Agonizing Over Balance

Cult.44

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Now that I'm dipping my toes in the design waters and working on a scenario for MwT IV contest, I'm coming across quite a few challenges. The one I'm wringing my hands over most at the moment is getting the balance right (or at least reasonable).

The scenario is basically some German light tanks and infantry attacking 2nd-line British troops in a rural-meets-suburban environment. I came up with an initial OB that I haven't altered much and started doing solo playings of the scenario. At first, the defender seemed to have the advantage but after trying different attack and defense variations, it now seems like the attacker has a definite advantage. (Of course, its quite possible I'm not seeing better approaches to defense.)

It seems to me there's a potential conundrum here. I could adjust the OB (or VC) so that players have good chances when attack and defense are optimal (finding key hexes, weak points, sneaky lines-of-sight, using appropriate tactics, etc.). But I'm wondering, when you get out in the real world, that players (especially if it's a first playing) probably won't use optimized attack or defense strategies. So what's balanced under optimal attack/defense execution, becomes highly unbalanced with sub-optimal playings.

Is this kind of thing a worry for anybody else? Any rules of thumb you use when tweaking OB and VC?

I suppose, ideally, a scenario should remain balanced when both opponents have the same level of ability regardless of how optimally they play.
 

Bill Cirillo

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Good questions.

When designing & developing the Festung Budapest HASL I struggled with these exact same issues. In the end, I developed a philosophy that said "if equally skilled opponents sat down and played each other 5-10 times in a given scenario, would each feel like they had a reasonably "Balanced" chance (50% +/- 5%) of winning the scenario on any further subsequent playing."

This philosophy was influenced by a few things.

A recognition that perfectly "Balanced" while not quite a myth, is mathematically hard to prove without a really large playtest sample size.

A designer will rarely if ever have access to a large enough playtest group with enough time/effort to provide such a sample size.

A really good veteran player will almost always have a distinct advantage over a newbie/not very good player, such that "Balance" may not be possible in these playing.

Most scenarios (I would guess 60-75%) fall in a basic "meat and potato" category, meaning that a reasonably close approximation of a fairly good/decent attack/defense can be found within a couple of playings, if not the very first playing.

Word of mouth/discussion between players, AARs, scenario replays, forum debates, designer notes, etc. all go a long way to helping players find a better strategy sooner rather than later relative to how best to approach a given scenario challenge.

This is all the more important because with the wealth/plethora of scenarios that become available now each year, most players are only likely to ever play a particular scenario once and then move on to another new scenario. So, in the end I would argue that if you feel your scenario design fits in this "basic" category, most players will grok the essence of it in the very first playing, but may or may not ever return to play it again. On the flip side, if the scenario behavior is not as readily apparent with the first playing, maybe due to a large number of ways to approach a given problem that is interesting for both sides, then maybe they are more likely to try it again even though it may not have been optimally played the first time.

For example, (IMO) a number of Peter S. & Chris M.'s scenarios are a little more challenging the first time they are played because it isn't readily apparent that either the attacker or the defender is comfortable with the approach they have taken at that only by playing the scenario will certain behaviors become apparent/known.



So, from my experience, what helps is to have a regular playtest opponent that you are fairly well matched with (I believe Sean Deller and I now have a 52-52 lifetime record against each other). It also helps to have a playtest group that matches pro vs. pro and newbie vs. newbie, so that you can get a range of feedback.

Finally, while "Balance" is important, it is equally important to ask yourself and your playtesters, "if the scenario appears "Balanced" was it also:

fun?

and would you play it again?"

If the answer is no to either of the above, then maybe the "Balance" didn't really matter all that much.

Bill




Now that I'm dipping my toes in the design waters and working on a scenario for MwT IV contest, I'm coming across quite a few challenges. The one I'm wringing my hands over most at the moment is getting the balance right (or at least reasonable).

The scenario is basically some German light tanks and infantry attacking 2nd-line British troops in a rural-meets-suburban environment. I came up with an initial OB that I haven't altered much and started doing solo playings of the scenario. At first, the defender seemed to have the advantage but after trying different attack and defense variations, it now seems like the attacker has a definite advantage. (Of course, its quite possible I'm not seeing better approaches to defense.)

It seems to me there's a potential conundrum here. I could adjust the OB (or VC) so that players have good chances when attack and defense are optimal (finding key hexes, weak points, sneaky lines-of-sight, using appropriate tactics, etc.). But I'm wondering, when you get out in the real world, that players (especially if it's a first playing) probably won't use optimized attack or defense strategies. So what's balanced under optimal attack/defense execution, becomes highly unbalanced with sub-optimal playings.

