin. Mind you, it is rather linked to the rules set and what elements are present to fiddle with.

      In a more generic way, you could change the availability of units in the sense that they turn up late or in the wrong place. That would be far from implausible in terms of slightly “what if” re-enactments of particular battles, and might be a way to remove some control from the player regardless of the rule set.

  12. Kevin Wesselby says:

    Hi Jake.
    Thankyou for translating my poorly worded ideas into something better defined and more usefull.

    This is the sort of thing I meant .(But totaly failed to explain!)
    Player can bid on what units are held in reserve/off table.AND how much control they have on thier arrival.(EG delay arrival by X turns.)

    Which is better than exluding part/whole units for the enrtirety of the game IMO.
    (For historical /senario play without P.V.)

  13. maxxon99 . says:

    Bidding systems were all the rage, what, 20 years ago or something… When BattleTech couldn’t balance old tech vs. clan tech, they brought it bidding. When Space Hulk couldn’t balance variable terminator forces vs. genestealers, they brought in bidding…

    Personally I’m not too fond of them as a replacement for points simply because they perform worst where they are needed most — with inexperienced players.

    To make a meaningful bid, you must understand the rules, the forces and the scenario pretty well. Inexperienced players have none of that. They’ll end up making bids that make no sense, resulting in very one-sided games, which leads to them thinking the game just doesn’t work and quitting playing it (mind you, badly balanced scenarios or point systems can lead to the exact same result) — whose benefit is that (barring the possible newbie-basher)?

    Experiened players can whip up a balanced game without point system. They don’t really need points for balance anymore, they need it for the list building metagame.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      You seem to be assuming a complete neophyte against an experienced player. If that is the case then there is far less a designer can do than the experienced player. The best way to teach someone a game is by coaching them in person. If the veteran player is simply out to stomp on the newbie then it doesn’t really matter whether there is a points system or bidding or anything else. They will have no basis to make any decision, and so will invariably make wrong ones that can be exploited.

      Bidding isn’t a problem here, the situation is the problem.

      • maxxon99 . says:

        No, I’m assuming two complete neophytes. Neither of them will be able to make a meaningful bid. It doesn’t matter if they bid too high or too low, the scenario still won’t work.

        Which incidentally is usually the case when I get into a new game: I buy the game, we set it up and play a few times. These first few games are critical in deciding whether that game ends up on the shelf as reference material or enjoys continued play.

        Over here, there typically is no experienced core of gamers to teach new players (barring the handful of “popular” games I have no interest in) — you want to get into a new game, you learn it from the book and try to teach others.

  14. JimmyTheOne says:

    Your style of bidding, interesting as it is, is still based on a points system, so it doesn’t get around the problem. It is interesting that the new Age of Sigmar uses the bidding approach also, but allows players to bid more rather than bid less. However it does not provide a satisfactory solution either as there is no way for new players to determine whether they are putting down armies that will provide each other with a fun challenge.

    To me, the fairest system is the one adopted by Memoir’ 44, where players play a scenario, then swap sides and play again, and the winner is the player who got the best result from both sides.

    Going back to points:
    In a single-play setting, there is always going to be some disparity between forces in a pitched battle setting, with some armies being a better match up than others. What I would suggest, especially for a tournament setting, would be to set scenarios in advance and encourage players to build armies towards these scenarios. Later rounds in a tournament could involve the forces from the earlier games combined in a large army.

    Alternatively, if you throw a range of scenarios at players, it encourages them to build a more tactically-balanced army list, since taking a gunline for example is not going to help in the scenarios where you have to capture areas of the battlefield. I think this is the idea behind the Eternal War and Maelstrom scenarios in Warhammer 40,000, but it falls short because there is always the option of blasting your opponent off the field or of fielding a super-unit that can perform all roles equally well. In a fantasy setting however, I think this approach is more viable.

    • Alex Draper says:

      For new Age of Sigmar players fun can be had by playing and learning – its quick enough to play that exp[erience of units and their cpabilities will flow fast too.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Playing both sides is fine if the game is quick enough. With many mass battle games (and not a few skirmish games too), it’s just not practical as the game is too long to expect to get two in a typical session.

      Bidding works when both players already know the game, and not when they have no idea of what values things have to bid for and with. Teaching games is really a separate issue, and not always a simple one either. A topic for another time 🙂

      I disagree that “there is always the option of blasting your opponent off the field” – there shouldn’t be this option if the scenario is well enough written. Or, at least, it should only be there if it supposed to be a viable option, and ideally would be absent in some scenarios. Variation is best.

  15. Alex Draper says:

    Age of Sigmar (you’ve heard about it?) has no points and is it seems narrative driven with a bidding like approach to army set up. Battalion Warscrolls bringing some direction to force selection. A bold and controversial approach to what was a Warhammer that was defined by constant tweaking points based tournament scene.

    I personnally am happy with this change of direction.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Yes, I’ve read (but not played) AoS. I agree that it seems to be a refreshing change in direction, and it’s intriguing they should do this. Whilst it isn’t without its problems, I have to say that AoS is far more tempting than either 7th or 8th editions were.

  16. Nurglitch says:

    Have you considered how balance can be achieved through board layout (terrain, etc) and adjusting the goal of the game?

    • Quirkworthy says:

      A good point, and yes, I have indeed. It’s an integral part of game design when you have a fixed board, or at least one you can dictate. When it comes to tabletop games it’s impossible to know what a player may have in his terrain collection, and so being proscriptive with your layouts tends to be much more difficult.

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