Monday, October 29, 2012

The Delicacies of Balancing

I´ll use this post to describe some of the difficulties I´m encountering with balancing some of the scenarios in the context of the campaign game. It´s meant to gather some of my thoughts on the problems of balancing and to look for a solution to the problem. It´s basically writing down and systematizing my thougts on the matter of scenario design with a formalised campaign-system in the background.

Using a campaign system as background makes things both easier and more troublesome at the same time - considering different aspects of the game.

On the one hand, the campaign provides you with input for your scenarios. Force-composition is dependent on the units present and the insurgency-cells located in an area. Using these input variables to determine the number of units according to the balance of power in a region provides a helping hand in creating a good and believable story within the context of the action on the campaign map. The Insurgents are heavily outnumbered by Coalition troops? Well, they´re obviously not going to give a fair and regular fight, so we´ll play an Ambush, or IED-clearance missions, etc.
The Coalition forces are hugely outnumbered by enemy fighters? Okay, then we´ll do a desperate defense mission with hordes of enemies attacking outposts or patrols or something.

The only question that might arise in this regard is how many troops are going to participate in the scenario. Is it a small, confined scenario or a big one? Are we going to use all available units in the area or are we unable to put every squad on the table? Apart from that, the Campaign System does most of the magic for you, nice and easy.

I used to play the encounters with standard-victory conditions inspired by the scenarios in the Operation Enduring Freedom Book. It works quite well most scenarios with "normal" conditions. Whenever the number of units is roughly equal to the cell value on the map, using those values is straightforward and works fine. Problems occur whenever you´re encountering more extreme cases - either side outnumbering the other one heavily.

In such cases, it is important to adjust the victory conditions in order to provide a somewhat balanced outcome. This is where things are really turning ugly, because balancing the scenario must both avoid positive feedback cycles (e.g. overwhelming force = easily won scenarios = more reinforcements for the winning side = more overwhelming force) but should on the other hand not disrupt the intricate elements of the campaign map and good decisions made on the strategic level. After all, I wouldn´t want to discourage one side to gather forces for such an overwhelming strike by totally ignoring the strategic effort he made to achieve a local superiority.

To achieve some progress in this regard, we´ll have to look into the connections between the Campaign map and scenarios. Aside from the terrain type (Urban, Village, Greenzone, Desert...) the most important thing determined by the map are the forces present. The Campaign rules use the ratio of Insurgency Cells (the sum of their values) to the number of Coalition Squads to determine what I termed "Force Gradient".
This number is an indicator of the overall balance of forces in an area. A simple Insurgency Cell with a Value of 1 is considered to be roughly equal to a coalition squad. This does not fully reflect the experience on the gaming-table though, as a US squad will usually squash the insurgency due to its higher TQ. But it work seems to work out well in terms of winning scenarios when using the OEF-Victory Points.

After determining the Force Gradient it is used to determine the type of mission (e.g. Assault on a Base for a very high gradient, which means heavily outnumbered coalition troops), the corresponding reinforcement-table and the guerilla starting units which can be diced out and/or tweaked according to the need of the scenario. The coalition troops present in the area are then tasked with a specific mission (or parts of them, if too many troops are present  to utilize them all in the scenario - these reserves will then reduce the chance of reinforcement for the guerillas). Bringing in more troops on the Campaign map thus makes a significant difference on the type of mission & the enemy force composition. If heavily outnumbered, the Insurgent will get easier access to IEDs, while having vastly superior numbers against the coalition gives access to more fighters, more heavy support and even foreign jihadists.

The next step is the critical one about which this post is revolving: VP allocation to objectives.

This step is so important because after resolving the scenario, the VP allocation becomes the most important factor to convert the outcome of the scenario back into Campaign variables. One the one hand, it´s important who has actually won the scenario, as this faction will use a better table to convert VP into campaign resources. On the other hand, the number of VP matters, because for every VP gained you get to roll on that resource table. The dice-rolling adds some random element and adds some fluctuation to your resource influx, which increases uncertainty and forces you to play more conservatively or opens up possibilities not planned so far.
Winning scenarios gives COIN-Points to the Coalition forces, which can be spent on various assets, reinforcements or special options. For the insurgent, winning scenarios adds new cells to the forcepool, which can be brought onto the campaign map later on.

Apart from VP the rate of casualties is important. Both the Coalition forces and the Guerilla fighters will actually suffer from having casualties. Coalition squads can go understrength (or even be wiped out) if sustaining casualties, and will decrease in combat efficiency. At the moment, replenishment is automatic and free. This is offset by the fact that in most scenarios, the Insurgents get VP for killing or seriously wounding coalition solders. Furthermore, sustaining casualties from fighting will add to the War Exhaustion score of the coalition troops, which is their indicator of how close they are to loosing the campaign. If their war exhaustion reaches critical levels, they will suffer from penalties and eventually lose the campaign as popular support dwindles and the operation is aborted. This adds a strong incentive to not waste your troops!

The Taliban suffers in a different way: Losing too many groups in battle is accounted for by removing cells after a fight. If many fighters are killed in combat, cells effectively disappear on the campaign map. To win in a strategic sense as the guerilla player, it is thus important to get more cells than you lose (at least in the long term), while driving up the War Exhaustion Score.

As you might have noticed, one of the problems is that actually having a strategic layer (campaign map) makes it difficult to evaluate the scenario-outcome without accounting some stuff twice. As it is right now, coalition losses for example are a difficult topic: On the one hand, they are often counting as Victory Points for the Insurgent, increasing their strength. On the same time, they are decreasing coalition strength and driving them closer to defeat. Is counting casualties towards VP even legit then? After all, causing casualties is a strategic goal, not a tactical one...

