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Balance as a Wicked Problem


Beer & Pretzels Gamer

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What is a Wicked Problem?  It is a concept originally derived for social/political planning problems by Rittel & Webber in 1973 as having 10 characteristics (borrowing from Wikipedia for this):

1) There is no definite formulation of a wicked problem.

2) Wicked problems have no stopping rule?

3) Solutions to wicked problems are not true-false, but better or worse.

4) There is no immediate and ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

5) Every solution to a wicked problem is a "one-shot operation"; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempts counts significantly.

6) Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions; nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

7) Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

😎 Every wicked problem can be considered a symptom of another problem.

9) The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways.  The choice of the explanation determines the nature of the problem's resolution.

10) The social planner has no right to be wrong (i.e. planners are liable for the consequences of the actions they generate).

I keep on returning to this concept as I read all the different discussions of balance on this forum.  While the framework above needs to be adjusted from a social planning framework to Age of Sigmar I think it can be incredibly helpful in sorting out why these discussions (a) get so heated and (b) rarely seem to lead to consensus conclusions.

The first condition requires little if any adjustment as if 10 people are having a discussion of balance it is easy to pick out at east 12 different definitions of balance or more bouncing back and forth.  I want to be clear, this is a comment on quantity, the quality of these definitions is often excellent yet the very lack of any consensus highly that none of these definitions are, well, definitive.  Given this I feel comfortable saying the issue of Balance in Age of Sigmar meets the first condition.

Is there a stopping rule in Age of Sigmar?  While there are definitive ends to individual games (i.e. individual games do have a stopping rule) as a system Age of Sigmar is not deigned with a definitive end.  Of course there will be new editions (3.0 seems inevitable this Summer) but in general these are conceived as updates or evolutions.  I guess we could argue that transition from Warhammer Fantasy Battles to Age of Sigmar represented a true "stop" but even then originally a majority of the armies and models transferred over to the new format.  All in I feel pretty comfortable in arguing that there is no stopping rule for Age of Sigmar as a system and thus the issue of Balance in Age of Sigmar meets the second condition.

The third condition is one which I believe would be very fruitful to return to as a whole entire blog post could probably just be written about this one issue.  Certainly there are those who argue that there are absolute answers or solutions to the problem of balance in these forums.  Yet the response to their proposals suggest that they are far from convincing others.  So if there is a greater truth to be found regarding Balance in Age of Sigmar I think it is fair to say we haven't found it yet.  On the other hand reading these threads you can often see a consensus forming around what is good, better and even sometimes best and visa versa.  Again, I think this is an issue worth discussing in deeper detail but for now I will suggest that the issue of Balance in Age of Sigmar meets the third condition.

I've already written a blog post expressing my belief that you have to play the games.  One of the stronger areas of consensus on these threads is that new Battletomes could use more playtesting - though even here there is a contrarian perspective that some of the problems should have been obvious....  If we look at each Battletome and each points update as a "solution" to the issue of Balance in Age of Sigmar though is there any other way to test these solutions except to see how everything plays out on the table top?  And given how massively multivariate Age of Sigmar is arguably we need lots and lots and lots of games for certain aspects (particularly large point updates).  This suggests the lack of an immediate test but what about an ultimate test?  Absent a complete pause in new tomes, models, etc. (again, the lack of a stopping rule) there can be no ultimate test as Age of Sigmar is always evolving.  I'm not as confidant in the fourth condition but I think it is okay for now to say that the issue of Balance in Age of Sigmar meets this condition.

The 5th & 6th conditions are the toughest to translate into Age of Sigmar's context.  Again, in principle each time GW releases a new battletome or resets the points they are testing.  Until recently (looking at you LRL) though we could consider each of those tomes as a "one-shot operation".  The real question in regards to Age of Sigmar comes in that balance between trial & error and every shot counting significantly.  I believe a lot of the frustration with GW comes from the fact that they do seem to get an above average number of trials with the increased frequency of releases but players struggle to see where the learning is coming from.  That issue is clearly compounded though by the reality that every trial does seem to count significantly based on the responses new tomes receive from both their players and their opponents.  If I emphasize the latter point then we can say that Balance in Age of Sigmar at least partially satisfies the fifth condition.

