Thursday, September 6, 2007

Rant: Game Balance

Those who play RPGs (which includes Car Wars, even though is more like an evolving board game) have witnessed Revision Creep - where every new issue of a game magazine needs to introduce new ideas, new devices, new rules. It is rare for these new things to have been playtested enough to preserve game-balance. They just look and sound nifty! And pretty soon, all games/characters/cars sport the new 'street-legal' devices and doodads that render the old rules obsolete.

Revision Creep: D&D's Cautionary Tale

Rampant Revision Creep can ruin a game. This is arguably what happened to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Things got very complicated and the attempt to coalesce the new ideas (the 2nd Edition fiasco) just made things worse. The 3rd edition, the D20 rules, were IMHO a great improvement. When it started. But hoo-baby, the Revision Creep from Wizards of the Coast has increased at a bizarre cancerous velocity. It could just be me, but EVERY SINGLE BOOK they publish (and they seem to have a new book every few weeks) has 20 new feats, 20 new prestige classes and at this point the game is almost unrecognizable.

This may be a bad test procedure, but in one of the D20 D&D books I have there is no listing for playtesters in the masthead (and no mention of them in the acknowledgements). It's almost as if the Wizards are trying to wring out as much money from their audience before nausea sets in. It's the Summer Blockbuster methodology - open with 3000 screens, make 50% of the gross on opening weekend before word of mouth renders your high-budget stinkeroo into celluloid oblivion, and then move on to the next blockbuster. No content, just flash.


Revision Creep in Car Wars

Anyway, this unchecked Revision Creep is possibly what happened to Car Wars. I'm not talking about 5th Edition... I have 100% no interest in a new play system. The old system would be fine with a little tweaking. But I think so many of the new devices that have been introduced have upset game balance in entirely preventable ways:

1. All new devices must be *extensively* playtested (a few months, at least, just to see how they affect game dynamics)

2. Until they're tested, they must be declared as optional and will not be arena/tournament legal

3. One playtest test is to see if an older device becomes obsolete. If it does, fine, then REDEFINE the old device. A good example is RR HESH ammo. It doesn't weigh more, is crazy cheap (175$), and rips off metal armor half the time. And if it's not obviously unbalanced by a simple smell-test, look at car designs since the device was introduced... who DOESN'T use HEAT or HESH in their RRs?

Same holds for HTM (which I've ranted about before). As I said:
back in '37 you needed to have a big engine to get consistently high acceleration. In years hence they invented High Torque Motors and instead of balancing weight-space-cost in engine size you just pay $400 and viola! Grrrr. Yup, I think HTM is a bad idea. Massive changes in game dynamics require more than just a few hundred bucks! Space and weight are much more difficult to manipulate and have much more of a design "cost" (ironically). Once HTM was introduced was it any surprise that almost every duelling car had them installed. Heck, they didn't even make you enter a new price range!
My Self-Applied Rules

If I introduce new rules, rule-tweaks, new weapons etc (which I've done already on this blog), assume that they are optional and untested until stated otherwise.

I enjoy Car Wars; it fires up my imagination like no other game and indulges two great loves (design creativity and violence). I want to help fix this game, the original game, that I played 20 years ago. I'm mainly introducing tweaks. But like any fanboy, I would like to see new equipment if it fits in.

Next: what game mags should be doing (and why they get it wrong).


Earlburt said...

I don't really have a direct response to your rant, other than that I feel your pain. My solution to the general problem you're trying to address is to step back and think about why I'm playing this game, and to honor the things I like about CW.

I never cottoned to CW as a pure design and/or tactical board game. Without the RPG-lite dimension, CW becomes empty to me. The setting, the history, the ethos of the thing is what gives CW its magic.

Weapons-wise, scarcity is a key to honoring the CW universe. Most of the advanced technology introduced in post-2037 CW game supplements simply have no place in the CW universe. Manufacturing still wasn't back up on its feet. Interstate commerce remained dicey. The vast majority of people had much less consuming power than modern Americans. all these things would have consired to keep high-tech devices rare.

Scarce resources would have been concentrated among the powerfull. It's not that high-tech shouldn't exist in CW. It should just be rare and relatively innaccesible to normal people. Heck, even owning a $15,000 car should be an extravagence, let alone a $15K car that is optimized for duelling. Most familes would have had one vehicle that had to actually DO things other than fight, like cart grocieries around.

Anyway, looking at it this way (for me) eliminates all the problems with the way the game progressed over time. And all it takes to impose this kind of limitation upon the game is a mature sensibility. I mean, we're all grownups now, right? We're not the uber-competitive and stupid 14-year olds we used to be when we first encountered the game. It's a simple choice to play like an adult and not like a munchkin.

Earlburt said...

"Massive changes in game dynamics require more than just a few hundred bucks! Space and weight are much more difficult to manipulate and have much more of a design "cost" (ironically). Once HTM was introduced was it any surprise that almost every duelling car had them installed. Heck, they didn't even make you enter a new price range!"

Oh, one other observation along my previous line. A game in which cost is no object is arguably already faulty. Why is cost no object? A few hundred dollars in the CW universe should be a lot of money. It was clearly intended to be so, judging from the spirit and tone of all the earlier CW source material.

Unlimited budgets is emblamatic of the sterility into which CW gaming descended. One-off arena duels, with genric 50 point chars who do not progress from scenario to scenario... blech! If I wanted a pure tactical boardgame, I'd break out my micro-armor and play NATO vs. WARSAW PACT.

JC said...

Earlburt I think you're totally right. There's always going to be a mix with any RPG between the design and the role-playing. I think some games are better for the roles (low combat, descriptive systems) and some are better for design (Car Wars is pretty much the other end of the spectrum).

It's a decision the player needs to make: accept the back-story with all the RPG implications (as you illustrate), or just say 'screw it' and go for design insanity (like CarWars Tanks and the rest of the military idiocy).

I'd love to reboot the system like they tried to do with D&D but without their pitfalls. The d20 system made certain changes which were way overdue - better hit system, AC, classes, feats - but then went utterly unworkable with the prestige class insanity.

Some things should be thrown out of Car Wars, others kept, and a new day for carnage can dawn. No?

JC said...

And your second point is cogent as well: cost should be prohibitive. But it quickly was not. The laser is a good example of how cost used to mean something.