In a typical tabletop wargame, two forces meet in a pitched battle: one against the other. Warhammer 40k, Age of Sigmar, or even an accurate recreation of a real-life historical skirmish, it doesn’t matter. There’s something enjoyable and thrilling (perhaps, a tad sadistic) about miniature wargaming. Of course, a major draw for games is the human element and community that builds around this common gaming interest.
It is amusing that we invest so much into the idea of gameplay balance in wargaming. Balance is an illusion.
In this article, I hope to share a thought about the paradox of “balance” in binary conflict as played out in typical tabletop wargames. In other words, I think a better description for the overarching description of a two-player tabletop wargame (using miniatures, of course!) is controlled, organized chaos.
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To clarify, I’m speaking about a conceptual framework of wargaming (from a bird’s eye view), and not “how to make a balanced, fun game”. Gameplay balance through good rules writing, resource allocation, and individual unit strength, certainly contributes to how a battle resolves. But, there are plenty of articles about how to design and critique a tabletop game or video game based on game balance elements (see this fun gameplay balance article here, for example).
Instead, read on for my perspective about “tabletop wargaming balance”.
What is balance?
Balance is a state of equilibrium or equipoise; equal distribution of weight, amount, etc., according to the Dictionary. In other words, balance is static. Balance is a condition of equality between two or more elements.
That’s all balance is. A state of being. We can apply the idea of balance to anything, e.g., wargaming, the economy, national security, or your mental state.
Balance is an illusion
Now, balance is not a permanent state. Over time, elements can change and move. This means that the idea of equality is also transient. Change is the only constant. You know change is happening and balance has lost, when opposing elements conflict.
“War never changes”(Fallout Prologue)
Put it all together. Although this sounds similar to Newton’s 3rd law of motion (“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”), balance is really the sum of everything equaling zero. Balance describes a temporary state where the sum of all force and action equal nothing.
In total, balance is both a “zero” and a “one” at the same time. Balance is an binary extreme.
Nature abhors extremes
In biology, homeostasis is the “…tendency toward relatively stable equilibrium between independent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes” (source). In 1920, when the word “homeostasis” was first coined by Physiologist Walter Cannon, there was a pervasive idea that complex organism must maintain balance within their environment to lead a “free and independent life” in the outside world.
Of course, decades later, we discovered and documented many of the cellular and molecular factors that contribute to maintaining homeostasis in the human body. In fact, the modern treatment of all diseases rely on our foundational understanding of the normal workings of the homeostatic mechanisms of the body.
Things like blood pressure, nerve conduction, and even psychological health rest on the shifting sands of homeostatic forces constantly fighting to maintain “balance”. And, the trauma of an ever-changing world around us with its happenstance challenges add to the mix.
Hmm, think about it. This all sounds like the foundation for good gameplay to me. All games, e.g., miniature tabletop games, board games, whatever, have this ever changing equilibrium. Games are an outworking of the conceptual idea of homeostasis.
Survival hangs by a thread
In tabletop wargaming, the metaphorical survival of two players hangs in the balance as they commit their resources into the fight. The invested time and energy placed in gameplay yields a zero’d outcome where one side wins (a “1) and the other side loses (a “-1”).
1 + (-1) = 0
How telling is it that our human condition is revealed in how entertain ourselves with conflict?
Maybe we are built, hard-wired to push our human boundaries, and in doing so, live out nature’s abhorrence of the status quo.
Your body is exists in a dynamic equilibrium. Tip that balance over and you get sick and die. This is the crux of human disease: a balance beam whose fulcrum shifts off-center a bit too much, e.g., or crumbles, or the presence of a sudden unexpected pressure. And, similarly, in the World beyond us, conflict reigns. It is a natural state.
We engage with miniature gameplay, fighting to win…something. Perhaps, to sense a bit of life, a fleeting breeze of wind, a dark thrill that transcends the tick-tock of the day and night.
In life, war is survival
There is no constancy in life. Conflict plays out in our bodies, in the worlds, and in our minds. One extreme tries to win-over another. There isn’t a winner though, because that would be death. Too much of anything kills you.
When the tabletop wargaming community (any genre) complains that the rules are “unfair”, “unbalanced”, or merely boring, I smile because even here I see a conflict playing out. Everyone has chosen a side. No one is blind except to their own bias.
Everyone has bias. You see only through your lens. And, though you accept and trust another’s opinion, your experience taints everything you know, hear, touch, and feel.
Look. In life, balance is a paradox. We put balance on a pedestal. Praise The Middle Way. But, it doesn’t fit reality. To live, hard or not, you have to fight.
And, how do you put these ideas altogether in the idea of where balance fits into wargames? You don’t. Balance isn’t an objective or a fact-based reality that we want to emulate in any game or purposeful activity.
Let’s put some of this together.
Here are 3 reasons why “balance” is bad in wargames
1. Balance is paralysis
Progress fails when your forward walk is countered by a reversing treadmill. In a tabletop game, if every move is countered by a 100% perfectly countered opposing move, then the entire conflict is pointless. No one learns or gains anything.
2. Balance robs enjoyment
It’s boring. Take all desire, need or want, from an equation and you are left with an empty shell. A good wargame isn’t actually balanced at all; there are things built into the gameplay that push the scenario forward. Wargaming rules place a dynamic force on players to act in a way that tips the scale as far into their favor as possible. The dynamic force is usually called an objective. I doubt any game played without a goal-directed objective (i.e., victory condition or satisfying resolution) would be entertaining or engaging.
3. Balance is pointless
Balance merely describes a point where two extremes meet equally. Because of this, balance cannot be an objective in a game. I mean, if you ever played Jenga, try making the reverse outcome the objective. Could you make an objective out of putting the scattered, fallen blocks back together into a tower where a single player wins? Indeed you could, but we would have to rename the game. It is what we would call a toddler “playing with wooden blocks”. Balance is an illusion in that it cannot be the objective driving an activity. As an illustration of this point: To win in a wargame where balance was the only objective, you would try to win by playing to a “tie/draw”.
Controlled, organized chaos is the reality of life, which we emulate in games, especially wargaming. We have elements (the players) pit against either other in competition, governed from above by rules that organize and regulate the interaction. The chaos that ensues is the unquantifiable chaos of the consequences of each human decision executed over time.
You push, I push. Something happens.
I find it somewhat amusing that wargamers complain and moan about rules and all the other factors of <insert game brand/type here>. Because, when in fact, this malcontent is also an emergent property of the same human nature that makes true warfare on Earth a historical and future reality.
And, in true war, there are no winners…just a zero balance.