Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Balance; Why it is not such a good thing

What makes the story of Custer great is not that he won his battle but rather the heroic ideal of a last stand against overwhelming odds.

The same is true for Roland...sure, he perished in his attempt to take an outmanned, outgunned force and hold the un-holdable, it was the nature of the doomed hero standing up to his fate that gave him immortality.

One could discuss the 300 or the Texans at the Alamo and again...though defeated, it was the heroic, time-buying stand that led to ultimate victory for their side at the expense of their lives that we remember.

Let us turn now to some of the legendary generals of history. Robert E. Lee won battle after battle despite being out-numbered, out-equipped, and under-supplied. He did it through superior tactics and, occasionally, a lucky break.

Napoleon was great precisely because he could out-maneuver much larger forces to give himself the advantage at the decisive location.

The Spanish Conquistadors used superior fire-power and armor to eradicate the massive numerical disadvantages they faced to accomplish mighty deeds.

Chief Joseph and Geronimo held out against overwhelming odds for large periods of time and even managed to win a lot of fights.

The entire American Revolution was a clash between the under-trained, out-gunned, out-equipped, out-numbered Colonials facing the world's best-trained, equipped and led army and trying to avoid decisive battle until attrition and/or the intervention of the French forced the British to withdraw.


The point is, very seldom throughout history has a battle occurred between two evenly matched armies. Of course, not always has the army with the advantages won.

Many of Napoleons' victories were arguably affairs he should have lost, just as his defeat in Russia was arguably one he should have won. The affairs of Greece changed markedly when the invincible Spartan phalanx was vinced first by tactics and then by skirmishers.


Lee often won battles he should have lost through superior tactical maneuvers (though each time still proved a strategic defeat).

Conversely, I have seen it powerfully argued that, in the plains wars, the only battles Custer won were those where he had overwhelming superiority.

It is not hard to argue that William Henry Harrison was at best a mediocre battlefield general who made his reputation on one demolition of out-matched forces.

Sledge-hammer tactics worked for the Russians in World War II due to overwhelming numerical superiority while they waited for time and space to take its toll on the Germans. Given anything like even forces and the Russian nation might be no more.

In short, warfare is seldom a match between two evenly matched forces. If you were to take most popular gaming systems and match up the points, the times when "2000 points of Roman Legionaries" took on "1982 points of Germanic tribesmen" are few and far between...it was more likely to be "10,000 points of Persians versus 3400 points of Greeks".

Yet when it comes to the table top, we demand something that is historically all but impossible to achieve; a parity of forces. We want 1 point to equal 1 point.

Yet how can you do that effectively? The Conquistadors were able to defeat forces hundreds of times their own size because the weapons of the indigenous peoples could not penetrate the armor of the Spaniards. Even with surprise on their side, the home-field advantage and huge numerical superiority, their attacks on say...the Coronado expedition resulted in huge casualties for the natives and few or none for the Spanish.

Even the famed Desert War saw both sides have overwhelming advantages over the course of it, but never did Rommell and Auchinleck have approximately equal forces (and, Montgomery lovers, neither did he...he always had overwhelming air, tank and fuel superiority).

The point of all this?


Maybe the inherent imbalances of the codexes are not as bad as many forums would have us believe.

Is the DoC Warhammer codex ridiculous? Yes it is. Are other books under powered in relation to the DoC, Dark and High Elfs, Lizardmen, etc.? Unquestionably.

This only matters if you have two gamers of relatively equal ability. 2000 points for me does not equal 2000 points for Joe Mama if I am the more skilled player. Conversely, 2K for me does not equal 2K for Joe Dirt if I am a skilled gamer but he is a master at it.

The games remain unbalanced even then.

Nor do points values take into account two very distinct skills for wargamers.

The first is list construction. Some people are highly skilled at conceptualizing an army build but train wrecks when it is on the field. Others are weak when it comes to building a list, but then more than maximize what they have and outplay their opponent on the field.

