Since we've got quite the flourish of activity in the forums now that FFG has announced discountance of organized play, and at least some of them reflect our own private efforts, I thought a post outlining some of the background concepts on balance was in order. None of this really fits into any of the threads in the current discussion, so here goes.
Balance is Choice
In a strategy game, the players should feel comfortable making any of a number of choices. Most strategy games have multiple paths to victory, and in order for that game to be balanced, and to feel fun, stimulating and exciting, it has to be the case that in the right circumstances, when played correctly and rigorously, those choices could win. None of this has to be an infinite number of choices. After all, one has twenty legal first moves in a chess game, but only four of them are any good at the highest levels. You can win off of all of them at the lowest levels.
Making balance much more difficult is that any time you have diverse set of options, those options will automatically arrange themselves into a hierarchy, with some choices being better than others, if only minutely. That is to say that balance is not perfect, and in any given game, the player regularly get together and discuss options like "It feels like this upgrade/unit is just a touch too expensive, but I'm not sure anything can be done about it." This is less of an issue in games with higher points totals, which allow more granularity in the costing of units and upgrades than it is in lower point games. At 1000 points, the difference between 83 and 87 on two cards is minimal, but at 100 points, the former ends up at 8 points and feels overpowered, while the later ends up at 9 and feels a touch too expensive for what it does.
Games like Runewars that look to the players learning how to combo the cards have another intricate problem in that the slow accumulation of releases can leave some units in the dust, while also allowing certain combination effects that had not previously been seen.
Evaluations take time
One thing that makes me skeptical about some balance comments is that it takes time for good ideas to emerge. If I look at my own game time, I cannot possibly put every idea that I have on the table just to try it out. I simply run out of time, or end up pushing the pieces around the table by myself. The community itself is small, and in many cases, the gaming communities are much smaller than my own, so that causes no small amount of skepticism toward reports. I've seen it happen enough times in Star Wars Armada where a powerful build emerged, sat at the top for about 4 months, and then faded into oblivion as people got better at the game and learned to counter it, all before the next wave came out. The same thing has happened in plenty of other games. So my first thoughts on evaluations are skepticism. That being said, we can still collect our evaluations of specific units and upgrades and see if any consensus emerges.
Evaluations need to take player skill into account, but that is extremely difficult to do
One really curious thing I've seen in almost all games that have "builds" is that players inevitably talk about the games as if the builds determine who wins, and not the players themselves. It is altogether too easy of an excuse to blame the build and to think that if a couple of things were different, the outcomes would be entirely different. This represents a fairly superficial evaluation of outcomes. Sometimes one player really is better. And naturally, the best players are usually the best because they can see the holes in the game and exploit those to maximum effect. As a consequent, I tend to be less concerned about games where a specific unit completely ran over someone else and got called OP, and more concerned about how players who are close in skill evaluate each other. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell these kinds of things about other players online when they post, but in general, if someone can present both sides of an argument, listen well to others, write and argue with skill, then I'm inclined to think they're thinking the game state through well and at least attempting to look through all sides of the equation.
What does Balance look like in Runewars
1. Heroes are a central part of Runewars. The hero you take determines greatly how the rest of your list plays. In general, I want it to feel like a player could choose to take any of the three heroes. This isn't to say that players won't develop styles or have favorites, but they should be reasonably close together.
2. All units should be playable. They may not fit every build. Ideally, every tray formation should have a situation in which it feels useful, but I think the end result is that trying to make every tray formation viable is asking too much. Generally, players should feel comfortable taking one unit or another, provided they've built a list well for that unit and the situations they expect to find on the table.
3. Upgrade cards are a tough one. In games like Runewars, upgrade cards have some of the most problematic effects. The largest of these is that many early upgrade cards tend to dud out, or never seem to gain traction in the first place. Companies like FFG accept that they'll have a handful of competitive options and a few duds in every mix. It also isn't uncommon to see some upgrade cards chosen a disproportionate number of times, and thus breaking our expectations of balance. Furthermore, upgrade cards often get fused together with specific units, and thus it becomes difficult to separate out a unit from its typical load-out. In this respect, I think the balance that counts is the overall package, not the specific upgrade cards. Hero upgrades are especially like this, in that these upgrades often flesh out the hero for a specific role, and so theoretically speaking, it is almost like having 6-9 hero builds possible. In practice, the number might not be that high.
4. Objectives and Deployments are another wrench. I think the real reason for seasonal changes was that some army builds would simply fit some of the deployments better and some of the objectives better. Not every set of units, heroes, or upgrade cards would work as well with every set, but over the long haul, they'd find situations where they'd be more useful or less useful.
