Warning: rather long post.

Let’s start with something simple. No tabletop miniatures wargame is perfectly balanced.

Yeah, you probably knew that already. But, you say, you have been talking about playtesting and Warmachine and all that recently. Yes, that’s true, but there’s something about playtesting that escapes most people when thinking about it, and dare I say, some game designers too.

Any game as complex as most wargames has no chance of being perfectly balanced, specially when talking about point costs. But I like point costs, and a lot of people do too. There are many reasons to like them, but there are also many reasons to get off your lazy ass and create one for your game.

Point systems give peace of mind. We know things cannot be perfectly quantified in a complex game with many, many interactions. But they provide a framework. They put the mind of the player off from some things, and into others. A player can focus on building an army, setting up the game and battling it out. Without point systems every game is a scenario design task, and even though some people love that (specially when recreating a historical battle, not necessarily balanced), some other people do not. And let’s get this out of the way early. A battle game with different strength forces, like many a historical event, still needs some balance when turning it into a game. It’s a matter of playability, or fun. Even when playing same side, the opposition needs to have a chance to do stuff.

Now, back to point systems. There are all kinds. One great publisher, THW, has a section on points in their rules. The way they are written (“The necessary evil” and other smart titles like that) basically reads like “this game doesn’t have points and you are stupid for requiring them, so here’s the page of the book that pleases stupid people like you. Now get out.” Yeah, I might be reading a bit too much there, but what the fuck, I payed for the rules as well.

There is another great publisher which wrestles with point systems in a different way. Ganesha games. They have force creators online with point costs for most everything. And yet, the Songs games are not well suited for competition, and only slightly for pickup play. They shine in scenario play, and campaigns. But you know what? They try. Yes, it’s true that stuff has point costs with numbers like 98, or 46, or 127, and making a set number list (usually very round like 600) can be a pain. If I were to advice Andrea I’d say round them up. They won’t be perfect either, but they will help during the building of your force.

That there is one of the functions of a good point system. It not only let’s two players build to a set number of points, but also helps the player put his minis together in a somehow coherent way. In War of the Ring (a notably broken and unplaytested game, as far as my experience with it goes) the different point costs among troops of the same army drive you towards a certain style. And this is great, because Middle-earth armies are supposed (for game purposes) to be “historical” affairs. So when you field Rohan, you will have a ton of riders. They are cheap, they are good, and the designer wants you to put as many as you like along your infantry. Good point systems do much more than just balance things out.

Now when I talk about playtesting, most recently about Warmachine, I not only mean point costs. It’s a matter of writing the rules, checking to see they make sense, match the game’s lexicon, make sure they are clear, and that they use the normal procedures players are used to in the game. Of course the effects are preferably kick ass, new, fun, and in Warmachine usually devastating.

Each of these new models is playtested not only to determine the point it costs. It’s also checked for synergy with the rest of the faction, the “fun” element, and also the comparison between the rest of the models in the army. It happens in some games that some units or models are universally ignored. Some models people just don’t field. Even if they are bought and painted, the model in itself might be underpowered, or not fit the theme, or the play style of the army, or simply too complex or unfun to play. If you see lots and lots of people choosing another option over your new unit all the time, then you probably did something wrong. Even in a historical game. If the unit existed and was widely used, enough to be included in your abstract battle game rules, then they must have something going for them, even if historical data shows they were “bad” in some terms. There was a reason the armies included them in spite of things. Find that and turn it into a fun mechanic.

Warmachine succeeds on this. They playtest their models. The point cost is completely secondary. If you know about the new edition of the game, you would be pleasantly surprised about models costing 1, 2, 3, or in the case of a unit, 6 points. They stripped them down to the minimum, making the math as simple as building a Magic: The Gathering deck. In playtesting they can asses the relative strengths and decide on points that are as abstract as a 225 points unit in another game, but simpler to measure, fitting a completely different game style (one without, for example, equipment options or complex upgrades). You don’t need a model to cost 100 points if you don’t have 15 or 5 points options for it. So you simply cost him 1 point and measure from that.

Now, you probably already got that I think people who don’t make a point system are lazy. Some games might not need them at all. Designs like DBA, for example. But most modern wargames do, let’s be honest. And I think they are lazy because making a points system is hard work. Throwing some random number out like THW is just waste of time, ink and paper. But the benefits are many. Like I mentioned already, it gives the player peace. It creates the illusion of fairness, something we don’t get enough in our “real lives” and it’s nice to have in our imaginary battles. We don’t have to worry about army composition regarding the whole scenario and opposing force. We just build our game the way we want. If you’re smart you know the thing is not perfectly balanced. Hell, some matchups, specially in 40K and Warmachine, are just automatic defeat for one side. That’s the nature of deep gameplay and hundreds of options. That same thing that causes bad matchups is what makes the games so much fun.

