ABSTRACT PRINCIPLES of 40k - Game balance
Click here to return to the Table of Contents.
When talking about game balance in 40k (or lack thereof), what is generally meant by balance is equality.
To say it another way, if you take two players and put them down in front of a game, and control for all the other variables (like player skill, for example), a perfectly-balanced game will always end in a draw, or in an equal win:loss ratio for both players. In a perfectly-balanced game, the game itself does not bias one player towards victory or another towards defeat. When a game is correctly balanced, balance becomes a control variable, and can thus be ignored, leaving the determiner of the outcome of a game up to other factors (once again, like player skill).
There are two main ways that games achieve equality, and thus balance. The first is to make it so that all game pieces (or combinations thereof) are the same. When one plays Go, for example, all of your pieces are colored beads, and they all do the same thing. In Monopoly, it doesn't matter if you pick the shoe or the iron as your playing piece - all pieces have the same effect on the game (it's just a matter of aesthetic). The second way to create equality is with symmetry. In Chess, for example, a pawn and a queen are of unequal utility (unlike the shoe and the iron), but the game is still balanced because both players have exactly the same number of the same pieces deployed on the table in exactly the same way.
This equality, however, creates a problem. Any balanced game can either have diversity, or it can have meaningful player choices, but not both at the same time. The only way to make a game both deep and varied at the same time is by creating a game that is imbalanced.
To demonstrate this, let's start with a few examples.
ROCK PAPER SCISSORS
Rock, Paper, Scissors (hereafter RPS), is an example of a game that creates equality through lack of diversity. Let's say, for the sake of simplicity, that RPS was played by making a choice three times (once for three different rounds), and then the game was decided by both players revealing their three choices simultaneously. Assuming that players don't have inside information about their opponents, the best way to play the game is to pick one of each of the three choices and randomly assign them to the three rounds.
The reason for this is because the benefits gained by doubling up on any one choice (say, rock-rock-paper) do not outweigh the weaknesses of not having one of each choice. An easy way to illuminate this is to assume for a moment that one player is cheating, and can see the other person's choices before making their own. If both players play rock-paper-scissors, then the cheating player will align his rock against scissors, scissors against paper, and paper against rock - he will win all 3 rounds. If he doubles up on rock excluding scissors, then the best he can hope for is winning 2 rounds and losing one (rock against scissors, paper against rock, and rock against paper, for example). At absolute best, specializing will create the same odds of winning fairly as diversity (rock against paper, rock against scissors, and rock against rock), but more likely it just makes things worse.
If 40k were like RPS, you would basically have to take one of everything to have the strongest list. If you didn't take any anti-aircraft weapons so that you could instead take more anti-infantry weapons, then it would be like omitting scissors to play rock twice. If your opponent showed up with an even mix, you would have more anti-infantry than you need (so, too much), while your opponents aircraft could destroy your army unmolested.
This, of course, would ruin diversity. It would render list-building to nothing more than plugging in specialized units into designated slots. Hydras, for example, would be a guardsman's "rock" to fliers' "scissors", so every guard player would start by plugging a hydra into their list to fill that role. Once all the roles were filled, all guard lists would look more or less the same - each making sure that they have the same bases covered.
So on the one hand, RPS creates balance by forcing symmetry. It does it on the other hand by taking away meaningful player choice. If the one-of-each list was the best list, then any other lists are necessarily just worse lists with different themes. But if you had better and worse lists, then you'd have player choice, but you wouldn't have a balanced game anymore (the game would bias victory towards the person with the stronger list).
Chess is an obvious example of balance through symmetry. You don't get to make any meaningful decisions about which pieces you're going to bring, or how to set them up. The game is made as shallow as possible so as to control for everything except for the exactly one way in which the game allows the players to exercise player skill (moving the pieces). Furthermore, Chess is a clear example of a lack of diversity, as both players bring the same pieces.
This is not to say that Chess has no way for players to make meaningful choices, of course, but the enforced symmetry does drastically reduce the variety of inroads. So much, so, that Chess, in the end, sort of just boils down to memorization (which moves counter which moves with the highest chance of success), which is why computers can be taught to play Chess better than human beings.
Interestingly enough, you can also see an example of this principle at work in 40k when you look at tournament play. In a 40k tournament, the point of the game is to win, which means that you're going to be showing up with the strongest list possible. If everyone showed up with the strongest list, then, necessarily, everyone would show up with the same list. Of course, there is some disagreement on what the strongest list is, so there are inevitably a small number of lists instead of just one.
