Balancing rock-paper-scissors

Despite what “academic” game designers say, rock-paper-scissors is a valid approach to balancing classes. When done right, it is highly intuitive (though I never felt that paper beating rock makes sense conceptually).

Case in point: we have assassin units in Riftforge. Based on WoW and many other RPGs, people who play assassins expect that:

  • They can beat any ranged class, IF they get to them stealthed; at the same time, they will be killed, if said ranger spots them from afar<
  • Tanky warriors should be attacked from behind, when engaged with someone else (or at half health)

Which means that the rock-paper-scissors model that any designer working on an RPG has to be aware of is assassins > rangers > tanks > assassins. Deviations will need to be explained over and over. Use a tutorial, different artwork, or specialized unit names.

Let’s examine Zynga’s new game – Empires and Allies. The game offers combat and it is 100% based on a rock-paper-scissors model.

Zynga: Fighters beware, bombers at 2 o'clock!

Navy: Battleship beats Gunboat (Submarine), which beats Carrier, which beats Battleship.
This rock-paper-scissors wheel is spun in the right direction. When in doubt, I always start with the strongest, most-recognizable relationship. In this case, it’s Carrier beats Battleship. It has been proven historically (no new battleships since the 50s) as well as by such examples as Pearl Harbor. Submarine beating Carrier is definitely something that can happen, which is why carriers always travel with a Carrier Group, i.e. heavy escort.

Army: Infantry beats Artillery, which beats Tank, which beats Infantry.
This one isn’t as good as the navy one. The problem is with artillery beating tanks. Historically, this relationship runs counter to everything from the Charge of the Light Brigade to Desert Storm. There was a period during WWII when anti-tank cannons were viable but they disappeared soon after.

The way to solve this is to emphasize that this is howitzer type artillery (as the artwork indicates) and start with mortars (instead of cannons), upgradeable to Howitzers and so on. They beat Infantry (very intuitive) and get slaughtered by Tanks (equally intuitive). The infantry is already armed with bazookas, so minimal art changes are required.

Airforce: Bomber beats Fighter(!), which beats Airship, which beats Bomber.
Now this one is simply ridiculous. Yes, there is one historical exception: the Flying Fortresses during WWII have downed hundreds of Axis fighters, though many more were downed by the fighter escort.

However, modern bombers like B52 (Cold War legacy) and B2 (ultra-modern) in practice lack any anti-aircraft weaponry. The attack animation of the Bomber (just bombs) doesn’t help either. I doubt there’s even a single case of a bomb hitting an enemy fighter (in flight).

The solution again will require the wheel to be spun in other direction as Fighter beats Bomber is definitely the most recognizable relationship. Attack helicopters like AH64 can kill fighters with a missile (Sidewinder). The only strenuous relationship would remain between bombers and airships. I guess the easiest way to reduce the cognitive dissonance would be to redo the airship artwork and include an alternative attack animation for bombers (rockets).

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