Must Have Balance Daniel San… Focus… Power…

IRL Tony

This is a mid-level article on game balance.  I’m going to talk about a few frameworks like the Pareto Efficient Curve and how to view these in concert with your knowledge about Warmachine and Hordes.

I’ve asked myself the question a hundred times over; “Why do I like board games so damn much?”  I’m not an overtly introspective person, but there’s something at the heart of gaming that truly brings me joy.  My current (and ever-evolving) conclusion is that gaming provides a rich landscape to exercise one’s brain.  Whether you’re pushing cubes in some classic Euro, rolling dice in an Ameritrash classic or waging war with little doods, the concepts of strategy, asset allocation and competitive interaction continually bubble to the surface.

Warmachine and Hordes is a very deep game.  The depth of the rule set provides two really wonderful outcomes; a differentiated competitive landscape and a means of balancing interaction.  While the game takes time to evolve an understanding, the investment in time and energy is continually rewarded through new mental challenges to take on.

In the beginning, you’re simply looking at Order of Operations and maximizing internal use of your army.  In higher stages of play you’re looking at list construction and meta-probabilities.  Either way you’re continually challenged and growing.  For me, as a gamer, that’s a very exciting realization.

Now we’re going to wander into Strategy and the space of academic opinion.  I’m going to touch on Pareto Efficiency and the differences between PP and GW in their use of the concept.  Many gamers condemn both for not “doing it right”. Truthfully, both PP and GW have incredibly intelligent people working for their companies.  Given their actions, I’m going to give you my spin on their likely business strategy may be and what it implies. (*note* my spin = my opinion = factual plus or minus human error)

The grand-daddy of strategy is a guy named Michael Porter.  I’ve talked about him in past articles.  You can check those out or do a quick Wiki-search if you’re really interested.  One of his core tenets is the concept of trade-offs.  You cannot be all things to all people and still survive.  Choose what you want to be good at and be the best at it.  You will have to sacrifice other things, but don’t worry, so long as you’re the best at it you’ll survive.

Another big name developed one of my favorite pretty pictures to exemplify this tenet; the Pareto-Efficient curve.  Think of the basic version of this curve as a menu where you trade off Quality and Price.  On one side of the curve you have an F1-race car.  Highest quality.  Highest price.  On the other end you have the Civic.  Lower Quality.  Lower price.  The truly important element to the curve is that each point is the most efficient in its position.  By example, the civic, while lower priced is higher quality than any other car at an equivalent price.

So why do economists and strategy nerds get so jacked up about the Pareto-Efficient curve?  Any firm on at the frontier (on the curve) has a stable and profitable position.  Any firm NOT on the curve will be bypassed by a consumer because they could differ to another option with either MORE quality (at the same price) or a LOWER price (at the same quality).

As new technologies come on to the market (that significantly change the game), the curve moves outward.  Innovating firms will continue to push the frontier granting consumers a continually better quality-price ratio in an effort to preempt their competition and grab at additional profit.  Let’s interject a meaningful technology like… say… SUPER expensive time-traveling DeLorean.  Yes.  It would be as expensive as an F1-race car, but who cares?!  It travels through time.  That’s obviously better to anyone in their right mind.  Ughhhh…. HELLO McFly….  This is a no-brainer.

After all that reading you’re probably wondering how I’m going to get back to PP and GW.  It’s all about balance.

Here are the Pareto Efficient curves for Cryx and Trollbloods (courtesy of Keith Christianson and Chad Shonkwiler respectively).  Using the same Pareto Efficient Curve I’ve plotted Utility (to the Faction) vs. Point Cost.  As I mentioned before, everything ON the curve is optimal.  As a result, the pictures above look like a ‘best of’ play list.  For three points in Trolls you have a lot of options, but guess what?  You’re highest utility option is probably Janissa.  That lady is a boss.  As a result, she’s sitting right on the curve beyond anyone else.  Extend that logic to interpreting the rest of the picture.

