Different players get more or less "value" for their points out of different units or indeed, different factions
You know that player who is awesome with slow, tough dwarves but sucks with speedy flimsy dark elves? So do I.
In Infinity, there are two rather powerful abilities. One is thermal camouflage, which enables you to move around the board with a good chance of remaining completely unseen, and get the "first shot in" - invaluable in a game where weapons are long-ranged and lethal. The other is advanced airborne deployment - you can walk on the board edge of your choice or make a roll to parachute in anywhere on the board you want, and gun down your enemies from behind. Both very powerful abilities, right? Both cost far more than a "vanilla" soldier. However, players will usually be better with one method than the other. You might use advanced deployment brilliantly, but not get the full benefit from your camouflage units, or vice versa. That's because the "average" player is not "the same" in how he utilizes a unit or ability. Thus some abilities or units are worth more (or less) depending on who controls them. That's the first problem.
Players themselves are a reason points will never be precisely "balanced"
Broken Units & "Lists"Sometimes units can become overpowering when they are "min-maxed" i.e. an all-camoflage army.
This may be very powerful against a "normal" army - therefore the "camoflage" (which was balanced under the expectation of having only 1-2 stealth units per side) is worth far more than its points cost suggests.
It also might have a "hard counter" i.e. an army with "X-Ray Vision" units which completely ignores camouflage; or one that uses all AoE weapons. In that case, the camo is worthless, and the whole army is suddenly extremely overpriced. Sometimes, "less is more" - having a single off-board "airborne" unit or "stealth" unit can create uncertainty, messing with your opponents' battle plans far more than the actual points cost or combat value of the unit.
Even with a relatively balanced force, having "to many" of xy units as a ratio to other units can have an unbalancing effect. I.e the ability for a vehicle to transport a infantry squad is useful and well worth the points - but what if you have more far vehicles than you do "squads?" The points are wasted as you cannot utilise them. Other units rely on others - without a "scout" or "forward observer" to direct it, that artillery may not be worth its "points." That's why you see points often used in conjunction with army lists i.e. "you must have 2 vanilla units for each camo unit" - to prevent the wilder extremes.
Other abilities seem rarely used - I have never used the "Zero-G" ability of my Nomad minis, simply because I've never had a vacuum-based game board. If I played on a vacuum-based map every week, they would no doubt be "overpowered." But as it is, any points towards this ability are effectively wasted. In all games terrain has a dramatic effect on game balance. I'm using Infinity as an example, due to the lethality and range of weapons, and the ability of units to "react" by shooting at any enemy movement (even when it isn't there turn.) In a open map, sniper rifles and HMGs would be ridiculously overpowered - most enemies would die on their base table edge. In a "good" table with terrain every 4" or so (that's a huge amount of terrain, by "normal" wargame standards), shotguns, flamers and melee weapons at least have a vague chance at success. So the "practical" value of weapons, stats and abilities can also vary wildly depending on a game board.
Broken FactionsLike in the "camo" example, some factions naturally have a "rock" to their "scissors." Anyone familiar with competitive-focussed games like Warhammer or Warmachine would be familiar with "flavour of the month" or "overpowered" builds. I suspect this is because units are costed in "isolation" and do not always consider the other units in the army, or the opponents.
As I've noted, certain unit combinations work well with each other - a faction that possesses artillery AND forward observers will do better than one with just artillery. However if all the other factions have access to airborne troops able to "drop in" and quickly neutralise the artillery, then the artillery is less valuable as a faction "strength." Having lots of "scissors" can be valuable of most enemies bring "paper" but less so if most opponents are "rock." Having no access to "scissors" at all could place a faction at a severe disadvantage against more balanced factions.
So there are a lot of variables to consider. Do you think the average "point system" actually covers them all?
So Broken, it's BalancedIt annoys me how game companies keep their points formula a secret.
This is no doubt to stop people making up their own "proxy" units instead of "official" miniatures but I also think it is to disguise how much "fudging" is done by designers in order to "balance" some of the variables given above. Being "open" about game balance is also being "open" to criticism, and we all know gamers are a bunch of whingers. However they are also missing out on community help (i.e. free playtesting) to help balance their game.
Sometimes, a game can be so "broken" by weird special rules, unit "synergy" and wildly differing units and factions, it becomes "balanced" simply as there are so many options a gamer can use to succeed.
I'd cite Warmachine (a game which rejoices in cheesiness and min-maxing) and the ever-more-complex Infinity. There are so many possible units, stats, variations and combinations it would be impossible to balance them all, and I suggest the designers long ago gave up the attempt. But it doesn't seem to have an effect. Why?
Because "special abilities" in these games are so powerful, a player's ability to remember and utilize his abilities and know the possible actions of his opponent, means a "good player" will tend to beat a "bad one" every time, regardless of precise "point costs." I'd argue this has more to do with having "secret knowledge", good memory and a card-game-like ability to perform combos than true "tactics" but that is an argument for another post.