But the end effect is the same. By pursuing actions that (intentionally or otherwise) lead to equality, diversity is ruined. So is player choice of army, as anything but the best army is just a worse army. Of course, if the point is to test player skill, then you WANT things like list strength to be controlled for, which means that everybody showing up with the same list is a good thing, and both real diversity and real player choice are bad, because they will bias the outcome of a game based on list strength, rather than solely on player skill.
Of course, 40k permits players to choose to play the game with symmetry as well. There is no rule against both players deciding to play the same list, and set up the board with symmetrical terrain, and require both players to deploy symmetrically. Same pieces, same board, same deployment, just like Chess.
IMBALANCE AND 40K
In order for player decisions to have meaning and for 40k to have depth, 40k needs to be an imbalanced game. For player decisions to be meaningful, those decisions must have a meaningful impact on the outcome of a game, and different power levels of units and combinations of units are required to make said meaningful impact.
This is something that most 40k players understand intuitively. In a balanced game, a player could show up with any combination of units and (assuming player skill, luck, etc. were the same) they would have an equal chance of winning as a person bringing any other combination of units. I could show up with an army of nothing but cultists brandishing pistols and knives, and you could show up to a game with nothing but heavy tanks festooned with machine guns and flamethrowers, and we'd both have an equal chance of winning.
Is that what 40k players want? No. We think that the cultist player SHOULD LOSE to the tank player, and that a balanced game here would be a worse game. Not only would it feel unintuitive and wrong for the cultist player to win, but it would be painfully obvious that a player's choice in what units they brought to the table wouldn't matter any more than picking the shoe or the iron in Monopoly. In order for those decisions to have meaning, they need to have an impact on the outcome of the game (as in, the tank player should win), and the impact on the outcome of the game requires different power levels. A combination of units that's just cultists has to be weaker than a combination of units that's just tanks and flamethrowers in order for the decision to take an army of cultists or an army of tanks (or any combination of anything) to have meaning. Stronger and weaker combinations biasing one player towards victory is the very definition of an imbalanced game.
One could argue that different armies would still play in different ways even if they had equal chances of success. We run into the same problem as above, though, as it means that any random style would be just as likely to win the same as any random combination of units would be just as likely to win. Either sitting back and killing stuff with heavy weapons or rushing forward on bikes and killing stuff with special weapons needs to have a difference in power level, or else it will have the same impact on the game as the iron vs. shoe choice, which is to say that it's a meaningless choice. You wouldn't actually HAVE different armies if the armies were equal. They would be different only in aesthetic.
But if we strip away these meaningful player choices (and thus make the game shallower) that doesn't mean there are NO decisions for a player to make. For example, a Chess player can still choose which pieces to move in which order. It does still make the game shallower, though. And to what end? Balancing the game by controlling for other variables like depth would make the game more determined by those things you're not controlling for. Strategizers would be quick to note that a more balanced game would mean that a game would be more influenced by player skill, and would be more of a strategy game. But we already know from the last chapter that 40k isn't a strategy game, given that player skill is just manipulating odds. Do we really want a game that is shallow just to allow a certain group of players to play more precise odds than they could before?
No. The reason that you have a game with such staggering complexity (compare the rules of 40k to the rules of Chess) is so that you can have a game that's deep, and have plenty of inroads for meaningful player decisions. 40k isn't meant to be Yahtzee with miniatures. If someone wanted to play Yahtzee, then they could just play Yahtzee - it would be much cheaper and easier. Alternately, no matter how imbalanced the game is, two players can always make the game balanced by making it symmetrical. There's no reason to take so much away from everybody else just to achieve an end that players are already capable of creating.
If one complained that "I want to be able to have an equal chance at winning with a different army, rather than a mirror match", then we run right back into the problem that armies that have the same chance of winning aren't actually different. They just look different on the outside. Hardly worth ruining 40k over.
People are drawn to 40k for its depth and wealth of meaningful player decisions. Players like that they're able to choose which pieces they put on the table, and how they put them down on it (unlike Chess). People like to come up with combinations, and have that diversity be meaningful. Even hard-core Strategizers are drawn to 40k for this reason (otherwise, they'd just play Chess).
This depth, though, comes in direct proportion to how imbalanced 40k is. Put another way, 40k needs imbalance to be 40k.
We can argue about how much imbalance there should be ("I think that every army should have two "different" armies of equal power level, instead of each army having its own unique power level", for example), but we must all come to the discussion understanding that 40k is imbalanced and should be imbalanced. Otherwise it would just be Chess, Monopoly, or Go with different looking pieces.
It is the specific ways in which 40k is imbalanced that makes it different than those other games. It's what makes 40k 40k.