Let’s talk about balance.

I’m getting this out of the way pre-emptively because balance discussions have come up a fair bit recently in Kings of War groups and the RC are currently planning the Clash of Kings 2018 amendments. Hopefully this can head off some immediate reactions and try to ensure people use matching terminology and understanding to describe things.

Edit: A lot of this article is similar to, but expanded on and presenting my own thoughts, an article by Chris Kellahan that he published in February.

This is the idea of perfect balance.

The more effective a unit is, the higher its points cost should be. If anything is above this line – high points cost and low effectiveness – then it is technically underpowered. Anything below the line – high effectiveness, low points cost – is technically overpowered. More on these terms later.

Now, we can argue a little about the shape of the line (I feel that it should taper off as the unit gets more effective, since there’s only so much overkill you need), however this is the idea of perfect balance. In a perfectly balanced game, every single unit would sit on this line. If the RC had a perfect way of determining a unit’s overall strength, it could plot it on this graph and find out the exact points cost for the unit.

This however is impossible. You would need a fool-proof mathematical formula to work out the exact points cost and it simply doesn’t exist. Seriously. Many people have tried and not been able to get the formula working.

In addition to this, Kings of War conventions say that unit values are rounded off to the nearest 5 points. If a unit came to 103 points, then it would be rounded off to 105 points. It’s a whopping 2 points out. So, no matter how you break it, no matter how much you playtest it, there will always be a margin of error when balancing games like Kings of War.

Now. What is an acceptable margin of error for points costs?

When developing 2nd edition, the RCs goal was to make the game as balanced as possible where any unit or army imbalances did not affect a game’s outcome more than the skill the players.

The idea of meta and matchups messes with this a bit, but the concept is pretty simple. A player’s chance of winning should rest more on their skill than their units.  

So, we accepted there will always be a margin of error. There will be units that are very effective for their points cost and units that are less effective for their points cost. However, this should not mean that the winner is determined by the units used.

This is what the graph might look like with this margin of error built in. The dashed black line shows the line of perfect balance. In an ideal world, every single unit would be plotted perfectly along this line with their points cost rising the more effective that they are.

The orange area however is the acceptable margin. Anything within this orange area, though it may fall above or below the line of perfect balance, is acceptable. The balance isn’t too far out that it would significantly affect the outcome of a game. Nothing that player skill won’t overcome.

Let’s plot some examples.

I think Ogre Warriors are pretty well balanced, overall. They’re quite effective but also command a high points cost. They would sit somewhere like this:

Now, Werewolves and Lycans I feel are a bit too cheap compared to Ogre Warriors. They probably sit somewhere like this:

They’re below the line. They’re more effective than their points cost dictates, therefore they are technically “overpowered” (though again, more on this term below). They are within the margin of error however, so a skilled player would be able to use Ogre Warriors and not lose a game because their opponent is using Werewolves.

Let’s move onto Fallen. I believe they are too good for their points, far outside the acceptable margin of error. I would plot them as something like this:

I believe they are all round one of the most effective units in the game, and their points cost isn’t high enough. Even when compared to Werewolves and Lycans, two units that I feel are on the borderline of acceptable imbalance, they are much more effective for the points cost.

This is the sort of thing that the RC would seek to address in the annual Clash of Kings pack. There are three ways of doing this – either increase the points, so they move up into that acceptable balance range, reduce their effectiveness, so they move to the left until they reach the acceptable balance range, or a mixture of both so they move diagonally up and left.

There’s a lot of debate about which method is better but ultimately the RC decided that moving things left and right (amending their effectiveness) rather than up and down (their points cost) was the better solution. Doing it this way means that while a player’s army may go up or down in effectiveness, the points cost doesn’t, so they don’t have to change their army. If Fallen get amended in CoK 2018 (I’m hoping they lose Pathfinder), then someone who runs Fallen in their army won’t need to change their list to accommodate the new points value. Instead they just need to understand that the unit in question is a bit weaker than it was before.

Overpowered, Underpowered, Broken and Trap

All of this is a very long winded way of me bringing up a particular point I wanted to discuss – usage of the terms “Overpowered” and “Underpowered”.

In the wargaming community’s vernacular, “overpowered” refers to units that sit outside of the acceptable margin of error with balance. They are so far away from the line (high effectiveness, low points cost) that they give players a significant, likely game winning, advantage. Underpowered is the same – taking this unit means that you’re fighting an uphill battle because your opponent’s units are going to be more effective than yours.

The term “broken” (at least in terms of balance) refers to units that are even more overpowered than before. They are so overpowered in fact that you’re guaranteed to win, regardless of skill, unless facing an opponent with similarly broken units. “Trap” units are the opposite of this – they’re so terrible that their inclusion actively hurts your army and your chances of winning are very low.

