Friday 31 July 2015

Campaign Balancing - the 20/20 of Hindsight (Mordhiem Musings #2)

Several months ago, I did an article discussing Mordhiem-esque campaigns.  This topic fits well with the recent release of Frostgrave (reviewed here) which seems to aim itself squarely at the Mordhiem demographic.

I only experimented with the mechanics and gameplay, but Calmdown and some mates over at Bad Karma has explored the campaign, and already spotted some balance issues. He is supportive of the game but he points out a few issues he has encountered in the campaign system.  He has also made some suggestions to "fix" the issues encountered with houserules, so it's not a negative post - I found it interesting from a game design perspective (it echoes quite a few things I said in a post last year).  There are about half a dozen points, but I feel they fit under two main headings:

Kills/Deathmatch > Objectives
Due to some scenarios with no game length, once you get ahead in collecting treasure, it's preferable to switch your focus to "kill 'em all" - kill or chase your opponent off the table, and thus get all the treasures by default.

The second related point is wizards are overly rewarded for "kills"/"damage"...  Hmmm. I think this was also a problem in Mordhiem.  I recall dual wielding was a must-have, as doing more damage always gained more XP than defence, thus levelling your character faster.  If XP is tied to kills, damage-dealing spells/stats are always preferable.  In Frostgrave, certain classes of wizard have better damage-dealing spells, and thus level up faster (more than double, in the test campaign) than wizards who merely buff/debuff. 

Warband Balance ("Snowballing")
The article highlighted how easy it was for one Frostgrave warband to quickly "snowball" in power and pull ahead of opponents - i.e. noticeable in game 2, and by the end of game 3, there was four wizards at level 12, 12, 6 and 0 respectively - quite a large power gap between the haves and have nots.

Tied to this was a fourth point, which was once you lose your wizard (and  thus 10 levels), you had an almost insurmountable gap to make up.

Finally, there was the ability for powerful warbands to go shopping for any specific powers and items they want - to sell off unwanted magic items etc for cash, Diablo-style, and to max out magic gear, base upgrades and for rich warbands to replace losses without blinking.

They've made a post and have some a download on how to fix the issues, and they look sensible to me. Don't go cancelling your Frostgrave order, folks!

Ok, Why R U Bashing Frostgrave?
No, I recommended it. I said it's the closest thing you'll get to Mordhiem. I also said its mechanics, while simple, aren't perfect.  And it's evident its campaign isn't balanced. But is that a surprise? I suggested campaigns are naturally imbalanced - and will naturally snowball "the rich get richer" unless you take strong steps to limit it.  This post is more a "how to balance a Mordhiem-esque game" rather than about Frostgrave per se.

I'm using this example as a way to reflect and expand on my previous post.  The points from my old post relevant to the case are included with (*), along with extra things I learned from the Bad Karma blog.

*Advancement not be tied to winning/killing. Interestingly, it's one of the first steps the "house rules" have taken to balance Frostgrave in the example given.  "Don't punish the loser" - his extra losses in men and material are punishment enough.  You can learn from your defeats as well - usually more than from your victories. (At least, that's what I've noticed in coaching sport - which I do for a living)

*Campaign lengths be pre-set. This allows you to dole out a steady gain in XP/gold, at a rate where you can expect a winning warband to peak (i.e. by game 8, for example).  Otherwise you might have maxxed warbands that "have it all" by game 3....   Something I didn't consider - the need for pre-set game lengths, to stop superior warbands simply picking off weaker ones at leisure then collecting all the loot.   Players can play beyond that set point, but at least you've balanced it as well you could up to that point.

*Playing catch-up.  A Frostgrave house-rule suggested was to allow losing warbands to scrabble around for some gold, i.e. kinda a "mercy payment."  I like the idea of a NPC-style game where a warband plays against the local fauna (controlled by either dice rolls or a human opponent) matched to their level; which allows them a chance to "level up" in a fun way without competing directly against a tougher enemy warband.