Is this kind of thing a worry for anybody else? Any rules of thumb you use when tweaking OB and VC?

I suppose, ideally, a scenario should remain balanced when both opponents have the same level of ability regardless of how optimally they play.
 
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Cult.44

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Good questions.

When designing & developing the Festung Budapest HASL I struggled with these exact same issues. In the end, I developed a philosophy that said "if equally skilled opponents sat down and played each other 5-10 times in a given scenario, would each feel like they had a reasonably "Balanced" chance (50% +/- 5%) of winning the scenario on any further subsequent playing." [snip]
Thanks for the response, much appreciated!

"Fun" is definitely the priority. I suppose I shouldn't over-worry about balance prior to play testing. But before I cajole ASL friends and aquaintances to give it a whirl, I was thinking I should be in the ballpark at least.
 

Bill Cirillo

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From experience, the cleaner a scenario is before sending it to an outside playtest group, the better for everyone. With, in this case, cleaner being defined as your best faith effort at producing a reasonably "Balanced" scenario based on a minimum of a few playtest games between you and a reasonably equal opponent. Also, verifying (usually by comparing with already published scenarios) that the following are as close to accepted industry standards as possible:

Date
Place
Intro
Board Configuration and associated "Area in Play" designation
North Arrow
Balance Provisions (a first guess never hurts, so that playtesters can get a feel for where you might be headed)
Victory Conditions (put a huge amount of effort into this...try and use the standard for the expected publisher as these standards do vary)
Which side sets up first
Which Side Moves first
Game Turn length (also note any potential Reinforcement(s) Player Turn of entry)
Defender set up instructions (again, a company like MMP has standards for how this is done, which I never fully appreciated until I had to do it for the first time)
- ELR, SAN, any SSR references
Attacker set up instructions
- ELR, SAN, any SSR references
SSRs
- EC, Weather, Wind (there are standards for these)
- OB-related SSRs (there are standards for these)
- HIP-related SSRs (there are standards for these)
- other SSRs
Aftermath


Again, industry standards are different, but they are there, so try and find previous usages and leverage them to the greatest extent possible. If creating an SSR from "whole-cloth", that is from never before seen scratch, I would suggest dropping someone like Klas, or JRV, or Vinnie, or a few others a really friendly note and ask for feedback.

Oh yeah, somewhere along the way, try and enjoy the whole creative process...:)

Bill




Thanks for the response, much appreciated!

"Fun" is definitely the priority. I suppose I shouldn't over-worry about balance prior to play testing. But before I cajole ASL friends and aquaintances to give it a whirl, I was thinking I should be in the ballpark at least.
 

Gunner Scott

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Hi-

Just have fun and design away, but be careful of those SSR/ VC pitfalls, my rule of thumb is: If you have to look at an SSR or VC more then twice, it might be too complicated or convoluted. Cool OB's, nice map layout are what can make a scenario.


Scott
 

Sean Deller

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It seems to me there's a potential conundrum here. I could adjust the OB (or VC) so that players have good chances when attack and defense are optimal (finding key hexes, weak points, sneaky lines-of-sight, using appropriate tactics, etc.). But I'm wondering, when you get out in the real world, that players (especially if it's a first playing) probably won't use optimized attack or defense strategies. So what's balanced under optimal attack/defense execution, becomes highly unbalanced with sub-optimal playings.
We had this very discussion a number of times during the years of FB playtesting: should you calibrate the balance towards sub-optimal or optimal play? We believe in the latter.

Putting aside the challenge of finding the "optimal" level of sub-optimal play (good luck with that), the issue is what happens when you achieve it? Sooner or later someone will figure out the lock-down strategy and then your scenario is either labeled a "dog" or needs to be erraticized. Neither of these outcomes should be your goal.

Instead, challenge the players with an interesting puzzle. Let them try and fail. The initial forum posts will claim it is unbalanced. Subsequent posts will counter that. Eventually the veterans will weigh in. At the end, your scenario has made an impression and maybe the players have learned a few things. Your goal should be to generate this kind of healthy debate.

I suppose, ideally, a scenario should remain balanced when both opponents have the same level of ability regardless of how optimally they play.
Ideally, yes. Is it always possible? No. Achieving balance across all skill levels is easier for straight-forward "meat-and-potatos" fare, it is probably more elusive for the more interesting puzzles.


So, from my experience, what helps is to have a regular playtest opponent that you are fairly well matched with (I believe Sean Deller and I now have a 52-52 lifetime record against each other).
This is only so because Bill helps me play better ("Sean, are you sure you want to do that? No, really, you might want to reconsider that.")
 