In one of the battles I played some time ago, my opponent built his list after he saw mine. That is not cool in Warmachine, so seeing I brought two Destroyers (big cannons with legs) he fielded a whole lot of models with Stealth (any shooting beyond 5 inches automatically misses them). Thing is, I won that game.

Another time, also recently while playing on Vassal, my opponent and myself got mixed up while setting up the game. I ended up playing 20 points while he had 25 on the table. Not knowing the other armies that well we never picked the error up until the end. Now let me tell you, 5 points difference in Warmachine is a big deal. And you know what? I won that game too. So I guess nothing is utterly black or white, simply because the options are so many.

And speaking of options and countless situations, let’s go back to our poor game designers. This is tangently related to the topic at hand. You know when you start reading a roleplaying game and you come across the commonly named Rule Zero? It’s that paragraph of text that tells you you can change any rule you don’t like, throw away any system, and enforce anything you, as the all knowing GM, think is more fun for the players. Whenever I read that what I read is this: Yeah, you spent 30 bucks on this book, but the rules aren’t that solid or thoroughly tested so please change anything you don’t like instead of emailing me telling I’m a lazy ass and my game sucks. In fact, you could have designed your own game system and it would be the same, but without the pretty pictures, and of course your players won’t play anything that isn’t printed in color.

I like games that tell me “these rules are all you need, don’t change anything before playing a fair number of games or the game will break, trust me and you will be rewarded with fun gameplay.” That’s the kind of game I like, and luckily there are plenty of that kind of (definitely non-mainstream) games out there. Ask players to trust you, and deliver.

In the wargames world, the equivalent is that page that tells you: we cannot foresee every possible situation that arises in gameplay. Heck, we are no lowly boardgame, this is serious shit. So when stuff comes up, well, improvise. Oh yeah, and remember “the spirit of the game” whatever the fuck that is. No, I won’t explain the spirit of the game here because it would take valuable art pages.

That’s exactly the same. That’s a line you won’t find in, let’s say, you guessed it, a Privateer Press rulebook. You cannot foresee every situation? Come on! The only interactions in a battle game are those between models, and those between models and the environment (being it scenery, special effects, or applied status). If you design every part of your models, and every part of the way the environment works and affects models, then there is no other stuff to worry about. In War of the Ring Defensible Positions are Defensible Positions. They work this way and no other way. If you put something on the table either declare it a movement affecting area or a DP. No more variables. Hell, most games go about telling you the recommended sizes for scenery. A forest is a forest, and it works differently in every game. And you can even decide this rocky outcrop will be defined as a forest. Now, if you design wacky rules without regard for the stuff you created before, not thinking about your basic procedures, and shitting over other special rules without trying them once against each other, you end up with stuff like the one that plagues War of the Ring’s special rules.

So yeah, if you don’t think before designing, you might have to ask the player to improv. Now I’ve heard many times that PP’s models and rules work better than GW’s because they design rules first, then models, while GW (and I heard this about Rackham too) goes the other way round. This doesn’t make any sense to me. Nice models are the reason we all play these games. Making bad rules is not the fault of the model.

So, designer X had this great new rule for a possible model. It’s called “Three Arm Strike” and it gives an extra attack on melee because he thought the upcoming Badass model would be an awesome 3 armed mutant. Now the mini designer comes up with a different model for Badass, because the marketing people didn’t think the original concept was sellable. So designer X receives a big human knight with a big sword. Oh no, now I have to write another rule, he thinks. But because designer X is a smart chap, he simply renames the rule “Blade of my Ancestors” which effectively does the same thing, with different fluff. So you see, there’s no logic to whether the model is designed first or the rule is. Bad design is bad design no matter what.

To finish, if you plan on writing your own game, think about point costs. Do not see them as a necessary evil, a last thing to do for stupid people like me. Get them, if needed for your game, in your main design process. And playtest. You won’t balance it perfectly, but if you had a 5 point model and after some playtesting you think it’s a 10 point model, then you’ll be glad you fiddled with it. Don’t tell your players they can do whatever they want with your rules. They will do it anyway. But in your text, keep the game focused, clear, solid but deep, even with room for expansion.

At least, keep things more focused than this whole rant 🙂