Thought I'd start this as I was reading an old post in my "Games We've Let Go Of" discussion group describing some frustrations with tactical game systems regarding play balance. The series under discussion was the Lock 'N Load tactical games. Now, I've played that series too but don't have the experience in it with many other players to talk to the balance issue. But I've played other game systems with other players where it has. Probably the most notable are the PANZERGRENADIER series and COMBAT COMMANDER. What's interesting is that these games don't seem to suffer from this at all. In fact, the players who engage and like these games don't seem bothered by this in the least. And I've noticed that--for those two games systems at least--the reasons boil down to two things:

(1) The degree of fog and friction is so high that you can barely plan anything and just about anything happens in these games, so when the odds seem stacked against you, you just shrug your shoulders and carry on--or quit and quickly set up another game (this is what I see in COMBAT COMMANDER quite often), or:

(2) The wide range and number of scenarios are dealing with historical situations and you are playing history--it's the experience, not the question of balance and who wins and who loses, that matters. We see this a lot in the plethora of PANZERGRENADIER scenarios.

On the other hand, the ASLSK and ASL players--and I suspect the PANZERBLITZ: HILL OF DEATH players--are and would be the most bothered by issues of balance. These players, while many of them like history and pay close attention to it--tend to be more of the competitive type and therefore scrutinize this more. I don't know enough Lock 'N Load players to know which side of the issue they tend to sit or whether or not the scenarios tend to have balance issues or not. But if there are, I wouldn't be surprised that the game enjoys such a following given the color, graphical treatment, and strong story-telling aspects of the system (among other things).

Where do you sit on "A Question of Balance?" Which games seem to be popular where balance seems to be legitimately called into question--and why do people still play them? What games got "killed" because they were unbalanced and couldn't find an audience who could ignore that--and why?

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Comment by Byron Collins on October 23, 2009 at 7:20am
A couple of things come to mind...

Balance is more important in competitive gameplay. If the rules are simple enough for both players to easily master, and the game/scenario itself is balanced, strategies become the focus, which is a huge draw for players of well-balanced competitive games. Winning the game is generally accomplished by out-strategizing your opponent and that is the goal of playing.

Balance is less important in historical consim scenarios where players of those scenarios are not as concerned with being competitive. In fact, balancing a historical scenario (altering the initial conditions or reinforcements, etc.) may detract from the experience for harcore wargamers looking to learn something from the modeled battle. Like Eric says, in these types of games you're 'playing history'. Competition is not as important.

What motivates players to play (competitive vs. simulation/learning) is what separates those who want balanced scenarios (competitive gamers) vs. those who don't mind if scenarios are unbalanced (simulation/learning gamers). Issues arise when competitive gamers expect balance that was maybe never intended to be there by the designer. Also when non-competitive gamers expect a historical battle to be unbalanced and the designer takes the liberty to balance it. The other case that may create problems is when one player is a competitive gamer and the other is not. One of the players is probably not going to have a good time.

I sometimes see players who are more experienced with the system/game taking the side of the underdogs in an unbalanced scenario- maybe to test their 'skills'. This tends to 'balance' the unbalanced game without changing the scenario at all- the more experienced player tends to make fewer 'mistakes' while the inexperienced player learns, makes mistakes, and generally has a better time since an unbalanced scenario can be a great system teaching tool (IMHO). At the local club, we've found that if you try to teach a new guy a new game and put him at a disadvantage from the start- he has much less fun- and is less likely to try it again.

Both balanced and unbalanced games/scenarios have their place, but they each appeal to a different audience.
Comment by Eric Walters on October 21, 2009 at 3:21pm
Jon, I think there's a lot of players out there that aren't competitive, either. Why else would we have such interest in all those PANZERGRENADIER scenarios--Avalanche keeps printing stuff like Krushchev's Russian sausages--and nobody complains about balance. The COMBAT COMMANDER crowd doesn't mind the frequent lopsided games either. More to the point, we don't see accusations that GMT or Avalanche are "lazy" or "sloppy" or anything of the sort. They know their audience and they cater to them.

I also think we are more tolerant of this in our tactical games. At least these systems seem to evidence it. Not sure if we are in operational or strategic simulations, although one might argue we should be. I remember Jack Radey games where he'd be pretty loose with victory conditions--you knew who won or lost, you didn't need a rhubric to tell you. If you did, you weren't playing the right kind of game in any event.

Have to agree on John Kantor's posting regarding boardgamers gaming the system rather than their opponent--but with the caveat that those who play at that competitive level generally know their opponents pretty well. Of course, there's that level of play where rules/system mastery is so high on all sides that it really is about out-strategizing their opponent. But in all these cases, balance seems less of an issue--both sides choose scenarios that are considered balanced.

I don't mind unbalanced games (at any scale) provided I get a lot out of playing it. And there is a huge sense of satisfaction in those rare "wins" as the underdog...
Comment by Jon Compton on October 21, 2009 at 9:35am
Personally I'm not that interested in play balance, primarily because I'm not really a competitive player. "Winning" a wargame has very little appeal to me, as opposed to understanding the problem that it's presenting and trying to understand the possible solutions that may be available given the situational constraints. In that sense, I largely view attempts at making a unbalanced situation balanced as fairly artificial and a bit of a detriment to the quality of the experience. But I make no pretense to having a majority opinion on this issue.
Comment by John Kantor on October 20, 2009 at 1:26am
Variability doesn't necessarily change play balance. But when it does - as long as both sides have the same chances of benefiting, then all it does is change the number of games you have to play to have things average out.

The problem is that many boardgames prefer to game the system rather than play their opponent. They see the goal of the game as winning through mastering the system (and to a lesser extent the scenario) rather than winning by out-strategizing their opponent. Of course, it's a fixation on providing scenarios that are balanced to the nth degree that encourages that mindset.
Comment by Eric Walters on October 18, 2009 at 7:50pm
Well, that's usually the deal, but some game systems have so many possible variables/permutations that it's nearly impossible to develop scenarios to the degree needed--plus those permutations/variations are so often decisive in and of themselves, having little to do with player input. COMBAT COMMANDER is perhaps the best example of that. Victory conditions and even entry zones change from scenario to scenario, to say nothing of the random events that so often crop up during play. For the PANZERGRENADIER series, the variables in leader quality isn't so great that you couldn't balance the scenarios if you wanted to (I hearken back to how GDW's ASSAULT series did that with variable OOBs and think it could be done), but the designers/developers chose to forsake extensive playtesting for a huge variety of scenarios (and there are hundreds of them). Well, there are hundreds of scenarios in ASL too, but we know which ones keep getting played and replayed--they are the ones perceived to have the best balance. Not so true in PANZERGRENADIER. There's also something to be said for the perspective that it's clear who wins and who loses, no matter what the victory conditions say. The competitors take some justified satisfaction in pulling out a game win even when their last piece perishes on the last turn, keeping their opponent from some sort of geographic victory condition, but we all know who really won. For some people, it's enough to play even when they know the historical odds are stacked against them and they don't need the fine-tuning in victory conditions to keep them in the game as the underdog.
Comment by John Kantor on October 18, 2009 at 4:39pm
Balance doesn't have anything to do with the historical situation - or the amount of variability in a game system; it's entirely a question of game development. It's up to the game developer to come up with victory conditions that balance the chances of each side "winning" - which usually means comparing their accomplishments to the historical outcome and weighting them accordingly.

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