Nothing like a provocative title to kick things off. But sometimes the most important theoretical tool is the sledge-hammer. Sometimes old ideas have to be dismantled in order to create space for new points of view.
Part of what I’m going to say grew out from the soil of discussions like this one. At stake in that conversation (which turned surprisingly passionate; so much so, that the mods had to intervene and yellow card the group) is the question of the relationship between a unit’s point cost and its value, and the relationship of that relationship to notions of fairness and balance. I was sympathetic to some of the assertions being made by both sides, but also deeply unconvinced by their conclusions. Resolving the problem, I think, requires looking beneath the surface and seeing the flaws in the foundational assumptions upon which the whole thing rests. The results have relevance to this blog and our efforts here to create a theoretical framework for Age of Sigmar.
"We might say, the colour of the ghost is that which I must mix on the palatte in order to paint it accurately. But how do we determine what the accurate picture is?"--Wittgenstein
One thing that everyone in the conversation agreed on was the fact that value (i.e. “tabletop value”) is contingent. Where people disagreed was on the claim that because of the fact that value is contingent, points, which are generalized, can never be “accurate” or “balanced.”
A good example used in the discussion was the Bloodsecrator. How does one correctly cost Bloodsecrator given the “overwhelming” number of possible variables that could affect the computation of an ability like Portal of Skulls? The value of its +1 attacks component would not be the same if used to buff 10 Bloodreavers than if used to buff 80 Bloodreavers, etc., etc. Taken as is, problems like these seem unsolvable. But push the contingency of value to its extremes, and the assumptions underlying the problem become untenable.
What is the difference in the value of the buff if the 10 Bloodreavers and the 80 Bloodreavers are both used successfully to take out a unit of 10 Skinks in a single combat phase?
Even more to the point, let’s crystalize as many variables as possible to really flush out the contingency of value. The game is in the second turn of the fifth round and both players are tied on victory points. Player A has a unit of Skinks remaining. Player B has a unit of Bloodreavers and a Bloodsecrator remaining. The Skinks and Reavers are engaged in combat at the start of the turn.
- If the Skinks are holding an objective and the buff from Portal of Skulls is needed to ensure that the Reavers will inflict enough damage to outnumber the Skinks and take control of the objective, then its value is absolute since it is a decisive element for winning the game.
- If the Skinks and Reavers are locked in combat 9” away from the objective, then the value of the buff is zero since the Reavers need to retreat from combat past the Skinks and onto the objective in order to win. The combat itself is irrelevant.
- If the Bloodscrator is equipped with an artefact and starts the turn 7” away from the objective and the scenario is, say, Places of Arcane Power, then the value of the buff is absolutely negative, since activating it will prevent the hero from moving to claim the objective and win the game.
There is nothing specifically unique about the Bloodsecrator in this example. The notion of the contignecy of value applies to any unit in the same way, and to the same possible extremes. The issue is not that abilities like Portal of Thrones are “complicated” and produce computational challenges; it is rather that questions of value are theoretical in nature, not computational, and that the domain of value is composed of actions and their consequences, not the units themselves. It is very often the case that nominal differences in calculated output yield no difference in theoretical value at all.
Unlike value, points represent the investment required to obtain the capacity to do things; they represent a currency used to purchase resources. Points strive to create balance not through high-fidelity prediction of in-game value, but by creating an economy where access to key resources is restricted by a budget and a rational pricing scheme. I use points to invest in the capacity to create value in-game through intelligent play, but that capacity is not itself the value. Value and points are different things and are expressed in different languages. I consider it a design mistake whenever a battle-plan or a tournament ladder uses kill points as a scoring mechanism. Not because it isn’t “fair” (i.e. some armies will be better predisposed to offensive tactics than others), but more importantly because it serves as a poor heuristic for good gameplay. A strategy focused on forcing favorable exchanges of points is better than no strategy at all, but it is nonetheless a flawed strategy.
Once we decouple the concept of value from the concept of points, we are free to rethink the game in a more theoretical way. My approach here will be to strip away everything down to its absolute foundational principles, and then proceed to slowly rebuild it, bit by bit, blog by blog, using only what flows naturally from these roots.
So here comes my second provocative statement of the day:
Age of Sigmar can be reduced to just three essential components. Everything else (everything!) is derivative.
The first two essential elements are Time and Space. All notions of what we call Value derive from these two elements. The third essential element is Variability, which is an irreducible characteristic that governs the nature of play in the game.
Derivative from Time and Space are the three essential capacities available to players as a means of generating value. The first is Presence, which represents a scalar investment in Space. The second is Pressure, which represents a scalar investment in Time. The third, Projection, is really a component dimension of Presence and Pressure by virtue of which these capabilities can be mobilized to contest an opponent’s Time (in the instance of Presence) or Space (in the instance of Pressure). We can say in purely abstract terms that Pressure attacks Presence, and Presence attacks Projection. In practice, our access to these capabilities is mediated through units (and the abilities, spells, effects that these units can mobilize), and all units necessarily contain some magnitude of Presence, Pressure and Projection. There is no such thing in actual game terms as “pure” presence, pressure or projection, although theoretically it is sometimes useful to think of them in pure terms in order to better understand their nature.
Time, Space, Variability, Presence, Pressure and Projection. Six essential building blocks from which we hope to construct concepts useful for better understanding the game, and from which we hope to derive strategies to help better evaluate between the different choices that present themselves to us in game.