The Astral Contrarian: Army Restrictions in GHB2017

In this semi-regular feature, Jamie the Jasper heroically and fruitlessly argues a point abut Warhammer that most people will probably disagree with, whilst hoping that his tawdry Age of Sigmar memes will start to gain some traction.

Everyone loves matched play in Age of Sigmar. At least I assume they do, since it's the only one of the 3 ways to play that anyone bloody talks about. So I'm going to talk about it too. That way, for a single fleeting moment, I can feel like one of 'us' rather than one of 'them'. I'm down with the kids. Matched play 4 life.

Here is my current matched play brainthink; I don't think the minimum battleline requirements in The General's Handbook 2017 are necessary. Then again, I didn't think they were necessary in 2016 either. I also don't think we need restrictions on heroes, behemoths and artillery. 

Warhammer Age of Sigmar Meme

The only argument in favour of these restrictions that holds any water with me is that they help to ensure that the game plays somewhat like two plausible armies meeting on a battlefield. As a person who cares about narrative and theme I can fully get on board with that. Conversely, as someone with at least a little more understanding of how game mechanics work than your average punter (I randomly have a degree in computer game design), the very existence of the army composition restrictions drives me to distraction. I think I can make a reasonably solid case that, from a purely mechanical standpoint, these restrictions are unnecessary - not just unnecessary in fact, but completely redundant.

'Hero', 'battleline', 'behemoth' and 'artillery' are just labels that loosely categorise a wide variety of units that even within each category might have vastly different roles and abilities. This means that the effect of these restrictions will be highly variable depending on the units available to your army, so if you're thinking these restrictions provide balance versus picking your units freely, actually they're just a different type of distortion.

If these types of restrictions help create balance between any two armies that might face each other then why stop there? Why not restrict the number of wizards, flying units and ranged infantry? These types of unit have the potential to affect the flow and balance of the game at least as much as something one might classify under 'artillery'. If restricting by unit type really helped to balance the game then by extension these additional categories would help balance things even more successfully. But GW haven't done that, despite ranged infantry in particular running rampant, and this alone should give everyone a sneaking suspicion that the existing categories are at least somewhat arbitrary. Are Skull Cannons (artillery) really more in need of being restricted than Kurnoth Hunters (ranged infantry)? Is limiting the number of Gargants (behemoth) people can take really so much more important for balance than limiting the number of Tzaangor Skyfires (flyers and ranged infantry)?

These are extreme examples and I could just as easily pick and compare units in a way that proves the opposite of the point I'm making here - but in a way that kind of is the point. It doesn't matter what categories you break the vast range of Age of Sigmar units down into, within those categories there will be units that range from the feeble and irrelevant to the terrifyingly powerful and everything in between. So why is it deemed necessary to restrict some of those categories but not others? It feels very arbitrary to me. You could break the AoS range down into as many categories as you like, restrict 4 of those categories at random, and I suspect that the effect on game balance would be the same; that is to say, minimal.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar Meme

Let's also consider the fact that we already have a mechanic for balancing the game - points. Points which are, presumably, determined by a lengthy, laborious and detailed process that takes into account the stats and abilities of each individual model and values them accordingly. In a system where you have such a thorough and granular mechanic for restricting army composition, having a second much more arbitrary and less granular mechanic running in parallel is completely redundant. It's like arranging your DVD collection in alphabetical order, but also having a second parallel system written down that classifies them by the name of the studio. The second system undeniably has a purpose, but in 99% of cases it's going to be redundant because the first system is so much more effective, and a much better solution for when you're trying to decide what film you want to watch.

I'd argue that the same is true of the army composition restrictions in Age of Sigmar matched play. They have some kind of very minor role in promoting balanced armies, but they're largely redundant because the points system running alongside them is already delivering 99% of the balancing solution.

Finally, having hopefully demonstrated that these restrictions do absolutely nothing for balance (or at least do so little that it's hard to justify their existence) I come to the one remaining reason why you might argue that it's beneficial to have them in place - unit spam. Let's leave aside for the moment that these restrictions don't stop anyone spamming flyers, ranged infantry or 'battleline' units that have the potential to be absurdly powerful (see the recent Murderhost turn 1 wipeout brouhaha). What about spamming heroes and behemoths? Well, firstly the composition restrictions are still somewhat generous and you can still fit a lot of these guys in a matched play army, so a certain degree of spam is still possible - if 4 of behemoth X is acceptable then why not another 4? If you're army is built in such a way that it can handle 4 Bloodthirsters plus a load of other units then it can probably handle 8 of them on their own, don't you think? Secondly, 99% of spam armies are going to be highly uncompetitive in a matched play environment in any case because they'll struggle to win scenarios - if people want to shoot themselves in the foot, why restrict them from doing so? I've read about your tournaments online and one of them even happened in my home town once (I didn't go), so I definitely know what I'm talking about here.

Warhammer Age of Sigmar meme

So if we assume that everything I've laid out above is definitely 99% correct (damn I love that statistic), and that the army composition restrictions are a redundant method of creating balance, why do they even exist? GW have been designing games for decades and would surely know if they were a pointless mechanic. My theory is that they exist to give competitive players the illusion of an additional layer of balance. We all know (broad-brush stereotype alert) how much competitive players harp on at GW for not balancing their games properly. It must be pretty exhausting and infuriating for GW. The army composition restrictions are a simple, highly visible way for GW to appear to be doing something that addresses game balance, thus undercutting a lot of the irritating mouth-noise and keyboard-beef that would otherwise be aimed their way. People will complain that the points aren't balanced correctly until the cows come home, but a nice clear table with lovely round numbers and friendly digits that takes up less than half a page of space; that's something the human psyche feels it can depend on. I'm calling it; the emperor has no clothes.

So to sum up, these restrictions are unnecessary, arbitrary and do nothing of any real consequence for game balance. But they do make armies look more like armies, which means that people who care about narrative and theme get to watch GW foist a little of that on competitive players by the back door, which is at least a little amusing. Yes, you heard that correctly competitive players; if you go along with these army composition restrictions then GW have tricked you into narrative play. And if you decide to cast them off based on this flawlessly argued article, then I've tricked you into open play.

You just can't win.

Please post your wrong comments below so that I, the Astral Contrarian, can argue with you - if ye be worthy.