The truth is, even if say...any 1000 points of Dwarfs had the exact same capabilities as 1000 points of Orcs and Goblins, the game would still not be even because of the abilities of the gamers.

If you doubt this, build 2 identical lists, give them to 2 gamers, and have them play a dozen games. By the end, they will likely not be 50% win rates...one will have 60, 70, 80% or higher win rate.

Of course, if you then further give the better player the advantage of a codex where base troops have a 5+ ward save, 2 S5 attacks with WS5, and a lower cost than worse troops they are going to win an even higher percentage of the time.

Which brings me specifically to Warhammer.

I have spent the last few weeks carefully perusing the rule books for both Warhammer and Warhammer 40k. I have read most of the codexes again. I have read numerous battle reports.

This was largely spurred by the insistence of multiple people that each "personally know employees at Games Workshop" who INSIST that there is no target market for their materials.

I call shenanigans. The entire body of work has a very clear, oft-cited target audience and that audience is a clear indication that the "need" for balance in their army books is not there.

The casual gamer who is far more interested in the 'look" of his troops and the "fluff" that goes along with them is who the entire Warhammer hobby is set up for.

It is the reason things like the Warriors of Chaos "Forsaken" troop choice exists. It is why Dwarf Slayers, zombies for the Vampire Counts, army rules like the Animosity and Waaaagh for the Orcs and Goblin armies exist.

The truly talented list builder will seldom if ever take a 25 man block of Chaos Warriors. First, they are too expensive. Second, against good gamers, they suck. They are too slow, not rugged enough, and can either be entirely ignored through maneuver or else devastated with weapons and magic that ignore armor saves.

The talented list builder will never, ever, ever take Forsaken. Ever.

Core Saurus Warriors will seldom be seen. I could go on and on, with examples from almost every book (admittedly, I can find a use for pretty much every unit in the DoC book).

Yet if you read the battle reports, the fluff, and the lists built by the staff that repeatedly, repeatedly, repeatedly says and does things "because it would make a better game", you find numerous instances of most if not all of these things.

Take the "Move and Fire" article in White Dwarf 363. No "good" list builder would find a place for 14 Dark Elf warriors in that list. Or the dragon slayer in the Dwarf list.Nor, from the same issue, would he count on any unit of Beastmen capable of ambushing being also able to do actual damage.

It illustrates an inherent disconnect between how many Warhammer players play the game and how it is set up to be played.

We are assumed to be putting out big blocks of infantry with just a handful of select units that can actually hurt each other. They expect lists that have 50%+ of the points to be spent on core units.

They expect armies that are blends of powerful units with cool units...and there is a clear distinction there.

This is not to say it is the way people should play the game. That is one of the beauties of the game. In our own group, off the top of my head, I can name several over the top, over-powered builds I have seen:

- the 12 levels of Magic including a Dragon and 4th level D-Prince Warriors of Chaos list (which, ironically, was dominated in magic by 4 total levels of Bretonnian Damsels)

- the Dwarf gunline that had no close combat troops and mass overlapping cannons

- the 100+ shot Dark Elf army

At the same time, I have seen a lot of armies that nicely fulfill the ideal they have set forth.

- any Ogre Kingdom army that sees the table
-any all-goblin army that hits the table
- the Wood Elf army balanced between Glade Guard, Dryads, and casualties...err, Wardancers
- the Dark Elf all close combat army
- every Empire army I have seen

and so forth.

But I am not discussing our own little group here but rather the hobby as a whole.

The plain truth of the matter is I have seen games where armies from the first list in the wrong hands were at a disadvantage against armies from the second list in the right hands.

And that is where the game most closely resembles history.

If historical battles are intriguing not when they are between two evenly matched forces, but rather when disparate forces meet and strange outcomes result, why should we not want the same thing in our wargames?

Frankly, the idea that you could strike a correct balance between a 4 point "worthless" model and a 600 point hero is absurd. The idea that you can accurately find a points balance that matches an army with no shooting but excellent armor against an army with multiple great shots and multiple ways to invalidate armor while at the same time matching both of those with an army that has a little shooting, a little armor, a little magic...well, methinks you ask too much and unreasonably.