Cult.44

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We had this very discussion a number of times during the years of FB playtesting: should you calibrate the balance towards sub-optimal or optimal play? We believe in the latter.
... (snip)
The voice of experience talking. Thanks for the reply.

And thanks for the checklist, Bill. I've copied it for future reference.
 

Bill Cirillo

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You are quite welcome. I remember being stunned the first time I put together a playtest scenario and then talked with Chas about it. I had been looking at AH/MMP scenarios for a decade and had no real appreciation for content/structure.

All the best.

Bill


The voice of experience talking. Thanks for the reply.

And thanks for the checklist, Bill. I've copied it for future reference.
 

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I recall seeing a blank scenario card for download somewhere that has those type of hints that Bill mentions, on it.
Matt
 

witchbottles

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Bill's been a good resource for me over the last few months with my own design efforts. He makes good sense!


from a "noobie designer in work" standpoint, I might reiterate a few items Bill touched on:


1. Listen to your Playtesters. They together will add up to a vastly more experienced lot of ASL players than you have seen outside of a tourney setting; and frank and clear discussions of various options available to prevent those "optimal play" perfect tactical choices can go a long way to removing them from the final product.

2. Do not become "strapped" to a VC wording, a 'favorite' SSR or a OoB piece. These will change, usually many times in the revision processes. Your design will need to be adaptable enough to manage that.

3. Aim / target for what 70% of ASL players are i.e. sub-optimal with a general grasp of all the rules, a few specific areas of "higher intellect" ( I am VERY good with italians in ASL play; but suck as the Brits), and nowhere near enough time/ boredom or grey matter capacity to develop photographic memory recall of every single page in the Holy Tome. A scen that is balanced when you play the first time with an opponent you play regularly, is probably good from the get - go ( some scens just fall together like this.) A scen that has lots of nightmare issues CAN be resolved, but be prepared for a convoluted process of try and eliminate; 1 variable at a time, with playings betwen to ( at least 3) to validate / invalidate the changes. ( other scens become creature from the designers black lagoon).

I've actually had and did a scenario where we did a BOARD change mid - stride; on recommendations of avoiding the convoluted overlay placements made sense to use a newer board and SSR in what was still needed.

4. Keep in mind that 70% of your player base is just that, sub - optimal enjoyers and purveyors of all things ASL. Design to focus on all aspects. Some things are a given at PBEM; or VASL; yet will stick out like sore thumbs in ftf play. ( yep done that "D'oH") Some things will become arcane since the ASL gear it came from is now out of print; so try to stay away from that unless you want to SSR in whole chapters of ASL Rules. ( ie the 2-6 B11 German colored LMG(f) counter. Use the identical Hun one instead, many people have FB, its new; not as many have Peg Bridge; where the german colored one came from).

5. Bill is correct that you won;t have access to PT staff like MMP where you can run 75+ PTs of a single scen at the same time to validate / invalidate results. So you'll need to target a blind PT base to achieve a reasonable approximation. Best bet is either PBEM guys volunteering; or take it to the local meet with a dozen copies and get the guys to try it.

6. Follow Bill's advice" have fun" if it ain't no fun making that scen anymore; drop it into the dead pile and start over.

My 2 best so far have had identical results overall: the blind PT gorups report on one side a 60-40 split pro axis, and the other groups a 60-40 split pro - allied. Get all of them talking afterwards, and you discover that most of them felt that the game was not decided until the very end; and they can critically point out the few key turning points. Then you as designer take these key points, arrange circumstances to highlight the event capabilities via preface . aftermath and SSR / VC wording; and work to "point" the unsuspecting new player down that "primrose path" of excitement points in the scenario. that 70% of players will take the hints every time ( ie. all buildings are wooden and single story with no cellars as an SSR in a scen where only the Russians have AFVs).

When I got results like that, I decided its probably "good" and put it to bed until finishing time. ( ie proofing, etc).

That allows you to concentrate the available time on the "other side of the coin" ie the creatures from my own black lagoon. and GAWD do these eat up your design time!!! but they have goot hooks thatthe playtesters and viewers like, so you don't kick em to the curb, you just iron out those wrinkles, one at a time.

Tom Morin can also offer sage advice, and floats around, pm him here or contact him at CSW. I found a vast store of help and assistance there as well.

( PS Bill and Tom are ok , guys, too ;-)......)

KRL and good luck and oh yeah! Enjoy the ride!!!!!

Jon H
 

Cult.44

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Another substantive reply. Thanks, witchbottles.

Naturally, not long after my first post here, I thought of some defensive tactics which, after some solo playing, are making things more difficult for the attacker. I'm thinking it's as ready as I can make it for playtesting (which will probably reveal a bunch of stuff I haven't thought of). Now I just need to brow-beat some folks into giving it a whirl.
 