Balance2So now that you’re seeing the models along the Pareto Efficient Curve you can probably imagine all of the models INSIDE the curve, like the poor Trollblood Skinner.  Many of these models inside the curve are the maligned “Island of Misfit Toys” models that rarely get played because their Utility/Point Cost ratio don’t make sense.

BalanceOk.  That’s step two of this framework applied to Warmachine.  On to step three…

Innovation or new technology occurs in this space with every book release.  This is where we’ll see a departure between the strategies of PP and GW.  PP tries to land models as closely to the curve as possible (to warrant their use beyond the ‘shiny’ phase) or tries to enable old models with newer support to bring both up to the Pareto Efficient Curve without exceeding it.  This strategy means old models are still usable and new releases interject variation into the game without overpowering the old standbys.  You can see this by example with the recently release of the Warpborn Alpha.

GW takes a slightly different approach.  When a codex is released the relative power of the new models significantly exceeds that of the old models.  As a result, a great number of old models that were once Pareto Efficient and on the curve are left in the dust as the new models increase the Utility/Point Cost ratio dramatically pushing the curve outward.  This is the very essence of the term “power creep”; new models that out-date old models by simply being better.

Seeing the release strategies and the relative magnitudes of the companies you can determine their corporate intentions (which make a great deal of sense in both cases).

PP is looking to grow a player base and maintain its current platform of stable fans.  They’re doing this by designing new variability to entertain players without out-dating their prior installments.  These actions signal PP with two primary actions:

  1.  Grow the market (welcome and take care of the gamers)
  2. Grab market share (be a better game, people that want that will transition)

This is a great strategy for a young growing firm.

GW on the other hand is a much more entrenched firm.  At this point in their life-cycle their really concerned about one thing (that all reasonable companies do indeed care about) and that’s profit.

By pushing out the Pareto-Efficient curve with each codex release GW is guaranteeing a substantial amount of churn (old players buying new models) without a great deal of effort.  Selling models is what keeps the lights on.  How do they ensure they sell new models?  Outdate the old ones.  For a well-established company power-creep equals profit.

Bonus Insight:  GW recently made the corporate decision to stop supporting tournaments at their brick and mortar stores and instead focus on driving hobby related activities and contests on their premises.  Why?  This is another intelligent and profitable move on their part.  What differentiates GW from other firms in the miniature market?  Their fantastic artists and models.  I’m a huge PP fan, but this one point where GW really truly shines.  Where does GW suffer?  Mechanic and game balance.  The smart-folks over at GW realized their core competencies and elected to go deeper into the trade-offs that reinforced it.

  1.  Be the best at models, art and hobby.
  2. Sacrifice on game play to achieve #1.

Hobby supplies are a substantial revenue generator as well.  Once again, GW is intelligently engaging the market to ensure their stable and profitable future.

So… We’ve talked a little game balance, a little strategy and I’ve thrown out some opinion on tactics given the corporate positions of PP and GW.  Now what?

For my money, I love PP.  I’ve just recently come home from Lock & Load and I can tell you that, while they are running a business, the most sacred element of that business is their customer.  As a customer, that makes me one happy camper.  I want to buy from someone that cares about me.  I want my investments to last.  I want to play game that challenges me and rewards me continually with untold volumes of meticulously balanced and play-tested depth.

Quite simply; PP loves its gamers, and as a result they’re finding more and more gamers to love them in return.

Go PP!



Author: Tmage

I'm a gaming and math enthusiast. I find games that balance strategic interaction with economic principles (delayed option, resource control, etc.) are some of the most rewarding for me as a player. I concentrated in Finance, Analytic Consulting, Decision Sciences and Management Strategy while getting my MBA at Kellogg (Northwestern University) and majored in Chemical Engineering during my undergrad at University of Illinois. I view gaming through this lens and share my perspective via periodic articles. Thanks for reading!

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