At some point, it is up to the individual player to decide; will they buy into the Warhammer/Games Workshop philosophy and try to build an army they like the look and feel of regardless of its capability of winning...or will they take a list that ignores the built-in weaknesses and ends up with 2 minimum-point core choices and everything else being a tricked out unit/hero.

There is no right or wrong answer...except in the context of a specific group.

In our group, for example, I would absolutely hate to see someone pick up the DoC because I know it would completely change the way lists are built. I want to see more things like the Doomwheel, the scouting gors/ungors, the Marauders, the Witch Elfs, the skink/Saurus armies.

I want to see games like the WoC/Dwarf game where there were 5 or 6 epic collisions in two turns. I like seeing games where people are arguing for rule breakages that favor their opponent in favor of a better game.

Frankly, between army choices and tactical acumen, I do not believe it is possible for our own little group to have a truly balanced game. There are built-in advantages for some of us do to the armies we play...and for others due to our grasp of how to put a list together or how to use it.

I know the same is true in the larger community. On one of the sites I frequent, I recently put up a few different strategic options and, to my surprise, people really did not understand what blocking forces were, fields of fire, concentration of fire, and a few other strategies I thought were pretty basic.

That means if I were to randomly play any of them, I start out with an advantage, even if they have a marked points advantage. I can echo the tactics of Lee and pull out a victory I have no business winning.

Does that mean the game is broken?

Depends on the player.

If you buy into the GW philosophy and do not cheese out your list...not at all. It just provides more opportunities for you to go all Napoleon on your enemies...until you meet Wellington, anyway.

20 comments:

kev said...

Good posting, but isn't it just easier to blame Gav Thorpe for all of this? :)

Anonymous said...

I had written a response basically debunking the article in relation to historical references between historical battles - leaders - etc - basically the failure in games workshop is a lack of any relation to history or its campaigns
Including observations related to Napoleon or Wellington. Neither of which you will meet on a Games workshop battlefield because 90 percent of Games work shop players would not recognize much less understand nor care about the historical references involved. As one parent said to me several years ago - he did not want his child 'exposed' to historical realities or warfare - Such lala land attitudes are endemic within the games workshop community.

Anonymous said...

I would respond to your article in several ways – first it is impossible to compare Games work shop fantasy / 40k gaming with historical simulation gaming or for that matter “historical events for several reasons. First the GW systems bare now resemblance to anything historical in neither design nor playability. War was not fought in tournament –except- when champions fought – David vs Goliath or Knightly individual combat ( Lancelot or King Arthur) or jousting tournaments in the middle ages.
What makes the story of Custer great is not that he won his battle but rather the heroic ideal of a last stand against overwhelming odds. First – Custer was both a fool and a bad general – 1. He divided his forces in the face of overwhelming odds, 2. He left superior technology (Gatling guns behind – because they would slow down his columns, 3 – He was a bad general because he underestimated the number of mounted Indians he faced. Definitely one of the finest light horseman in the world

Anonymous said...

One could discuss the 300 or the Texans at the Alamo and again...though defeated, it was the heroic, time-buying stand that led to ultimate victory for their side at the expense of their lives that we remember. First – the three hundred held off against enormous odds on a narrow mountain pass something not easily played in 40k or GW fantasy – a pyrrhic victory – The Alamo was not a battle because its defenders were slaughtered in less than 40 minutes and did not have enough defenders to man the walls, had Fanin marched from Goliad to reinforce the garrison the Alamo might have ended a little differently- again not easily depicted in warhammer

Let us turn now to some of the legendary generals of history. Robert E. Lee won battle after battle despite being out-numbered, out-equipped, and under-supplied. He did it through superior tactics and, occasionally, a lucky break. First – Robert E LEE only won victories because of mistakes Union generals made after defeating him at Antietam and Gettysburg. Once Stonewall Jackson died and the south failed to win recognition from the European powers to end the war. The Confederacy was lost.

