40K’s Balance: The Chicken or the Egg

Chicken or the EggApparently the interwebz has decided that 40K is an unbalanced game on the heels of the Las Vegas Open. I know this comes as a surprise to many of you. I mean what could so unbalance this game? Allies? Nah. Lords of War? Can’t be that. Tau? Pfft. Not those Xenos. Eldar? Pointy eared freaks couldn’t be the cause. I just can’t see the root of the issue!

Seriously though, 40K’s balance has gone through various levels. When the moons have aligned just right the game has come close to being well-balanced but it’s in a constant state of flux. The game can be pretty close to balanced and then a new codex drops that shakes everything up. This is nothing new. I’m not saying it should be this way but this has been the case since the beginning of time.

There will always be players leveraging as much cheese as they can into a list. We’re humans, we’re competitive by nature. Could 40K stand to be more balanced? Certainly. Sixth edition makes it really easy to exploit the game. However, is the problem the game itself or how people choose to play it? To put it another way, is it the game or the environment and what players are expecting out of it?

We as players choose how and where we play our games. We can’t control the balance of 40K but we can control our environment. If you show up at a venue like the Las Vegas Open then you’re stepping into a really competitive environment and the opponents you face will by nature be competitive players, albeit various degrees of competitive. The expectations of attending an event like this are very different from playing your buddy in your basement. I’m not knocking the LVO, just using it as a good recent example for this discussion.

My point is that if the game is so unbalanced then why put yourself into an environment that’s only going to see that unbalance exploited to its fullest? I’m not just talking about large 40K tournaments. The same can be said of some gaming stores. In addition, why put yourself in that position and then be surprised to see the ugliness of 40K rear its head? If I walk into a bear’s den then I fully expect to get mauled and if I don’t then I would be surprised, not the other way around.

If a balanced game of 40K is what you’re after then it’s within your power to find like-minded players. Where I play 40K is generally pretty casual and fully of hobbyists. There are a few really competitive players but I generally choose to not play those people because that’s within my ability, fixing 40K is not. There’s a game store in the next state that some of us have traveled to for tournaments in the past. I went there twice and had a terrible experience both times. I have not been back since and will not go back because I did not enjoy the environment. It’s not within my power to change the environment there, it’s not my local gaming store, but it’s well within my capacity to remove myself from it.

Consequences are a direct result of our choices. Is it that 40K is so completely imbalanced that it’s not fun or that players are always willing to find that imbalance and use it to their gain that’s the issue? Honestly, it does not matter because you get out of the game what you put into it. If you fail to make the choices you can to make the game more enjoyable than you can only blame yourself.




I began playing Warhammer 40K in 2006, and have been an avid player and hobbyist since then. I have also been blogging about 40K for almost as long as I've been playing it, having started Creative Twilight in 2009.

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  • JustHippie

    I think playing the game for FUN is what people need to remember. I saw that list from the LVO and I just can’t even imagine the kind of person that wants to play with it. Is this guy off his medication? Did he just get released due to overcrowding? Maybe his Mom had the day off to drive him, IDK.

    There are plenty of venues for extremely competitive people and I don’t know why they would choose 40K. Don’t they want to feel like it was their skill and not the guys who wrote the rules?

    Nice article.

    • Thanks.

      The thing is, how could a list like that NOT be expected at a HUGE 40K tournament of that nature? Again, nothing against LVO but it’s not a fluff-bunny, hobby-centric tournament and that means a list like that is not only expected, it will be the norm. It’s based on that where the community is going decide that 40K is imbalanced? I don’t get it. What were they expecting instead?

      • Warren Falconer

        I am surprised at the internet hate that came from the LVO results. I don’t see how it was anything but expected. I think most of this reaction its generated to try to drive page impressions on those bigger websites. (not to imply that you don’t have a big website thor).

        Some people love that competitive level 40k. Others don’t. It is a game where you can choose who and what you play and be competitive in many different ways on many different levels.

        It is impressive to win that event, that guy is very good at the game, and could probably whoop us with most lists out there. (He placed second at adepticon with monoliths when people said that was crap.) People shouldn’t take that away from him. He played a lot of people that were playing a similar list lists that I wouldn’t want to play against.

        Great article.

    • Paulo Picolomini

      I was at the Las Vegas Open this weekend. I knew that the autistic math-hammer savants would be out in full force but I chose to bring a well painted fluffy bunny list anyway. I got slaughtered but wasn’t surprised about that since everyone knew that it was a huge competitive tournament. I would have been incredibly surprised if there were no powergamers there. I played five games and had the good fortune to not face any terribly cheesy lists (except for one Venom Spam list, but the guy was very friendly and seemed to feel bad for tabling me so quickly). I had a great time anyway because I knew I wouldn’t end up in the top eight. That took the pressure off and let me enjoy all of the social interaction with like minded gamers. One note though, I heard that one of the top eight players, the one with the White Scars/ Red hunters barely painted force, was a bit of an arrogant jerk.

      • One of these days I’ll make it out to one of the big events but they are all so very far from Maine. Assuming I did make it, I would do the same as you did, bring an army I enjoy, that suits me and just aim for fun. I would have no expectations of getting off the bottom tables and that would suit me just fine.

        Like you said, it’s about expectations and you went into it knowing what to expect. I would be a fish out of water there but I’m pragmatic and would know full well what I would be getting into. Some people tend to be optimistic to a fault though and set unrealistic expectations and are surprised by the results.

  • Ming

    Yeah, I heard all the hype about jetseerstar for weeks leading to the LVO and thought it funny that nobody wanted to pull the plug on allowing a 2++ rerollable save. MTG has dozens of banned cards to control and eliminate these types of situations. Can’t wait to hear all the ranting at Frontline about it….

