Design Theory: Love Them All Equally

This applies to every kind of game as balance is worth having in every medium. Yes, balance again.

Once your new game gets into the public domain the gaming masses will do their level best to break and exploit it. You can be sure of that. If there are loopholes, they will be found. In an ideal world, the relative power of different sides would be as you intended it: generally equal. However, a number of things get in the way of that aim.

What came home to me earlier this year when I was working on a new tabletop fantasy game, was that a fair part of this was in my hands to control. I’m not talking about the maths here, but the mindset with which I set out on the task.

I was making a new game with 10 different armies. Each army needed to be balanced against the others, yet all needed to be distinct and characterful with a unique “feel” (incidentally, I don’t see the point in duplicating armies within a set – might as well do a better job of less if you can’t think of new ones).

Anyway, it struck me that part of the problem with overly powerful (“broken”) armies I’ve encountered in the past has been that they tend to be developed by passionate fans. Now there’s nothing wrong with having favourites normally, but when it comes to taking a professional stance and developing a commercial product perhaps you need to behave differently. To this end I deliberately spent a great deal of time focussing on each of the armies in turn, getting into their character and defining for myself what was cool and exciting about each in turn. Learning to love each in turn, foibles and all. All of them are my favourite, in a way. On a professional level, I think this has helped me to write a game that has a great deal of character and variety, but which remains balanced. Sure, some armies have a steeper learning curve than others and certain combinations test your skills more than others, but there are no armies I wouldn’t happily put on the tabletop and think I had a fair chance of winning with.

On a personal note there is a down side. As I love them all in equal measure, I can’t now decide which one I want to collect first. I want them all 🙂

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20 Responses to Design Theory: Love Them All Equally

  1. Sounds very familiar. I never understood why one of the AT-43 designers pushed in the English version of the rules his favourite army and neglected the others.

    I also experience the downside or to be blatantly honest: My better half is experiencing it and from time to time there is the familiar outcry: “Another new army?”

    Good thing when working in the industry: It´s alittle bit cheaper to get them… though they still cost you some money ;).

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Putting aside the less charitable motives one could ascribe for people favouring one army over another in designs, I think it’s just human nature to promote your favourites more. This is why I think you have to get to the root cause and try to find the lovable part in each so that you have equal affection for all and the natural bias is lost. There are enough ways to accidentally break things without having ones we can avoid!

      In terms of collecting, it’s more the time than the money (though money always plays a part). Having thought up exciting and cool things for every army, and written in things I like all over the place, I’m now drawn in 10 directions. Not having models for some is about the only way I can filter them to start with. But I still have models to make a start on at least 5 of them…

  2. Ben says:

    I’m intrigued about what the game is lol

    I have given some thought in the past to wondering how important game balance is from a design point of view. For many years I played the WWE licensed CCG, Raw Deal. Due to the vast numbers of card combinations there were always some decks which were very much better than others but because a game took 15-30 minutes and you could have multiple decks on the go at once it wasn’t a big issue. In a minis game, especially one that uses armies rather than the smaller skirmish games, this becomes an issue. To purchase, assemble and paint one army is time and money intensive. To play a game takes a few hours. It’s difficult to play more than one army so game imbalance becomes an issue. I’ve gotten the impression that for GW, selling miniatures is of secondary concern to making a balanced game and they’ve been very successful in doing so. Many models are purchased either to paint or convert and many others will never hit the table. My mercifully limited experience to competitive WFB has seen me come up against some soul-grindingly awful game experiences as armies have exploited their army lists to the hilt.

    Given that achieving true balance between all the forces is impossible outside of making them all the same, where does game balance get prioritised in game design? Does it really matter if all players have access to all the armies and can choose to build a stronger army if they wish? Do you try and balance the game to the average player or the competitive tournament player? I’m assuming they aren’t the same thing. Has the internet made game balance harder because once someone figures out how to break an army list it can be instantly available to everyone. Once the game is published and people start breaking the army lists is there a strong temptation to issue a lot of erratas? This is a path Wyrd have gone down with Malifaux. Or do you just accept it and wait for a 2nd edition to try and fix everything?

    • Quirkworthy says:

      The game is a fantasy tabletop game. Beyond that I can’t really say 😉

      You pose a lot of intriguing questions. Some are already covered in various of my design notes articles. To cover the main points here:

      How important game balance is depends on a number of factors. Personally, I take professional pride in doing the best job I can, and often end up doing a load of work I’m not paid for just to make the thing as good as I possibly can. If I didn’t then they would get a lot less testing and consequently be less well balanced/honed/refined (whichever word you prefer) product.

      Resources of both time and money are important as playtesting is hugely resource intensive. Even if you use outside testers you still have to manage them and filter and understand their feedback. Having run GW’s “geeklist” and several other playtest fora I know quite how much time this can absorb. If we’re talking about a commercial entity then they can only afford to invest a finite amount of resource to each project. When do you stop?

      Actually, it’s impossible to know when you’re finished. There’s no magic way to determine at what point you have found all of the problems, imbalances and exploits. You just have to go on as long as you can and get a feel for it. Incidentally, I’m always slightly nervous when a project finally goes live in case I’ve missed something, but that’s probably just my perfectionist streak 😛

      Of course, commercial projects tend to be done to deadlines and have timetables to follow, so if you need extra stuff doing then it eats into evenings and weekends.

