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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Game balance in Mount & Blade

Stretching by Tomas Caspers from flickr (CC-BY)
Mount and Blade is a refreshingly original FPS-like game, which recreates medieval combat - that is with a lot of horses, and without any magic.

It's a bit of an overstatement to call vanilla Mount and Blade a "game" - it's basically a battle engine with a small and not particularly interesting world. Fortunately a large modder community developed around it, and some of the mods like The Last Days feel like complete games. I played mostly vanilla and The Last Days, in which you can take part in the War of the Ring.

What I like most about Mount and Blade is that it has the balls to break with Dungeons and Dragons tradition of fireballs, healing potions, and million-HP player characters. A quick look at players' skillset is shocking. The most useful skills are:

  • Wound Treatment - increases healing speed of you and your army
  • Riding - lets you ride horses faster and lets you use more difficult horses
  • First Aid - partially restores HP lost in battle to you and other heroes
  • Surgery - lets you save some percent of soldiers who would otherwise die
  • Horse Archery - reduces accuracy penalties for shooting while riding a horse (penalties depend on how fast you ride, just sitting on a horse doesn't affect your accuracy)
  • Power Draw - increases archery damage and lets you use more difficult bows
  • Tactics - gives your army better position in fight
  • Leadership - lets you command a larger force and reduces their cost
It's a very different game. The battle engine is also very different from what you've seen so far. With all that said, Mount and Blade is tragically unbalanced.

The strategy which is by far the most powerful is "Horsebowman". It works best with a fast horse, a war bow, two large quivers of bodkin arrows, and some two-hander sword (or some other long slashing weapon), but any horse, any bow, and any arrows - that is equipment you already have if you start the game as a hunter - will suffice. As a horsebowman you don't need any support, you simply wait till the enemies come close, then shoot them in their faces, or legs if they have shields, and ride away a bit. This way as a level 10 character with pretty cheap equipment you can massacre any infantry unit of any size, peasant or elite. You can also defeat most cavalry - as they typically use slow horses, have lower riding skill than you and most importantly - instead of stopping and fighting when they reach you they simply pass by. A two-hander sword is an useful backup for cases where bow is ineffective. After you get a high level your Horse Archery skill will let you effectively shoot cavalry as you ride. At lower levels it's better to maneuver and cut them with the sword or stop the horse to shoot them. The only major danger are enemy archers, whom you can reliably kill from afar only on very high level.

The second most powerful strategy is doing anything else from a horse. Two-hander weapon, one hander and a shield, lance, whatever. You can even try throwing stones or charging with your horse without weapons - it's still far better than the next strategy.

And the least efficient strategy is not having a horse. The main reason is that it's almost impossible to win a fight against multiple infantrymen at the same time. You never have such a problem on a horse, because you're faster than anyone else and the AI cavalry is too dumb to stop and fight when they reach you.

A list of things needed to restore balance follows. Most of them also increase realism, but only as a side effect. I am not a big fan of "realism". In any halfway realistic game the consequence of getting slashed or shot would be a few months of reconvalescence, with high chance of dying of infection like tuberculosis in the mean time, and in any case high likelihood of recovery never being quite complete - in any war there are about three times as many wounded as dead.

The first thing I'd change to give infantry a chance is letting player have 3 infantrymen in exchange for 1 knight. Right now the player has a choice - either build a small but deadly cavalry unit, or equally small but useless infantry. But cavalry is a far greater organizational challenge - you need horses (definitely more than one per knight), support staff and so on.

Another thing that unbalances the game is the slot system. You have 4 weapon slots. Bow and two quivers (one quiver is not enough) take 3 slots, two-hander weapon takes 1, one-hander+shield takes two. That results in people using two-handers from a horse. The slot system should be changed so that two-hander takes as much space as one-hander+shield, and two-handers should be forbidden on a horse anyway. Making two-handers occupy two slots would be a good idea. Then it would be possible to have combinations like:
  • bow, 2 quivers, one-hander sword
  • pike (2 slots), one-hander sword, shield
  • halberd (2 slots), one-hander sword, shield
  • spear, one-hander sword, shield, 1 bag of javelins (popular ancient setup)
  • spear, shield, two-hander sword
  • lance, shield, one-hander sword, 1 bag of javelins
  • one-hander sword, shield, 2 bags of throwing axes
  • heavy axe (2 slots), 2 bags of throwing axes
But not combinations like:
  • bow, 2 quivers, two-hander sword
  • lance, shield, two-hander sword, 1 bag of javelins
And as we're at two-handers, they should simply be impossible to use from a horse.

