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40K Tough Love: The Only Way To Balance The Game Is To Kill Half The Units

6 Minute Read
Jun 5 2019
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Let’s talk about why 40K has too many units to ever be balanced.

Balance is something people talk about a lot. Normally people say they want a balanced game and complain when a game isn’t balanced. Heck, we’ve talked more than once about balance, here, here, here, and here just to give a few examples.  In each of those articles, different authors look at the concept of balance, and the promise of balance that 8th represented. However, the truth is that given the size and design philosophy of 40k actual balance is impossible. Let’s take a look at why.

The Size Of The Game

Warhammer 40,000 is a HUGE game. Currently there are 25+ major factions in the game, supported by numerous sub-factions – and that number seems to be growing all the time. Aside from the number of factions, there is also a huge number of units in the game. Robbin Cruddice, the head designer for 8th, wrote in a White Dwarf early this year that when writing the Index books they had to write over 1000 datasheets. Since that time a large number of new units have been added to the game. Combined with the Imperial Armor Index books and the Forgeworld Beta rules for various units, I’d guess the actual number of legal datasheets is closer to 2000 at this point. When you add in the fact that most armies have several subfactions that can significantly modify datasheets you could realistically multiply that number several times.

Even just the simple number of 2000 units should tell you all you need to know. There is no way, even leaving out stratagems and subfactions, that that number of units could ever be realistically balanced. Given that every 40K unit is essentially unique, the designers were faced with an impossible task. Even before you get into aura’s, and other strange unit interactions, which given the huge number of units is a major factor, 2000 units can’t be both unique and balanced, it can’t really come close.

Army Size

Even leaving unit balance aside, the size of 40K doesn’t allow for armies to be well balanced either. Twenty Five-ish factions is a high order to try and balance, with some naturally being weaker that others. The issue is also compounded by the fact that factions have wildly different numbers of units. The Space Marine Codex has some 89 units in it, whereas the Harlequin Codex has 9 units (counting the webway gate).  It’s next to impossible to achieve balance with such a disparity of forces. The book with a larger number of units will always be more flexible and able to do more than the smaller book. Even if the larger book has a huge number of bad units, it has so many overall units it can kind of ignore them. On the other hand, one or two bad units can cripple a smaller book.

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This is only made worse by mega-faction soup in 8th, with some factions able to pick some several books. This has proven to again and again be the cases in 8th, with mono-build lists consistently performing worse than soup lists. Some Tau and Ork, and even the occasion Nid, lists have seen success, but nowhere on the same scale as the Imperial, Chaos, or Aeldari mega factions. Now, some of the smaller armies, such as Custodes and Imperial Knights, are very powerful on their own. They make up for their small unit count by, in essence, having very over powered units. Still, even these powerful units don’t do well in mono-Codex builds. Again, the sheer number of units and factions, coupled with the disparity in faction size makes balance impossible.

Can Anything Be Done?

Like I said, rules aside, the game is simply too big to ever be balanced. That said I think there are three main things, that would help without changing the base rules of the game. Those are:

  1. Increase the point scale. Given the model count of armies and the sheer number of units, the points scale in 40K is too small. The stared game is geared at 1750-2000 pts, and units are costed with that in mind. However, to fit within that, you’ve got a very narrow band of point costs you can work with, with most models falling between 4-13 points. This means, especially at the lower end, that you can’t change points on units or wargear without it having a massive effect. This is an issue that the game X-Wing also ran into, and I’d suggest a similar fix. Double the size of a normal game to 4000 pts and double the cost of everything in the game, then rebalance the points. This larger points spread allows for much greater fine-tuning of points which are needed given the huge number of units.
  2. Make everything cost points. Right now there are a fair number of things in the game that don’t actually cost points. Relics, for instance, are free, or at most cost command points. The same is true of sub-faction rules, warlord traits, and psychic powers. Since all of these things effectively cost the same as anything else from the same category, it’s impossible to balance them. In theory, they should all be equally good, but in reality, it’s impossible to make 6-20 equally good things. With everything being the same cost, players will naturally go for the best option. If you made players pay points for these choices, you could add some balance in.
  3. Remove a ton of units from the game. This is the most radical idea, but the only way to really get balance. The simple fact is, as I’ve said, the game is too big to be balanced. The only real way to fix that is to remove a ton of units. Even ignoring the Forgeworld units, most armies have a pretty large number of units that wouldn’t really be missed. These units see only sporadic play and don’t have a real role in the game anymore. I’ve talked about a few Space Marines units like this before, but there are many more. Overall I’d look at removing about half of the non-Forgeworld units.  I’d also remove the vast majority of Forgeworld units from the game. If you have to keep them in, then move them to Open and Narrative (Power Level) only. If you reduced the matched play units down to around 500, you’d still have too many, but you’d also be looking at a MUCH more balanced game.

Think of games like Magic the Gathering or X-Wing’s new edition where there is a smaller subset of “tournament legal” units the company updates from time to time out of the much larger pool of units from all time.

Was he right all along? 

Of those three fixes, the last one is by far the more important. Now it’s been argued that you don’t really want a perfectly balanced game. Still, I think most players long for more balance then we currently have. The only real way to get a more balanced game is to remove units. While there are plenty of reason to keep the large unit count of 40K, I think from a pure game play perspective cutting the number of units in the game in half, or more would lead to a much better game.

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Let us know what units you think the game could do without, down in the comments! 

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