Warhammer 40,000 Propaganda Data Slate: Balance – The Beginning
Warhammer 40,000 Balance: The Beginning
Hello and welcome back to The Kitchen, with me The Chef, here to talk about anything and everything hobby related. Today sees the start of what will be a long running series all related to that most tricky of subjects – game balance. These will run the gamut of overall theory, to the individual phases, rule and mission structures, and even to individual codexes (or is it codices?)
Let’s begin by having a look at balance as an overall concept and touch on some of the things that I believe make a game as vast and varied as Warhammer 40,000, difficult to balance. The scope and variety of it.
There will likely be things in here that I will go into greater detail on at a later date, but if there’s something you want to add or really want to be sure it gets discussed, as always leave a comment, get involved in the discussion and send me an email with further ideas!
A Tough Balancing Act
Make no mistake, I love 8th. I think it is for the most part, a tighter and more accessible system than 7th, and the constant rules updates and transparency from GW with 8th edition has by and large been fantastic. But it still has problems with its game balance, which is perfectly understandable. 40k has always been a huge game, and each passing year has added to the complexity, be it new armies, new units, fresh or different ways of playing with existing models, as well as the myriad of expansions and updates. 8th has certainly done a great job of making some things more in line. Are we in a good spot? I would say, for the most part, we are. But that, ironically, makes any imbalances even more obvious and important.
Balance can be looked at in terms of overall rules, and then specific rules. By this I mainly mean the game rules and the army rules. The game rules I would argue, simply are. There is no inherent balancing issue with them, as there is nothing to compare them too, at least in terms of the rules themselves. You could discuss the balance of combat vs shooting, or the d6 system vs say a d10 system, but that comes more to game design, which of course balance is a big part of, but we aren’t going to look at how the game could be changed from its fundamentals here. We will take a look at the various phases at a later date, but for the most part, balance is more intrinsically linked to the armies themselves.
So we have our armies, of which there are dozens. We then have to account for internal vs external balance, where internal is how units within an codex match up to each other, and external being how units, and the army as a whole, compare to the others. We’ve gone from dozens of codexes, with all their internal units numbering yet more dozens, and have to compare them to all the others. The combinations are numbering the thousands, and we’ve not even considered the impact of anything else past just units yet!
Already we can see why Warhammer is such a beast to balance, there is a staggering amount of stuff in the game.
Freedom At A Price
I think it’s fair to say that a good portion of balancing issues stem from this sheer freedom that we have. The picking and choosing of detachments, often with no real restrictions, and then on top of that you add in the potential for allies, sub-factions and most recently, the specialist detachments. There’s so much going on, which is both potentially good and bad. I’m a big advocate for choices and having options, however it can be overwhelming, and it can lead to imbalance when all these factors pile on top of each other. Ironically, Unbound could have been considered more balanced, as there was no advantage to doing it outside of taking the best possible units. You were usually losing out on things like Objective Secured, or Detachment Benefits. In 8th, not only can you do that, but you get the army benefits for taking them! While we might like it to be like this…
…we actually find often it’s not. Now it’s no secret, I’m not a great fan of Soup*, as whilst they can lead to some awesomely themed and fluffy armies, at a mechanical level they tend to cause a fair number of issues when it comes to balance. To explain, in order for the game to be balanced as a competitive game, or even just an evenly matched game, armies should be balanced so that one is not inherently superior than another on a pure mathematical basis. Player skill and luck should have as much of an impact as the overall power of an army. Soup complicates this by making balancing even more difficult as one needs to consider it would no longer be a case of how to balance one army vs others on an individual basis, but now rather it’s how to balance one army vs others that also get access to another army.
One could however, make the argument that Soup is considered in the balancing process. For example, Guilliman buffing other Imperium stuff not just his Ultramarines. However on the back of various rules seminars and the like, the rules team themselves have mentioned they don’t look at Allies when they balance and play test a codex. Furthermore, they also don’t see a problem with Soup, after all…
Swapping Soup above there for the word Allies still comes out to the same effect. Some armies are built simply by cherry picking the best units from each faction to create overly powerful and unthematic armies. The choice of word you prefer is irrelevant to the intent of the design. This also hammers home that there is the desire to see fluffy themed armies, yet currently there is little in the way of incentive or reward for doing so, at least in gameplay terms.
“But Chef”, I hear you typing away, “That’s just how it is now, get with the times.”
And yes, perhaps I should catch up with the game. It’s moved on, list building and what works is different now. However, consider how having the ability to take Allies can actually remove or at least mitigate the main army’s weaknesses. Now I am not saying this is a bad thing, if anything it’s a great choice to shore up weaknesses in your arm. It’s the sign of a good general and well built list. However when compared to an Army that doesn’t have access to Allies, they will generally be at a disadvantage, and there is no downside for the Ally using army.