I also suggested warbands who miss a game (or take a terrible loss) still get to roll for XP or advancements. At a lower rate than winning, sure, but there should still be progress.  Like a bye in sport.   They could be spending their free time practicing their archery/swordsmanship/spells or whatever, if you need to justify it.

*Handicap min-maxing.  I was thinking along the lines of random skill rolls to prevent players getting the perfect attribute set. E.g. in the case of Frostgrave, you can pick your school of magic, but must roll and sometimes you get a random one, not the one you wanted.  However this also applies to gear and replacing losses.  Even the richest warband might not be able to replace a loss if no one is available.  You can't always get the precise +2 flame-enchanted sword you want. They're rare magic items, after all.  As the Bad Karma post pointed out, it shouldn't be like shopping at Tescos.
They house-ruled it by limiting what you can do out-of-game - you can improve your base, or recruit a soldier, or buy gear. Not everything at once. This also forces "decisions" on players in the out-of-game phase. A rich warband can replace its losses, but misses out on buying up on magic items.    I also like a hard limit on how much mini stats can be increased - 20% is max increase (given by a PC FPS MMO) at which skill and tactics can still triumph over better 'hard' stats.  Past the 30% mark and the advantage of the better stats is almost impossible to consistently overcome.

I've since discovered that Frostgrave is the product of one of the guys over at the LAF. Now that (sterotypical and narrow minded as it makes me appear) brings to mind a certain style of player - more interested in narrative, cool paintjobs, and open ended, imaginative games and whacky charm than game balance or competitive rules - just like TMP brings to mind anal retentive, angry/arrogant old men who like historical games - and Dakka Dakka brings to mind 40K addicts who flirt with other points-based competitive games, and include their win/loss ratios on their forum signatures.

I'd be interested to know how extensive the circle of playtesters were for Frostgrave - and if they were primarily like-minded individuals to the game designer, or from his club.

It also highlights that the more special rules (be it spells or abilities), the more difficult a game is to balance, and the more it heads into the realm of "rule of thumb" rather than math and %.  Although properly "scientifically" playtesting a game, I reckon, is all but impossible.

By the way, if you are new to this blog or the game design series, Brent Spivey did a great article on playtesting games which is recommended reading.

I found the whole Bad Karma discussion about campaign balance interesting.  It adds quite a bit to what I know, as well as supporting many ideas/suggestions I had previous made.  (I'll refrain from saying "ha! I told you so!"... oh wait...)

Furthermore, it is an useful lesson on the pitfalls of balancing a campaign. And it shows players DO care about campaign balance, even if the designer doesn't.  Chucking a bunch of cool spells and gear into an advancement section doesn't cut it if your game is going to make campaign play the centrepiece (I doubt many would play one-off pickup games of Frostgrave - the mechanics aren't that crunchy) - the campaign section needs to be planned every bit as much as the mechanics.  Unbalanced campaigns might be realistic, but they are not fun.

And if you like Frostgrave, a lot of solutions and ideas came out of the posts/blogs, making it a better, more balanced campaign/contest.


  1. Blood Bowl has some interesting campaign balancing mechanisms. If you aren't familiar with it, teams gain experience and skills as they complete games and a point system calculates the value of the team. When a weaker team plays a stronger team, the weaker team gets the difference in points to buy "inducements". These inducements are temporary advantages which apply for that match only, are generally quite random and not quite as good as developing your team, but they broadly balance the game out.

  2. Necromunda gave you a massive XP boost for playing against a superior gang. It was always very risky of course :-)

    1. I see these as viable short term methods, but no substitute for tight controls on campaign balance overall. If a warband is a runaway leader by game 2-3, there's something wrong...

    2. If someone can be such a runaway leader after only 2-3 games then the warband development system is overly generous for each game

    3. I think it's compounded by the ability to cash in unwanted magic items and buy exactly what you want. It reminds me of Mordhiem stories where guys would keep rolling until they got the skill they wanted...