Another change I'd do is make thrusting attacks blockable only by shields, not by other weapons. It looks really silly when pike is blocked by a sword and gives way too much power to slashing weapons.

Going further with changes, horse charging could be much more powerful, a few knights charging through a bunch of peasant should reliably knoch them all down. Right now horseback slasher is far more powerful than horseback lancer. Reducing horses' maneuvrability and acceleration in exchange for higher top speed would also nerf horsebowman and horse slasher a bit, greatly improving chances of horse lancers and infantry pikemen.

One more thing would be seriously nerfing archers by seriously reducing bow accuracy (the idea of reliably headshoting from 50 meters is absurd) and letting infantry attack using shields. Right now an archer can draw his bow and wait for the enemy to start the attack, then he releases an arrow and headshot kills the enemy.

The details would need to be play-tested, but I think such changes would make more strategies playable, and the game more realistic and more fun.

Strategies that should be balanced after the proposed changes:
  • Horse lancer
  • Horse slasher with a one-hander + shield
  • Horse archer
  • Infantry pikeman (thrust only, no shield), spearman (thrust only, shield), or halberdier (thrust/slash, no shield)
  • Infantry warrior with a one-hander (slash/thrust) and shield
  • Infantry archer
  • Commander of cavalry unit
  • Commander of infantry unit
Dungeons and Dragons notwithstanding, infantry slashers with a non-polearm two-handers are historically highly unusual (and cavalry cannot really use two-handers), so that would be a special-case strategies at best.

And there should be no biorifles in Unreal Tournament !


Anonymous said...

I disagree with lancer's being useless. They can deal couched lance damage which is commonly a one hit kill.

taw said...

Mounted lancers are not useless, they're simply much less powerful than horsebowmen or mounted swordsmen as they can kill only one enemy per pass and must go through enemy forces every time so there's a high chance of getting damaged. With a long sword or a bow you can safely kill 10 enemies before a lancer finishes their second pass.

One hit kill is also only true for the player character. Supporting lancers almost never do it.

On the other hand infantry pikemen are plain useless - the enemy simply blocks their thrusts by sword block (even without a shield) and then comes too close to pike thrust and massacres them with a sword. Against cavalry pike thrust is possible but very hit and miss, and archery is much more reliable.

Mac said...

Mounted troops are superior because they're mobile. It's not supposed to be balanced.

I've never had a horse archer type character at a high level but I can see how it would seem easy if you can headshot just about everything you come across... but you do eventually run out of arrows.

I find lancers are a lot of fun, if you ride along the battle line, instead of through it, you can take out two or three opponents per pass. And I mean take out... they don't shield block from the side and you'll usually kill or K.O. them on the first attack. I absolutely love the sound of someone's shield being shattered to bits, too.

I disagree that pikemen are "useless". Pikes have a long range, and groups of polearm-wielding troops can take out even heavy cavalry with few losses. The game's not completely balanced but it's somewhat like Rock, Scissors and Paper. Infantry can take out cavalry, cavalry beats the snot out of archers and archers defeat infantry. Well, usually but it doesn't always work that way.

Terrain and troop composition makes a differencce, too. Never follow any kind of archery unit into the mountains if you're cavalry based... they'll shoot the crap out of you and you'll never get a decent charge.

The game does need some more development, but for something that was home-brewed only a few years back I'd say this game's pretty damn amazing for what it's become. I'm glad there's a fun medieval RPG alternative to the "standard" fantasy setting. In this game your personal skill means more than wielding a Sword of Doom +5... hmm... but my character sure could use one of those.

taw said...

You won't run out of arrows. If you take a sword as a backup weapon, you can have two large quivers or 54 bodkin arrows, if you don't it's three quivers or 81 arrows. With high enough archery skills that's normally 30-50 kills, and then you can just go to the pack for fresh arrows. It would be really difficult to single-handedly take 30-50 people with lance or a sword, or to even take 5 with infantry character. It's that imbalanced.

It should be rock paper scissors, but cavalry beats absolutely everything. Pike's long range is useless against infantry as they can block pike thrusts even with swords (shield not necessary) until they come into range, and then pikemen are toast because pikes are so slow. It is better against cavalry than swords, but because cavalry is so overpowered pikemen are going to be massacred anyway, at best they take a few more horsemen to grave with them.

I don't see why the game couldn't be more balanced - like cavalry taking twice as many unit slots in your army than infantry to compensate for its power. With this change you could have big weaker infantry army or small stronger cavalry army, and finally infantry and mixed arms would see some use.

Anonymous said...

