There are a lot of skirmish-RPG lite rules with campaigns/advancement, spearheaded by Song of Blades & Heroes, and it is a growing genre. However they all share a similar assumption of a co-operative, friendly mindset, of like-minded players, with a story focus. However Mordheim leagues could also be competitive. Basically, the game catered to different types of gamer.
So is it possible to make a campaign game "Balanced" - so it can appeal to both narrative (I call em the 'RPG crowd' and competitive gamers? What are some of the issues preventing the rise of another Mordheim?
I think if having a campaign system as an integral part of the game (rather than tacked on at the end or added as a supplement as is the norm) you need to consider it when designing the game - right at the start. So what to consider?
(WARNING: WALL OF TEXT INCOMING)
Stat Lines vs Special Rules (or "this dead horse again?")
I've often championed the now-unfashionable stat line. I'm not talking excessive RPG/D&D style stats, but using a sensible amount of stats to represent the most often-used attributes of a mini.
Stats are a shared language. No one needs to look up what "Speed 5" means. In fact it's as easy - or easier - to use Speed 1-20 than Very Slow, Slow, Average, Fast, Very Fast, Superlatively Quick. (and offers more graduations). Because you have to work out what Superlatively Quick is on the tabletop - it actually adds another step.
Stats are numbers. Numbers can be easily compared against each other. A 9"move, barring complications, is worth 90% of a 10"move. A 20"move is twice as valuable as a 10"move.
When should something be a stat?
When you use it a LOT for the level of game (skirmish, platoon, company+) you are playing. The more stuff you do with an individual mini, the more likely you are to want differentiation for specific abilities.
For example, melee would be a vital stat in a fantasy/medieval skirmish game but might not be necessary in a modern combat game where melee is rare. A modern platoon game (where all combatants are human and use very similar weapons) "Troop Quality" and "Morale" might be all you need. A fantasy game where ogres face off against pixies might need more stats to "describe" key facts about the game.
Mordheim had a bloated stat line, but one (Agility) which at first glance seemed uneccessary, is arguably worthwhile given the vertical nature of the terrain (a lot of jumping and climbing on/over ruins, rooftops, ledges etc). This is not a stat that would belong in most games, however.
Take a modern platoon level game. If you are moving stuff in groups, you may abstract the speed of the individual models, perhaps by troop quality, in favour of a "group" speed. However, if you are moving soldiers individually in a 8-man skirmish game, then movement speeds might vary markedly both by physique and equipment carried. A speed stat makes sense here.
I've read a few rules lately where game designers have made interesting choices to abstract many traditional areas - I think "abstraction" is worth a topic of its own.
How do you measure a "Special Ability?"
Most modern skirmish games not only do away with stats, but they overcompensate by adding in the lost detail with a plethora of special rules.
How do you measure the effect of stealth on a battlefield? Let's say it works like in Warmachine - no one beyond 5" can shoot at a stealthy model. Simple. Now, if your game has everyone with guns that only shoot 5" it's effectively worthless. If most people have guns that shoot 10", its useful. If everyone's guns go 48", it's very powerful. And what is the chance to hit? How lethal, on average, are the weapons? A 2+ on a d6, or do you need to luck out with a '6' to hit? This also effects the value.
As you can see, it's difficult to assign an accurate value without a lot of playtesting. And if you have lots of special rules (by "lots" I mean more than 20) then the job becomes exponentially harder as you also have to judge how the rules interact with each other. E.g, how many models have access to "X Ray Vision" which cancels stealth?
Limiting Skills: Cutting down on confusion
A further aspect is how many special abilities a player can possess. Later in a campaign it can get confusing to remember what skills your characters actually have, when everyone has 10 skills each. It's annoying when you have so many skills you forget when you can use them in a game. "Oh, I forgot I had "Great Balance" - I could have re-rolled that fatal fall into a lava pit."
Skills definitely need a cap on how many can be taken (I'm talking 2-3) and/or how many people can take them (see Heroes & Minions).
The 20% rule.
I remember a FPS MMO developer (I think Planetside?) who said they did studies where they said the maximum "level up" boost was 20%. I.e. they could only add say 20% HP to a character, and have a non-boosted player still retain a reasonable chance to beat them. Any more than this and it was simply too hard for a new player to overcome an experienced one.
I'd say this would apply to "advancement" in a campaign game. The bigger the stat change, the more the chance of imbalancing the game. The 20% benchmark seems reasonable - an edge, but not an overpowering one. It also results in campaigns where a warband with early wins can "snowball" into an unstoppable juggernaut (and make it hard for new players to join an existing campaign).