Napoleon was great precisely because he could out-maneuver much larger forces to give himself the advantage at the decisive location. First- Napoleon was victorious because he was able to capitalize on the weak generals he faced and the slow linear system that was used at the time. 1805-1807 was the peak period of the French Army. Napoleon only faced the British twice in his career – He defeated then in 1808, and would have defeated them in 1815 if not for the Prussians timely intervention on his flank. British forces had never faced grand batteries of the size they faced at Waterloo. That and the delay in beginning the battle because of wet ground were the major factors for his defeat.

Anonymous said...

The entire American Revolution was a clash between the under-trained, out-gunned, out-equipped, out-numbered Colonials facing the world's best-trained, equipped and led army and trying to avoid decisive battle until attrition and/or the intervention of the French forced the British to withdraw. First – the American colonists only began winning when American forces finally began to be trained enough in EUROPEAN tactics to stand up to the British in armed conflict, that and the intervention of the FRENCH and SPANISH as American allies. Without this support financially and militarily the revolution would have ended in colonial defeat.

The point is, very seldom throughout history has a battle occurred between two evenly matched armies. Of course, not always has the army with the advantages won.

Many of Napoleons' victories were arguably affairs he should have lost, just as his defeat in Russia was arguably one he should have won. First – Napoleon could not WIN in Russia anyone who thinks so has failed to study the campaigns of those who fought before and after Napoleon. Napoleon’s army was doomed from the moment they crossed into Russia from Poland – His tactics were poor and the Army was not of the quality it could have been being an amalgamation of weaker German states and reluctant allies in Prussia and Austria. Besides a two front war in Spain was causing a drain on manpower on France alone. Once Napoleon dallied in Moscow and was caught by the winter storms the campaign was a foregone conclusion. Only escaping with the remnants of the Grand Armee through the Ukraine could have saved Napoleon’s Army at that point. Marching over the battlefield of Smolensk only weakened the Armies morale and inability to fight.

Anonymous said...

I know the same is true in the larger community. On one of the sites I frequent, I recently put up a few different strategic options and, to my surprise, people really did not understand what blocking forces were, fields of fire, concentration of fire, and a few other strategies I thought were pretty basic. Per the articles previous statement = First this should not be surprising the whole point in playing historical miniatures is – that you study historical warfare and historical campaigns, as Games workshop game systems have no relationship with history or its reality – unless you have historical players dabbling in Games workshop games why would any games workshop gamers understand historical tactics of warfare much less the implementation of them.

Anonymous said...

If you buy into the GW philosophy and do not cheese out your list...not at all. It just provides more opportunities for you to go all Napoleon on your enemies...until you meet Wellington, anyway. FINALLY it is impossible for a games work shop attendee to meet this concept and will never meet Napoleon nor a Wellington playing Games workshop games because 1. Games workshop allows no other products that use ‘true’ display of any type of historical tactics or figures at their game days especially in the US. 2- historical tactics are not used nor studied in their game systems, nor will they ever be based on current development and marketing. 3-In addition players who only game with games workshop merchandise do not value the cost or painting of the miniature to the full value that historical gamers do. So any comparison historically or historical games is amusing but only that.

Darth Weasel said...

Kev...it is, except there is a new whipping boy. It reminds me a lot of the Barron-hate on many levels. Except in this case, the condescending is mopre vociferous and wide-spread on the forums than from the makers, if only because the makers have FAR less interaction with the players.

Darth Weasel said...

Wow, lots of anonymous on here...I narrow it by the style to about 8 possibilities...but i will take them primarily in turn.

The first one shoots himself in the foot with the first sentence...

The entire premise of my post is the memorable battles of history seldom if ever pitted relatively equal forces. It can therefore be extrapolated, then, that most of the memorable games of Warhammer hinge on the statistically unlikely...Gnoblars taking out a dragon, etc.

Thus, it is not relevant in many ways whether wargames players are knowledgable about historical events or not. What is relevant is what produces memorable games.

