Thursday, 9 January 2014

Game Design #11: The Balanced Points System

OK, the title is a bit misleading.  The premise of this article is that there is no such thing. In fact, I think a truly balanced point system is impossible. Why?  It's those blasted players who insist on playing the games.

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 Factions
Like 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 Balanced
It 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 System
It'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


  1. Some interesting perspectives there mate.

    The good thing about points is they give a ball park 'value' to a force. I agree that doesn't mean they are 'balanced' but around the same way. If that is then applied to a scenario/mission you get a good combo - ie In in assault situation, you get fixed defences (as a cost), while I get twice the points value of your force.

    Not very usable in competition style gaming, but then that doesn't interest me much anyway!

    1. I think you have exactly hit on it. They are a very useful "rule of thumb" to get a game up and going. I agree - they shine best when used to quickly and "roughly" balance scenarios and missions.

      Ironically, "points" are most used in "competitive" games where precise balance (which I argue is unattainable) DOES matter - and they are rejected by the "casual" or "scenario" crowd, who could benefit from them without being to worried about precision.

  2. >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)
    Seeing as you accused me of being in the choir the last time I posted here, I think I'll be more of a contrarian this time. :) I'm not sure this point is really rant worthy. I remember buying John Hill's Johnny Reb 2, a miniatures rules set for ACW, and there were no scenarios included, though third parties like Scott Mingus published excellent ACW scenario books (which were not rules specific) for them what wanted them. Do you need a scenario book for the ACW? Well, no, seeing as there are a million battle histories published, with countless ideas for designing table top battles. However, if like me you have a mental stumbling block when it comes to visualizing what to lay out on the wargaming table, Scott's products are helpful. There are publishers who produce scenario books for their own rules sets (Rapid Fire comes to mind)but they aren't essential to playing the game, nor does a new rules edition (unlike with the codex model) mandate a new set of scenario books be published. So I don't think it's a fair comparison.
    However, the scenario book model comes out of historical gaming, and your argument is that points systems should be well-nigh mandatory for fantasy/SF gaming. Fair enough. If I'm doing a Falklands Islands war-game, I don't need a points system since I know what troops were there and what their approximate quality was given factors like weather, logistics, morale, etc. With the 3rd Hell Legion's Dropship Insertion on Flatulence 3 against the Skittering Millipedes of Moldavia, not so much.
    When my teenage son and I played a lot of LOTR, we used the points system and he played dwarves because, provided he had enough points, he could buy Dain the Dwarf King with the Axe of Doom and give him some of his royal guard. These little guys were all like King Tiger IIs. Nothing in my Isengard army could touch them, except Saruman if he got lucky with a magic roll. The argument that Dain and his bodyguard were special troops who couldn't be at EVERY dwarf battle made no impact on my son, since the point system said he could have them if he could afford them, and forced me to comb the evil dudes army lists to see what could rare and expensive thingy might be able to defeat Dain, so our battles tended to be hero vs hero. I'm not sure if my experience with LOTR qualifies as an indictment of ALL points systems, but it certainly reinforced my self-identification as an historical gamer.

    1. " With the 3rd Hell Legion's Dropship Insertion on Flatulence 3 against the Skittering Millipedes of Moldavia, not so much." I really liked this line!

      I don't deny that scenario books are useful. What I find a bit hypocritical is that scenario books (which expand the game for $$$) are greeted with rapturous delight, while books with new armies "codexes" (which expand the game for $$$) tend to be regarded as money-grabbing schemes. (I'm talking about companies that produce their own supplements, not independent companies that make generic "scenario books" for example.

      I think your LOTR experience is a good example of poor faction design balance. I can't speak for the heroes, but the dwarves were notorious for their high defence, making them very easy to use, moving them forward like 'walking tanks" as you describe. In a campaign game even regular dwarves can level up to be rather unpleasant as well. The goblins are pretty easy to min-max as well.

      But yes, that is a good example of the imbalance of points systems. Competitive GW/Warmahordes games involve deliberate min-maxing designed to win the fight before it starts.

  3. The Games Longstreet and Maurice embrace this. They do give you a very basic point system but make no claim that its fully balanced its up to you to find the game you want to play and your army will develop through a campaign system any way so after a game or two "balance" becomes very relative.

    1. I hear a lot of great things about the Sam Mustafa rules. It's not a period (horse and musket) or "tactical level" I game, but I admit I'm kinda curious about them.

  4. I guess I was a combat solider too long I just believe, in bringing a flame thrower to a knife fight, balance is for pussies. Bring your wits or lose, it's like you forgetting your lucky dice....not my fault . LOL, OK all kidding aside, balanced forces are almost an impossibility as you say. The best that can be hoped for is clarity and continuity in the rule set used.and of course adult and preferably gentlemanly behavior by all involved.

  5. I find that points work more easily for small-scale skirmish games such as Nercomunda. Only a few models, no-one tends to have super powerful armour that makes them invincible. The problem with bigger 40K was that more points = more oportunities to try and get that all-powerful defeats everything super-figure.
    These days I tend to play games that focus as much on telling a story as anything else. The outome may be easy to predict but it's how you get there that counts. Tomorrow's War would be an example of this, I often play deliberately unbalanced scenarios where the fun is in seeing just how many of those pesky guerillas the regular troops can kill before they are overcome. Yes, they all died in the end but it's fun to hear the players talking afterwards about so-and-so's heroic last stand!

    1. On the other hand, in a small-scale skirmish, one epic super-unit can be also quite unbalancing. I think it was in Mordhiem - the undead faction had a vampire which could "solo" the enemy warband by himself.

      I agree its about the story - you should be chatting about epic game moments and commiserating about dice rolls...

  6. What's your opinion on things like players "bidding" for different army lists before a game? So e.g., there are several army lists presented to the players (say as part of some themed scenario/battle) and players secretly rank each list in importance, with the winner getting to use a particular list but the opponent automatically starting the game with a number of victory points (or some other pre-defined advantage). I can't remember which game uses such a system but I've seen it *somewhere*.

  7. It's about Scenarios and Army Lists, not Points Systems
    This is more a way to help balance scenario-based or "themed battle" than a points system. It's good in it allows you to "value" the troops yourself.

    However it ISN'T a points system that allows you to bring what you want. It's a way of choosing between prescribed army lists, that gives players the ability to "value" that list.

    This, like most scenario-focussed approaches, does imply some organisation before the game. You can't just rock up with 1000 points of Germans and easily play a pick-up game of any value up to 1000 points.


    It Doesn't Fix the Points Conundrum
    However unless the lists are fixed - i.e. the units are "set" (in which case it is not a "points system" but a series of army lists) - it still doesn't fix the problem that some units are more useful than their "points" suggest, and will be worth different values to different players.

  8. Balanced points are impossible.

    a) Because terrain changes how troops act and
    b) Certain weapons will be better against certain other troops, So what your opponent uses will change how good your troops are.

    But they can act as a guide. But of course in real life, armies were not equally balanced. We did a display game of Hastings 1066 once and someone asked us what the points were side. We had never thought of working that one out!

    1. I'd add a few more
      (c) player affinity/skill for particular type of unit
      (d) synergy with other units available to the army/faction
      (e) overdose of units (i.e. more transports than infantry devalues transports)
      (f) victory conditions (i.e. defend vs capture & race off board)
      (g) excessive hard counters for abilities you paid for i.e. everyone has bazookas (ties in with b I suppose)

      etc etc

      It's too complex a topic to ever accurately balance for every eventuality.