Balance is like the reverse of pornography: everyone can give you a definition, but no one seems to be able to know when they see it. Oh sure, they think they know. Plenty of people will tell you that this race is overpowered, or that class is imba, and people go on to repeat it until it takes on a life of its own. I’ve seen plenty of game reviews declare a game is balanced or imbalanced, often on release day when I’m not sure how anyone can know that for sure.
The problem with balance is that just because someone hasn’t won with a particular race, or strategy, or build, doesn’t mean they can’t. Likewise, just because you found a strategy that won a bunch of games early doesn’t mean there isn’t a much better strategy that someone just hasn’t figured out yet. Or more pointedly, that they haven’t used against you.
But, after the jump, Battle of the Bulge is imba!
In order to make this more specific, let me just go ahead and engage in my own share of ideological self-criticism: a few months ago, I raved about the incredible level of balance between the two sides in Battle of the Bulge, Shenandoah Studios’ wargame masterpiece. I feel completely justified in having called it a masterpiece. But in no way is it balanced.
At least, not balanced in the sense that you can’t just pick up either side against an experienced player and expect to have an equal chance of winning. The victory conditions are like a steadily draining bathtub in which the Allies chances of winning eventually run out with the water. If you can’t drown the German early, he’ll almost inevitably survive.
While the masterpiece label has as much to do with the flawless execution of the design as with the actual mechanics, those mechanics paradoxically have plenty to do with the balance problems. John Butterfield crafted a tense, six-turn* struggle based on limiting three resources — time, units, and supply — differently for the two sides. The Germans are critically limited in time and supply: they’re rushing to win before the Allies get their huge wave of reinforcements on Dec. 22nd, (which is the seventh turn of the game) and have to do so while keeping their supply lines open. The farther they get from their starting positions, the more tenuous their supply lines become.
The Allies are good for supply, and the clock is ticking in their favor. They just have to hold out until the cavalry comes, in the form of a massive wave of reinforcements on Dec. 22nd. But they are critically short of units. There are more holes to plug than the Allies have stoppers, and even if they do, the Germans can usually amass a heavy hammer to smash any roadblock. But that costs time, and the Allies need to get the Germans to spend it.
This creates a game relationship which resembles a fencing match: the Allies move here, the Germans feint there, then lunge, while the Allies sidestep and hope the Germans will eventually tire. It’s a tense dance which lasts all the way until the morning of Dec. 22nd, when the tables turn completely. Or at least I think that was the intention. But it doesn’t work that way.
The problem is that the combat system is completely tuned for the first six turns, based on a binomial distribution which clusters results around an expected value. And the game feels built around this relationship of relatively more German units against relatively few Allied ones. Which means that this expected value scales to the relatively few units present on the first six turns of the game.
Sound too abstract? Here’s a concrete example using a common position on the Dec. 19th turn. A single elite Allied infantry division is defending the Hingeon space against the strongest German unit, 1st SS Panzer Division. In this case, the panzer has taken a hit from a previous combat, which is pretty likely. Hingeon is on the map edge, and if captured by Dec. 19th can mean a German auto-victory. It has clear terrain, which gives a bonus to attack and thus makes combat bloodier. Against this single Allied unit, the Axis player here has a 72% chance of clearing the space and taking control of Hingeon. If this happens, the Allies will have to retake it or suffer an automatic loss on the fourth turn of the game.
But what if the Allies were to get a second infantry unit it there? Would that halve the German chances? How likely would a panzer victory become? Half of 72%, right? So maybe 36%?
No. More like 9%. That’s an eightfold decrease in chances of success with just a doubling of the defense strength. It’s what happens when you force a player into the high end of a binomial result distribution. Getting “just a few more hits” becomes more than “just a little more” unlikely.
The reason this works in the early game is that the Allies don’t have enough units to cover every space they need to, so they have to choose where to stand and where to run. Most combats the German initiates will be against single Allied units. Stacking units all along the river to defend against a German exit just isn’t possible.
Furthermore, the terrain works against the Allies. See how that road in Hingeon runs off the north map edge? Because Allied infantry units can only move one space per turn except on roads, there isn’t a way to reinforce Hingeon immediately from the east except from the neighboring space, Wanze, which is itself a juicy target for Germans panzers. If the Germans decide not to cross at Wanze or Hingeon, they can move two spaces west to Namur, unless that bridge is covered. Or they could push southwest to Dinant in the hope of exiting the next turn through Fosse. Or just consolidate south in Marche and wait for the OKW panzer reserve reinforcements.
There are so many interesting choices to make in these first six turns that I’m sure they were playtested to death. The number of units, their strengths, the river lines, and the spaces themselves and their relationship to each other seem just perfect. Each move forces you to consider the three degrees of game freedom: units, time, and position. And on Dec. 22, the Allies get what the Germans had.
Sounds great, right? It’s an example of genius game design! Resource shortage reversal! Except it isn’t, because the Germans don’t actually lose anything. They have neither a dearth of units (they started with a lot and just kept getting more), nor a dearth of position (their supply is probably pretty well covered by then), and they certainly don’t have a dearth of time. Each turn brings them closer to the fully drained bathtub.