I would personally class the Ogre Red Goblin Blaster as the only trap unit in Kings of War. Taking this unit will, at best, simply provide your opponent with free victory points. More than likely it will actually take out a significant chunk of your army.

I’ve seen the terms “overpowered” thrown around pretty lightly. Anything that is more effective than its points cost is technically overpowered, but is it enough to give you a significant, game winning advantage? If your definition of “overpowered” is anything that is too good for its points cost then I’m afraid to say that by that definition, half of the units in the game will be overpowered. The other half will be underpowered.

I strongly urge players to use the terms “strong” and “weak” when referring to units that are stronger or weaker than their points suggest, but still within that acceptable level of imbalance. This stops the misunderstanding where one player says “overpowered”, but they don’t think that it’s outside acceptable imbalanced, but another player thinks they mean a unit that is outside acceptable imbalance. If both players use the term “strong” to describe the unit instead then they’re not going to get into arguments over a misunderstanding. At the very least please use “a little overpowered” or “a little underpowered” and explain that you don’t think it’s enough to swing a game.

In descending order, the terms might look like this:

  • Broken – a unit that is so overpowered that it will nearly guarantee you a win, unless your opponent is running similarly broken units.
  • Overpowered – a unit that is too good for its points and sits outside the range of acceptable imbalance. Using it gives you a significant advantage that your opponent’s skill can’t overcome.
  • Strong – a unit that is a bit too effective for its points cost, but not significant enough to swing the game.
  • Weak – a unit that is a bit too expensive for its points but not to the point that you’ll lose to a lesser skilled player if you use this unit or an army of them.
  • Underpowered – A unit that is way too expensive for its points. Taking this unit or an army of them will give you an uphill battle against most players.
  • Trap – do not use. These units are so bad that they actively hurt your chances of winning.

Please, when the RC announce what is and isn’t getting changed for CoK 2018, make sure you’re using good terminology to stop some of the internet slapfights before they begin. 

4 Comments

  1. Another great article. However, I feel that it’s difficult to distinguish between underpowered and trap.

    You’ve changed my mind on the usage of the word OP or overpowered. I recall Skaven in 8th Ed Warhammer as having a significant amount of broken troops, especially against my Dwarfs. Games were literally decided before they began. He’d dart with giant rats to see my deployment, and deploy an insane amount of slaves, with artillery, monsters, and super powerful casters. KoW doesn’t really have that level of broken IMO.

    As for OP, you’re right in illustrating the trickiness of balancing because of player skill and matchups. I lost an 800pts game the other day because I had no shooting, and my opponent had plenty. It was just a bad matchup. I can live with bad matchups in the meta, not so much because I choose to take X army against Y. I think the game would become drab if every list built has an equally good chance of taking on any list. The fun is trying to build a list that has a good edge in the meta, but still requires good play on the table to win.

  2. A great breakdown Nick, I’ve always chuckled at the non-objective manner in which a lot of players describe game balance. And I like the overall thinking.

    My concerns for game balance more often lie in unit entries making others invalid, rather than the overall balance of the game. It’s these smaller factors, that would rarely be seen as a problem in tournament play, that tend to catch me. We can take for example dwarf organ guns versus cannons. I don’t think dwarf players will be sweeping tournaments with their organ guns any time soon, as the overall dwarf army is quite well balanced, but what I see getting missed is that they effectively invalidate other the alternate option as strategically viable. Same goes for a troop of dwarven crossbows versus long gunners – same points, but one of these entries is much more powerful than the other. I feel like these lesser imbalances are much harder to patch up between editions.

    I think you guys are on the right track though with targeting strength over points though. We recently had a player in our meta who played a force of all Elohi (super nice dude, and he actually stopped playing with it pretty quickly after winning a tournament and feeling like it made the game less fun). What was interesting about the force though was that increasing points costs wouldn’t have made too much difference to its effectiveness, its strength was in being able to pinpoint a small number of high powered units on a small portion of the battlefield. This in turn made it very hard to take points off of his army. Concentrating the points value and shrinking the army wouldn’t changed the feeling of helplessness as a larger slower infantry core failed to be able to maneuver to engage.

    Long story short, I’m eager for 3rd edition, as is everyone else I think who plays KoW in the tournament scene, but I’m really happy with the work you guys are doing already between editions. The new scenerios are designed perfectly to reward players for taking more “core” regiments, and all of the changes have been welcome additions to the game.

  3. A fantastic article!
    Though with regards to Blasters being a Trap, a friend of mine took 5 Red Goblin Blasters in his army at our first ever KOW tournament.
    He won.

  4. Great article!

    It’s almost impossible to have a constructive debate without defining terminology. I hope this article is circulated on the forum.

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