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Learning to love imbalance in strategy games

Hail the underdogs

From the forum threads full of arguments to the constant tweaking and occasional overhauls via patches – balance has long been one of the pillars of strategy games. It means fairness, a level playing field, and in competition it means that victory comes purely from player skill. But balance, and the quest to reach it, can easily become the enemy of surprise and of the joy that comes from succeeding against the odds.

Balance’s lofty position implies that nobody wants to be the underdog, that conquest is only satisfying if you have the exact same or at least equally effective advantages as your opponents. Sure, when actual money and trophies are involved, this sort of balance is necessary, but when you’re playing for fun? When you’re playing on your own? Give me the imbalanced every time.

Total War: Warhammer’s Realm of the Wood Elves expansion constructs its high points and best battlefield stories out of the faction’s vulnerabilities. Adversity hounds the Elves, making campaigns an uphill struggle, while battles feel like you’re dancing on the edge of a knife. Every success is savoured, and out of each fight come tales of close calls and pulling victory from the jaws of defeat. Though they might seem weak, the challenge and complexity that comes with them brings out Total War’s strongest features.

I’m not suggesting that the folks at Creative Assembly aren’t concerned about balance at all. Have a quick browse of some patch notes and you’ll see that they very much are. How they use their twin powers of buffing and nerfing, however, matters a great deal. It’s not necessarily about making units or factions feel equally strong or effective, but giving them a purpose or a hook. Balance isn’t wielded like an equaliser, but rather it’s a way to make a unit more interesting or enjoyable to play.

It can often feel like balance exists to serve a very specific type of strategy player, one for whom esports and serious competition are inextricably linked to the genre, leaving folk like me out in the cold. One of my most anticipated RTSs of the year fell into this category, and I found myself dropping it from my rotation of strategy games quite quickly. That would be Ashes of the Singularity, a polished, serious game about two huge sci-fi armies colliding. It does brilliant things with unit formations and large-scale battles, but the importance placed on build orders and resource races does little to inspire experimentation, while the often humdrum units rarely stand out. It always seems like there’s a right way and a wrong way to play, and its bland campaign reveals its focus: it serves only to get people into the multiplayer component.

There is a middle ground, however. StarCraft 2, with its massive multiplayer community and expensive tournaments, requires tight balance, but Blizzard are clearly aware that a vast number of players will never leave the campaign, and that’s where things get a little more interesting. Lopsided fights and battles driven by diverse objectives and stories create wrinkles that fight against the perfect balance required in the more competitive scene. It helps, too, that the factions have more than a hint of asymmetry, encouraging diverse playstyles and creating surprises even after hundreds of hours of war.

Amplitude Studios have quickly become something of a poster child for asymmetric strategy through Endless Legend. I’m utterly convinced that it’s one of the all time greatest 4X games, largely because of its bold and weird factions, from a swarm of disgusting monsters in a constant state of war with the rest of the world, to a creepy cult of weirdos limited to a single city. For the developer, the goal was not to throw balance out, but they simply don’t believe that a properly asymmetric strategy game can ever really be balanced. Some factions are just straight up more powerful than others. The result? It’s left up to the player to create an advantage or find a way to exploit a faction’s design.

That’s the problem with balance: despite it seemingly making the game all about skill, it really – at least in single-player – becomes inhibitive. There’s no impetus to create strange builds or think outside the box and no moments of doubt that lead to inspiration. And it takes away the opportunity for us to be the authors of our bids for global domination.

Paradox’s grand strategy ventures are the antithesis of this kind of balance, and so much better for it. One of life’s great pleasures is to start as a count of some backwater in Crusader Kings 2, a nobody with no real prospects, and attempt to create a vast, century-spanning dynasty. Out of this inevitably comes a multitude of memorable moments, of plots gone awry and impossible wars, but equally as important, it forces you to engage with every aspect of this elaborate game. There are more discussions about ways to exploit history, AI, and the game’s rules than you could hope to read, full of sleuths obsessively trying to create empires from unlikely origins or take over the world with the least likely suspect.

The benefits of treating balance as flexible and almost optional, at the very least not the be all and end all of strategy, are myriad, but for someone like me, the type who craves stories and emergent narratives, there’s one major bonus: unbalanced games spin the greatest yarns. Let’s jump back to Endless Legend, a suggestion I constantly make, often out of the blue.

“Would you like some tomato sauce with your chips?”

“Let me think about that, and while I do, let’s jump back to Endless Legend.”

Amplitude put story front and centre of their fantasy 4X game. Each of the exotic factions comes with a distinct history and culture which defines the way that they play, and then the faction moves forward through quests and side quests begging to be undertaken. By following the story, you can end up with powerful units, artefacts and unique technologies that give you a big advantage, sometimes a potentially unfair one, over the other AI or human players. And sometimes it might be easy! Maybe all you need to do is send a unit to a few locations and that’s that.

Luck won’t always be on your side, of course. In another game you might have a similar quest, but your objectives are all locked behind the borders of another faction. And it’s winter. So you march your army across the map, slowly, and fight your way to some ruined temple or what have you, and lose countless units and start a global war, just to get a lovely necklace. Life is unfair! But it’s also the source of grand adventures and brutal wars and the sorts of tales you’ll want to share once you’ve finally come out the other end.

Across multiple games, players will experience both, but individual playthroughs can become unbalanced thanks to both random chance and powerful rewards. With that comes surprises. Weak empires rising to prominence, strong empires falling to ruin in a foolish bid to unlock more power – it’s all part of unique narrative of that particular game.

Maybe it’s easy for me to dismiss balance because I increasingly care more about the experience of running a faction or controlling an army than I do about competition. In competitions, there’s a winner and a bunch of losers, and sometimes I really can’t be arsed with spending 20 hours on a game if I’m just going to be called a failure. If I want that, I can just tell people that I’m 31, broke, and I subsist mainly on cheap microwavable pasta meals. It would only take a minute.

I’ve never lost a game of Europa Universalis, for instance, but I’ve played so many campaigns where my chosen power never makes it to the final year of the game - probably about 90 percent of them. That’s not a loss, though. It’s just the end of my story. There’s a victory score system, sure, but I’ve never met anyone who cared about it. Absent a proper win condition, the game is about guiding your nation through history, wherever it may lead, not something arbitrary like taking over the world.

The good news, at least for me or anyone sitting there and nodding while they read this, is that strategy developers seem to be starting to feel the same way. Or at least a significant number of them. There’s a treasure trove of weird games that approach strategy from unexpected angles.

One of the biggest surprises of the last year or so came in the form of Stardock’s Sorcerer King and its Rivals expansion. In this 4X game, your main opponent is the eponymous Sorcerer King, and for most of the game he’s unbeatable. He’s well on his way to becoming a god while you’re faffing around with your very first settlement. The key strategy to defeating him is to not piss him off, to grow slowly, and to bide your time. If you don’t, he’ll see you as a threat and crush you without breaking a sweat. The entire conceit of the game is that it’s not remotely fair, and there’s a pretty good chance that your opponent will destroy the world.

With players in a subservient role, typical strategies no longer work. More subtlety and underhanded tactics are required, and diplomacy becomes an even more powerful force than hordes of angry warriors. And it’s not a competition. Players and the Sorcerer King have entirely different goals, and must do different things to achieve them. By letting go of balance, the game gives us something that feels genuinely new.

The less we stress about victory, the less importance we place on perfectly tuned statistics and what today’s most overpowered unit is, the more we can simply enjoy the damn game. And it gives developers more freedom to push the genre forward, instead of feeling pressured into sacrificing their vision for equality.

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