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I wanted to bump this up...and ask how important are BPV's for balancing (forcewise) a scenario? Do you use them or just a gut feeling for your force mix.
 

Snudl

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The article in the latest LFT is really good. Instead of working out balance, make VC that both sides can bid for. For example, if the objective is to control 15 stone locations, start with 15 and let each side bid more or less. The person bidding the most is the attacker.

The downside is that it does sort of create a game within a game and makes the ability to see tactical situations from the very start more important.
 

ecz

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The article in the latest LFT is really good. Instead of working out balance, make VC that both sides can bid for. For example, if the objective is to control 15 stone locations, start with 15 and let each side bid more or less. The person bidding the most is the attacker.

The downside is that it does sort of create a game within a game and makes the ability to see tactical situations from the very start more important.
I do not see this as a downside.
It's more or less the same when, playing any scenario, you must decide the general plan during setup for your defense or your attack.
You must evaluate Orders of Battle, Time, Objectives, Terrain, and decide the best allocation of resources. Who reads "better" the scenario has a great advantage over the opponent.

Well, same happens with CBS.
You must study the same identical things (Orders of Battle, Time, Objectives, Terrain, and decide the best allocation of resources) but this time you have to decide also one more parameter. The player that "reads" better the optimal VC level to bid has a great advantage.

In other words the bid is a choice not inherently different from any other choice all players must make in the pre-game phase of any common scenario.
The bid is something totally strange and unusual only for those players (I know, they exist and are many) not used to think too much "before" game begins.
 
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bendizoid

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No terrain changes like all hedges next to hills don't exist or other confusing BS. Try to keep the maps just the way they are if possible. Also don't say 'within three hexes' say '3 hexes or less'. Remember to put in no kindling because that's the first thing I'm going to do and abuse the system as a defender. For God sake give me some room to maneuver with more than one way to attack or defend.

Thank you,
Bob
 

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As Bob said, the no kindling thing is pretty much a no brainer. This simple statement implies something bigger though. No kindling is an example of how you can sometimes break a scenario. Get playtesters. As many as possible. Do not rely just on solo playtests as you are too close to the design and the historical situation. So even if you do not consciously try to simulate the historical event, it will be in the back of your mind. Someone totally fresh to the situation will look at it from a whole new light. When I look at a scenario, I could not care less what the historical guys did. What do I need to do to win is the concern. If the scenario is broken, it will be reflected in a few playings. Try; although it is difficult I know, because we are all so damned busy, to recruit experienced playtesters. You want someone to try and break the scenario. I also think you should go ahead and design for the best defense/attack options; because that is the way the scenario should be played. Something gamey handing a win over to one side or the other, ssr it out or design around it. It's close but one side keeps winning, tweak a VC, a turn of arrival of re-enforcements. There are literally a million ways to approach it. Which is one of the fun things about playing ASL, and/or designing and playtesting scenarios; every designer has their own approach. Find yours and have fun. Just playtest the hell out of it. For me there is no bigger turnoff than sitting down to play a published scenario, and feeling like I am playing an original raw playtest, instead of a finished product.
Good luck and have fun. If you are not on VASL, try getting on it. For playtesting alone, it is quite a cool tool/resource.
 

witchbottles

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As Bob said, the no kindling thing is pretty much a no brainer. This simple statement implies something bigger though. No kindling is an example of how you can sometimes break a scenario. Get playtesters. As many as possible. Do not rely just on solo playtests as you are too close to the design and the historical situation. So even if you do not consciously try to simulate the historical event, it will be in the back of your mind. Someone totally fresh to the situation will look at it from a whole new light. When I look at a scenario, I could not care less what the historical guys did. What do I need to do to win is the concern. If the scenario is broken, it will be reflected in a few playings. Try; although it is difficult I know, because we are all so damned busy, to recruit experienced playtesters. You want someone to try and break the scenario. I also think you should go ahead and design for the best defense/attack options; because that is the way the scenario should be played. Something gamey handing a win over to one side or the other, ssr it out or design around it. It's close but one side keeps winning, tweak a VC, a turn of arrival of re-enforcements. There are literally a million ways to approach it. Which is one of the fun things about playing ASL, and/or designing and playtesting scenarios; every designer has their own approach. Find yours and have fun. Just playtest the hell out of it. For me there is no bigger turnoff than sitting down to play a published scenario, and feeling like I am playing an original raw playtest, instead of a finished product.
Good luck and have fun. If you are not on VASL, try getting on it. For playtesting alone, it is quite a cool tool/resource.
There are many ways to handle kindling issues besides a blanket Kindling NA.