5. Builds that allow one to do incredibly game-altering effects for little or no risk to self are imbalanced. This will often show up in a difference in choices.
Baby steps are the order of the day. A game is an extremely complicated thing, with a lot of interlocking parts. So an imbalance in one area might find itself located in another. For example, I tend to run Faolan than the other Latari heroes, partly out of a thought to Ravos, but diminish Ravos' presence, and it opens more building with the other Latari heroes. So as a matter of principle, efforts should be made with the fewest changes possible. Give it a go and see how it plays, and then try something else if needed.
Put it in the Player's Hands
Some of the posts that I've seen in recent days have a significant emotional reaction of sorts. In the end, almost all of us are going to end up playing locally with our friends. Whatever we decide upon there is fine. Fun is the first word of game design. If you aren't having fun, this is your personal time and life is too short to waste on not having fun. On the other hand, we live in a broader and connected community where most of us have the hopes of meeting up with others and playing a game, a game that has to be played on equal terms and where one's home environment rules both do not apply and may throw off your thinking in the game. And I think this later point is what causes some of the emotions, the fear that some proposals that do not look good to us might actually succeed and gain traction.
One other dimension to this is that this is still FFG's game, and they still can put out their own FAQs and ERRATA. In fact, they probably should. Just because competitive play is done does not mean the game itself is done and the players are going away. In terms of keeping those players as those who might buy other games in the future, a FAQ/ERRATA would be a step in the right direction. And I think as players, whatever they do should trump whatever errata/faq gets put into place from us. That's part of what has me not wanting to jump the gun, and in wanting to make the least restrictive changes possible.
What is glaring to me is:
1. Spined Threshers were disproportionately chosen among the units at Worlds, and as a corollary to this, Scuttling Horror came with them. I suspect one change is enough, and we've had four including some "all of the above" approaches. I suspect the design process went something like "they are crabs, and it would be thematic to have them crab-walk, but we really don't expect that to do much, so let's have them pay 3 points for an exhaust to stun." I'm more loose on this one, as I think a tiny bit would help them out. People really started playing the 2x1s much more seriously when Scuttling Horror made. I'm not sure the 2x2s are more or less powerful than other 2x2 Siege units, and the 3x2 is such an expensive unit that. These guys really don't like stuns/immobolize combined with ranged (you crab-walked from inside my range to inside my range, wow).
2. The Uthuk heroes at worlds were a bit more open, but having played Church's list myself to a regional victory and having schemed against my Latari at home with it on countless occasions, I kept 8-3/9-2 my Latari using them. Ravos played a real critical factor here, and it is clear that he does an awful lot with the possibility of really minimizing threat to himself. So moving the "feed" to before the movement, which I support, Church has proposed, and countless others, seems like a no-brainer, and is in keeping with how FFG has handled other game ERRATA. I don't merely want this because of playing against them with Latari, but because I like both of the other Uthuk heroes and want to feel they are on equal footing.
3. I haven't seen it mentioned in recent days, but immediately after worlds, someone noted that the Aggressive Shriker/Warsprinter combo on the Zerker Star allowed for quite a lot. In my opinion, FFG had already seen this power and moved to restrict it in how they wrote some of the upgrade cards released in the final wave. Faolan's figure for example only applies to the first move you make a turn. As I thought through this, it really struck me that Warsprinter has a kind of counter in rolling away from reds and that the main objectives were the speed-7 charges. In this respect, what I think would work here is ERRATING all of the Aggressives so that it applies to only the first march they make. That allows the long double march, but no luck charge (which incidently, in one of the games against self that I played, allowed the ZerkerStar to charge from one deployment to the other and land a charge straight from turn-1). It also allows a reform-3, red march, but asks the players to address that through upgrades. A very small change, minimally invasive, but takes away a small option that people did complain about.
4. Glaring in a different way is the Rune Golem, which everyone on the forums seems to agree on as well. A 1x1 or a couple of 1x1s in the right list are very nice and amazing. The problem is that as you scale up, they are just less so. But at this point, I'm not sure what we can do and might not get much agreement. This is really what you write off as a design flub and then try to introduce something new later on. But without something new coming... They really need a pretty thorough redesign, but as that is far more contentious than what I'm comfortable, that pretty much leaves recosting downwards. But despite being glaring, I'm much more comfortable with movement from the OP items downward than I am with increasing the power level of something. If there's no FAQ/ERRATA in six months, then that's about the time to look seriously at more comprehensive changes to the game.