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The point of points systems

January 13, 2005 1:50 PM - Posted by Robartes - Category: General

Many rulesets of various periods and genres provide not only army lists but often a points system as well, where each troop type in the army list is accorded a certain points value, with a higher value generally indicating a ‘better’ troop type.

Points systems, as many things in life, have their advantages and disadvantages, and their champions and detractors. In this entry, I’ll try to present some of these views and issues. I expect quite a lot of reaction to this post, since I know that Phil, for instance, has quite firm views wrg points systems. That is of course a good thing, and one of the reasons we started this blog in the first place.

So, what is the advantage of a points system? Superficially, one would say that a well thought out points system would enable players to select balanced armies so they can expect a fair game. However, when one looks deeper into this, it appears that is a bit of a flawed assumption. Firstly, experience has shown that it is very hard to design a well balanced points system (the many, many threads concerning the latest killer troop type on various mailing lists bear witness to this fact), so having two equal points armies does not guarantee a balanced or fair game. Secondly, games between equal points armies, while probably the most appropriate for tournament situations, are often somewhat sterile at best and genuinely uninteresting at worst. A scenario, possibly because those feature a skewed force distribution more often than not, generally leads to a more interesting and exciting game.

So that’s an advantage that turned out to be if not a disadvantage, then at least neutral in character. There is however an advantage to points systems that is related to the above and is a true advantage. Points systems make it possible to play against anyone and anywhere and (within the limits stated above) know what to expect; they enhance the portability of rules. To provide the archetypical example, someone from Belgium can easily travel to the UK (and many do) armed with a 400 points army and be assured to find a gamer or two on the other side of the channel with a compatible army, and can also expect to play against this army with little in the way of problems (not related to tactics on the tabletop, that is :) ).

The disadvantages of points systems are twofold: they promote a ‘shopping list’ mentality, and they seem to attract the type of player that enjoys tweaking army lists and squeezing the last possible advantage out of the various lists, regardless of what kind of weird or downright silly army results from this process.

The shopping list mentality is the antithesis of historical wargaming: no historical general ever gathered an army based on point based systems. They never went “oh, I seem to have some points left over, let’s see … ah yes, some Iberian slingers will do just fine, and that leaves me with enough points to get one of them elephants that Macedonian fellow was raving about earlier.” Instead, historical generals fought with what they were provided with (OK, to be fair, there were mercenaries which could be hired, but I’d argue that the vast majority of ones troops were not of this kind — you fought with what you had available). Building armies from shopping lists is skewing history quite a bit.

The second disadvantage is probably among the top three of Most Annoying Qualities in Wargamers: the munchkin attitude. You know the type of player — try to find the loopholes in the points system (and there inevitably are loopholes) and build an army around them, no matter what that army might be. This is the oft mentioned quest for the killer army or the killer troop type. While this exists outside of points systems as well, the existence of points systems is a force multiplier for this behaviour. Nobody likes this kind of behaviour, I should think.

In conclusion, I’d consider points systems as a necessary evil. While they encourage some of the most abrasing behaviour in the hobby, they do facilitate the portability of the games and armies, which in a hobby which is as insular and distributed as ours, is worth its weight in gold - or points :).

Let the commenting begin.

Update: it seems that minutes after I posted this item, we got a whole slew of comment spam (advertising various contact services in Germany, if you’re curious) — that’s not quite what I meant with ‘let the commenting begin’ :)

Comments on this entry

Ah, yes, one of my holy wars!

The portability issue is indeed the most cited of point systems, but if rule designers would make army lists in bigger building blocks, lots of problems can be solved. E.g. in ancients armies, you could have 3 types of ‘commands’, each of which have a fair mix of unit types. One command could have mostly slow but heavy troops, other commands fast but light troops. You can still show up to someone’s house for a battle of ‘4 commands’, which would provide a good and realistic troop mix.

One thing you haven’t mentioned is that building an army from a shopping list can be a lot of fun for some people, sometimes even more fun than playing the game itself. In some way it’s a form of solo-wargaming, in which you are imagining how different armies would behave on the battlefield. It’s like building your Magic-the-Gathering decks.

But I admit that point-based scenarios are not really my cup-of-tea. I still like to pretend that what we do on the table bears some resemblance to what happened or might have happened in real or imagined history, and point-based army lists do not have a place in that view.

My best memories of games are from scenerio-driven games, and most of the time, I don’t even remember which side won. I just remember it was a good game with a good flow and a good storyline.

So, slap some troops on the table, and go!

January 13, 2005 10:58 PM - Posted by Phil Dutre

I guess I should disagree a little with the two Gentlemen of Leuven. I know what you both mean about the list obsessive wargamer, but sometimes I confess that it happens to me as well. I will start looking at a DBM list, which is a particularly good system for list addicts, and naturally one wants to try to solve the puzzle - what is the best list you can extract for your available points.

It’s fun.

OK, it may not be historical simulation. But as long as it doesn’t pretend to be then it doesn’t matter, I think.

I think there’s room for army lists, they’re jolly useful if you want an evening’s game and haven’t had the time to set up a whole scenario.

And how many times (and I remember these complaints from the Hero Days of S&V) have you heard people complaining after a scenario game about it being ‘unbalanced’. A points system can help here.

Where the points don’t work is in lazy systems, where the points ratios are a bit random and not thought through. Whatever one says of DBM, I think the authors have a done a very good (if not perfect) job of working out points values and then translating them into reasonably consistent lists.

January 19, 2005 9:35 PM - Posted by Alan

I do concede to all the points made by Alan. I admit building armies from a point list can be fun (I’ve done so myself many times when I was still a GW fanboy). It makes things more practical, and they can indeed provide a quick sanity check for a game you put on the table.

However, the basic issue is one about what you look for in a wargame. This touches on one of our previous discussions about Wargame Elitism. Are you looking for a game, in which toy soldiers and the idea that it is about some war is only secondary, or do you maintain the idea that you’re simnulating war (yes, I know we’re not similating war as such, but as close as one can get using toy soldiers)?

If one says “it’s all about historical simulation”, then I think shopping lists are fairly stupid to use. If its about setting up an enjoyable, fairly-balanced, not-necessarily-rooted-in-history game, then yes, a good army list system is an advantage.

What irks me more though, is that some people (not us, of course, being renownded veteran wargamers, but all those other amateur wargamers out there :-)) use army lists in a way they were not designed to be used:

  • treat them as a historical facts
  • exclude all other army compositions, even in friendly games
  • attribute an absurdly exact measure of fairness to army lists
  • believe that there is such a thing as a perfect mathematical system that can provide the absolute correct point value for any troop type.

January 20, 2005 2:04 PM - Posted by Phil Dutre