I’m not going to lie. This entire article was triggered by a single tweet. The author was curious when 3e would collapse into optimal lists. The topic, though, is more complex than twitter can possibly contain without being on the damned thing all day. So, Here I am, writing about options, balance, and warmachine as the hours I should be asleep wind away. Come, join me as I ramble on!
Concept of Options
One of the most common discussion about wargames in general, and Warmachine in particular, is about balance. A balance discussion is a difficult to navigate. Often, different points of balance will be discussed, discarded, and wend its way back into the conversation. The conversation is so broad, and the topic so varied, that each specific aspect of balance becomes lost in the whole. One of the most contentious is that of Selection Balance. This is the idea that each and every selection within the game, when considered as a body of work, should be balanced. This inevitably circles around to a discussion about lists, list building, and then, finally, the metagame of tournaments.
Often, I find that the entire discussion is missing the exact spirit that engenders the discussion and creates the games we play as a whole – That Warmachine is a game that both sides are aiming to win. Considering that the media we are talking about is a game, I find it inevitable that the game will separate into prime and subprime options. Not all models, units and rules are designed with the same equanimity. This is especially true when much of the game revolves around tournaments and greater competition. Even when I talk to people who play this game casually, it is often with the decided notion that they can improve. Even if the game is being played solely for enjoyment, and I believe that there are many people who play the game that way, every game is more enjoyable when you feel you are participating in the outcome of the game. To simply steamroll, or to be steamrolled, often feels like a wasted time.
This is why the options in the game matter so much to both camps of the warmachine community. Players want to have agency, and any time that it is stolen away from them it is remarkably easy to blame the other persons list for being overly optimized or brimming with prime options, instead of looking inward to the list being run and taking a look at the models, units and tactics that the loosing player employed. Additionally, when a player wins a game handily, I often see them placing “blame” on their models, remarking on how well a certain unit performed against another. Sometimes, this may be the case, but the inverse is also true. Consider two sentences.
My Doomreavers just chewed through your mechanithralls.
Your Mechanithralls were never going to be able to contain my Doomreavers.
Both are the same concept. One, though, positions the Doomreavers as unwitting yet victorious winners in a contested battle, and the other puts the Mechanithralls on the responsible end, being unable to resist the Doomreavers. How we talk about our options and how they perform in the game leads to a condition of learned helplessness, and a complete embrace that the opponents pieces are better than theirs. This is a pretty large introduction, so I’ll get where I am going.
It is not possible to have wargame with balanced options, and even if it were, because we are humans playing it it likely would not matter. Here is why.
Humans both make the games, and play them. This leads, by its shear nature, to the Impossibility of a game with perfectly balanced options. Humans, no matter how long they take or what they are doing, will make errors, especially in games of this size and scale. Additionally, I don’t think it would be as good as people expect it to be.
Errors in the final products outcome are inevitable, but that does not mean they should be tolerated. Often, though, they will be. Many times there are legitimate reasons why errors persist, from logistical ones involving the creation of new editions, the death of a game, or to a published policy to have rules stand as they are. Errata is sometimes simply not in the capacity of the company. These errors, if left alone, will have longstanding repercussions in a game, especially one in which tournaments of any type are played. Small errors may go unchanged because it takes more effort to fix an extremely small balance problem than to leave it alone and let it affect the game. If a game is striving to be balanced, and almost all are, then every small error is, when combined, working against the whole of the game. Cascading affects of these minor problems can violently shift the metagame over time.
This leads to the second point where, in addition to the game being created by people who make mistakes, it is being played by people who make mistakes as well. Even if all of the pieces are perfectly balanced against each other, players can, and will, make mistakes that lead to their defeat. Many players will, as above, attribute that to the piece, instead of themselves, often as a coping mechanism. This may lead to, over repeated failures to execute well, an incorrect perception that the piece is flawed, and not the player. a flawed player isn’t bad, it is simply something that needs to be acknowledge. I am terrible at Infinity, yet it is still fun!
The third part of human influence is that people are, almost never, rational actors. I find this phrase in a lot of discussion, and have come to find that it is almost always wrong. Many more times, people are emotional creatures. In warmachine, that comes out as favoritism towards a certain aesthetic, style or vision of play. I find this particularly true when people talk about themes within factions in games, trying to defend the position that the game that allows them to play an army full of a specific unit type should therefor reward them (with models capable of winning against anything) for fielding that unit type. That is simply not going to be the case. Say the theme that appeals is a unit meant to defeat infantry, and you play into an army with none. Mechanically, the game has no way to reward you because unless every unit can do everything, there will be times when your choices are sub optimal.
Finally, the big one. Competition.
This portion of the game is a strong determination of the way a game is perceived as balanced because this group of people is often the most vocal, the most visible, and the most critical.
The most competitive players in a game tend to drive conversation around a game, simply because they have a reason to talk about the game more often. Relaxed players who enjoy the game outside of tournaments and structured competition are often quieter simply because the game needs less iteration to be enjoyable to them. Competitive players, therefore, are always seeking to gain that small edge against players of equal skill and capacity. When it comes to miniatures games, this means that they will scrutinize and scour every point that is spent in order to try and make the list the strongest it can be: no models are simply tossed into a list.
This leads, through the cross examination of models and their differing strengths, weaknesses and abilities that give the game its very flavor and make it enjoyable, to the Prime Options. These are the models that can do the most for the least investment. How you define most, though, varies from model to model, list to list, faction to faction, and player to player. Eventually every rule that is meted out as an option becomes a choice that you have to make in your list, and players lean towards the choices that will have the most effectiveness the most times in the most games. When the Niche of a unit is small, it will lead to the dismissal of the unit, its role and its purpose.
Miniatures gaming is a game, and in every game, the goal of the game is to have fun. Often, a game is more fun if you win, and if you can’t win you want to lose with dignity, grace and a fighting chance. This will lead to players, both competitive and relaxed, to making choices about what to include and what not to include. Inevitably, this will lead to certain choices being favored more than others because balance, no matter how strongly we strive for it, will never actually exist. Even the smallest differences in units is enough to cast whole sections of an armies roster to the wayside, where it will sit, neglected, until its role, or its rules, are once again in demand.