      It’s hard to say whether this matters. From my point of view, I want my projects to be prefect, and expect a similar standard from others. Often I am let down, sometimes I am very impressed. However, I do understand the financial pressures to get something released sooner rather than later. There is a point at which you must let go and release the work into the world. As ever, it is a matter of compromise.

      Who you balance something for is a tricky one. As you say, an individual gamer’s skill may make an army more or less effective and that has to influence where you aim to balance things. I tend to aim for a balance at a fairly high level as you can then write articles and have discussions to teach people tactics and make them think. If you aim low then your audience matures past this point pretty quickly, and then you may have problems. Different armies have varying gradients of learning curve, and this is where the tricky bit lies.

      I think the internet has dulled people’s skills at creating army lists (because they just copy) and it’s a real shame as this is an aspect of gaming that I find endlessly entertaining myself. People are missing out through their attempts at finding a quick fix off the net. It seldom really works anyway. If someone has fathomed out something that works perfectly for them then why would it work for you? Surely you are a different person with different tactical strengths and skills. Of course, if it genuinely is broken then there’s an issue. If it’s just a well-honed selection then it’s less of a game-breaker. In either case you still have a (self-inflicted) loss of entertainment value for the surfing gamer as they don’t get to find out for themselves. That’s not the way to learn to be good o the tabletop.

      • Reminds mo of some “dusty” playtesting…
        We did our best and no it is up to the gamers to tear it appart…. After some time we filter the feedaback and hopefully get a 2nd edition out the door…

  3. Ben says:

    Excuse, that should have said game balance is of secondary concern to selling miniatures for GW.

    • pancake says:

      Selling minus is what makes GW its money. Its so big now it needs to make more money than the rest to keep going. And in doing so the games end up unbalanced for the the rerurn the need to keep going.

      • Ben says:

        Is it an unavoidable side-effect of the need to generate large sales or a distant secondary consideration to the desire to generate large sales? My feeling is it’s the latter.

      • Quirkworthy says:

        When a game business starts out it tends to be run by a handful of passionate gamers. As they mature and grow they get in business professionals like accountants and managers. These people seldom have an understanding of the product as they are hired for other specialist skills. When the balance of control moves from people who understand the gaming product to those that do not then you start having issues unless the people that don’t understand are very, very good.

        Games are not like shampoo and don’t have the same development cycle or require the same sort of marketing or customer support. Forgetting (or not knowing) this is often the root cause of all sorts of problems.

  4. Sean says:

    When can we see the result of your efforts?

  5. GloatingSwine says:

    So, G****ss = OP and imba then 😉

    • Quirkworthy says:

      I’ve had to suppress that name as most folk do not have your level of security clearance. Would hate to have to send the mind wipe teams out. Again 😉

      Overpowered and imbalanced (he said, having looked them up online)? Scary, certainly, though mostly superficially. Like a charge of Zulu warriors against a British redcoat line, a terrifying sight, but eminently survivable if you can hold your nerve.

      They’re one of the easiest to use and, initially, hardest to cope with of the 10 armies. However, when people have a couple of battles under their belts they become increasingly hard to do well with. Ben asked at what point you aimed the balance of a game, and this is a good example of an army that would be worth radically different points at different parts of the learning curves.The actual points values I used assume some familiarity and will doubtless be initially seen as too low for a game or two. After you’ve seen them on the table once or twice they’ll seem more reasonable.

  6. Hi folks.
    Just some general thoughts on game balance and army composition….
    The more strategicaly loaded the game (list composition and deployment) the more aparent imbalance is.

    The more tacticaly rich the game play is the less aparent imbalance is.(The player are hopefuly too engrosssed in finding the new and interesting ways to use units.)

    Thematic playstyle for factions are great for giving a strong feel to an armies play style.
    However alowing ALL factions acess to all playstyles can negativley effect the ‘thematic draw’ of particular factions.
    ( Designers favorites tend to be able to do eveything every other army can, rather than be specialised in one type of playstyle…)

    I belive the main problem that even the best game developers have, is having a specific use in mind for a particular unit. And assuming everyone will use them in this predetemined way.
    As this can allow ‘game breaking’ units to sneek into the game in the most unexpected way….

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Some good thoughts there Kevin. To take your last point first, this is why you have playtesters 🙂

      I agree with much of what you say, though I’d carry the thoughts on a bit. Tactical and strategic levels are not as separate as you might imagine. The selection and deployment (your strategic) will often be coloured by the intended tactical usage to which it can be put. For example, let’s say I select a unit of light cavalry and deploy it on a flank with the tactical intent of scurrying around the back of the opponent and sacking his camp (ie, the role of most ancient light cavalry in most ancient battles). If I hadn’t got that tactical intent, I would probably not have selected and deployed it like that, and if I had selected it and deployed it incorrectly then its tactical mission would be more prone to failure. So I think that you can’t separate strategy from tactics as much as you suggest.

      In terms of thematic playstyle, you’re right that it’s good to have a variety. However, “jack of all trades” is a theme too, so even when an army can do a bit of everything it isn’t necessarily a cop out or blatant favouritism. If it could do everything better than everyone else, then you’d have a problem. This jack of all trades theme is one that most people find harder to spot and to maximise though. It’s not as obvious as fastest army, shootiest army, etc. I think of it as a bit of a slow burn, and the flexibility to cope with anything is a strength in itself. If you play campaigns then it can really shine there.

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