STAR FLEET BATTLES

INPUT GUIDE- CL19

INPUT GUIDE: CAPTAIN'S LOG 19

DESIGNING FOR BALANCE

by Ken Burnside

    If every SFB player aspires to see his name printed in a product on something he created, then the greatest aspiration has to be to see your name on an entirely new race. While very few new races can be formally published, players can create their new race and post it on an approved Internet web site under ADB Inc.'s generous web policy. (The only thing you cannot do is publish it as a hard-copy product and sell it.)

    For your race to be described as "successful" (and perhaps find a place in a future module of the Sargasso Sector or some other place), players must find it interesting and fun to play. A big part of that is BALANCE. Your race must provide a fair fight against other races already in the game. If your race has a Gapper Zapper than can automatically destroy any target, everyone will want to play it but no one will be willing to play against it, which means it will never be played, talked about, argued in tactics forums, and come to the attention of ADB Inc. as something that maybe is so good it deserves to be a part of the real game.

    To be successful, your race should be balanced against and designed to fight at least two and preferably three of the main SFB races. This doesn't have to make historic sense. If your race is located at the point where the Gorn, Kzinti, and Hydran borders meet (a place that obviously doesn't exist) and your race is balanced to fight them all evenly, and to ally with any of them against the other two, then you could have a "successful" new race that people will talk about.
When discussing balance, there are a number of factors to consider. The first is offense-vs-defense. Most ships have these in rough parity. The Andros and Jindarians have defenses that far outweigh their defenses, and are notoriously hard to balance.

    In theory, any two "equal" ships should, over a period of seven turns and average die rolls, damage each other to about the same extent. If you balance your race against existing "core" SFB races this way, you can probably avoid letting the offense or the defense get out of hand. Nearly every defense should be something that most weapons can wear down over a period of time. This was why the Andros were given leaks and degradation points.

    You must also consider what happens in fleet battles. Take those notoriously tough Andromedans. Any individual Andro up to about 300 BPV is at worst an even fight against any Galactic ship of the same cost. Once you exceed this threshold, however, the principle of concentration of fire comes into play. The mothership is going to be about half of the Andro fleet. Any 500-point Galactic fleet can pretty much vaporize a satellite ship with each volley, and can do enough damage to the mothership to force its retreat. The point here is that offenses are additive but defenses remain the same for each unit.

    Once overall racial offensive/defensive balance issues are resolved, the next item of work is to balance your individual weapons systems. Three key factors define all weapons in SFB: Expected damage at a given range, the Power-to-Damage ratio, and throughput.

    Expected damage at range is the amount of damage a weapon does, divided by the percentage chance to hit. For example, a disruptor at range 15 has a 67% chance to hit for 3 points of damage, yielding 2 points of expected damage at that range.

    Power to damage is the expected damage at range divided by the total arming cost. For a disruptor at range 15, this is 1:1. At closer ranges, it gets up to 2:1. The two baseline heavy weapons, the photon and the disruptor, are almost identical in terms of power to damage, and peak at roughly 2:1, generating two points of expected damage per point of energy at short range, with an average of 1:1 across their effective ranges. Weapons that never reach the 2:1 plateau of efficiency get rejected by the playtesters. The "megaphaser" in Module P6 was so derided by the playtesters in its original form that we convinced Steve Cole to up the damage.

    Weapons that go beyond a 2:1 power-to-damage ratio should either have a reduced number on the ship, as TRHs or PPDs do (TRHs run about 3.16:1 to about 1.75:1), or should have a reduced range (as Fusion Beams and ESGs do), or should have an arming cycle that makes the weapon challenging to use. By far and away the nastiest weapon in SFB is the Warp Augmented Railgun, with an astonishing 5:1 power to damage ratio over most of its range, which is why everyone hates the Jindos so much and rumors of a redesign are rampant on the BBS.

    Very efficient weapons can be balanced by putting them on ships with suboptimal secondary weapons suites, such as the Jindarian's poor phaser arrays, or the Andro TR/phaser-2 setup. Longer arming cycles get a slight advantage in power-to-damage over quick-firing weapons due to the problems of using them.

    The closer you come to a 2:1 power to damage ratio, the easier your ships will be to balance. When designing a weapon, you should also have a peripheral thought as to what sort of ship carries it. Often times, a weapon design will suggest a ship design. (See the Fusion-armed Hydrans for an example. To use this short-ranged weapon, the ship is going to have to take a real pounding from the enemy. This is the reason that Hydrans have unified hull, and more of it, to protect more critical systems - and their fighter bays.)

    Phasers, or phaser-analog weapons, deserve a special mention here. Most phasers exceed the 2:1 sweet spot of heavy weapons. They can do this because of the flexibility of roles they'll be needed for: point defense, sweeping mines, and being the swing weapon of the ship. Most phasers have shorter ranges as well, which comes under the Fusion Beam example above. More importantly, if you call a weapon a variant on a phaser-1, it should exist in roughly the same amounts and do roughly the same damage as a phaser-1 in a ship-per-ship comparison. Nearly every phaser in Omega was changed to meet this guideline during the final stages of development.