An OoB with very few leaders and or poor ML troops over a short time span leaves little time for such flights of fancy as setting fires. Look at some of the SP or FTC scens. with only 4 turns and a tough set of VCs to meet for both sides with just a handful of counters in your OoB, you ain't got time to diddle with the matchsticks.

Design in other methods. EC Wet, no wind at start. Goodluck getting something to ignite by matchbook in <5 turns. that -2 DRM is gonna make it hard to get high DRs.

or how about ground snow is in effect. now the fire won't spread far and EC are automatically Wet. or worse, rain at start.

I am more now than before convinced that Kindling is NA belongs in scenarios where the base framework for wholesale destruction by fire exists, but would remove the enjoyment from the scenario being portrayed. Bread Factory #2 comes immediately to mind here, as does Festung St Eduard, or Panthers in the Mist.

Use your design skills to remove the ability, dampen the effects ( pun intended) or remove the time / materials required; for lighting the place up willy - nilly. "grudge SSRs" are best avoided. If the only logical place to burn down is the VC building simply SSR that neither side may voluntarily destroy the VC building. Solves the problem, and if they fancy lighting the woods or grain on fire along one board edge that will be unimportant to the flow of the game, let them.

As noted here, the arbiter of which, where, and how to decide these things will fall to your playtesters. If there is a method to use fire to achieve a goal ,they will find it; and yes, I'd prefer in any scen not using a "Kindling is NA" SSR that the PTer try being a pyromaniac at least once, just to see what happens. When you get those PT reports back read them well, and again, and again, and again. Ask questions on things you may not understand in the reports. Ask both sides, did they try or think about fire? Did they try or think about HWs, Banzai or Cavalry charges, VBM freeze to strip ?ments, MOLS to set the buildings alight; DC heroes, etc, etc, etc. I want to know as a designer what the PTer was THINKING as they decided or rejected any tactic; then how it played out as they implemented those choices. Those are the marks of good PT reports. Having seen a wide spectrum of them; you get a "feel" for what you need to know, and this allows you to get more focused questions to answer the need for information on the why the players did what they did ( ie it looked like the crews dumping those 4 AFVs and walking off map was a no brainer for a quick win, and yep, sure was in the end as they sashayed off with no one firing at them in Turn 2. So in goes the SSR no vol abandonment of any AFV before Turn 5.)

KRL, and enjoy the ride!!!

Jon H
 

Snudl

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The crew thing is pretty ridiculous anyway. Really, a highly trained AFV crew leaves it's tank because it is immobilized and runs around like cannon fodder? How plausible is that. They should just do an errata that crews that abandon their vehicle are under recall.

Kindling is not a big deal. Has anyone seen a scenario where this made a difference? I've tried to burn down Stalingrad and it never ends up being more than a minor nuisance for the German.

Jon makes good points about playtesting and listening to your playtesters. But don't overthink things and make things really complex. There is one scenario in the FF pack that you can win by not entering (I think.)
 

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Hi Snudl, matter of fact yes. Now granted it was a Deluxe scenario from hedgerow hell, so the total number of hexes involved was less than a normal scenario, but yes, it could have created a real problem. Niether I nor my opponent saw it until some stuff went up by accident. My opponent looked at it for a second, checked the scenario card, and said "You know, if I knew about kindling being allowed here, I could have just about garuanteed a win." He was correct too. Doesn't happen often, I will grant you, but it is normally a sleaze tactic out side of what most scenarios are trying to simulate. I know. Sleaze tactics in ASL, who knew? FWIW, EC won't effect buildings going up, although no one wants to be the guy who lights a VC building up on purpose.
The crew thing is pretty ridiculous anyway. Really, a highly trained AFV crew leaves it's tank because it is immobilized and runs around like cannon fodder? How plausible is that. They should just do an errata that crews that abandon their vehicle are under recall.

Kindling is not a big deal. Has anyone seen a scenario where this made a difference? I've tried to burn down Stalingrad and it never ends up being more than a minor nuisance for the German.

Jon makes good points about playtesting and listening to your playtesters. But don't overthink things and make things really complex. There is one scenario in the FF pack that you can win by not entering (I think.)
 

Bret Hildebran

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Tiger of Tongoo (another DASL) is another good one where Kindling makes it very pro-Defender. A lot of heavy grain scenarios are candidates. 'Course it can be hazardous as Wild Bill once tried it in one of the boxing title scenarios (The Weigh-in? maybe) & managed to burn down the VC building (after a wind change IIRC) giving me the W.
 
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