To use Age of Sigmar as an example of, in my opinion a better designed way of running Allies, is to have limitations and restrictions. In AoS, only 20% of the army can be used as Allies, i.e not from your General’s Army. These Allies gain zero benefits for being such, other than the units themselves being present in an army. Anything over 20% and your Army loses all its unique traits, abilities etc in exchange for the Grand Alliance abilities, which usually means sacrificing at least 2 or 3 powerful army traits for a much less potent generic one. You have the advantage of being able to mix and match across all the units from your Alliance, but at a significant cost. That is a balancing factor, the exchange that needs to be made for the promise of power.
Imagine Lawrence’s Top 3 Warhammer Grand Final Army with this system. He would either need to drastically reduce the amount of non-Craftworld units in his army in order to meet the 20% restriction, and those would give no benefits (so no Thirst For Power on those units, and no Agents of Vect, for example). Conversely, he could have run his army as it was, but instead of his differing factions having their unique rules and all the other things they bring, there was instead just a generic Aeldari Trait, such as +1” of Movement and +1 Ld. For taking those strong units, he has to use the units as they are with only minor advantages, over the stronger, more focused traits of a “pure” army.
Fixing Points Sometimes Misses The Point
Another thing to consider in the act of balancing is how that is achieved, and points have been a key one in this edition of 40k. Points have been part of Warhammer pretty much since its inception. It is a way to control and limit what you can take. Points assign worth and value to units, based on various differing things such as damage output, survivability, effects they can bring to the battle, and so on. The points system is not perfect of course, as there is so much it needs to consider and do, again due to the vastness of the game. It is required to account for all of those things in the game, whilst remaining reasonably fair.
When you add in force multipliers however, the waters get muddied. You could go on theoretically forever. Close Combat focused Space Marine units should be worth less in Ultramarine armies as they don’t benefit from their Chapter Tactic as much as ones with more potent Shooting attacks. Shooting based Marines are worth less to Black Templars, and Raven Guard increases all Marines points, but then they’re all worth less as there’s no Captain to buff them… it would get convoluted to the point of absurdity extremely quickly, were one to break down armies into differing points, based on their sub-faction choice. Stratagem use, how many CPs you have to use those Stratagems, what Allies can do for them, and so on, would be too much to take into consideration.
So points as a balance factor is important, and what GW are doing is both very good and efficient, as it allows quite comprehensive and sweeping changes to many units. However, it doesn’t look at some of these more detailed nuances of game balance, namely stats, synergies, CP access, what Allies can bring, buffs given, traits being used, weapon effectiveness, etc.
If You Fix It, They Will Come
So whilst we await FAQs, army updates, or other tweaks to the system, what can we do to resolve some of these issues? One of the things that would certainly make a difference, at least in competitive events, is a more cohesive format, and one that looks at comping or restricting some of the offending elements.
Comp or restrictions have been a thing in competitive Warhammer games and events, as well as other far bigger games, for many years, yet if you were to raise it in a discussion now, it can be an issue for some people. An event with restrictions is sometimes derided as “It’s not a real game of 40k”, the players should “learn to adapt” and “git gud”, and some are even told “pft, bet you wouldn’t have won if other people could take a proper army.”
Which leads me to a potential fix.
A way to really focus on game balance from the top down would be a “4th Way to Play”, namely “Competition Play”. A universal set of tournament rules, devised by GW (so there is no question on it being the ‘correct’ way to play), but one based on monofaction armies with list building restrictions. This would initially be quite tough for some armies in this version of play, as the inherently stronger dexes will of course have a large dominance, but this can easily be switched to a good thing, as it will only highlight the issues in game balance between these armies in a much greater scope than the current system. As single codexes become more balanced against each other, this will trickle down to other formats of play. It is less of an issue in more Narrative and Open Play, as imbalances can be adjusted within play groups, or even as part of the whole point, such as last stands against overwhelming odds that have been part of the game since day one.
Surely all players, casual or competitive, would rather play a balanced game, or at least one that is attempting to reach that. A game where the better generals rise to the top.
Now, true balance is going to be incredibly difficult, if not outright impossible to achieve in a behemoth of a game such as 40k. There’s a phenomenal amount of stuff going on. The game is constantly being added to and evolving, which is no bad thing. So whilst it is a distant goal, it should certainly be strived for, and that is what I believe GW are genuinely trying to do. But given GW’s desire to touch base with the fans and players even more, only by giving them constructive feedback can we help them shape the game for the better.
Editor’s Note: Why not get involved and give Games Workshop the feedback on how you see the game being played? You can take part in Games Workshop’s latest Big Community Survey here: GW’s Big Community Survey 2019 – Spider
*Yes, Soup actually means multiple armies in the same detachment and what I’m talking about is Allies, but that didn’t stop everyone referring to the Big Super Formations of 7th as Decurions, so its Soup and you can’t change my mind!
If you have a list with some unique tactics, a Tactica or hobby article that you feel would make an interesting read, or maybe you just want to give Chef a topic to rant about? Send it in to firstname.lastname@example.org and you might see your topic discussed in a future article!