LEAN AND BALANCE (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

aye nay

Wars are usually asymmetrical. One side or the other has better leaders, better or more units, more favorable terrain, more advanced equipment or doctrine. In most conflicts, one side attacks and the other defends, and in some cases, these roles may be reversed with a well-timed and well-executed counterattack or counteroffensive. Each side has its own advantages and disadvantages, and it's common for one side to have more advantages than the other, resulting in a decisive victory. It's rare for two sides to be perfectly, evenly matched.

This asymmetry is, and should be, mirrored in historical wargames. One of the reasons why many of us play these games is to experience (and muck around with) the history in a dynamic, interactive way. One mark of a strong design is its ability to model specific historical factors, and to express a specific point of view as to why things played out the way they did.

The problem of course is that while history had no need to be "fair", there is an expectation that wargames, as games, should also be balanced. In fact, I once did a few games for a publisher that stipulated that the game had to be balanced, and that failure to achieve balance would be considered a breach of contract! Of course, balance isn't something that is, or can be, rigidly measured or defined; it's going to be inherently subjective. Even for strictly symmetrical games, like Chess, Draughts, Backgammon, and Hive, whether or not one side or the other is favored to win (usually the side that goes first) is a subject for open debate. If you throw in two sides that play differently, with different advantages and disadvantages - and, since you're working from the history, with an eye toward a reasonable amount of fidelity - well, 50/50 balance can be harder to pin down.

I don't think most wargamers expect a pure and sacrosanct 50/50 balance, however. They want a decent chance to win the game, whichever side they play, and they want their success or failure to be dependent upon their skill and that of their opponent. If one player plays better than the other, then that player should win. It's not uncommon for a more experienced player to take the tougher side, allowing a less experienced player to take the easier side, to ensure a more even contest. (It's perhaps more common of course for a more experienced player to take both sides, which is one reason why a lack of perfect 50/50 balance is much less of a problem for grognards than it is for recent imports from the Euro crowd.)

There are two ways that I approach the problem of balancing my designs.

The first is what I would call a "lean" - a side that is favored to win, usually the side that came out on top historically. Which makes sense, since the game is modeling those factors that contributed to their victory, and to the enemy's defeat.

The Grunwald Swords is a good example of a game that has a slight lean in the favor of the Polish and Lithuanian forces controlled by the Allied Player. There are a few factors that contribute to this lean.

TGS setup

One, they have a numerical advantage. There are a total of 48 Units among the Allied Player's four Wings, compared to 30 for the Teutonic Player. This disparity is somewhat exaggerated however, as in practice, ten of those Allied Units - the yellow Wing, consisting mainly of foot soldiers - usually doesn't do much more than stand there and pick their noses, making it actually a case of 38 to 30, which gives the Allies a slight edge.

Two, they are more flexible; their main force of cavalry is divided into three Wings to the Teutonic Order's two.

Three, they have better leadership, represented by a better set of Command Markers. The Allied Player has Bonus/Withdraw, Move/Shield Wall, and Horse/Combat, while the Teutonic Order has Move/Shield Wall, Combat/Withdraw, and Bonus/Bonus only.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it is easier for the Allied Player to control the tempo of the game. Tempo, like balance, isn't something one can scientifically measure and apportion, but it's something of crucial importance to good wargames. If one player controls the tempo, he's forcing his opponent to react to what he's doing - he is, in some ways, dictating and controlling what the other player does. The need for the Teutonic Order to protect its rear camp hexes, and the pacing element that comes with the retreat and return of the Lithuanian wing, both allow the Allied Player to dictate the terms of the engagement - if the Teutonic Player lets him.

Seizing the tempo is of utmost importance for the Teutonic Player, and key to his success. While he has less units than the Allied Player, they are generally of better quality - 60% of his Units are A-class Units, while only four Allied Units (a little more than 8% of their total force) have that distinction. The Allied Light Horse Units in the Lithuanian Wing can't really stand up against a Teutonic assault, making it much easier to surround the Polish cavalry, limiting their mobility before they ever get anywhere near those camp hexes.

Both sides have their advantages and their liabilities, and a skilled player who uses them adroitly will win the game. Against players of equal skill, a Polish-Lithuanian victory is slightly more likely - there's that lean - but it's not like it's a foregone conclusion by any means.

Blood in the Fog is a design where the lean is heavier and more pronounced. In playtesting, the Allied (British and French) Player won the game about three times out of five, resulting in a 60/40 split. What's unique about that design however is that the game actually leans heavily for both sides at different times. As long as the fog is thick and their morale holds, the Russian Player has the advantage in manpower, tempo, and combat. Once the fog starts to lift, however, the nature of the game's feedback loop is such that it becomes easier and easier to lift, and once the morale cracks for the first time, it becomes easier and easier for it to crack, resulting in a Russian army that's scattered, disorganized, and more terrified of attacking than they are of defending - they'd rather not lose than risk it all trying to win. The faster the fog lifts, the more quickly the advantage shifts to the Allied Player.

If the fog never lifts - and that's a possibility, albeit a rather remote one - the Russians can probably clinch it in a cakewalk. It's more likely that it's going to lift at some point, and Russian victory is contingent on how well they utilize their advantage while they have it.

Make no mistake about it: playing the Russian side in Blood in the Fog is hard. But it's also, I think, fun, and exactly the kind of position a more experienced gamer should play while someone less skilled or less experienced should play the Allies.

Besides "lean", which deliberately results in less than 50/50 balance, the other way I approach the issue of balancing asymmetrical sides is to choose conflicts that are interesting, but less lopsided and decisive. Battles that ended inconclusively, with both sides claiming victory, are tailor-made for this approach. It's a well I go to less often, but it can result in some interesting games.

One of my own designs that fits this bill is Supply Lines of the American Revolution: The Northern Theater, 1775-1777. At the end of that three-year period, the outcome of the conflict was still very much a toss-up: the surprise victory at Saratoga had garnered French support for the revolutionaries, while the British held both New York and the rebel capitol of Philadelphia.

In game terms, this historical result would be a Patriot Victory, but only just - if something goes just a little bit different, the Crown Player might squeak it out. The somewhat open-ended nature of the game means that it can be a very close contest, or a very lopsided one, but both players have roughly an equal chance of winning, give or take a percentage point, and that's because the conflict itself, at least at that point, was inconclusive.

These kinds of conflicts give a designer a lot more leverage in defining victory conditions than would be the case in a more decisive contest. If you're doing a game on the 1939 invasion of Poland, we have a pretty good idea of what a German victory is going to look like, because we'd expect that to match or exceed the historical result. And we can use that to figure out what a Polish victory would look like (at least in game terms). You're somewhat constricted by the drama of what happened historically. But when you have a battle or campaign that was tactically indecisive, no one knows with any precision what a real victory would look like, and you can have levels of victory that allow one player or the other to barely squeak one out, resulting in something closer to 50/50 balance.

Victory conditions are a crucial part of this, of course, and really a crucial part of any wargame. And so it seems to me like that'll make a great topic for me to blather on about next week.


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