For example, in Mordhiem, models could choose the skill "dual wield' and get an extra attack. This doubled the chance of a hit (and getting kills, gaining XP, and winning). Unsurprisingly, this 100% boost in offensive power was somewhat imbalanced in practice and became a contentious rule.
Game designers seem wedded to the d6. It's like they think they use anything else they'll drive people off. "These new-fangled d10s!" The D6 has a few issues. It can fit less "stats" modifiers and results "on the dice." I.e. a soldier who hits on a 5+ whose target has a -2 cover modifier has an impossible shot (needing to roll a '7' on d6). The game might require a roll of '6' then an extra roll of say 4+. However this requires more rolls and the math can get murky (For example, I noticed in Bolt Action that the US Infantry bonus to move-and-fire means they have a 17% chance to make difficult shots others need a 1% on - making them 17x better at difficult shots - which is not the best way to show a semiauto vs bolt rifle).
It also has dramatic graduations of 17% (see the 20% rule above) which means stat changes have dramatic effects. A veteran who hits on a 3+ (67%) is literally twice as good as a rookie that hits on a 5+ (33%) and half as good again as a regular soldier. That's a BIG improvement.
A d10 not only fits more numbers on the dice, but fits with the decimal system which makes building/balancing points systems easier.
Handicap the Min-Maxers
No points system is balanced. However you can limit abuse by ensuring there is a degree of randomness in upgrades and advancements.
I quite like "controlled randomness" - i.e. allowing players to use specific advancement tables so you don't get skills that are complete nonsense for that type of character - I.e. a blind ogre with a huge axe getting sharpshooter skills - but prevents players from "cherry picking" the best skills or combinations of skills.
Remember how Blood Bowl had skill categories for Stength, Agility, Passing, General etc? I'm suggesting players should be able to choose the category, but not the precise skill, which should be decided by a dice roll.
This of course applies to stats. For example in Infinity, BS (Shooting skill) can also be used to avoid enemy fire as well as reliably inflicting lethal damage at massive ranges. This makes it at least twice as useful as "armour" stats which is used for defence only.
Heroes and Minions
Whilst I don't agree with the "only one guy levels up" of Infinity, having every man (and his dog) using non-standard stats and umpteen special rules can get confusing. Weapons are simple enough if they are WYSIWYG, but everyone having different stats and a zillion unique skills can be confusing.
I liked how LOTR's Battle Companies worked. You might have a few heroes with special skills, but most of your force - the "minions" - simply could swap equipment or "level up" to a similar but better model (i.e. Gondor men at arms becomes an elite Guard of the Fountain Court). Minions likewise did not roll on special injury tables but simply missed a game or were removed outright. This removed a lot of record keeping and hassle.
Going the "Minions" route would mean there would be range of different types of models, which come in rookie, regular, and veteran versions. They can thus "rank up" to the next level (i.e. rookie to regular, regular to veteran) without acquiring a plethora of stat changes or special rules. Veteran versions could perhaps then roll to become heroes themselves.
Start with the Points System
This is a bit controversial, but if you are aiming for a balanced point system (yes, I've said it is impossible) then you need to consider your points system while designing your game mechanics. Designers often try to come up with the wackiest ways to resolve shooting, melee, etc - but using weird dice resolution methods can complicate the balance process. 3D6 vs 2D8s might seem cool, but it's difficult to balance, given the statistical "curve"of results. Having to roll a 4 or less on d10 is undeniably a 40% chance to succeed - a lot easier to balance.
Don't think this is important? Look at the success of Song of Blades - it's basically a points system with a game attached to it. Think about 40K and Warmahordes - people often spend more time "building" and discussing army lists than they do playing. Points systems allow players to have fun even when they aren't playing.
Off Topic: If you want an example of list building taken to an extreme, have a look at this Warmachine statistical breakdown and discussion of all units used in "masters" competitive play. Just...wow...
Have a Set Campaign Length
A lot of campaign games can falter as time goes on as "imbalances" between warbands can become exaggerated and new armies can find it hard to beat "levelled up" armies no matter what artificial bonuses/handicaps you give them. Having a set campaign length - say say ~8 games - means you can plan for the amount of "advancements" and skills a army might have by game 8. If the games are 2 per week, that's a month of play.
Advancement not tied to winning (not extra XP for wins)
This sounds a little weird, but it's to prevent the "juggernaut"effects of a few early wins making a warband level up faster than everyone else, thus making it easier to win, and get more XP/advancement to get farther ahead. Catch-22. Players don't need any inducement to win, and losing can be just as character building as winning. Whilst not everyone is uber-competitive, no one plays to lose. I mean, you look at all the guys with the win-loss ratios of their Warhammer armies as their online avatar. The competitive are going to compete anyway - they don't need extra inducements. Furthermore, the loser probably already has more troops injured or out for next game - they don't need extra punishment.
