Monday, September 17, 2012

Editorial: Shifting the Metagame

This article has been on my mind for some time now.  If you have not already seen it, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the concept of 'Imperfect Balance', which is mentioned in the video found here.  This video has been a big topic of conversation in the miniatures gaming community because there is a certain sci-fi miniatures game which is notorious for its balance issues and the very vocal fanbase which complains about it.  Today I want to use this topic as a point of difference between certain miniatures games and the design strategy outlined by this idea of 'Imperfect Balance'.

I would actually recommend that if you haven't already watched the video, you skip ahead to the 5:22 mark of the video to see what is needed to create 'Imperfect Balance' because I think a lot of people have been getting too focused on the "imperfect" part of the design philosophy here and not the "balance" part.  In order for this design strategy to be successful you need to have an intuitive and mathematical understanding of how your game functions.  You also need to make sure that every player has lots of options to choose from to address problems.  The games cited in this video were Magic: The Gathering, Ultima Online (admittedly I don't have any experience with this game) and League of Legends - games where the player has access to a number of card or player options.  You will also note that this video doesn't even address miniatures games and this phenomenon and that's likely because the author probably doesn't have much experience with miniatures games.  Let's address some key differences here before we can actually discuss Imperfect Balance in miniatures games with appropriate context.

Miniatures games are very different from video/computer/card games for a number of reasons.  Most importantly, I think, is the amount of time a game takes and the types of data one can collect.  If a miniatures game takes about 2 hours to play (pretty typical) then that means you can probably play 4 times as many games if you're playing a video game, or maybe even 5-10 times more games with a card game.  Miniatures games take a long time to play and with computer games the designers have access to literally thousands or millions of data points which they can review whenever they like.  The rules themselves can keep track of balance issues when dealing with video or computer games and while card games don't have the same data collection capabilities, they can compensate for this by sheer volume of games in a given amount of time.
My fiancee got me a copy of this and Little Wars
for my birthday, by the way!

The second thing that's hugely different with miniatures games is the question of accessibility.  Yes, I guess everyone can go out and spend money on whatever models they want, but the amount of time it takes for a player to play games is already greater but we haven't even address the time it takes to assemble and paint a force of which a player can feel proud.  Indeed, faction loyalty means a lot more in a miniatures game because it requires so much more time and money to get into a particular faction than in the case of card games where 'factions' might even not have much of a meaning at all or video games where the "price of admission" is usually the same regardless.  Even in 'Free2Play' formats players have an easier time switching between associated factions because the time commitment is still less when you don't have to assemble or paint the pieces with which you play.

Now that we've established the context, what does Imperfect Balance mean for a miniatures game?  Well, again, it means that after establishing a balance between the various options, there are some options that about 10% better than certain others in particular fields.  It's important to note that everything should have its weakness as well.  The most important aspect here, however, is accessibility to players for other options.  In order to have a cyclical meta like is proposed in this design philosophy, players must have easy access to an Option B when Option A is becoming so common in the meta.  Similarly, there needs to be an Option C to combat the popularity of Option B, and so on.  This is where I believe the argument breaks down for the worlds most popular science-fiction miniatures game.

Once again, remember that miniatures games are very different from video games because the cost of entry is already so much higher than that of video games or card games.  Yes, card games can be expensive if you're playing competitively, but even then there's an issue of time.  Miniatures games require much more of a financial and chronological investment from its players and that factors into the accessibility of options for those players.  Like I already mentioned, 'faction loyalty' is much more common because players create an attachment when so much money and time is involved.  In order to have Imperfect Balance, you need to keep those factors in mind.  If a player doesn't have an Option B in their faction, then they really don't have easy access to an Option B at all, do they?  Sure, I guess they could switch to a faction that has an Option B, but after spending more money and more time assembling and painting, Option B might now be countered easily in the meta by Option C, and suddenly the player is frustrated because they can't keep up without spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars.  No, in order to achieve Imperfect Balance, you need to provide your players options without them having to drop hundreds of dollars.

