Saturday 26 July 2014

Balanced and Unbalanced Wargames

I wrote recently about having a level playing field in a wargame, and was quite rightly gently chided for my loose language. There are a number of aspects to this sort of thing, and , even though one of the early “famous” posts on the blog was about the wonders of unfair wargames, it is possibly worth having another look in this direction.

Firstly, of course, there is the problem of history. Real life generals do not often overlook their battlefield and think ‘they are about 100 army points down, so we will just wait around until they turn up’. The correct real life response is, in those circumstances, more likely to be ‘charge’. A fair fight is not what most generals are after, they want to win a battle, not fight fairly.

Now of course there are some points at which one army might not attack immediately, but hang around until the enemy is properly deployed. This might be, but usually is not, chivalry in action. Usually waiting for the whole enemy to be present is brought about by wanting to defeat the whole lot, giving no part of the enemy army the chance to fight another day (especially against your victorious army which might be a bit disorganised and tired after fighting the rest of the enemy army).

Now, a defender of a point system set of rules might well argue that, if you count up the number of bases and calculate the equivalent number of soldiers, it is quite likely that equal (say) four hundred point armies will have very different numbers of men, and thus one side, being outnumbered, has either been forced to battle or has overconfidently accepted the same. However, I think the point here is in the premise: generals do not, often, go around thinking ‘I may be outnumbered here, but my men are of higher fighting quality’. Well, they might, but do not often express it as such.

So the issue slowly resolves into one of wondering what the point of a point system is. Now, obviously, the point is to give a balanced game, one of the sort I have just argued never happened historically. A balanced game gives both side an equal chance of winning. After all, it is only a game and with would be a pretty sorry and sad sort of game and hobby where both sides did not have a chance of winning.

Furthermore, the defender of points based rules could argue, the points of an army are only, if you’ll pardon the pun, part of the point. There is arranging favourable terrain, choosing the structure and deployment of your army, having a plan, and so on. There is, it can be argued, a lot more to being a wargame general than just shouting charge and rolling some dice. You have to be organised, to have a plan, and so on.

That may well be so, but real life generals rarely have such luxuries. They may have a vague idea of where the enemy is, and they may even have a vaguer idea of what troops they have, but often it goes little further than that. The idea of an equal number of army points each side rather puts the cart before the horse. You have a fair idea (if you too have read the army lists) of what troops the enemy has even before you know where they are.

I suppose that I am drifting once again towards commending campaign games to the audience here, and that is certainly one way of tackling the problem of balance. In a campaign game you need to do the troop raising, organising and deployment thing but on a much larger scale. It might be that your main strike force is over there, and a blocking force must hold up the enemy until your blow falls. Hence, the delaying force might win, even though it is annihilated. And a jolly interesting wargame can be had in these circumstances too.

However, I do not think that we always need to have campaign games to have interesting and unbalanced games. After all, there are a number of books of scenarios out there which suggest unbalanced forces with different aims for each side. The side that wins does not need to be the side with the most hits, or that kills the greatest number of the enemy, or whatever. Achieving specific targets or outcomes can decide the battle more decisively than simply routing the enemy.

I think the problem for me, though, is that many of the scenarios I see are still fairly stereotyped. An attack – defence game is unbalanced, in terms of points, but the balance is created by the terrain, defensive fire zone, minefields or whatever. Somehow, as wargamers, we still grasp for the balanced, even when we are looking for the heroic or mythic; the last stand against the odds is circumvented by our sense of fairness, our sense of honour.

This is, I think, somewhat related to army choice. Power gamers, by definition, adopt powerful armies. Those who are in the other camp adopt weak armies, partly for the bragging rights. In these circumstances can there be balance in a wargame? What is the aim of the weaker army? Simply to do a bit better than the historical prototype?

