Theory: Infinite-Size Units

One of the most interesting things in the Age of Sigmar rules, I feel, is allowing units of any size. Age of Sigmar makes that work by tossing balance aside as a design goal: hordes of troops (or, for that matter, hordes of gigantic firebreathing dragons on the wing) are OK because the opponent has bought into facing them. That leaves open, however, the question of what a balanced version of the idea would look like. How a game would have to work to allow players to take units of any size, and have it remain fair?

This is challenging in part because of the obvious arithmetic benefit to having lots of pieces (more weapons means more hitting), and in part because of the synergies inherent in most miniatures games. Such synergies exist because minis-game units generally exist in a rock-paper-scissors dynamic: tanks are vulnerable to tank hunters, tank hunters lose to massed infantry, etc. Having lots of one thing overloads the opponent’s ability to play the counter: the opponent probably has enough hunters for one tank, but if there are ten tanks the hunters can’t keep up.

So, we need a system that doesn’t directly reward having lots of troops arithmetically, and we also need to avoid RPS mechanics that might fall apart because no one could possibly have enough rocks to break an open-ended amount of scissors. Here’s my first pass:

Imagine a minis game where unit size determines, not mathematical power, but narrative role. Putting a single spearman on the table means that spearman is a mighty hero, the focal point of the story, capable of amazing things. A small number of spearmen (say, 5-10) is a disciplined unit meant to work as a team. Putting lots and lots of spearmen on the table makes them into a rabble, a horde, disorganized but threatening via sheer numbers.

All of these have the same overall power: a hero can mow down a rabble, and a rabble can swamp a hero. (Whether heroes should be mowing anyone down is a worthy question, but outside the scope of this exercise.) The challenge is that the different unit sizes access their power in very different ways. Heroes, for example, might be good at removing specific models (what chance does a member of a rabble have against such a terrible warrior?), but bad at exerting control over the battlefield as a whole. The rabble exerts lots of control (they’re everywhere!), but is weak until it can leverage that control to put lots of attacks on the hero at once.

All of that assumes, of course, that removing the opponent’s models is the goal. We could go even further, looking toward an asymmetric arrangement where the players win in different ways. Heroes accumulate victory points by performing remarkable acts of derring-do. Disciplined units earn points for keeping in formation and working together under pressure. The rabble gets rewards for shoving forward and taking over the board.

Now, the truth is that this might not work. So much of a minis game is in the math, and I haven’t even begun to consider what the math here would need to look like. Finding a way to handle combat where numbers are relevant but don’t directly add power is not trivial.

I still feel, however, that this is a worthy thought experiment. A miniatures game where numbers really don’t matter would be quite distinctive, a design that breaks new ground. There’s a lot to be said for pursuing that.

I need to start a tag for “projects for a 25th hour in the day” . . . .

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