So some games are so broken, they are actually balanced!
Sometimes "abilities" or stats have a good synergy with others that make them disproportionately powerful
Players or the Points SystemIt's easy to say "players are cheesy min-maxing bleeps" but if the rules allow it....
In a PC game I play called World of Tanks, people often whine about "gold ammunition." Basically, it is a tank shell with ~25% more armour piercing ability. Using "gold shells" proportionately reduces your "reward" at the end of the game. So basically you are improving your chance of success, for an decreased reward if you do succeed. It is a completely intentional, deliberately implemented feature of the game, but people who use gold shells are alleged to be "cheating" "skill-less" and "cheesey" as they can kill tanks more reliably, and now certain tanks can take down other tanks that they were not originally designed to be able to penetrate. But is it the fault of the players, or the game system?
I'd suggest many "points systems" are not particularly carefully playtested. Many rules are written and published (and playtested) by a small group of family/friends, who are not typical of your normal competitive tournament gamer. Even if you do not design your game for those players, those players can and will play your game.
That said, whatever system you come up with probably will be exploited by someone.
The other method might be "go with the flow" and make army building integral to the game itself. I'd argue Warhammer is 50% army building, and only 50% wise deployment/tactical skill. "He smashed me with an killer list." Building "killer" lists (and min-maxing thereof) is an even bigger, actively encouraged component in Warmachine. This promotes the "collecting" side of the hobby which miniatures manufacturers love.
If you make the points system "part of the game" there is less justification for complaints when players do "min-max" - because they are simply being good "players" seeking the best army "build."
So should we abandon points systems?
The games that don't have points systems, tend to rely on (and aggressively preach) scenarios. However they seldom explain how to design and balance said scenarios. The irony is that it is much easier to balance scenarios when you have "points" to work with. In addition, a "points" system is much easier to pick up and play. "Balancing" a points-less scenario can be tricky, as you have to understand how well each unit works, BEFORE you can play a balanced game. No "points" system makes the game less accessible and harder to "pick up and play."
(OT Rant: Everyone hates paying for "codexes" and "army lists" in addition to the rules, but no one ever seems to mind paying for "scenario books", which, for scenario-based games, are effectively doing the same thing - adding variety and content that could (or should) have been in the original rulebook)
I'd say "points" should be well-nigh mandatory for sci fi and fantasy. If the game is designed simply to replay historical scenarios, then yes, you could skip a points system, but that does minimize your target audience, many of whom were introduced to wargaming via games with points. Again, it comes down to "accessibility." Not everyone has the time or ability to organize scenarios or missions in advance.
I really like how some games (like Dropzone Commander) are based on "missions" which add flavour and different ways to win, but (as in videogames) you can usually kinda ignore then and just "kill em" all if you wish. I noticed this in the PC game Mechwarrior: Online where "missions" usually turned into "kill em while they are distracted by objectives." Yeah, we hold no "objectives" - but if you are all dead, we can capture them at our leisure. Even then, "missions" are not balanced - for example faster armies have an advantage in "capture" missions.
Its hard to avoid "points." They tend to exist in most games, sometimes indirectly. In fact games that allow players to choose forces are by nature "points" games - "bring 2 squads and a support squad" or "bring 12 elements" or "your team can be worth 300 gold" work the same as "bring 1000 points."
So summarising some of the thoughts above:
1. Different unit/army abilities and stats are worth more or less, depending on the player using them
2. Sometimes having lots of x unit makes them proportionately more powerful (stacking)
3. Sometimes only having a single x unit can create problems disproportionate to its value
4. A enemy "hard counter" can render certain unit abilities (and thus points paid for them) worthless
5. Certain units "improve" or magnify the effect (value) of other units
6. Certain armies have more advantageous combinations of units (as per #5) than others
7. Certain armies have combinations that specifically cancel out the "advantages" of their foes
8. Terrain can have a major impact on abilities, stats and weapons
9. Most units are "costed" in isolation without consideration of synergies between units/enemies
10. Most "points systems" are inadequately playtested (or not "tested to destruction")
11. Most "points systems" "fudge" points in an attempt to account for variables
12. Given the huge amount of variables, it is probably impossible to consider them all
13. Someone will always find a way to "break" the system
As you can see, "points" have a lot of problems. A truly balanced points system is, I suggest, impossible (unless the game is simplified to a "checkers" level). However there are no real user-friendly alternatives - for example pure "scenarios" or "missions" are harder to organise and even benefit from the inclusion of points. Points are fundamentally flawed, but remain a handy balancing tool regardless.
So in conclusion: Points are inherently unbalanced, they will always be "exploitable" but it's the best we have to work with at the moment