If you want to stop every game from turning into a deathmatch, scenarios with varied an interesting objectives are essential. This is not something that gets done at the end of the rules book at the last minute - it needs to be considered at the start, as some scenarios radically impact a faction's chance of winning and losing.
Playing Catch-up: the "Offline" skill roll or "Bye"round
Weaker or newer warbands are often compensated by extra gold or XP or rerolls. But they aren't that cool and always seemed a bit contrived to me. Maybe allow "late arrivals" to a campaign to have a few free skill rolls once, but at a much lower amount to actually playing. Kinda like a bye in sport. I've played MMOs (EvE, Planetside) where you can "advance" when you were offline, and they made me play MORE because I'd be keen to spend and test out my new skill points. Obviously playing should be more attractive, but missing a game night shouldn't leave you hopelessly behind the 8-ball.
Co-Op Option (Space Hulk/Horde mode)
This is not about balance, but might add a bit of variety to a not-so-serious campaign. I enjoyed Strange Aeons' "co op" feature - their warbands never fought each other directly but each player would take a turn being the "Opfor" and controlling the monsters. Each players warband could level up without ever directly opposing another players' warband. This makes things more relaxed as the Opfor player doesn't have as big a stake in proceedings and it would be a fun change of pace. Two thoughts: a player who had played way more games than the other players might have to be an opfor now and then - he can harm his opponents kinda indirectly, while not increasing the gap in mismatched warbands. A hopelessly outgunned warband could request a horde game or it might be a random occurrance. The other idea - this could possibly be automated and allow players who cannot attend games days to play a solo 'catch-up' game, earning XP at a lower rate.
Lastly, a horde game can also be directly balanced against a player's warband i.e. an 300-pt elite warband faces 300pts of foes, and a 100pt warband gets 100pts of foes.
Short Game Times (60-90 minutes)
Two Hour Wargames? It needs to be faster than that. You need to be able to play back-to-back games in an evening. Song of Blades does this very well (about ~45 minutes per game). Games need to play quickly, so you can do the fun advancement stuff between battles, and see genuine progression. Instant gratification ftw!
Familiar Mechanics (or "different but not too different")
Players seem to like the familiar. Think how many games use 40K mechanics. The trick is to be different, but not too different. Many indie developers like to tear up old mechanics "just because." Whilst I personally enjoy their creativity, I wonder if there might be a bigger market in evolution, rather than revolution. How many of us tried to make a "better 40K?" Honestly, tossing out IGOUGO for a more tactical initiative/activation system with reactive actions, and adding some depth with some sort of easy-to-use resource management would be great. The basic combat-resolution mechanics can remain 40K for all I care (although a shift to d10 might be nice) and would be familiar to old 40K players (which as Warlord and Mantic know, are a huge market.) I don't think "no measuring" for example is needed - people seem to like the familiar. I'd like to see the familiar, but better.
EDIT: Don't delay gratification too much...
I don't like having to play 2-3 games with a vanilla warband before getting any fun skills. I think having a pre-campaign skill roll means you start with flavourful warbands. Progression should be occuring from the first game. While advancements shouldn't be handed out willy-nilly, you shouldn't have to "endure"though a heap of games before your warband gets interesting and fun to play.
I guess this is a bit of a wish-list of ideas, so let's summarise them:
-short, sweet games allowing the fun "advancement"and "injury" stuff in a gaming sessions
-advancement is not tied to winning (to reduce snowballing)
-special rules are minimized (by either amount i.e. 2-3 per mini, or limiting them to 3-5 "heroes" while the majority get "global" upgrades); special rules are kept to a minimum (~20)
-keep mechanics familiar, but improve key areas (activation, reactions, resource management)
-handicap min-maxers by making skills/upgrades 'controllably' unpredictable
-keep stat upgrades sensible (the 20% rule) to keep warbands from "snowballing" to be unbeatable
-some sort of horde mode/free skill roll for people who start late/miss a game or two
-bear the points system in mind when making the game
-balance campaigns (and advancement) around a set amount of games (~8)
EDIT: I think the main thrust of the ideas are stop "wildly unbalanced/runaway juggernaut" warbands that get a few early wins (or min-ax with certain cheesy combos) and them steamroller everyone (without lots of artificial "balancing" outside the game, like Blood Bowl extra gold etc for weaker teams), and to keep the game simple and clean with few special skills, and only mild stat improvements (max 20% stat boost, not the 100% dual wield boost of Mordhiem, for example).
I'm sure I'll think of some other things, but it's a school night and there'll be plenty of ideas from the comments section I'm sure. What are ways to "balance" a campaign and keep it fun? What would you like to see in a "new" Mordhiem?