To answer this question, I´ll have to make a short diversion to explain what my interpretation of Victory points is within the campaign-context. My take on victory point (and the way they are actually transfered back into the campaign context) is that they represent the ability of one side to exploit the results of a battle. VPs are a mixture of tactical sucess (e.g. taking positions, defending them, reaching objectives) and strategic sucess (sticking to the RoE, cause no civilian casualties, kill Coalition troops to show their weakness). In many cases, simply using tactical sucess is not enough to judge the performance of any side. Guerilla warfare is fought on a strategic level, winning local support and undermining the enemy strength. Tactical victories can contribute to this, but they do not guarantee sucess. If you look at the last mission, the Coalition troops where able to achieve their primary objective by capturing the mosque - but they did harm two civilians and lost a tremendous amount of men to the enemy who can now fully exploit this as a propaganda instrument to recruit more fighters. As reaching tactical objectives alone is often not enough in fighting an insurgency, this outcome is one of the prime examples why strategic components must be included in the VP score more often than not - otherwise it would be quite pointless to even fight the tabletop-scenarios, because most of the time a tactical victory would be achieved by the Coalition forces. And the conversion of VP to strategic assets wouldn´t be logical either. Long story short: VP = potential to exploit the outcome of a battle for strategic purposes.

I think it is thus generally okay to let the taliban benefit twice by killing soldiers - the VP component being their ability to gather local support by boasting with their sucesses against the crusaders, while the strategic component hurts the coalition forces at the same time. Furthermore, the Taliban player will also suffer from strategic losses when wasting his forces on the tabletop. He´ll lose cells that he has to replace with fresh ones in order to benefit from  the outcome of the scenario on the strategic scale, which evens out the situation somewhat. At the same time, VP should reward players for good decisions on the battlefield and add an element of balance to the game. As you can see, the distinction between these factors is difficult and very blurry. Though most of the time, when using forces of similar strength, it tends to work out surprisingly fine with the "default" VP.

As outlined earlier, the VP-question becomes more difficult when using more unbalanced forces. Sticking to the Assault-example above: Getting a good representation of exploitability of a success while retaining a possibility for the inferiour side to win is a little tougher.

Of course, you can try to build new VP for every scenario, but this makes balancing difficult and necessitates several test-runs for every scenario, which is what I want to minimize by sticking to some kind of guideline. The first idea to create such a thing is differentiating VP-allocation according to the superiority of one side, which is quanitified in the Force Gradient. It is what you would naturally do when building a scenario without any guideline anyway - the superior units have more ressources available and thus get less points for their objective, as it is easier for them to achieve.
For example, while I would give the Taliban VP for killing and seriously wounding American soldiers under "normal" circumstances, I would probably refrain from this procedure in our Assault-Scenario, as it is too easy to achieve this result when comparing it with the forces available. On the other hand, when the Insurgents are outnumbered, they might get more points for killing US soldiers than in a more balanced setup, as it is actually harder to achieve this goal.

It is already becoming clear that the VP-allocation should be balanced based on the chance of achieving them - a difficult goal has to be rewarded with more points than one that is easily achieved. When pitting a lot of Taliban against few Coalition soldiers, it is very likely they WILL cause some casualties and probably even kill someone - thus, they must not get the same VP-score from a KIA as if they where fighting with inferior capabilities.
In some ways, this is even consistent with my interpretation of VP as stated above: If the inferiour side is able to hold up against the superior force (achieving their objectives and preventing the enemy from achieving his) the potential to exploit their sucess is greater than achieving objectives against inferiour numbers. To stick with my Assault-example (you can probably guess what mission is next by now...): The Local populace and the potential Taliban-friendly elements will not be very supportive if they realize that despite huge numerical superiority the attack has failed to achieve any significant results, as the Coalition has pulled off the incredible feat of stopping the assault dead in its tracks. The potential to exploit such a success is smaller - even if more enemy were killed or wounded - as the disposition of forces leads the viewer to the conclusion that a much greater success should have been possible (like completely overrunning the enemy position). The other strategic aspects - apart from local perceptions of the fight and the ability to use this event for your aims - are still reflected by things like cell-loss, force-depletion and War Exhaustion.
Although these are not accounted as VP (they do not contribute to sway the Locals or Coalition High command to contribute more resources), they will impact on the campaign.

In turn, Victory points are  - in contrast to one-off games - not the only measure of success in this campaign. This is the direct implication of the mechanisms explained above. Most of the time, the VP will provide a good final indicator of who has "won" the scenario, but not always. In our example, the assault could falter with heavy losses on both sides - the Coalition wins according to the VP score (they´re able to convince the High Command that more support is required and show the locals that it´s not a good idea to support the Taliban as they even fail using superior force)  -  but after losing a lot of personell, they´re weakened for the next campaign turn and accrue substential war exhaustion.

Furthermore, VP should be based on the ease of achieving success. I believe this is a general truth about scenario-balancing, not only within a campaign-context. It somethings easy, it will not be rewarded as highly as a difficult objective. It´s still difficult to judge what good victory conditions are for each scenario - and even more difficult if its not a forgive-and-forget situation after playing a single game, but a situation where the results influence the strategic layer. Talking about it in theory is a lot easier than actually writing down the numbers, for the reasons outlined above. But if you have some good idea on this matter, feel free to discuss it in the comments below! I´d be very pleased about some input.

Until I have found THE solution (if it exists), I´ll probably stick to trial & error and testplay all scenarios for the campaign at least once in a solo-run... 

No comments:

Post a Comment