A post over on quirkworthy
got me thinking. Many of the oldest guard in gaming criticize point systems as encouraging a competitive mindset, limiting imagination, encouraging gaming the point system rather than the game, and simply being incapable of ever accurately encompassing all the factors in the creation of a wargaming force.
They're all wrong, despite the fact that they're right.
Newer players will explain that point systems allow players to have games without the effort of creating a scenario or arranging matters beforehand, that they can be balanced much more than the oldest guard expect, and that a competitive mindset is not necessarily a bad thing.
They're all wrong, too, despite the fact that they're right.
Why are both groups wrong, and only I stand as a beacon of sanity and correctness in the wastelands of this debate? Because the first group doesn't see why point systems are critical, and the second group doesn't see why they encourage stagnation. Why scenarios are inferior
A wargaming scenario will offer two (or more) sides, a set of circumstances, and some victory conditions. A good scenario tends to offer each side a roughly equal chance of victory. They allow for unique and interesting possibilities, facilitate wildly disparate forces and goals, and often encourage entertainment and exciting hijinks even when one side gets utterly curbstomped. They also provide both players with a target for wrath if things seem to be going unfairly - it's the scenario's fault. The importance of this last cannot be overstated.
Nonetheless, they have problems. First, their creation can be work intensive, and requires a certain level of knowledge of the game system, which places significant limits on how many can be produced (this would have been even more of a problem before the Internet). Second, they tend to require specific terrain and armies. This can involve both budgetary concerns and the practical problem that a player may not be able to use their beloved units of choice in the scenario. Very sad. Third, outside of historical games, creating scenarios tends to be even more difficult because of the relative lack of relation science fiction and fantasy wargames have to their media of choice compared to the relation historical wargames have to theirs. A generic historical ruleset will still attempt to bear a relationship to history. A generic science fiction ruleset can be drawing on dozens of different sources, and may bear little or no relationship to any individual one. Interpretations of power armor alone can vary from "makes you invulnerable" to "makes your corpse identifiable". Similarly, fantasy can vary wildly on the power of magic, just how wonderful elves are, and just how much fire a dragon can breathe.
As sci-fi and fantasy wargaming grew in popularity, it thus became more and more important to come up with alternatives to scenarios. Point systems were the method of choice. Why points systems are better, but inferior
Point systems offer a lot of advantages over scenarios. It's easier to create a reasonably balanced game between two players, it's a lot easier to have a pick-up game, players have a lot more choice in the forces they will use, and scenarios can be a lot less detailed and thus a lot more generally useful ('have two 3000 point armies' is a lot simpler than 'have the British line of battle at Waterloo').
Point systems also, I think, encourage an attitude that probably creates better rule systems. Many old-school game designers will rely heavily on the good nature of the players and people playing the game in the way in which the designers intended it to be played. This is acceptable when trying to encourage wargaming amongst small groups of friends. For everything else, it sucks. Point systems encourage people to take a colder view of rulesets. From a design perspective, this should be a good thing - if designers look at their rulesets from a perspective of "how can I break this" and "what is this unit worth", the rules produced will probably do more to direct people toward the strategies, tactics, and units the designer intended to reward.
But, of course, point systems carry their downsides. People take game balance more seriously, and often game results. Games often stagnate into "equally-sized army vs. equally sized army". People begin to attempt to optimize their armies, and may often end up playing the army building system instead of the actual game (the number of people who would build outrageously broken custom mechs in Battletech then blame the game when it got dull would boggle your mind). And, of course, they are quite simply insufficient to the task of costing a wargame army in a completely accurate fashion (which does not mean we shouldn't try, of course).
Recently, many gamers (especially of Games Workshop's games) have begun to complain about the ascendance of a 'tournament mentality', and push for a more casual attitude toward the game and the point system. While their motivations are pure, I would suggest they're pushing in precisely the wrong direction. Why scenario construction systems are the logical future and hope of all gaming
The answer to the imperfection of point systems is not "take games less seriously" or "accept that points aren't perfect". Both of these things are necessary for a happy life, mind you. But point systems offer too many advantages for us to abandon them, and so the problems of point systems will continue to be encountered so long as they exist. Indeed, I would argue that being more cavalier about point systems will end up creating the worst of both worlds.
By using point systems, but not pushing to create the best point systems possible, both groups of players are hurt. More competitive players are hurt by a lack of balance and by being told they're playing the game wrong, and less competitive players are hurt by the retention of the limits of the point-based system. This also appears to allow game designers to hide behind the whole "oh, you're not playing it right" defense while still avoiding the energy of coming up with a lot of scenarios. Screw that.
Instead, the obvious thing to do is to incorporate elements of scenario design into the point system. Heavy Gear Blitz!, for example, does this with it's priority levels. Priority Levels limit what units are available in armies (and require other units). At lower priority levels, you need to accomplish fewer objectives. At higher levels, you need to accomplish more. The system is imperfect, but the concept is very sound, and suggests even more possibilities.
Allowing the purchase of fortifications, or particular terrain features, or the selection of objectives, and providing limitations that facilitate certain things are all effective ways to encourage more unique and varied playing experiences through a well-designed point system. Taking various elements of the scenario and moving them into the army selection process gives players more control over what they want to play and gives game designers more control over what players can play. It allows for many of the strengths of scenario-based play, such as asymmetry and varying goals, while still maintaining many of the advantages of points-based systems.
In short, the solution is not to regress back to scenario-focused games because point systems aren't perfect. The solution is to make the point system do more than just choose the forces involved, but to also choose elements of the objectives and battlefield. If such a system can be balanced (which is admittedly a difficult task), then the result would be superior to either a system of scenario construction or a point system focused simply around army construction, since it would allow a wide variety of players with a wide variety of goals to interact, play, cooperate, and sing in perfect harmony.
They might even buy a Coke.