At first glance though there does seem to be an enumerable/exhaustive set of potential solutions in points, changes to the war scrolls which seem well described.  So it is not unreasonable to say that Balance in Age of Sigmar may not meet the 6th condition.  But again the context of the game matters and thus I think it is worthwhile to jump ahead to the 8th condition where whether the problem of balance can be considered a symptom of other problems in Age of Sigmar and how this may interact with the solution set.  Here I think the issue of feedback loops are vital to the discussion as what quickly becomes clear in reading these threads is how often the solution to one problems creates another.  To use a popular recent example a lot of the solutions (not all to be clear) to LRL Sentinels would seem to devastate other factions.  LRL Sentinels are certainly not unique in this way. 

AoS is chockful of feedback loops and a lot (though again not all) of the issues of balance arise out of these feedback loops.  Put another way it may not be a war scroll in and of itself that is a problem but how that war scroll interacts with another war scroll's buff, a sub-faction ability, a spell and/or a battalion bonus.  This would be an example of a runaway positive feedback loop where something that may just be okay to good becomes great to OP once all the factors are applied.  There are examples of negative feedback loops (where an ability sounds great but the conditions required to make it work, whether from a points basis in support units or the limited range of an aura ultimately make it impractical) but these are less an issue when it comes to balance.  In theory solving a positive feedback loop is simple as removing one piece of the puzzle often causes the whole buff stack to collapse. 

But here's where the problems begin.  All too often removing a piece of a buff stack causes ripples across the rest of a faction.  While that aura may be too good for unit X, without it units Y & Z are kneecapped for example.  Given so many of these buffs, are for example, KEYWORD based, and that GW has tried to a certain extent limit KEYWORD proliferation it may become a binary issue.  Either remove the buff entirely to prevent X being OP and accept the weakening of Y & Z or visa versa. 

Again, I can continue to go on with the 8th condition just like I could the 3rd but for now I think it suffices to say I believe that the issue of Balance in Age of Sigmar meets the 8th condition.  With that knowledge I think it worthwhile to briefly return to the 6th condition and acknowledge that while the "solutions" may be more easily enumerable/exhaustive than the wicked problems of the original social/political planning issues the framework was designed for, the commonality of the difficulty in parsing apart the feedbacks loops in order to derive truly discrete solutions means we can argue for at least a weak case for Balance in Age of Sigmar meeting the 6th condition.

After that difficulty fortunately condition 7 is a reasonably straight forward case.  Balance in Age of Sigmar cannot be solved by importing a solution from a different gaming system.  Certainly you can try and incorporate best practices from another system (see the push & pull between AoS & 40K in recent editions) but there is always an adjustment necessary to factor in the unique rule sets and numerous war scroll interactions.  Thus while it can be useful to look at gaming systems perceived as having more balance it is never as simple as just doing the same thing in AoS.   

The 9th condition, like the 3rd and 8th, is one that we could spend multiple blog posts on.  Having read about balance in as many threads as I have I feel fair to say that so much of the discussion/debate is over how to define the problem.  The question I often ask myself when reading though is the order of operation.  Are people arguing for a given definition because they believe it is accurate and thus they are willing to accept the resolution that logically arrives from that definition?  Or, consciously or sub-consciously, are they starting rom their preferred solution and working backwards?  Regardless, I think Balance in Age of Sigmar strongly meets the 9th condition.

How about the last one?  I think it is fair to say that the position of many on these threads is that GW has no right to be wrong...

So if we can argue that Balance in Age of Sigmar is a Wicked Problem does that gain us anything or leave us in an even worse spot?  Rittel & Webber fortunately offered another shorter set of characteristics that I think are helpful (again, thank you wikipedia):

1) The solution depends on how the problem is framed and visa versa (i.e. the problem definition depends on the solution)

Honest AND HUMBLE discussion & definition is more likely to lead to progress than debating solutions whilst different parties hold different definitions.  The key is the honesty and the humility.  If it is a wicked problem than suggestions that the definitions are obvious and/or indisputable is NOT helpful.  Part of that humility is recognizing that you're never likely to convince everyone and that those you don't convince are not bad/stupid/ignorant etc. they just are coming at a wicked problem from a different perspective.  Than carryover that honesty and humility when you try and get your solutions implemented (unless you work for GW chances are this will be more in the context of TO rulings or tournament conditions), especially when it comes to how that solution may impact other players. 