Furthermore, the carefully balanced combat system, which worked so well in the early going when multiple strong German units faced individual Allied ones, now comes apart. Because instead of multiple strong Allied units facing individual German ones, the Allies face an unbroken line of strong German forces entrenched behind rivers and in defensible terrain. Instead of gauging the odds of individual units coming up on the short end of the binomial distribution, the Germans can afford to suffer all but the most outlying results. The Allied counterattack isn’t a reversal of the German attack: it’s a completely different situation, and one for which the combat system is spectacularly unsuited.
Take a look at this late-game counterattack, on Dec. 26th. I’m attacking without the benefit of the British, who until this turn were stuck behind the Meuse River since the Germans never got that far to release them. All along the front are stacks of multiple German units in good defensive terrain. In a day in which I will have probably ten turns, only one of them is truly meaningful, which is the move from St. Hubert into Neufchateau (red arrow). The attack from La Roche into Sibret (blue arrow) has a chance of destroying the one-pip German panzergrenadiers, but there really isn’t anywhere to exploit to. I’ll use the rest of my turns to reposition some units, and maybe make a second attack stack up north, but that will take two full days, and the Germans have plenty of units and space to spare. Game pacing bogs down from the initial six-turn period, where every move counts, to the counterattack where you are often trying to find things to do.
Because I like examples, here is one of a game where the Germans do have a dearth of position. In case you think I’m pointing out someone else’s bad play, I’ll emphasize that the German player is me. I went for an unorthodox victory by pushing across the Meuse in the south, and got a lot of victory points for it. Unfortunately, since you can’t exit down there, when I didn’t get enough points to win, I had no choice but to try and hang on until the bathtub drained out. But with the lack of roads slowing me down and the southern board edge restricting my movement and supply, all of a sudden, I had a dearth of everything. The clock was truly against me, and I was severely restricted in my ability to deal with it.
This is really the only way the Allied counterattack can succeed: if the Germans can’t reposition themselves to protect their own units. But fixing this problem isn’t a straightforward as it seems.
Sure, you can start fiddling with individual rules: Release the British as soon as they appear. Cancel the Allied commandos. Change the bridge/river rules so the Allies can get across the Ourthe more easily. The problem with all this is that even a game as abstract as Battle of the Bulge has certain elements that make it feel like a historical wargame, even if the balance favors a very ahistorical outcome. A big reason for this is the game’s “chrome.”
Chrome is a wargame term for rules which add detail about a historical subject. It can carry a slightly pejorative connotation, but historical “chrome” is important. Battle of the Bulge models a lot of things that you don’t think about individually, but together make it feel like a Bulge game. The clear weather that allowed Allied air support to make a decisive impact on the battle, the reluctance to commit Montgomery’s British forces to the counteroffensive, even the militarily insignificant but narratively crucial commando operation meant to disrupt Allied movements by dressing English-speaking German soldiers in American uniforms, all add up to a cohesive presentation about a subject that is familiar to a lot of gamers.
Another popular suggestion is to change the victory point thresholds. But this ignores that game outcomes should correspond to real-world victory levels. Increasing the victory point requirements for a German victory could very easily result in the Germans exiting multiple panzer divisions and still not getting enough victory points to win, which would seem broken in the extreme. The real-life Germans never even sniffed the Meuse. Now they are going to lose even though a whole panzer corps crossed?
These factors anchor an abstract game like Bulge to its subject. If you start detaching the game from the event it represents, the perceived abstraction level increases dramatically. I’m not saying that it’s the same as making a match-three Battle of the Bejeweled Bulge, but if you start yanking out the historical connections, things can and do start feeling funny.
The problem is made worse that Bulge’s balance problem only exists in half the game. It’s so closely tied to the initial six turns that I’m not sure you could re-fashion the second half without mangling the first. It would be like rebuilding the back of a sports car while it was still attached to the front.
Some designers find the initial Axis thrust and the subsequent Allied counterattack to be such disparate entities that they give up on the latter altogether. Ray Freeman, designer of the excellent Tigers in the Mist, said this almost fifteen years ago: “I think that it is really difficult to design a balanced game where the tide turns completely.” He left the counterattack out of his game completely. I included his quote when I declared the problem finally solved. Ray, I humbly beg your pardon.
None of this was apparent to me when I reviewed the game. I played enough against the AI to realize it was hopeless, but the dozen or more games I played against live opponents weren’t nearly enough to reveal the endgame problems. I needed more like a hundred. Sometimes there is just no substitute for practice.
Yeah, yeah, you’re saying — so how do you fix the game? I hate to be such a doctrinaire conservative about this, but frankly, you don’t. Unless you want to redesign the entire thing, including the exquisite first six turns. I’d rather the game stayed what it is: a great vehicle for dual-game play where a player plays each side once against a single opponent and they compare results. Want a balanced game using this system? Hope that Shenandoah Studio learn from this and incorporate these lessons into El Alamein. After all, I like that subject better, anyway.
And stop declaring games balanced or imbalanced until you’ve played it a lot longer than you think you need to figure that out. Or else it will come back to bite you in the rear armor. That goes for me, especially.
Read Bruce’s previous Battle of the Bulge pieces: