Second edition has introduced a lot of cross over between factions; new mercenaries, new dual faction models, and new hiring rules. Not to mention the options that upgrades add. But, with all of the potential combinations, how do we maintain a balanced environment? I think, on the whole, most people agree second edition is a relatively well balanced game, so how did we do it?
I’ll get into a few specifics down below, but the most important thing is a shift in philosophy. The goal is not to create a balanced system by hammering down problems as they pop up like some infernal game of whack-a-mole; the goal is to create a system that is capable of correcting itself.
Some people look at a game system as a machine that requires constant maintenance. But, over the years, you’ll end up with rubber bands holding the whole thing together and duct tape keeping the fender on. I see a game system as a living thing. My goal is to give it the tools it needs to survive and then let it correct itself.
So, when we go about balancing Malifaux with all of those models switching factions, everything needs to be looked at through that lens. Accept that the system is larger than you. Accept that you won’t catch everything. Trying out every single potential combination is simply impossible unless we want to beta test for years. Instead of worrying about the whole, we worry about the parts. A healthy system is created from the ground up, so first we want to make sure that models are balanced individually. Maybe, during the beta, nobody ended up testing a crew with Seamus, a Showgirl, Killjoy, and Taelor all together. However, even though that specific list wasn’t tested as a whole, so long as each of the models in it is balanced, we will probably be fine.
This is the first lesson: balance models individually. We can’t balance the game by saying, “Well, Resser masters are weaker than those of other factions, so we can give them stronger minions.” (This is an example I am making up, by the way, Resser masters are fine). If we follow that line of thinking, what happens when other factions start hiring Resser minions? Similarly, we couldn’t say, “Arcanists have weak 4 stone options, so we can give them stronger 7 stone options.” (Again, making this up). This has the exact same issue. What happens when Arcanists can hire 4 stone models from other factions? What happens when that 7 stone model ends up elsewhere? Not to mention, this would probably just lead to Arcanist players spamming 7 stone models.
I’m not saying that the factions need to lose their identities; they all still have distinct areas of strength and weakness. Guild have more range options, Ressers have more summoning, Neverborn have more movement, etc. What I am saying is that each model in a faction needs to be balanced as an individual. If all of the parts are working, the crew you create from those parts should work as well.
Of course, this doesn’t cover everything. We’re all gamers; we’ve all seen what happens when there are two models/cards/whatever with rules that work individually but, when combined, create some stupid infinite loop or other silliness. How do we avoid that? Well, models which are capable of being broken like that tend to have some warning signs. As a designer, you need to learn to recognize those warning signs and work them out even if you haven’t found a specific model which causes a broken combo. Generally, anything which copies an action from another model can prove problematic, so we keep a very close eye on these abilities. That’s why they frequently restrict the use of copying abilities which mention a model by name or using triggers. Anything which adds suits can be problematic as it can result in unlimited triggers. Models with these abilities are usually closely watched (for example, the Daydream can add suits but, being the Dreamer’s totem, we know exactly which model he is adding suits to. Somer can add suits, but he can only do it to gremlins and pigs so we don’t need to balance all mercenaries around this ability, etc).
Finally, the last thing to watch is simple language. Anything which is too open ended can end up being a problem. Let me give you an example. Here is Shenlong’s Burn Like Fire action from the beta a week ago:
(1) Burn Like Fire (Ca 6 / TN: 10 / Rst: Wp / Rg: 6): Target enemy model suffers 1/2/3 damage. If the target has a Condition, this model may choose to gain that Condition.
Here is his Burn Like Fire action from this week:
(1) Burn Like Fire (Ca 6 / TN: 10 / Rst: Wp / Rg: 6): Target enemy model suffers 1/2/3 damage. End all instances of the Defensive, Focused, Fast, and Reactivate Conditions on the target. This model gains all Conditions ended in this way.
See the difference? This week’s version is much more restrictive, spelling out exactly which conditions he may gain. Now, did I find some broken combo involving this? No, but I acknowledge that there very well could be one I’m not seeing, if not now then in the future. Keeping the wording tight keeps the game healthy.
The other thing which you really need to watch is the number of debuffs available to a crew. Although watching the whole system is impossible, you can track how many models have an ability capable of debuffing (lowering the stats of other models around them) that may be taken outside of their native faction. If a crew ends up with too many of these models, it can make for an unfun game. This is why Montresor lost mercenary, and Iggy is being watched very closely.
If you follow all of these rules, you should have a relatively healthy system. But I mentioned earlier that I see a system as a living thing, and a living thing is going to need some tools to survive. The final piece of the puzzle is creating a few answers to potential problems which are available to absolutely everyone. This is where the mercenaries really shine. Each of the named mercenaries adds something unique which can be very useful from a meta perspective. Let’s have a look at them.
Johan, in addition to being an efficient model, has Rebel Yell which can remove conditions from a model. Conditions are a huge part of second edition, and it’s very possible that a player could run into a situation where they really need to get rid of some of them. Having a model available to every faction with this ability really helps level the playing field.
Taelor has Welcome To Malifaux (my personal favorite action that I designed in Wave 1, just as a side note) which gives her some good anti-summoning tech. Summoning is another big part of second edition and I think it’s necessary for all crews to have an answer to it. Keep in mind, this isn’t something we put in to answer a specific problem. We didn’t look at the meta and say, “Nicodem’s summoning is too powerful, so we’ll let everyone use Taelor. Problem solved!” That would be terrible design. However, we acknowledged that playing against a summoning crew can be a big shift in thought for people new to Malifaux (after all, most wargames only remove models from the table, they don’t come back on). And, in a small playgroup where a player may end up facing the same crew over and over again, it’s good to give that player an answer if they are getting frustrated. It’s also good from a tournament perspective if a player is familiar with the meta in their area; everyone always playing summoners? Pest control is on the way!
Hans can snipe upgrades off of models. Now, he is definitely the most controversial of the models listed so far. People seem to be worried about his ability to remove upgrades from masters (since upgrades are usually a big part of a master’s playstle). While this is a valid concern, we were aware of it when designing Hans, and Leader models can mitigate this ability by discarding cards. I have never personally seen a Leader have an upgrade removed by Hans unless they felt the cards were more valuable (in which case, they weren’t too attached to the upgrade anyway). People are more worried about the idea than about how it actually functions. However, perception is important, and with Hans filling this role, I have no intention of adding more models with this capability. Alright, controversy out of the way, Hans plays a role just as important as Johan and Taelor. Upgrades are a big part of second edition, and it’s good to have an answer to them to shake up the meta a little bit. Hans was never designed to take upgrades off of Masters; he was designed to take upgrades off of enforcers and henchmen (and he’s good at it). Like the other two, Hans isn’t an answer to a specific problem. However, if a player finds themselves facing an opponent who takes the same list over and over again, he can be used to shake things up. Sick of your friend always taking Decaying Aura on Bete Noire? Hans is your man.
That’s all I have for right now. Just remember the goal. The goal is not to create a machine and keep it running forever, the goal is to create a living thing that takes care of itself.