And there is a distinct difference between memorable and winning.

And I can not more whole-heartedly agree with the idea that children...except I would extend it to all people...should not be exposed to the harsh realities and cruelties of real war. I find the real thing so reprehensible I can even make a pretty reasoned argument that World War II was not justified from the Allied standpoint, either. IF there is such thing as a "justifiable war" in the A.D. portion of history, that might be the one...but I capitalize both the I and F.

Darth Weasel said...

Custer was badly over-matched in any battle where the opposition had any modicum of talent...AND anywhere near a fighting chance.

(And to me, it was great because, along with the Fetterman battle, it showed what would happen if the US Cavalry did not have overwhelming advantages).

His surprisingly sparkling Civil War record was fortunate not to be the Union version of Pickett.

There were times when he showed flashes of tactical insight, but ultimately his pursuit of White house glory cost a lot of men their lives.

With that said, the premise of wargames...GW in particular, but others in general...basing themselves on points systems to produce "equal" battles with intrinsically unequal concepts is quite in line with the historical idea of trying to decipher how evenly forces were when say...black powder rifles and armor faced stone weapons.

Darth Weasel said...

I would say the battle of the Alamo lasted 13 days, not 40 minutes. The final assault was brief and bloody...but the battle went on for the time it needed.

The 300 were augmented by numerous auxiliaries who are conveniently fogotten by Herodotus and the cult of Spartan invincibility. Nevertheless, even without the possibly apocryphal trail betrayal by, depending on how much of herodotus' reasoning you follow, one to three men, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Wise battlefield choice simply made the butchers bill higher and made it last longer. (Simply...what a pathetic word to discuss the slaying and maiming of hundreds or thousands of men. Wow, nice work there :-) )

Fannin was far too incompetent and his force too small to meaningfully affect the outcome of the Alamo...but it would make for a fun scenario-type game to port the forces over to say...Orcs and Goblins or Skaven, some horde-style army, against besieged Empire troops with a small rescue force trying to rescue them from the flank at an indeterminate time. This, by the way, is exactly the type of gaming the GW canon attempts to encourage.

Darth Weasel said...

That is the most casual dismissal of Lee I have ever read by a long shot.

It took me about 5 minutes to find orders of battle for every major battle he was involved in and not much longer to ascertain troop totals.

Pile on top of that the consistent supply shortage that crippled the South from almost day one and you have an out-numbered force fighting better armed, better supplied troops and, time after time, out-maneuvering and out-fighting...despite, contrary to popular belief, often being out-shot...the Union forces.

It was supply of men and materials as much as anything the various Union commanders did or did not do that hamstrung Lee. Even there, he maximized the possible gains from his voctories and minimized the damage from his defeats.

Arguably, when the South did not get to Washington DC at First Bull Run, it was inevitable they would lose. The South had no chance in a protracted war because a single casualty for them cost them as much fighting power as perhaps 8 or 10 casualties for the Union.

Darth Weasel said...

Not real sure what you are getting at with Napoleon...unless I misunderstand what you are saying, you are underscoring the point that he was a superior leader than the men and systems he faced, thus allowing his oft-outnumbered forces to win victory after victory.

I am actually surprised somewhat at the recent wave of "re-evaluation" which puts little credit on him and claims he was nothing but lucky. Bizarre.

he had his flaws, to be sure...and they were exacerberated when he did not have the time to properly train his replacements, as well as losing key support, but when the great generals of history are discussed, he should be up there. He figured out the war of maneuver before his enemies and did it well.

Darth Weasel said...

I would heartily dispute part of your assertion about the Revolution. With notable exceptions such as Trenton, the Colonials continued to lose whenever they fought in the European style.

It was their irregulars such as the Green Mountain boys, Nathanael Greene, who experienced success whereas more traditiuonal generals such as Gates consistently lost. As should be expected...there is no doubt the British were better trained and more deadly in a stand-up fight.