As is usually the case, I do not have any really good answers to these questions, but that is not really the point. The point is that I do think that we need to ponder these things and apply whatever comes up as a consequence of those ponderings to our wargames. A straight ‘destroy the enemy’ wargame is, often, a cathartic undertaking in our lives: dealing out destruction to toy soldiers can make us feel a lot better. However, just doing that, game after game, can pall a little. As humans we are problem solvers, and simply defeating the enemy becomes a boring problem in the end. Real warfare is much more complex.


  1. I have to disagree about the scarcity of balanced historical battles. They may not have been precisely equal or of an agreed upon number but deploying armies for battle was a slow business and it was very hard to convince the enemy to stand and fight unless he also thought that he had a good chance. (However mistaken)

    History is full if situations where one side would entrench, occupy terrain that was hard to attack or just kept retreating. From Sun Tzu to Vegitius and on , written advice for generals is full of the importance of not fighting at a disadvantage and of advice on how to force the enemy to do do against his will.

    On the scenario front, authors like Xenophon and Caesar are full of scenario ideas. Xenephon in particular has some very asymmetrical engagements from river crossings to storming defiles and villages and more. Some of them have less hand to hand bashing than most gamers prefer but they can always "change history" on that front.

    1. I guess the point is that 'equal' is a bit of an odd word. Equal numbers, equal fighting values, equal chance of winning; these are not necessarily the same things.

      On the other hand, forcing the enemy to fight against his will might (but does not necessarily) mean unequal, in some sense, at least. Do generals accept battle willingly, or just because they can't avoid it, no matter how "equal" the situation is.

      Scenarios? Yes, ideas from all sorts of places, but making hem work can be a bit of a tricky thing. Xenephon tends to be a bit sketchy, Caesar is a manic self-publicist - always the situations is desparate until the great man turns up.

  2. I think I'd take exception to 'generals do not, often, go around thinking ‘I may be outnumbered here, but my men are of higher fighting quality’. Well, they might, but do not often express it as such'
    I think that's often exactly what they thought and said, particularly, say, professional generals facing native armies.

    I generally run screaming from the whole concept of equal-points games purely because they tend to generate unhistorical armies. Players will obviously have as many good troops as they can and leave out hordes of 'tat'.
    However, I did take part in one club tournament once which used points values and which worked. Each player worked out an army for his opponent to use. Bags of D's and E's. Great fun.

    1. Well colonial games are always a bit of an oddity. personally, I find the idea of Gatling guns mowing down swathes of natives a bit of a dull thing to do, but I guess scenarios help. Perhaps a British column crossing unknown territory like Xenephon might work, as they would need to keep an eye on ammunition supply as well. And, of course, the British could cry 'Lords! Lords!' when arriving at the nearest outpost of cricketing civilisation...

      I guess the questions comes down to one of playability against history, again. My own problem with low grade armies is that I have to paint horses, which is a bit boring.

    2. Hmm, I've heard a lot of people say that about colonial wargames and I do think that you see a lot of games where the Imperial army forms a nice square in the centre of the table and simply mows down all comers. I'm sure that wasn't the universal experience of the blokes who fought in the real thing though, certainly if my reading of the N W Frontier is anything to go by.
      I don't think colonial wargames have to be this stereotyped at all, even in places like the Sudan where there was a lot of square forming. They had objectives to achieve which they couldn't always manage by standing still.
      Colonial probably makes a bad subject for competition style points value games. That's a plus point for me.,

    3. I think the problem here again might be the "equal points pick-up game" where there is no back story and few objectives aside from beating the enemy army. If it were to escort the new ruler to the palace, or rescue the damsels in distress, some sort of reality might start to break in.

      But mostly colonial wargames, at least at shows, seem to be along the lines of form up and mow em down. Mind you, I've never colonial wargamed myself...

  3. Hahaha Chris that is a stroke of genius!



  4. One of the neatest systems I ever saw was in DF's Wargame Campaigns, where ECW armies were dependent on who turned up. No colonel, no regiment. It landed up with some extremely unbalanced games, requiring great invention from the umpires.