2) Stakeholders have radically different world views and different frames for understanding the problem.

There are so many different stakeholders when it comes to Age of Sigmar.  Recognize that no one voice can speak for all of them.  Recognize that no one framework can represent all of them.  The solutions that work for one set of stakeholders may not for another.  There is unlikely to be any solution that makes every stakeholder happy.  If you are currently among the happier stakeholders, have empathy for the less happy.  If you are among the less happy, please don't subscribe to a "misery loves company" approach either in stoking the negative sentiment of others or trying to diminish the enjoyment of the game for others who are not (as?) impacted by the issue(s) you are facing but rather work to positively contribute to the debate surrounding the definitions of the problem and look for ways things can get better.

3) The constraints that the problem is subject to and the resources need to solve it change over time.

AoS has a variety of different constraints ranging from the cost to build an army (whether defined in money or time), the points limits of a given match, the rules for list construction (e.g. battle line or available allies) to simply finding other players to play against.  Different stakeholders have different access to these resources.  At different times in their gaming lifecycle different constraints will arise (ahh, the joys of trying to find time to game with a new child... or finding ways to play during a pandemic). 

It is worth remembering though that it is not just players that face constraints.  GW only has so much production capacity.  New launches require vast timelines.  Stores have limited space to carry inventory, etc.

All of these constraints and resource limitations may only indirectly effect Balance in Age of Sigmar but they're ones we can all probably find a few we can relate to or understand.  It is helpful to keep constraints and limitations, yours and those of others, in mind when discussing & debating a wicked problem.

4) The problem is never solved definitively.

Unless a stopping rule for AoS arises (and again, I think that would be a bad thing) any balance is more likely to be a brief point of transition in a longer journey rather than a permanent resting place.  If we ever get there enjoy it while it lasts as some new balance issue will inevitably arise.  The good news about this?  We'll never run out of things to talk about on these threads!

 

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Good read! I always enjoy your blogs.

To me personally, the biggest insight from looking at balancing a game inside the Wicked Problem frame work is from the first criterion:

"The solution depends on how the problem is framed and visa versa."

I think we see this a lot in discussions online. As an example, I think I have seen all of these as definitions of "balance" for AoS:

  • Armies should fall within a 45%-55% win rate interval in tournaments.
  • There should not be a handful of armies taking the majority of podiums in tournaments.
  • All armies should have a chance to at least meaningfully compete in tournaments/causally.
  • All units should be viable choices in tournament/casual lists.
  • All kinds of lists (specialized and mixed) should be viable in tournaments/casually.
  • New players should not have to worry about stomping/being stomped by their friends in casual games just because of army choice.

All of those have a claim to be definitions of what it means for the game to be balanced, but achieving 45%-55% tournament win rates will look very different from enabling a large variety of list and unit choices in casual games.

I actually think there is a stronger case to be made for game balance being a Wicked Problem than you try to claim in this post. Leaving aside the points that Rittel & Webber make about Wicked Problems being high-stakes (because that does not really have to do a lot with why these problems are hard to solve, it just means that failed attempts will be more costly), you seem most hesitant to claim that characteristic #2 (no stopping rule) obtains for AoS. I think that's just because of a misunderstanding, though. The stopping rule point is not about whether Age of Sigmar will eventually stop. It's about whether there is a definitive point at which we can say that we are done balancing AoS. And to that, I think, the answer is fairly clearly "no". Even if we go with the most hard and fast definition of balance (45%-55% tournament win rates), we could argue that since new models and armies are continually being added to the game, the problem of balancing does not stop there. Or we could ask ourselves, once we achieve a 45%-55% interval, if it would be worthwhile trying to bring up those armies sitting around the 45% mark.

I also think that characteristic #6 (no finite set of solutions) applies: Even if we think points values are enumerable, we are not limited changes to points and numerical characteristics on warscrolls when trying to balance the game. We are always able to just invent more rules that were previously not in the game at all. The recent rumours about charge reactions are an example of this. Those are not a thing at all in current games, but are now treated as another tool in the toolbox of AoS balance. In that way, balancing AoS is very unlike, for example, putting together a puzzle or solving a math problem. If you can't figure out how a puzzle goes together, really can't just invent a new way to make the pieces fit.

