Fantasy Fisticuffs #37: Musing on Balancing Games

I want to do something a little different this week.  I am feeling a bit down regarding an Age of Sigmar experience I had, and am guessing it will feel pretty familiar to a few of you.  So this time we are talking about what it means to be a competitive player who struggles with turning it off at home.

Here is the backstory.  Like crazy people, a few of us had played twelve games of AoS spread across three days.  We’re working on something, hopefully fun, for all of you readers, and after quarantining to ensure safety, we wanted to take advantage of finally being together to log a LOT of games.

While it looked like a crazy mega-GT schedule, our actual goal was to produce really balanced, strategic, entertained games to be watched.  That is when it all broke down…

For part of the community, this is real-hammer.

Our first games were absolute blow-outs with one player or the other eliminating 75% of their opponent’s force within two turns, three at absolute max.  We couldn’t even broach discussions of the scenario as they were moot.  No one would enjoy watching these as the player who executed their strategy first, just routed the other.

So we tried “dumbing down” our lists.  We removed the top tier armies from the pool, and thought we self-imposed a moratorium on really over-the-top units…

The same things happened again.

To spare you the details, we had eleven really unsatisfying games of AoS in a row.  Had they been tournament games they would have felt like what we expected, but the act of putting together a meaningful, balanced, game that would come down to generalship seemed impossible.

So what was happening?  Who was to blame?  

That is a complex answer we legitimately spent hours working on, and here were some of our thoughts.

Is GW guilty of producing a poorly balanced game? Of course.  Even as fans we all sense the inherent problems, even in games we enjoy.  Even a thrice-nerfed Keeper of Secrets can introduce a negative player experience if the other person has comparable points of say Stormcast Liberators and a “casual” list.  But units don’t necessarily need to be balanced 1:1 and it is very much about factors ranging from army abilities, the unit’s role, etc.  There are, no doubt failings on balancing, and some units are almost impossible to field in more casual environments without issue.  But if it were just that, we could’ve made a few quick adjustments, and been all set.

So are we the problem?  Is it really that difficult to take tournament-centric gamers, and get them to play in a more relaxed way?  I think the answer to that is, “kind of, but not really.”

A lot of our list-building best practices really do double down on failings of the system.  Good players naturally do things like take bigger blocks of units, knowing it increases the value one gets from buffs.  The problem is that we were tending to do this automatically, and doing so with even modest units could cause tiny imbalances to collide with things like the double-turn, and other quirks and it would all cascade into a big, one-sided endeavor.

To get to a happier point, we eventually sorted ourselves out through a few means.  We started taking smaller, more numerous, units.  We outright skipped any unit our instincts said would just cause problems.  Perhaps most importantly, we built our lists together, in constant consultation.

The result was one of the most satisfying actual games of AoS that I had ever had; one in which I dragged a minor loss into a draw through crafty play on the last turn of the game.

So I guess things ended in a positive place, and we’re better equipped to tackle balancing going forward.  However it did leave me thinking about the big social contract that is our hobby.  These games only work when we sit together, in-person or virtually, and decide on not only a shared set of rules, but shared values and goals.  Is our goal to be the best builder of dominant lists, or do we want to find out who is the better tactician among evenly matched forces?  Whatever the answer is for you and your opponent, is need to be a sort of social contract, otherwise the outcome can easily be someone who has spent a lot of time, passion, and money, having a really poor time.

I know to many this is filed under, “no duh”, but it really occurs to me that there are a lot of blurry lines.  Being a good sportsman means a lot to me, but once an even is called a tournament, I generally have no qualms about bringing my meanest lists.  The issue then becomes what do I expect out of a game versus an opponent who maybe only gets to play at all in said monthly organized event.

There definitely isn’t a right or wrong to all of this, but I needed to put it out there.  It took legitimate work to create a mutually rewarding test of skill, and there were plenty of factors to blame for that.  The occasional reminder that this hobby is fun for us all, and shouldn’t feel too much like a chore, is as important as remembering to rein in any of our own failings as players too.

My personal take-away is also that I need to re-calibrate a bit.  Gung-ho super serious, has its place, but so do the beer and pretzels.  This weird dichotomy has always been an issue for games, and particularly is a struggle GW faces with its own conflicted pool of rules authors who range from ultra competitive, to largely narrative players.  For me, I am going to try to let my writing here also better reflect both halves, and hopefully a lot more consideration of fun for all.

And remember, Frontline Gaming sells gaming products at a discount, every day in their webcart!

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About Mark Gottlieb

Writer, Game Designer, and owner of Fortunate Sun Studios, I have always tried to lead a life in some way built around paying back to gaming, and the gaming community. This hobby, and everyone in it, saved my life on more than a few occasions, and now I get to put my heart into helping it thrive for everyone!

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