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Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Balance of Warmachine & Hordes

So my actual playing experience is still pretty limited and mostly done on Vassal with Warmahordes currently. Hopefully one day Vince won't moan and complain when I want to have a game with him and then we can start going to clubs/groups/etc. However, a lot of reading has been done into the game and factions and one of the most polarising discussions is that of balance.

Many of you know this argument - a LOT of players from 40k 4th edition abandoned Games Workshop for Privateer Press. A lot more have done this since then or taken up both systems at once. The differences between the companies are stark and one of the major talking points is game balance. Games Workshop has done a pretty good job with 5th edition despite being a 'model company who just happens to invest millions of pounds into rules making' and hopefully this will continue. What about Privateer Press and specifically, Warmachine & Hordes, particularly since one of the major positives for the game as expounded by it's defenders is the balance is has mocks any perceived balance in Games Workshop games.

For the most part, Warmahordes seems a lot better than Games Workshop games. Most units have a place, their FAQs and erratas are updated regularly and they actually care about their game being balanced according to their press releases and interaction with the community (they could of course be lying). Supplments are released seemingly pretty regularly (every two years?) which can bring units back into play with Unit Attachments, add more units/Warjacks to armies, etc. and they seem to listen to their customer base in regards to how they would like things. Their release schedule for models also keeps the flow of new things rather continuous but can lead to some teeth gnashing when on army gets their new Jack right away and another has to wait over a year.

However, there are two main issues here fighting for attention in the discussion of balance within the game.
  1. the recent restriction of named units/characters/jacks to one per force in steamroller missions (i.e. you might have three armies to take to a tournament, named characters can only be used in one of those)
  2. the warcasters themselves - specifically feats and the potential for rock/paper/scissors match-ups between certain casters
Now, I don't have the actual experience to comment much on this, so these issues might not be as huge as might be perceived but this indicates a couple things to my mind.

Named Units

Firstly, named characters are generally quite good. I can say off the top of my head, Warjacks such as the Avatar and Discordia are both excellent Jacks which can often find ways into most lists and I'm sure there are many others. I'm sure there are also some which aren't so good. However, what seems to often be the case with such named units is they are very efficient and perhaps bring a unique combination to the table. The justification of limiting them from a fluff stand-point is when an army goes to battle, obviously only one such is going to be seen across the army, even if there are two-three different components of the army (the different Warcasters). It makes sense from that viewpoint. However, this restriction is more from a rules-perspective in that these units are so good, we see them in a lot of lists and Privateer Press obviously wants other (and more) units to be sold (this makes sense from a company stand point). For a company and a community promoting the balance of their game however, well it's not a good indication of such, particularly when the majority of these models are often very good and people see this move as an action to limit their use (rather than remain fluffy).

If these models weren't so popular or effective, or this restriction had been introduced as part of the new ruleset (i.e. Mark II), this wouldn't appear so detrimental to their cause. As it stands now it feels more like Privateer Press is acknowledging these units (or some of these units) are too good in that they are nearly always used and rather than changing their rules, are putting a blanket nerf on such units. Now, they might have a future design philosophy which incorporates this into their scheme or they are willing to take the hit to their game's perceived balance with this change for the future benefit of their company but it does give some indication, however small, that not everything is perfectly balanced as some will have you believe. I still think the balance of the game between factions and in-factions is pretty good, don't get me wrong, but it's not perfect as some will have you believe (how often do you see some units for example?) and this is part and parcel to that.

Warcaster Match-ups

This brings us to the more important topic of balance - Warcasters/Warlocks (we'll say Warcasters for ease of use here but I'm meaning both). Warcasters are a VERY important balancing aspect to the whole game - every army has one and only one (unless playing in a strangely big game) which often controls or significantly influences how the rest of the army is built around them. They have a unique spell-set which works better or worse with certain units and a limited amount of a specific control mechanic with which to utilise beasts and warjacks. Most importantly however, each Warcaster has a Feat - a one turn ability of awesomeness. Many games are won or lost upon the use of Feats properly within the right army context (note: this doesn't mean you win on the turn of the Feat but rather that appropriate use of the Feat will set up a win - whether immediately or down the track). The Feat is often a huge defining feature of a Warcaster.

I'm sure no one will argue with me when I say there are some Warcaster match-ups which simply suck for one player or another. For the most part, Warcasters are generally balanced pretty well but there are some (i.e. those that rely on the generation of some sort of token) where it's really hard to match-up against an opposing Warcaster or army (i.e. some sort of disruption or denial of the generation of such tokens).

The degree to which this permeates the game however, is far more important. If it's just a couple match-ups, well that's not too bad because Privateer Press has a decent enough tournament solution (IMO) for this by allowing the taking of multiple armies/warcasters. If you come up against an opponent who's Army A is the rock to your Army Y but your Army X does not have an OMG I LOSE weakness to both Army A and B of your opponent, the weakness you have to Army A from your Army Y is essentially nullified as you don't have to expose that weakness. If these sort of match-ups are common though, well scenarios where both of your armies have a weakness to your opponent's would be more common and in these scenarios it basically comes down to luck who picks which army whether or not a bad match-up occurs. If this is the case - this becomes a very serious balance issue and from my limited understanding, I don't feel this is the case and that these rock/paper/scissors match-ups are limited enough they don't significantly impact the game at a tournament level where you can take multiple lists. At a more casual level or tournaments which don't allow this - much bigger issue. Further information from players more vested in experience than me, particularly at tournaments using steamroller, would be appreciated here.

The question then becomes - is the steamroller format an appropriate answer to such an issue between warcasters and/or armies or is it a lazy way out for Privateer Press to avoid balancing all their Warcasters (and units) against each other? I think it's the former - but I don't know when steamroller was developed or what the match-up issue was like previously. This will be the exact same case for individuals coming into the game during the future when they see character retrisctions and might assume it's been there from the beginning and part of the balancing factor. Regardless, assuming the really piss-poor match-ups are limited between Warcasters and armies, I think allowing two (or even three) such armies at a tournament is a fine way to limit this. It encourages greater list diversity and forces you to understand your Warcaster and armies implicitly - if you have a list which is only so-so against heavies for example, your 2nd list can run more heavy damager dealers. However, if this these lists has a weakness to a certain caster which often

Considering the effort it goes into balancing a game normally, I can understand these not so balance match-ups coming into play occasionally but being limited by an artificial system (the steamroller format). Why? Balancing a game is hard enough but when each army has a Warcaster with a Feat? This balancing act becomes a lot more tedious if you're looking to keep such Feats varied rather than repetitive whilst also giving each Warcaster a unique playstyle - and Privateer Press has done a decent job of this (though not all Warcasters are seen as equal).


Overall, the Warmachine & Hordes games of Privateer Press are pretty balanced - there are issues certainly, and Privateer Press seems to have a proactive approach to fixing these whether it's changing the rules through erratas/FAQs, adding units/abilities/warcasters to armies through updates or artificial rules outside of the actual game - the game itself appears balanced. There is the issue of some Warcasters having significant issues with other Warcasters and certain named characters (and even non-named units) being quite good and worthy of inclusion in most lists but the overall usage of units within armies and balance between these armies is pretty good. There are certainly things to improve, everything isn't perfect, but the company as a whole appears to have the right approach to dealing with these issues and strives to make their game as balanced as possible.

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