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Thank you.  Thought you’d also hit on a key definition issue earlier in the thread with your “No True Scotsman” and “perfect being the enemy of good” comments.  Even when people put forward a clear definition initially it often proves slippery once the discussion really gets going.  

Not hitting it perfectly here but the second definition of balance you give seems particularly vulnerable to the former as people will argue that ONLY factions X, Y & Z win tournaments.  This is inevitably followed by someone pointing out wins by other factions.  There is then always some argument why those wins should be viewed exceptionally and thus do not disprove the original argument.  

The first definition seems to be particularly vulnerable to the latter.  If the “ideal” is 45-55 and we got to 40-60 how much should we be focused on changing things?  Should the focus be on raising the 40% winners or lowering the 60% winners?  Certainly with the number of factions and sub-factions there are methods that could raise the bottom at the expense of the middle as opposed to the top so would we feel better if we moved from 40-60 to 45-60?

These definitional issues to deeper discussion seem to abound.

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Just my 2c but having played Warhammer for nigh on 25 years I strongly believe that while many people THINK they desire balance, balance is not desirable for the game of Warhammer. So for me the real wicked problem is the perception that the game NEEDS to be balanced to be "fair" or "accurate" (how can a fantasy game ever be accurate...) or "good" is the issue, YMMV.

Bear with me. War is not a balanced phenomenon. Take the Romans fighting the Celts. Roman soldiers were trained and equipped at high cost. Loosing Roman soldiers had an impact on the General's prestige and the morale of his troops - in so far as loosing men was as bad as loosing battles. The Celts on the other hand ran naked to their deaths and considered it an honour to die. The cost of deploying a celtic warrior was far less than a Roman one. And celtic warriors would embrace suicidal tactics. 

Take Alexander the great, or rather his dad, Philip of Macedon. The Greeks basically had a perfectly balanced system of war, strong units of Phalanxes on the left, shield walls and long spears. Their wars were glorified rugby scrums with polearms. Then Philip comes along with a longer spear and elite cavalry, and destroys everyone, paving the way for his son to conquer the known world. 

War is not balanced. War games shouldn't be either.

That's where two factors in wargames come into play economics and tactics. The economics is the "points value" which btw AOS tried very hard to escape from and failed. 40K did a better job by creating "power levels". Anyway, either of these systems gives the two players an even playing field of spending power. This was never something that happened in any war and in fact IMHO the only really interesting WHFB battle scenarios were the ones where there was a deliberate points difference with specific victory conditions.

Fundamentally if you want a perfectly equally balanced wargame - play chess. If you want to experience battle as it is/was, as an unequal contest that requires thought, skill and luck to defeat a more powerful, better equipped, and more numerous opponent then Warhammer is fine.

Sure there are issues with rulesets - but that ain't "game balance" it is "beta-testing".

Edited by zedatkinszed
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In the original thread I made a similar point having come to AoS from historical war games.  There, to your point, the scenarios are often unbalanced from a “points perspective”.  Balance, if we choose to use that term, in such games is not achieved through equalizing the armies but rather through giving each side different victory conditions.  I am intrigued by the introduction of secondaries in 9e 40k and how that could translate into AoS 3.0.

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Right. I mean look at Warcry and how objectives change that game rather than playing it as a simple slugfest.

I think there is a cultural issue with the question of balance. The pick-up game phenomenon - something I have NEVER done btw. Any game I've played is by arrangement and generally long planned for. But it seems to me that the loudest voices in this debate are hyper competitive ppl who want to play Warhammer like MTG or Yugioh or Pokemon. The Honest Wargamer was big into the idea of T-Sports (e-sports but for the tabletop). Warhammer just isn't designed for that. 

I mean I know so so so many people love tournaments etc. But Warhammer is much better as a narrative event (I don't necessarily mean using AOS's narrative rules but rather the whole event having a theme and a general RPG element to it ala Holy Havoc and NEON) than a pure match-play tourney. It is not designed like poker or darts or League of Legends. That's the elephant in the room and TBH I only got comfortable with the truth of that after I turned 30.

Back in the day tourneys were part of wider conventions these days it seems the inverse or reverse is the case - the convention is tacked on to the tourney. Maybe that's just my perspective though.

