Nerfing & Buffing & Windwalker

In many parts of the video-game industry, the words “nerf” and “buff” are used by designers when adjusting game balance. “Nerfing” means you’ve weakened a unit or faction or ability. “Buffing” means you’ve strengthened it. This can be done in a lot of different ways.

For example, in the game Age of Empires II, I had to buff the English longbowmen, who were getting punked by their foes. Instead of changing their combat abilities, I made them cost wood & gold. Almost every other soldier in the game costs food (either food & wood or food & gold), but NOT the longbowman. This meant that even when you were low on food, you could pump them out. It also meant that they didn’t directly compete with other soldier types in your economy, so the English player could generally afford a good number of these. They were not only restored to viability, but also they were made significantly more interesting, without changing their combat statistics.

My usual philosophy about “nerfing” a unit is that instead of making it weaker, whenever possible, I want to make rival units stronger, so they “catch up”. For example, in Cthulhu Wars, I sought to make all of the Great Old Ones over-the-top in frightfulness. Sometimes, however, I have to outright cut someone back in strength. When I do this, I always want to “make it up” to the targeted unit or faction with something that makes them cooler in some way.

Recently we determined that Windwalker needed a small balance nerf. There are lots of reasons for Windwalker’s strength as a faction, but one obvious one was Hibernation. This ability lets him end his Action phase, and then earn Power equal to the number of enemy Great Old Ones in play. In a “normal” 5 player game, this is 2-4 extra Power a turn by the late game. You see, he’d invariably Hibernate at 1 Power, then earn 3-5 Power depending on how many enemies were out there. So of course he was, in effect, “losing” that one extra point since he couldn’t spend it if he wanted to Hibernate next turn. Still, this was enough that a skilled player could often (not always) parley it into an advantage. Anyway, we found that among experienced players in 4 player games, Windwalker was winning around 30% of the games, instead of 25% (which is what I would prefer of course, because this means the factions are perfectly balanced).

So I adjusted Windwalker so that his Hibernation ability cannot more than double his current Power. This means if he Hibernates when he has only 2 Power left, he cannot add more than 2 more Power to his total before sleeping, no matter how many enemy Great Old Ones are out there. We like this change a lot (even our Windwalker players like it, despite the fact it weakens him slightly), because it gives Windwalker an interesting decision – when to Hibernate. You see, under the old system, he always Hibernated every single turn. This is no longer worth doing. Say that there are 4 enemy GOOs in play. If he hibernates every turn at 4 Power, to maximize the Power he gets from the GOOs, then he is earning an extra 4 Power (yay), but he is also Hibernating with 4 unspent Power (boo) for that maximum. He is much better off if he instead Hibernates every OTHER turn, or as necessary. This way instead of every turn having a moderate Power boost, now every other turn he gets a really big boost, which is more fun for him, and fairer to the other players.

We made one other change. He has a spellbook requirement which reads, “take this spellbook at any time. For each other player with 6 spellbooks, earn 1 Elder Sign”. This was a potential imbalance in a large game – if Windwalker was able to wait till all 7 other factions had 6 spellbooks, he could get 7 Elder Signs (he can’t always wait, of course)! So this spellbook has been capped at a maximum of 3 Elder Signs, which is still plenty, and will keep him from over-benefiting from a large game.

These changes are incorporated into the Onslaught Two and later versions of Windwalker, plus we sent out new Windwalker faction boards in Onslaught Two to anyone that wanted them.

LETS TALK WINDWALKER

I was recently reminded that I didn’t do a Design Corner for Windwalker. He is a pretty straightforward faction. Basically he has three big strategic decisions.

First – which Area do you start in? On the Earth map, your choices are the Arctic Ocean or Antarctica, but all maps share a similar choice. Typically one of the two start Areas gives you better access to enemy homelands, but also gives them better access to you. So this decision helps set the tone for the game. Do you want to be in the mix, slugging from the start? Or do you want to sit back and wait till you’ve built up a bit? There is no right or wrong answer here – it’s just what you think will work for the particular mix of factions – and player personalities – in this particular game. Remember that if you choose the “safe” start Area, while this will mean you are likelier to be sale from molestation, it also means it’s harder for you to bring your conquering army to bear in the late game.