    Who needs point systems then?

  5. I've been playing By Fire and Sword recently. The writers have come up with quite a novel way of balancing the game whilst players turn up with mismatched armies.

    The entry level of the game is the skirmish level, this is aimed at raiding/scouting parties and such and the various scenarios cover such encounters as patrolling an area, capturing a river crossing, ambushing an enemy etc.

    Players pick a force of whatever points value they fancy from the army lists and then compare the force points with their opponent. The player with the least points is then termed the weaker player and gets to choose the scenario. He does this by rolling three D10. The numbers rolled are the scenarios that he can choose from. This can be affected by various factions special rules, for example the Tartars are hard to pin down and so can interfere with these dice rolls in an attempt to avoid certain scenarios that don't suit them.

    Some scenarios have a value. This must be paid for with the difference between the points values of the opposing forces. These points can also be used to buy field fortifications and even to deploy troops in advance of the main force in one scenario.

    When the scenario is set the remaining points difference gives dice rolls on a table that gains advantages to the weaker player. These advantages range from being able to rearrange the terrain on the table to delaying the arrival of enemy units.

    For example;

    A 15 point Cossack force meets a 7 point Tartar force. The Tartar player rolls three dice to choose a scenario. A Tartar special rule then allows him to re-roll up to two of those dice.
    On this occasion the Tartar player chooses the 'Ambush' scenario. The scenario would normally cost 3 points, but the Tartars get a discount as they are well practised ambushers and so they only have to pay 2 points. This leaves a difference of 5 points between the two sides.
    The Tartar player rolls 5 D10 and consults a table. The rolls are 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9.
    1 - A Cossack unit is delayed and must take a skill test each turn, only to arrive on table when successful.
    3 - The Tartar player receives unexpected reinforcements. Any units that are destroyed or flee from the table are placed into a reinforcements pool and get to roll a skill test each turn until one of those units passes and arrives as reinforcements.
    5 - A Cossack unit panics. After the order phase of the first turn a random Cossack unit becomes disordered.
    7 - The Tartar player is allowed to move, or remove, one item of terrain.
    9 - Good/bad day. The Tartar player may either add a command point to his own commanders pool, or take one away from the Cossack commanders.

    Now the Tartar player deploys a unit as 'bait' anywhere on the table. The Cossack player must deploy his whole force in an area 40cm x 40cm set 20cm behind the bait. The Tartar player then deploys the rest of his force wherever he likes as long as no unit is within 20cm of an enemy.

    Now this may all be a little too contrived for some gamers, but for a fun game with a minimum of planning (I play between 2 and 4 times a week) this works brilliantly. The players never really know what they will be up against and so force selection is a rather different experience to that in most points games.

    The range of scenarios is quite limited at the moment (there are 5 at skirmish level and 3 at divisional level, but that is a whole different arrangement), but they cover most of the reasons for two small forces to fight each other; patrol, attack on a village, capture the crossing, forage, ambush.

    Deciding who wins is based on points scored for minimizing casualties as well as meeting the objectives of the scenario. We probably draw at least 60% of our games and rarely score more than a minor victory, but the battles are generally a lot more interesting than lining up and facing each other across four feet of mdf.

    1. Thank you for that, a sort of potted pre-battle campaign. I guess all you need is a lot of imagination to make new sets of circumstances, although if I played 2-4 times a week, I might consider a campaign game, or at least a set of linked battles.

  6. I play different games 2-4 times a week, so not so much time available to plan every one in advance. I play BF&S once or maybe twice a week.

    We are currently considering possibilities for campaigns, but are in the process of painting enough troops to field divisions (roughly equivalent to 3-6 skirmish forces) and then we can get serious about campaigning.

    The main point I was trying to make before I got lost in the woffle is that it is possible to create a game that is balanced without using balanced forces. The most enjoyable part of BF&S for me is that I can turn up with the same army and play the same scenario and yet still have a totally different experience.