Edited by zedatkinszed
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Also y’all get right out of here with the “well REAL battles weren’t balanced!” Logic. I’m not commanding a huge campaign with multiple forces, utilizing terrain and hoping to whatever gods I pray to that my people make it through another winter. 
 

I’m throwing dice around with my friends and I don’t want to lose because my book got the bad rules designer or the uninspired rules designer. Is that unreasonable?

 

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23 hours ago, FlatTooth said:

Also y’all get right out of here with the “well REAL battles weren’t balanced!” Logic. I’m not commanding a huge campaign with multiple forces, utilizing terrain and hoping to whatever gods I pray to that my people make it through another winter. 
 

I’m throwing dice around with my friends and I don’t want to lose because my book got the bad rules designer or the uninspired rules designer. Is that unreasonable?

 

The point isn’t that because real battles weren’t balanced AoS doesn’t need to be.  The point was that an adjacent game category in historical war gaming has had to deal with unbalanced armies if they want to be able to play out actual battles (not just examine historical theory) and as a result evolved a way to allow friends to throw dice and have fun in those situations.  The way they accomplished that was to make it so both parties have different win conditions.  There may or may not be something to learn from this.

Given that balance in armies has proven difficult to achieve symmetric battle plans in many cases may not actual improve fairness but skew the balance even more.  Arguably GW has acknowledged that with Sons (and to a lesser extent Mawtribes) with their counts as for objective rules and even the ability to throw out a battleplan’s special conditions for objectives.

Again, 9e 40k seems to have taken further steps in acknowledging this by giving armies unique secondaries tailored to their skill sets.  BoC is regularly highlighted as a weaker tome.  What if they could wrack up VP for having units in every quadrant though?  All of a sudden their ambush ability gives them a lot of options and forces their opponents to make different choices.  This would be a not unreasonable translation of the lessons of historical gaming to AoS that makes it even more fun to throw dice with friends.

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On 5/4/2021 at 12:17 AM, FlatTooth said:

Also y’all get right out of here with the “well REAL battles weren’t balanced!” Logic. I’m not commanding a huge campaign with multiple forces, utilizing terrain and hoping to whatever gods I pray to that my people make it through another winter. 
 

I’m throwing dice around with my friends and I don’t want to lose because my book got the bad rules designer or the uninspired rules designer. Is that unreasonable?

I liked that comment more for the part about people saying they want balance, even though they might actually want something else.

If we think about balance soley in terms of win percentage, I think casual players could easily deal with winning only, like 40% of their games (play five games against your friends, win two) if those games are still fun, interactive and you feel like your choices during the game matter. But one faction sitting at a 40% win rate while another sits at 60% would be evidence of a pretty bad imbalance in tournament play.

Recently we have come to talk about play experience in addition to balance, which I think is a good development. But I think there are still more facettes of the game that people do care about, but which are not yet common topics of discussion.

One of those is, in my opinion, room for expression or creativity. I think a lot of people want to be able to build a list that is uniquely their own, without feeling like they have to make bad choices by including their pet units along the way. This aspect of the game is somewhat related to balance, but not in a way that would be expressed in tournament win rates, for example. If every faction had one build that could compete at the top level, we might see very balanced tournament results, but it might not help players who want to build their dream list of all dwarves Cities of Sigmar, necessarily.

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1 hour ago, Neil Arthur Hotep said:

One of those is, in my opinion, room for expression or creativity. I think a lot of people want to be able to build a list that is uniquely their own, without feeling like they have to make bad choices by including their pet units along the way. This aspect of the game is somewhat related to balance, but not in a way that would be expressed in tournament win rates, for example. If every faction had one build that could compete at the top level, we might see very balanced tournament results, but it might not help players who want to build their dream list of all dwarves Cities of Sigmar, necessarily.

Another great example of how stakeholders often have a very diverse set of needs/wants impacting their perception of balance (if indirectly).  I, for example, want to run a Khorne list largely built around BOC units, particularly 6x Tuskgor Chariots.  Thus is leaning into two supposedly weaker factions and weaker units within those factions but it looks darn fun to me.  Fortunately within my Zoom League we have several different ways to balance out this scenario whether that involves my opponent agreeing to run a fluffier list as well or our agreeing to a more narrative centric scenario and win conditions.

Edited by Beer & Pretzels Gamer
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