 Second – do you awaken Rhan-Tegoth in your start Area, or in the other Area? If you awaken Rhan Tegoth in the alternate Start, this helps you to get that Gate up earlier. But it also leaves Rhan Tegoth far from the rest of your units, where he might be vulnerable to Cthulhu, Nyarlathotep, or other predators. Yeah, he’s “Eternal” so you can keep him alive, but it still costs Power better-spent on other things. The safest way to get your gate in the alternate Start Area is to awaken Rhan-Tegoth in your real Start Area, then later on awaken Ithaqua, then use his Arctic Winds ability to march your entire crew up to the other area, then build your Gate. Though this is the “safest” this doesn’t mean it’s the best – choosing the path of safety in Cthulhu Wars oft consolidating your end-game score by giving up 1st place in exchange for 2nd!

Third – when do you launch your final attack? Generally speaking, Windwalker has one BIG turn in which he scores a lot of points. If he’s really lucky, he has two such turns. But you can rely on one. You need to time it such that your army is at its peak (or nearly so – if you wait till you have EVERY unit out, you are almost certainly waiting too long), then plow across the world, stealing Gates from your enemies, and trying to end up with 5-6 Gates under your control at the end of the Action phase. This is eminently doable. Even if you only Ritual twice during the game, you should be able to earn an easy 9 extra Doom from these, and 4 Elder Signs. Add to this the Elder Signs from your special spellbook requirement, and you should at least be a contender! But of course you needn’t settle for contender. Go for it all!

Here are the two tips to remember: First, don’t put off summoning Gnoph-Kehs. The first one costs a lot, so people often wait till “they can afford it”. But tomorrow never comes. You need to do it when it still hurts a bit, to ensure a potent force with Ithaqua – if he has 4 Gnoph-Kehs, he is really scary, plus Berserkergang gives him an almost-certain extra kill.

Second, don’t be afraid of your enemies. Hit the guys who have the most Doom, and the biggest and baddest armies. You can take it. You’ll annihilate them!

Look at this example: It is turn 5, and you are boldly attacking Crawling Chaos in his home base. He has 3 Cultists, a Nightgaunt, a Flying Polyp, and ol’ Gnarls himself. Of course two hunting horrors teleport in. You have Ithaqua, Rhan-Tegoth, 3 Gnoph-Kehs, a Wendigo, and 1 cultist (all you could afford to bring). Both your armies cost 23 Power. Say Nyarlathotep is at around 21 Doom (not implausible for this time in the game). You’ll roll 21 dice.

Pre-Battle – Crawling Chaos sacks his Nightgaunt, you’ll lose your cultist. Your Wendigo Howls one of his cultists out of the Area. The Flying Polyp turns one of your Gnoph-Kehs invisible.

Battle – Crawling Chaos rolls 17 dice. You’ll roll 21 dice. Say you both score 3 kills.

Post-Battle – you take 1 hit on Rhan-Tegoth, leaving 2 more hits. Take one on a Gnoph Keh, and one on your Wendigo. Then use Cannibalism to spawn a cultist or Wendigo in the Area (I recommend a cultist for reasons to be seen), meaning you really only lost 2 cost-1 units (the Abducted cultist & the Gnoph-Keh). You now apply Berserkergang to kill an extra enemy, meaning he lost 4 units.

Aftermath. Crawling Chaos lost his Nightgaunt (Abduction), 2 cultists, a flying polyp, and a hunting horror. Everyone is pained out of the Area except Rhan-Tegoth and your newly-spawned Cultist. Since Rhan-Tegoth already took a hit, and the new cultist wasn’t part of the fight, even Black Goat’s Necrophagy can’t kick you out. You killed 8 cost worth of units to your 2 and captured the Gate. Of course, Nyarlathotep does get 4 Elder Signs. Nothing’s perfect. See how scary you can be?

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