    • The issue is in trying to control it. It’s an endless cycle of tail chasing to keep up on the current meta. Once you fix one hole then another appears and it’s back to square one often times.

      Which speaks to my point from the article. It’s not about fixing the game, it’s about what you want out of it and choosing where you play and who you play appropriately. If you aren’t interested in facing a netlist then you don’t show up at an event like the LVO, plain and simple. It works both ways too. If you’re after tough competition then you don’t show up at a hobby event to beat face either. We choose how we play the game and how we enjoy it but unfortunately too many fail to understand that.

      • ming

        Even in other game systems, sometimes gamers come up with combinations the designers did not foresee, and when that happens, I have no problems being told by the TO it would be banned from use at an event they organize. if you know that in advance, you just play around that combination and choose something else. In this case, the Baron is the source of the problem. Just ban the Baron or eliminate the ability to create 2++ invuln saves. Not a big deal. The guy who brought it to LVO did it on purpose, in part to call attention to the issue. Regardless, if I knew we were doing a fun game on a Wednesday, it would be fair for fun to let me know in advance you were bringing a nie invulnerable deathstar or other unit to give me a chance to deal with it.

        • Guest

          Just so you know Ming, the 2++ reroll wasn’t enforced. They reduced the second roll to a 4++. Big difference in efficiency and reliability. So your big complaint isn’t valid. As far as banning one character, that just seems silly. What seems overpowered and ridiculous to you may seem fine by others. Like Thor said, most people who go to an event like the LVO know what to expect and don’t cry about.

  • Epaminondas

    I do not buy that all game systems are not balanced; Games Workshop itself can write a balanced system. Warmaster and epic for example are pretty much perfect systems. For non GW, Flames of War is very balanced; while there is some rock paper scissors, terrain is a great equalizer… most of its balance issues mirror actual WWII situations. Take a medium armor company against a tiger platoon, and you in for a world of hurt. But an infantry company can drop enough artillery on the tigers to blind them with smoke and punch them out in close combat. Infantry suffers advancing into medium armor…

    My point is that GW’s two flagship systems have lazy army book writers, and terrible playtesting. GW can write good rules… they just do not most of the time.

  • I think it falls to the players to balance the game. Yes, GW could do a tighter job writing the rules and keeping each codex on an even keel. Yes, it might help their bottom line to offer a wider variety of competitive choices. But I don’t think they are trying to give us a tight, competitive rule set. I think they are trying to give us a game that we can be adapted to suit our needs. Each group will decide what rules they want to use and what rules they don’t like. At our FLGS we’re already doing this by generally excluding mysterious terrain/objectives, Escalation, and Stronghold Assault. Every little group of regular players is making minor game edits already.

    How many tactica/unit reviews have we seen pointing out some minor adjustment that would make an uber unit more balanced or a junk unit more viable? There are plenty of ideas out there to balance the system out, so why not start trying them out? It is entirely feasible to create and maintain a stable set of rules adjustments to balance the field. It’s done for Magic and there are thousands of cards to deal with. How would managing the several hundred units available in 40k be less possible? You don’t need to deal with the shifting meta, you just need to deal with new units as they are released plus any new monster combos that emerge. If everything is kept reasonably balanced it really doesn’t matter if the flavor of the day shifts.

    What we are lacking is consensus on a larger scale. We need a governing body, or at least a couple of larger event committees, to provide a reverence set. A decent sized section of the tournament community will quickly provide far more play testing than GW could ever execute so if they’re all working on testing and refining the same set of modifications they could balance things out relatively quickly. Once the foundation is set the same community could quickly fit new releases and developments into that rule set. Then the smaller local groups could announce that their events will follow “NAWC V6.3 guidelines” (or whatever) and everyone can prepare accordingly. It’s even likely that if a single, well managed, central guide book were followed by a large enough majority of event organizers that GW would incorporate that data into future editions to improve the balance of their systems. It’s free market research and development, they’d be foolish (if not entirely out of character) not to do so.

    In short, GW gets enough money from non-tourney players that perfect balance isn’t really their problem. Waiting on GW to fix it simply isn’t going to do you any good. Thor is right that we can control our experience by controlling who we play with and what we allow in our little groups. If the tourney community really wants consistent balance on a larger scale they have the power to make that happen.

    • JustHippie

      Why didn’t you write this article? lol

      Great points, GW just decided to drop ArdBoyz rather than to adjust their system to be more balanced for competitive play. From a marketing standpoint I would think they could see what MTG has going and follow suit to grow this game. Dumping all the responsibility on players makes it hard for the game to grow and encourage new players to join in.

      • Yeah, it did get a bit more wordy than I had intended…

        I think MTG has a good symbiosis between the players and the game designers. The players can generate far more play testing data than any design group could hope to, and the designers put that to good use to improve the game. I don’t know if that was originally driven by the company or the players though. In this case the players already have a wide communication net that could be leveraged create a standard rule set, or at least a few major sets. We just need someone motivated and organized enough to do to. The major events already seem to have their modifications, and I’m sure they look to each other for input at least on an unofficial basis. That seems like a good starting point.

    • For something like this to work, as you said, the community at-large needs to get onboard. It’s really an all-or-none situation. For example, if at XRG we start up our own rule-set for 40K to remove the abusive things then that’s great until some guy shows up who is completely unfamiliar with what we’re doing. Like you said though, if everyone got behind it and produced standardized rule-sets and the a community adopted it then that could work. It’s what the specialists games communities do.

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