    1. I think that the idea of having the same forces and different games is excellent, as long as the additions and subtractions do not dominate the game. As wargamers, we like 'black swans', as long as they don't totally disrupt the game.

      I agree that we do not need balanced forces (and I doubt if that is really possible). I suppose the question arises is if we balance up the forces with terrain advantages or scenarios, do we still make the game winnable by both sides?

      If so, is it not still a balanced wargame, even with asymmetric forces? Do we fight wargames where one side cannot win?

    2. BF&S can often produce situations that seem unwinnable for one side, but we have often been quite surprised when our first impressions were proved to be wrong. If anything some of those seemingly unbalanced games have been the best of all simply because we have been forced to think outside the box. Something that the greatest of historical generals all seem to have excelled at.

      I have been involved in many games that one side could not possibly win. I believe that this is often a problem with the rules or the players rather than the situation.

    3. I guess it depends on what we might mean by win. Some of the reader of this blog, for example, might argue that winning means doing better than the historical original (Napoleonic Turks, 1940 French?).

      But many wargames seem to lack imagination and manoeuvre. I play on an oversized table (relative to forces and movement ranges) to avoid the unturnable flank syndrome.

  7. Hi,
    I must say I do not understand why make a problem of something trivial. Any point system for picking army for a game is flawed. If so, why not ignore the system and use historical OdB? This eliminates lots of troubles which I know people are having when calculating points systems. I suppose, unless we talk about very abstract games, the "pick your army for points" procedure aims at generating a "realistic/historically correct" OdB. I think it is hard to argue that real OdB of some known engagement must fulfill the criterion just right.
    If one likes to play a balanced game, just pick a balanced historical battle. One can also pick any unbalanced battle and crop the time and/or area of battle where strengths were balanced, which is possible for most.

    All this is said from a viewpoint of a person who plays homerules and is used to playing scenarios rather closely based on historical fights. In my opinion history is a wonderful scenario writer and does not have to be cut to some rule schemes. Watching people who wargame troubling over how to make this or that feature (e.g. strength balance) realistically fit some rule system makes me wonder why do they do this? If you want to play historical scenarios, just write them down from any book, if you want to play a game with historically shaped background but allowing flexibility - just do this. This is most bewildering with fantasy and Sci-Fi players who argue about "what would Tolkien say"? Many times this turns to argument about interpretation of the rules cited as some holy script. Well, just use your own brain - this is fiction.

    Concerning historical wargaming this argument spins around "how to make the game Re/Hi correct?" when some of the rules make results flow away from the expected result. I would say - change the rule for better. Realising we will never, ever be playing perfectly realistic games is a hard time for many, I suppose. This conclusion makes for another - to some extent, any historical wargaming rules are fiction (I think you have said it on your blog already). So the best we can do is play an interesting game and this does not depend on "correctness" or perfect balance.

    I may have drifted away from the subject, I am sorry.

    P.S. Playing as I do, I agree that from "commercial" rule sets BF&S really
    makes a difference in balance generation. There are nice and original solutions in some other respects of the rules, too. My favourite being the command system - a very easy concept with lots of possibilities and nice dose of realism (shortly speaking you have to manage your commanders according to their skill and structure of your plan). Plays great. The plus of BF&S is making a great playable game system out of a war era which I (and others I know) always thought of as being very interesting to read about (for its many ups, downs, turns and gallery of exceptional leaders) but which would make a dull game. I was proved very wrong.
    And all these was made my fellow countrymen, hooray! :)

    P.P.S. As to the win/lose situation in BF&S - I think that above mentioned 60% draws may mean that the balance of the game is truly well done, despite number/strength differences. When players have roughly equal playing skills most balanced games results should be draws or marginal victories. Just as in real life I suppose - famous victories occur when commanders' skills were strongly unbalanced.
    My best regards,