    The third major issue in weapons design is throughput. Make a chart of your expected damages for your weapon, and multiply it by the largest number of complete firing cycles a cruiser's worth of that weapon will get in seven turns. Compare this to the output of the photon or disruptor, or the hellbore. The photon/disruptor should be your median or low end for how much your weapon will do. The hellbore should represent the higher end. Try to build weapons in such a way that your ship will have a pair of them, or three, or four. If your entire ship is built around one single weapons box, it won't work (or be much fun) if that box is damaged. Note that the mauler works only because it cannot be killed, the stasis field generator takes more than one hit to destroy, and the Romulan Warbird had to be given the ability to "launch the torpedo after the launcher is destroyed" in order to work. None of these is an especially elegant solution, but the players will often accept a special damage rule (e.g., your Gapper Zapper is hit only on Flag Bridge hits) if it makes the thing work.

    Consider range brackets and how they affect tactics. If the weapon does the same damage over range, its tactics will be boring since they take no thinking. Boring might work if the ship has other weapons it must work to bring into position.

    There are about three ways to make a weapon that is functionally identical to a disruptor, and ADB Inc. knows them all. Seek a weapon that adds something to the game, or you might as well use disruptors and find other ways to make your race interesting.

    When designing seeking weapons, consider whether or not the seeking weapon is the primary weapon or the secondary weapon of the race. If it's the primary weapon, how do you avoid the Plasma-on-a-Floating-Map problem? Can you create a seeking weapon that isn't useless or unbeatable on a fixed map?
Remember that seeking weapons do three things:

    These are listed in order of general utility to the ship that carries them. Think about what your seeking weapon does in each category, and how you want it to interact. Hyperdrones, for example, don't really affect maneuver because they are so fast no one can outmaneuver them. Most drones do not hit their targets, but do force the enemy to keep them from hitting their targets. Energy-based seeking weapons produce more damage per point of power than direct-fire weapons; they have to since they are hard to use. An enveloping plasma-R tips the scales at 7:1 in the damage-to-power contest, but can be outrun, shot up, or diverted. Seeking weapons are fertile grounds to add new technology to SFB.

    The typical layout of a cruiser in SFB is about 7-11 spaces of phaser capacitor, 4 "spaces" of primary heavy weapon, and 2 "spaces" of secondary heavy weapon. (The plasma-S is a bit big for a box, and the plasma-F is a bit small, which is why a set of one each matches nicely against a pair of photons or disruptors.) Have your ships evolve through one or two refits to provide players with distinct tactical eras.

    Feel free to experiment to find a way to make your race unique but still balanced. See what a ship would be like with more heavy weapons and fewer phasers. Or put a lot of moderate (1.75:1) weapons on a ship in different arcs. Ships should also be designed around their weapons, and vice versa. They should have a flaw - a weakness to conceal. One example of this is the weak rear shielding on pre-refit Klingons, or the short-range of the Hydrans, or the spread out phaser arcs and poor turn mode of the Gorns.

    A related issue to ship design and race design is "gizmo" design. The cloaking device, or Orion engine doubling, is a good example of a "gizmo". The Andros have almost nothing but gizmos. Every race should have a gizmo, a special effect that isn't duplicated by something or someone else, but it is possible to design a popular race that effectively has no gizmo (e.g., the Gorns, who got stuck with "extra GAS shuttles" as their gizmo). Try to avoid taking another race's gizmo and "do it right" (i.e., eliminate all of its drawbacks), or creating a gizmo that makes someone else's gizmo useless. Both of these will produce boring one-dimensional ships and tactics that players will find less than satisfying.

    You must remember that maneuvering to bring new weapons into arc or to keep down shields away from the enemy is a major guiding principle of SFB. If your ship has 360 weapons and can rotate its shields to cover any arc, then its captains will hardly have to maneuver at all to accomplish their mission, and the ship will be boring. (This might work effectively if you are building a robot-controlled ship which players could use when they cannot find an opponent. Such a "non-player robot race" might well become successful simply because it can be played solitaire.)

    Set up and test your ships in "historical matchups" (against those pesky neighboring Kzintis, Gorns, and Hydrans) and work from there. Try to design the ship and weapons for their intended missions. If you try to design a ship in a vacuum with no specific enemy, where it has to fight everyone, it really isn't going to work out as well as you had hoped.
Finally, playtest, playtest, and playtest. Go to conventions to find new players. Start with a CA and a TC, and test in both regular and tournament environments.

Copyright 1999-2004 Amarillo Design Bureau, All Rights Reserved

Updated 16 November 2004