Fantasy Fisticuffs #38: Do We Even Want Balance?

How much balance is a good thing?

That feels like a crazy question to ask.  At first blush, most of us instinctively would say we want a fully balanced game.  After last week’s conversation you would think I would say likewise, and yet here I am about to play devil’s advocate.

In the tabletop gaming world, one of this week’s big news stories was the death of Guildball.  Steamforged Games, its publisher, announced that the game would be ending as would all sales and product support.  It was the reasoning behind it that made it all particularly newsworthy.

A good game that met an unceremonious death for many reasons.

One of the game’s creators posited that he felt they had been forced by the community to end the game, because its balance was largely perfect, and thus many releases would go entirely unsold.  Ignoring some of the naive omissions (the team largely ignored massive stock and supply chain issues among other things, sku bloat, and assorted mismanagement), there were still some grains of truth worth discussing.

The main point to be addressed is simply this;  The less random, and more truly skill based a game is, the more likely it is to be perceived as balanced.  This sounds wonderful until you experience what that feels like in practice.  Famously, Guildball (not unlike Warmachine or Hordes), lived under a mantra of “plan to lose your first hundred games, before you will learn how to win.”  Balance of that sort can very much make a game seem impenetrable to new players unwilling to devote such significant time before even hoping to be on equal footing with a more experienced player.  These are games, after all, and for many the “Git gud” period simply is not fun or rewarding.

In concert with this is the idea that diversity is inherently difficult to balance.  The easier, more attainable, route to creating balance is one where both players are symmetrical.  The problem then emerges that a game like Age of Sigmar, hangs so much of its creativity and flavor on units or whole armies featuring unique mechanics.  That is, after all, what drew me to that system initially, and was at least part of what prompted the birth of these articles.

Ironically, Historicals frequently play grossly imbalanced scenarios in order to test generalship.

That leaves us to ask ourselves, what even is “balance” and is it something we should call for as often as many of us do?  Further, how much balance do we even want once we have defined it?

I feel a goal of two equally skilled players having an equal chance to win a game, is aspirational, but, as Guildball and the like may have partially revealed, is not attainable without risking flavor, accessibility, and the like.  More ideal, in my mind, is the “fat middle” alluded to by several game theorists that states there there may be winners and losers at the extremes of any balanced set, but if success can still be reached by the vast majority around the 50/50 win-rate mark, you will have something that can sustain, develop a meta, etc…

Perhaps quickly squashing the extreme outliers in any competitive meta, is more what we have in mind when we call for balance?  I’ve experienced several systems such as A Song of Ice and Fire, and Star Wars: Legion, who comparatively seem quick to stop deeply problematic combos/imbalances from propagating.  Games Workshop has certainly improved the rate at which they address these in recent years, though I may suggest that they can sometimes feel reticent about pulling a trigger and making nerfs have enough teeth (sometimes requiring two to three on the same unit before it has ceased to be a problem).

As unsatisfying of an outcome as it may seem, I am left with as many questions this week as last.  Ironically, the timing of this discussion, and many of your comments on social-media, etc… have really helped me out of the funk I found myself in last week.  Being reminded that games are fun, or they have only then truly failed, and also that the idea of perfect balance is far from universally perfect, has helped me greatly.  Thanks to all of you, for that.

And with that all said, and hopefully out of my system, let’s get to our next endeavor.  Starting next week we’ll be looking at game-wide approaches to the different scenarios in Age of Sigmar’s 2020 General’s Handbook, and building towards what I hope will be a really fun series of interconnected battle reports!

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!

4 Responses to “Fantasy Fisticuffs #38: Do We Even Want Balance?”

  1. Avatar
    Gaz August 22, 2020 12:53 pm #

    Every faction having multiple competitive options =/= a perfectly balanced game.

    Guildball failed for a number of reasons, I doubt very much that ‘perfect balance’ was the primary reason.

    While perfect balance is neither achievable nor desirable, GW could quite easily do a much better job than the current state of affairs, however. 40k is basically marines/Custodes/Imperium or bust. That’s not only boring it’s also tedious.

    • Mark Gottlieb
      Mark "Neomaxim" Gottlieb August 24, 2020 7:44 am #

      Fair points. As I have seen discussed elsewhere, balance increasingly isn’t a hunt for perfection, rather it is a search for a “good enough” that doesn’t come at the expense of a game/army/unit losing its unique identity.

      Seeing stats for 9th Ed 40k thus far where events are seeing 70% of player turn-out as Marines certainly doesn’t resemble “good enough”.

    • Avatar
      Ohlmann August 24, 2020 9:11 am #

      Perfect balance is a simplification of the problem.

      The main problem is when factions are balanced very closely *and* player skill give easily an overwhelming advantage.

      If you have the combination of both, you have a very real problem for new players, which is, as described, that they will have a very hard time to win a game before a lot of time. And that’s clearly a problem.

      If you want an example of a very skill testing game where small difference of skill don’t lead to 90+% win, go check Magic the gathering.

      As for warhammer 40k, the inter faction balance is a joke, and very far from the point where it would cause that issue. That being said, the buckets and buckets of very swingy dice make it so that even if factions were balanced very closely, beginners could win on luck, which prevent a lot of problems.

      • Mark Gottlieb
        Mark "Neomaxim" Gottlieb August 24, 2020 9:50 am #

        Prevent some problems while creating others, but I get your point.

        I really do feel there is an as-of-yet defined sweet-spot where skill is rewarded, armies can be asymmetrical and flavorful, and where it can be fun and accessible, but clearly that can be elusive to people far more experienced and smarter than me.

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