Wednesday, 30 November 2011

General Ramblings: The Utopia of Balance

I had a bit of a discussion with Abakus in the comment section of this article.

We basically had different views on a specific phrase, mostly, I believe, because we read it different ways.

Long story short, it got me thinking about what would be the ultimate balanced army. Utopian, really. And we're not talking about a balanced force, but a balanced Army Book, Codex, Forces of, or whatever.

The matter we didn't agree on was whether it is good for an army to have choices that scream 'you must have this!'.

We need to look at two things when deciding whether an army (in the bigger, wider sense of an entire book, with all available additions) is balanced: internal balance and external balance.

Sometimes, I bother with related pictures. This isn't one of those times. But hey, kitten.
Internal Balance
An army's internal balance is a matter of everything in an army being worth taking and viable. Not everything needs to be equally good in all contexts, but everything needs to be a viable part of a viable force.

I'll take today's examples from Warmachine's Cryx, mostly because I'm currently rather immersed in that particular army.

I'm running the Witch Coven, which is... different from running other Casters. It consists of four separate models, all of which are more or less vital to the whole. Once you start losing models, the whole starts suffering, and each one is more than a little squishy. On the plus side, you get a lot of Focus, and quite a few ways to get something where it needs to be.

So, this one is related. These are my girls. And that didn't sound at all creepy...
Which means that you want ways to keep them safe and far from the enemy, and need a 'kill piece' - i.e. a model that can do the killing. Arc Nodes can work, as the Witches have a decent offensive spell they can cast quite a few times, but really don't want to be that close to the enemy. I use a pair of Slayers and three Arc Nodes; that way I can either spell the enemy to death or buff one of the Slayers and help it into combat.

Other Casters prefer infantry. Either Goreshade likes Banes, for example.

The fact that some Casters are kind of crap at supporting 'Jacks doesn't mean that 'Jacks are crap, any more than some Casters' reliance on 'Jacks makes infantry useless.

What do you mean, wrong kind of Jack?
Taking it a bit further, a Necrosurgeon is more or less useless if there aren't any Mechanithralls in the army. What the Necrosurgeon does, though, is make Mechanithrall units very much more resilient than they normally are. Does the fact that this unit requires another to perform its function make it useless? Of course not.

If the Mechanithralls were useless, however, this would go quite a ways to making the Necrosurgeon useless, as the force it would be a viable part of isn't itself viable.

There is at least one choice in the Cryx army that screams 'you must have this!', regardless of what force you're building: the Skarlock Thrall.

I've got one. It's too good not to take.

Which I think is a problem. The Skarlock isn't equal with the rest of the army; it is much better. It skews the internal balance by being an auto-include.

This is the point I was trying to make in my discussion with Abakus - more or less unsuccessfully, I feel. An auto-include is not a sign that an army is good, it is a sign that it is internally unbalanced. Some of the 'worst' 40k Codexes have one or two units that are absolutely necessary to have even a chance of winning a fair fight. Obliterators, Hive Guard, the list is rather conclusive, I feel.

So, in a perfect world, a choice cannot be 'you must take this!' compared to the other choices in its army.

Which brings us to:

External Balance
A utopian game system contains a number of armies that are all equally balanced, even though they play differently. Is this likely to happen? Nah. But a guy can dream.

Talking about balance...
Some armies are fast, some are slow, some beat you to death, others riddle you with bullets from afar. No all armies need to be equally good at everything; indeed, this would make things dull. The important thing is that each strength is balanced with a weakness. Elite troops are scarce in numbers, whereas numerous ones are generally individually crap.

Managing this perfectly is all but impossible. But it is done.

Which mean we cannot truly compare a choice from one army with one from another on a straight basis.

Back to Warmachine. The Deathripper is a fast Cryx Light Warjack with an Arc Node, for four points. In the Cryx army, this is good, but not extraordinary, and it competes with another three Arc Nodes. If Khador had access to it, however, it would be incredibly useful - offering speed to a slow army, and an Arc Node they cannot normally take.

Nonetheless, some choices are such that they would scream 'you must take this!' regardless of what perspective you look at them from. And these choices, if they are too good, or too plentiful, create an external imbalance. See, if something isn't 'you must take this!' compared to its in-army compatriots, the only way it can be is in relation to choices from other armies. And if each army is internally balanced, the fact that one choice in one army is better than one in another means that first army is at least a little better than the second.

And utopia shatters.

This really wasn't meant to get this long, but there you have it.

So I'm going to stop now.


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