Turn-based games are a heavy abstraction; the concept of everyone having their go like so many redcoats is a little laughable. Still, I’ve always had a fair-sized soft spot for anything that gives me time to make my choices, and it was in a turn-based game that I was first really introduced to the idea of competitive balance.
Disciples II is a turn-based strategy with four playable factions. It follows the familiar overland/battle map conventions, as one might expect, with battles being fought between parties of up to five units and one leader. It’s an old game; not quite as old as the games I’d experienced before, like Fallout or StarCraft, but in that range.
StarCraft has long been held as the pinnacle of competitive balance despite the asymmetric unit types available to each of its three races. Because factions are balanced around their entire package and the tactical options available to them, balance is an intricate and iterative process rather than an absolute. Because strategy and composition are so important, balance isn’t easy to see at first – it emerges.
Being much more limited, the balance of a game like Disciples is much easier to grasp. Each faction can produce largely the same basic types of units – warrior, ranged attacker, caster, a flavour unit and a special unit. Tech trees mean that all of these units develop in different ways, and the different factions approach different units from completely different angles – the undead faction’s ranged attacker does no damage but causes paralysis, where dwarves have the option of a tough single-target gunman or a fire-resistant flamethrower who attacks the entire enemy team as though he were a caster. The flavour and special units take this further to provide some pretty fun choices.
Still, looking at the overall packages, it was easy to see where weaknesses crept in. The demonic legion had powerful casters and good map access as a result of all of their leaders being flying types, but were over-reliant on slow, two-space units that levelled slowly and never quite seemed to match individual units of the other factions. The dwarves were ridiculously tough and had excellent access to a wide range of elemental attacks, but took the most experience to level and suffered heavily with their universally poor initiative scores. The empire had units which levelled very quickly and dealt well with consecutive fights thanks to their healing, but they had little access to elemental attacks and were individually very squishy. Then there was the undead horde.
The undead faction had a number of tricks. The paralysis unit mentioned above had the potential to turn anything up to a capital city battle around, and was an AI breaker – the AI always underestimated a party with a ghost in it, since they had no damage. Undead casters had a tree as extensive as the legion, but containing such delights as high-initiative elemental attackers with complete immunity to physical damage – aka the damage type of around 80% of the units in the game.
This physical damage immunity carried over to their special unit as well – a relatively low-hp high-cost fighter unit that levelled about as quickly as a second-tier fighter. All phys immunes paid a cost in base health, meaning that they were vulnerable to casters – theoretically, since any of the phys immunes could out-init a caster – and overland spells – again theoretically, since the undead faction had a spell which could replenish fog of war. Oh, and nearly every horde unit was immune to death-element damage, including the aforementioned phys immunes.
So then what was their balance? Low territorial advancement. The only undead hero with overland flying capability was the relatively weak warrior type, and their territory control units were ground-bound and had a very limited movement radius. A theoretically disadvantaged empire opponent might have trouble in the earlier levels and find their party entirely outmatched coming up against a levelled undead opponent, but the same empire player would be able to keep his units out in the field much longer without having to return to a city, level their units faster, and gain more territory. This is an advantage that’s much harder to put into clear terms, and it was also the first step toward understanding the StarCraft level of game balance. There is more at work than the simple unit vs. unit math.
That, of course, is a strategy game. Every role-playing type game that I’ve ever played has, by comparison, been completely and hopelessly unbalanced – junk builds, entire unviable classes, perks which are basically traps for poorly informed players, etc. And that was (mostly) fine, because those games were meant for single-player action or in the case of ARPGs like Diablo I/II, it was easy enough to reroll. That was an accepted feature of the genre, and it even seems to have been the case for the early years of World of Warcraft.
Here’s where we get back to
whining my usual subject matter. WoW is pretty tightly balanced nowadays. You really have to work at it to make a non-viable character. And yet… some classes just feel like they’re balanced by different criteria. Yes, I’m talking about warriors again, as usual.
A warrior actually has some pretty decent party tricks, but the emphasis here is on party. Mobility, mitigation, even snare-breaks are farmed out to abilities that require party members*. That’s not considering things they don’t actually have, such as for instance healing or dispels. Useful in PvE, and indispensable in PvP.
Warriors seem to be balanced around the strategic level – and as far as I can tell, they’re the only class that’s set up this way. It’s… weird. And despite the effectiveness that a supported warrior can bring to bear, it inevitably feels like playing the roadie in a game where everyone else is a self-contained rock star.
* or a banner in the case of Intervene, but that’s clumsy as hell and leaves warriors in the position of being the only class needing to use a placeable CD, a target click/macro and multiple GCDs to have a snare-break…