  3. I'm in a Frostgrave campaign and can offer some anecdotes:
    The following all help with balance:

    We have 4 players in each game - human nature alone goes some way to take down the guy who pulls too far ahead.

    We've imposed a game turn limit after which the game ends. Treasure in hand or carried off board are claimed.

    The effect becomes more of a race than a death-scrum.
    There's neither time nor reward to sweep the board and grab all remaining loot
    Most players will grab the 1 or 2 treasures closest to their baseline, after which the brave and lucky ones will fight it out to grab a 3rd of 4th piece.

    Issues with balance remain, I'll address these in another post), but turn limit and 4-way play inject a lot of fun into an otherwise undistinguished brawl.

    1. Problems with balance: I know the blog addresses balance elsewhere. Magic (along with asymmetric technology) seem to be 2 factors that are extremely difficult to balance in games.

      Let's face it, not all Frostgrave wizards are created equal.

      We need to talk about the elementalist. Lots of shooty death spells (A single shot +8 attack or an area attack +5 - both better than any other attack in the game).

      These guys kill with ease, level up fast and soon dominate any campaign. Our 4-way campaign just-about keeps the elementalist in check with the other 3 players reduced to creeping in corners and ambush tactics.

      Some bloggers suggest withdrawing the experience bonus for kills - which would certainly reduce the levelling up, but wouldn't address the area denial issue.

      I'd prefer a campaign with a gentlemen's agreement to not use elementalists.

      If this sounds wussy, I'll cite precedent - many groups play Richard Borg's Battle Cry with the "all out attack" card removed. They feel it is overpowered, and negates most other strategies.

      There is probably a next-most-powerful magic school, but I don't see one with the massive lead of the elementalist.
      It does get me wondering how thoroughly the magic stuff was playtested.

      I accept this is a matter of taste, so I'll move on to other potential balancing mechanisms.

      4 player games and turn limit were raised earlier.

      Wizard development is perhaps a bit quick. The above suggestion of blocking experience for kills would reduce the rate of progress, and prevent one wizard dominating after a couple of early wins.

      The other big issue I see is "Ye olde magick shoppe".
      Your wizard can buy any stuff he desired "+7 sword of vampire killing - certainly sir, we've just received another shipment". This is a gift to power wizards and power gamers.
      There's also a little issue of background - the perennial question of "Why risk life and limb in battle?".
      Why are these wizards venturing into a lethal frozen city and murdering each other when all the magic is already known and available in the shops.
      Were I starting again I'd limit purchases to replacement henchmen and apprentices - through I'd allow the selling of artifacts (In order to replace those henchmen).

      Overall the campaign system is a lot of fun.
      It's quite deep, but entirely determined by fate.
      A bad day's adventuring is compounded if the dice decide your casualties are permanently dead.
      A low treasure count can be compensated if the diceproduce items of high value.

      I'm sure there's a name for this. Some game designers say "Lots of die rolls are good because the luck will even out".
      In Frostgrave the post-game rolls are far more important than the ones in the battle. It is probably exciting if you enjoy playing slot machines, but soem players grumble that it's anti-climactic.

      Final through.
      I suspect our wizards will reach a level where the game loses interest.
      They will have a spell for most eventualities, and execute a well developed plan every game.
      Failing this, the elementalist will eventually develop that massive lead.
      I hope well recognize we've toppped out, and start again with new wizards and re-capture the fun.

      This has been a long grumble, and it may seem that I'm quite down on the game. Quite the reverse. It's a fresh angle on fantasy gaming with a developed magic system, and a tight focus on the magic users.
      It's the longest campaign I've played, and most games are enjoyable. I think the core game holds up well, and a few tweaks around the edges (like a splash of water in a fine whisky) really bring out the flavour.

    2. I do get the impression Frostgrave was made by an old school RPGer rather than a competitive wargamer; the hodge-podge approach reminds me of a RPG system rather than a tight wargame.

      It's also a bit "British" in style.