It was the colonial willingness to fight "Indian style" from cover instead of like men that bought the time for the Europeans to sway matters.If the French had not gotten involved militarily, it is doubtful the British could have lost that war.

Darth Weasel said...

Napoleon very well COULD have won the russian campaign had A) he started earlier as initially planned, B) he not inexplicably hesitated several times, and C) the army had not stopped to plunder.

The check became a loss and the loss a defeat when he showed uncharacteristic hesitation and when he did not have time to hesitate.

Furthermore, had Bagration been able to force barclay to fight earlier, the war would have been over. Barclay was correct to trade time and space because the more time and space, the more the massive preparations for the campaign Napoleon had made would have to fall apart.

The indisputable fact that he failed does not mean he could not succeed. Great generals succeed where others fail.

AndNappy had the brass ring within reach...he just faltered at a time he normally showed resolution. Ironically, he could hav gotten away with that against Barclay, but not against Bagration and certainly not against Kutuzov.

Darth Weasel said...

It is quite relevant that wargames players do not understand basic military tactics.

One of the reasons it came up was a discussion over how to deal with MSU type armies like the Wood Elfs. The person who understands the role, use, and expectations of blocking forces will typically have little to no problem with such armies. The person who does not...has mass issues.

Another reason was a debate over the validity of Ambush units of the new Beastmen codex. Basic comprehension of these uses gives them multiple roles that are not readily apparent.

The same goes for things like field of fire, concentration of fire...I have seen many, many games played where the side that lost did more than enough casualties to alter the outcome...but because of lack of comprehension of concentration of force, they spread their casualties.

It is an easy area to help the newer, less experienced, and les talented players as minimal effort means maximum results return.

Darth Weasel said...

The Games Workshop philosophy has very little to do with winning or losing, but that does not necessarily hold true for all players.

It does for some...I have interacted with some (and feel fortunate to belong to a group where that is the primary case, as well...props again, kev, for the use of Cresus (sic) and so forth...) to whom the outcome is far less important than the process.

However, for those to whom the outcome matters, the opportunity is there to use tactics, list-building maneuvers and so forth to create army lists that are prohibitive favorites against most opponents.

At higher levels Warhammer provides plenty of opportunities to use virtually every known military tactic.

At the casual level, it provides the opportunity to play admittedly weak options, little to no tactics, and still have an enjoyablt time with the friends.

There is not always a lot of overlap between the groups, and frankly, the competitive gamer suffers with Warhammer and, truthfully, with all simulations and game systems because it is all but impossible to balance say...Tomb Kings with Warriors of Chaos and Dwarfs at the same time.

Nevertheless, the combination of good tactics and some strange dice rolls can create games every bit as memorable to the participants as certain historical events are to history nerds like me.

kennyB said...

Who is this "General E. Lee" and "Napol-E-on" you speak of?

Fullur said...

I love he idea that someone who plays warhammer and clearly believes they have a strong grasp of military history would argue that people who play warhammer don't have a clue about military
history. :P

John said...

Excellent post Darth and intriguing series of arguments in the comment section.

I would have hoped that people would step back and consider the primary point of your post which wasnt military history but the problem of balance in the game of WHFB.

This is a serious and well known issue and one that GW until now has not bothered to address in a meaningful manner. There is some hope that 8th edition in July will change that but you never know. The more cynical views I have read suggest that 8th edition will be designed around selling over stocked models in the GW collection by boosting their usefulness to various armybooks.

The problem though is that the basic game does lack balance, which is to be expected given that the army books are all published years apart, and that it far too often has fallen to the gaming community to address this. Hence the continuing use of ETC tournament rules globally that put heavy restrictions onto army selection and army lists. These include increasing/decreasing the 2250pt army list for certain armies to reflect various inconsistencies in their respective army books.

As for the discussion here on military history. I could offer a HUGE range of comments but I wont as I prefer to keep the discussion on topic.

I would say however, that I tend to give more credence to the opinions of individuals who do NOT choose to remain anonymous.

Cheers John @ Stumpy Heaven