A lot of effort is spent making sure wargames are “balanced”, but is that really either necessary or desirable? Video games are notorious for this, with meticulous playtesting going into ensuring the playing field is totally level, and points-based wargames systems go to agonising lengths to do the same. Are we barking up completely the wrong tree?
The case for asymmetry
The art of war could arguably be defined entirely as the single-minded pursuit of
the most asymmetric engagement possible. This goes all the way back to Sun Tzu:
“The skilful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible”
“The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won, whereas he who is destined to defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory”
Can a game which actively ignores the most fundamental principle of warfare ever be said to be a wargame? Certainly it’s a game, but no matter how realistic the rest of the rules are the fact remains that the player will be pursuing different objectives in a different way to what his real-life counterpart would.
The bottom line is that without asymmetry there could never be any decisive victories. Even within supposedly balanced games the player’s objective is almost always to create the most asymmetric situation possible. Asymmetric engagements are the norm in conflict. So why should a wargame shy away from them?
Many games try to introduce a kind of pseudo-asymmetry by pitting quality vs quantity. This does remove some of the boredom of completely identical forces, but there’s usually a lot of effort to make sure the two forces have an equal chance of destroying each other.
But asymmetry is not “fun”…
Many people assume that perfectly balanced opponents are required for gameplay to be entertaining. To this I say: bollocks.
Board games regularly use asymmetry successfully as a game mechanic. Co-op games like Zombicide pit all the players against a powerful NPC enemy, while Axis and Allies has the competing players start with varying force and resource levels.
There are a lot of challenges in wargaming that can be a source of entertainment, not the least of which are the cinematic moments that come about when a plucky underdog tackles a powerful opponent.
Thinking tactically involves creatively managing your available resources to achieve an objective, anybody who enjoys that kind of thinking (ie: virtually all wargamers) should be able to find an asymmetric situation fun to play. The key point is to prevent the player from feeling hopeless, as if their decisions have no effect on the outcome. That’s where the fun gets sucked out of a game.
Having said that I do agree that some people are more likely to find a game that they can’t “win” in the traditional sense less entertaining. And perfectly balanced games should have a place in gaming, I just dispute that they should be the norm.
Sources of asymmetry:
Since real battles are almost never between completely equal opponents, any historical scenario will be at least slightly asymmetric. The challenge for the weaker player could then become trying to outperform their historical force, or to experiment with different tactics to see how they would fare.
Anything that simulates strategic gameplay has to involve allocation of resources and firepower to create local superiority. So campaign systems can generate very asymmetric tabletop battles. The advantage of this is that the meta-game going on in the campaign gives the on-table battle some context, which can help to mitigate any perceived lack of fun-factor. If you know your woefully outnumbered forces can achieve a larger strategic goal while getting walloped at a tactical level it can make the game worthwhile to a play.
Perhaps the easiest way to generate interesting asymmetry is to build a scenario specifically to do so. This involves using a bit of judgement, so is trickier than simply using a supposedly pre-balanced system such as points-based armies.
How can asymmetry be managed?
A simple tactic for managing asymmetry is to give the protagonists victory conditions that aren’t mutually exclusive. For example, the stronger player might be tasked with annihilating the weaker one, while the weaker force might only need to achieve a more limited and easily achievable goal.
Where much of the disparity in strength comes from one side’s logistical strength then limiting the game length can prevent the late game from becoming a grind. The board game Monopoly is particularly bad for this, the late game is always the player who has built up the strongest logistical position slowly crushing all opponents. That’s the least fun part of the game to me.
Command and control
Historically armies which are able to gather and process information and make decisions quicker have been triumphant, even if their enemy is more numerous or better armed. Some rule sets design this into the game, but it can also be managed by scenario design. Giving the weaker side more opportunities to act and more information will allow the player to stay making decisions and stay engaged with the game.
There’s no reason wargames can’t be played cooperatively against a non-player opponent. For example, there’s no reason why multiple players couldn’t try to defend the beaches of Normandy against successive waves of pre-scripted Allied amphibious landings. Large offensive operations in later historical periods are heavily scripted in their early phases anyway, so this opens up the option for putting the players on the defending side and having them scramble to react.
These ideas aren’t supposed to be a definitive list, they’re just some things that occur to me. Have you been fighting some lopsided battles? How did you make sure the game was fun and interesting?
So balanced games suck?
No, not at all. The vast majority of what wargamers play are balanced games, I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. If you just want to play a casual game at your local club there’s a lot of good stuff about being able to say “next week, game X, 2000pts” to your opponent and not having to organise anything else. Such games aren’t really very realistic, but for a casual game that’s ok.
Wargamers shouldn’t be afraid of assymetric battles though, not everything needs to be finely balanced, and there’s plenty of fun and drama to be had from games that are lopsided.