Granted, miniatures game companies need to make money, and they shouldn't have to provide these options to players for free, but it's a question of relative availability.  A player might have to spend $50 to buy a new unit to combat the common trend in the meta, but they shouldn't have to spend $300 in order to have an answer to the most common problem they face.  This is one important key feature to Warmachine/Hordes.  While you will probably spend as much money playing Warmachine/Hordes as you would playing other miniatures games, the difference is that when every player seems to be bringing Option A, you can probably look at your collection and with minimal extra investment (less than $100) and probably find your Option B.  In games like Warhammer 40k, you're likely to have to spend far more money or possibly even switch factions (unless you're playing a Space Marine faction) in order to solve the same problem.

Let's look at some practical examples of Imperfect Balance and the shifting meta in Warmachine/Hordes.  When I first started playing the game there was a lot of complaining that the Winter Guard Death Star (Winter Guard + UA + Kovnik Joe) was an unstoppable and ultra-powerful unit considering its point cost.  Indeed, as long as you had a warcaster with Iron Flesh you were likely to field this unit and your opponent would roll their eyes.  While this is still true to an extent, you'll find that many players build lists that can deal with a unit like this.  Indeed, models that had a high-DEF were quite fashionable on the table and you needed models with high MAT/RAT or had ways of flat-out ignoring those DEF values in order to compete.  Since last year, however, the meta has seemed to shift towards models with higher ARM values.  Suddenly infantry with Shield Wall seem to be more important because those attacks that could high those high-DEF values didn't pack much of a punch and a unit with Shield Wall would be able to weather the damage.  Also, now that Colossals/Gargantuans have hit the tables, warjacks and warbeasts seem to be more common where before you might only see 1 heavy warjack in a Warmachine list.

What is most important here, however, is that each faction has options for dealing with the rise in popularity of particular tactics or strategies.  A great exercise in this is for you to look through your faction books/cards/War Room for your favorite faction, and find answers for the following problems:
high-DEF infantry
high-ARM infantry
Non-living models (Undead, Constructs)
Incorporeal models

Still in need of some serious patching...
I think you will find that your faction will have answers for each problem above, and it's not always the same answer.  Let's try this with Circle (my primary faction) with just the warlocks:
high-DEF infantry - (pKrueger, eKrueger, pKaya)
high-ARM infantry - (Mohsar, Morvahna, Cassius)
Warjacks - (pBaldur, eBaldur, eKaya)
Warbeasts - (Mohsar, Kromac, pKaya)
Colossals/Gargantuans - (pBaldur, Kromac, eKaya)
Non-living models (Undead, Constructs) - (pBaldur, eBaldur, Morvahna)
Incorporeal models - (pBaldur, eBaldur, pKrueger)

Note that while some warlocks are useful for dealing with multiple problems, none of them are perfect for everything and each has their own weakness.  Let's try the exercise again with Cygnar:
high-DEF infantry - (pHaley, pStryker, pCaine)
high-ARM infantry - (Blaze, eNemo, Siege)
Warjacks - (pHaley, pNemo, eNemo)
Warbeasts - (Sloan, Darius, Kraye)
Colossals/Gargantuans - (pHaley, eHaley, Darius)
Non-living models (Undead, Constructs) - (Siege, eStryker, eNemo)
Incorporeal models - (pCaine, eCaine, pNemo)
This is important for making sure that you have achieved Imperfect Balance and will have a constantly shifting meta.  If you have a static meta then the game becomes boring, but you must also be careful with how you change the meta as well.  If you keep players from adapting to a new environment then they become disconnected and discouraged.  Once again, the key difference with miniatures games is both time and money, and if you let those become obstacles to your players being able to participate in the fun of having an ever-shifting meta, then you'll have a grumpy player base and a game that has not achieved Imperfect Balance.
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