Tcho Tchos – faction in flux

Balancing the Tcho-Tchos

From 1997 through 2009, I worked at Ensemble Studios, which produced large real-time strategy (RTS) games. They did the Age of Empire series, Age of Mythology, and Halo Wars. I had several tasks there (for one thing, I was lead design on three projects), but one of the more important ones was to be the game design element on the balancing team. One of the great issues with RTS games is that they are quite complex to balance, but even so, after 12 years on the job, I got pretty good at it. Today the Ensemble games are generally hailed as some of the best-balanced RTS games ever done.

Naturally I turned these skills to my account when working on Cthulhu Wars, which is why I was able to make the factions so asymmetrical and yet closely balanced. Yes I know there are perceived issues, but even the “worst” factions are only losing at a few percentage points less often than expected. (Nonetheless, I am not complacent and am still focused on bringing all factions to a full balance.)

Anyway, the Tcho-Tchos are currently my major balance task. (The rest of Onslaught Two only needs a few polishing tweaks.) My task is made more difficult by the fact that the problem with the Tcho-Tchos currently is that they are winning so often.

You see, one of my design rules is that I try not to balance by weakening something that is too strong. Instead, I prefer to boost factions or units that are too weak. Unfortunately, because the other 7 factions are complete, I can’t really boost them. If the Tcho-Tchos were losing games, I’d know what to do – make them better. But since they are winning … is a puzzlement.

Fortunately, not an insuperable one. Here is how I’m doing it – I do weaken or remove abilities of the Tcho-Tchos that are:

  • too complex, slowing down the game. (For a while, the Tcho-Tchos had a cult box in which they placed worshiped cult tokens. I dropped it just two days ago.)
  • too passive, giving them less to do. (at one time they were able to do a lot of special things when cashing in High Priests. The problem is that then they spent every turn sitting at home managing their High Priest economy, instead of getting out there and playing).
  • too overpowering. (their Tablets of the Godsability was able to wipe other players out. So it’s been changed.)
  • Too reminiscent of other, already-used, powers. (they had a Mimicryspellbook that let them move all their units for 3 Power. But I decided this was too similar to Undimensioned, so they lost it.)

Then, to make up for the fact that I just weakened something, I boost some other facet of the Tcho-Tchos, making it more interesting. This means they have to rely on a variety of techniques instead of just one over-strong power. This actually makes the Tcho-Tchos more fun to play (a one-trick pony is dull).

This “give them more to do” was a technique I used back in the old days of Crawling Chaos, when I originally had Thousand Forms be re-usable, but cost 2 Power. So sometimes you got nothing, and rarely it cost you Power. The problem was that Crawling Chaos basically spent all his turns using Thousand Forms again and again until he’d built up some points, and only then did he start playing (there was a limit that you couldn’t do it if someone was out of Power). By making Thousand Forms a one-use per turn, I could make it cost 0 Power, and be way more powerful. But he also can’t rely on it as his only ability.

People have been asking about the Tcho-Tcho abilities, but of course they keep changing, so whenever I talk about them, by the next week I have made changes. Mostly minor ones. Occasionally major ones.

Last night we played the Tcho-Tchos again, and again they won. I do notice that they never win by a huge margin – other factions are always right behind. And I also notice that they play the way I want them to – pull ahead to a solid mid-game lead, then start getting slammed in the late game. If the game had lasted one more turn, the Tcho-Tchos would definitely not have won. (But it didn’t.)

The Tcho-Tcho behavior is now actually what I want it to be, though plenty of balance work lies ahead. I expect to be doing this all through the rest of 2015. My goal is to complete their balancing by New Years Day. Note that this won’t delay their publication – doing the sculptures is far more time consuming that putting together then faction sheets & spellbooks, so the latter can be assembled much later and still get the product out on time.

Well, this is just a short window into the balancing process and how Sandy does things.

In the end, here are the changes I made.

  1. Hierophants now also gives every other player a High Priest when activated.
  2. Tablets of the Gods requires that a High Priest be present at each Gate he is activating for the extra Elder Signs.

These two changes have these effects: first, Hierophants is a real decision. Sometimes it won’t be the first spellbook the Tcho-Tchos get, out of fear. Tablets of the Gods now forces the Tcho-Tchos to spread out, and be more vulnerable to attack. Both of these make the game more fun and interesting for both the tcho-tchos and the other players. Enjoy.