Taw ur an idiot, on foot as infantry general i have wiped out hundreds per fight, mounted lancer do THE MOST damage and u can kill as many per pass as YOU PERSONALLY CAN, the fact that YOU! never got the hang of it means u have misplayed the game. LANCERS are the most effective, and Lancers with bows are incredible, ALSO 30 arrows means 30 kills noob, one per person, or are u shit at that aswell? The fact that u have to work hard at the combat must have defeated you but dont worry there will be another turnbased game along soon for the likes of you.

Anonymous said...

Stop being a retard anon.

Anonymous said...

Horse archers really should be nerfed. They do incredible damage per second, they're mobile, and they're fairly "safe".
What makes them so powerful is the fact they need not enter actual combat like lancers and slashers do.

Don't even try to tell me that pikeman can take on horseback archers, because it doesn't work like that. LOL, you can order your horse archers to a stop 30 feet in front of the pikeman line and let the arrows fly.

The first character I made was a horse archer and I realized how easy it was to take on large groups of enemies single-handedly.
Eventually I got bored of archery, though.

It seemed like I passed the learning curve quickly for archery and wanted to try something else.

Anonymous said...

Mounted units are suppose to be far more powerful than infantry. It takes more supplies to provision a single cavalry unit than a single infantry though. If anything should be changed that is what it should be. Not higher wages but a requirement of more food. Horses have to eat too, ya know?
When you get into seiging though, specially trained infantry and archers are more powerful. On the offense in the open field is the terrain of Mounted units. Archers are defensive castle units. Infantry are offensive castle units. Taw, your view is too narrow. Each unit type has a function that it executes. You are saying that Mounted units are by far the best at what they are suppose to be the best at. Which I hope would be true.
Every individual unit type has a function that it carries out. Aswell as detriments when trying to carry out other functions.

Anonymous said...

try take a castle with archers or cavalry :S.... doesnt work so well ive tried... on the other hand try it with infantry. that works. the reason why cavalry doesnt work is because when ur seiging a castle there are no mounts. and once ur archers climb the "ladder" or seige tower they get owned because there are so many enemys waiting

greg said...

looks like somebody hasn't played their games before they review them. You dont HAVE to be mounted. ok? you can unmount and have a melee fight with your soldiers charging onto the enemy infantry. its much funner and never gets boring. "slasher horsemen"' are much worse than "lance horsemen".

look at the Vaegir vs Swadian under Cavalry. Vaegirs use slashing weapons while Swadians use lances. Lanced do instant kills when couched. friendly "Lance Horsemen" do it very often. not in tournaments but in larger areas you can see them just charge couching and instant killing. not always but often. btw the pike is a swinging weapons, you're thinking the spear. yes Spearmen suck, thats the reason why you put them in a mass and have archers help them out. the enemy, at times cannot even get near with all the spear thrusts. Once again, you don't have to do archery on horseback. its a SANDBOX GAME. not an MMORPG where what weapons and armor you choose is extremely important. you can do whatever the hell you want but you should do what you think is fun. also if you unmount and fight like everyone else, it helps you become a better player, because mounted tactics require as much skill as playing World of Warcraft.

greg said...

i also forget to mention. if yolu're not convinced that swadian knights are better than vaegir knights then look on the forums. virtually everyone who has cavalry most likely has Swadian knights rather than the other cavalry types.

taw said...

greg: It's quite irrelevant if lancers horsemen are better than slasher horsemen for AI, AI doesn't have any idea how to use a horse properly in any role.

For player character horsebowman is incomparably better than slasher horseman, who is still a fair deal better than lancer horseman, as much higher safety more than compensates for lower damage per hit.

I know it's a single player sandbox game (with an awfully small and simple sandbox), my problem with it is that some weapons and strategies work so far better than some others.

MikeJ said...


Agree with most of your points, esp as regards to weapon slots and unit slots. Horse Archers (esp player as Horse Archer) are a pain and rightly so. Heavy cavalry's only defense is their armor.

However, horse archers have no shields, and the effective counter is any form of projectile weapon. To emphasise this, horse archers should have greater penalties on using high level horses or heavy armor. Also, can't imagine being able to use a longbow from horseback, on the move no less.

My personal strat for countering enemy cavalry of any sort is to gather my infantry and archers together, preferably on a steep hill where they can't be charged. Infantry of any type slaughters cavalry under those conditions.

Against horse archers, rather than chasing them all over the map, I gather my cavalry next to my infantry, and any horse archers who approach will be peppered by my archers.

My play-preference is to use a lance to 1-shot enemy cavalry units, then switch to 1h/sh to take out their infantry.

MikeJ said...

Also prob worth adding, the Mongols conquered most of Eurasia with lightly armored horse archers.

taw said...

MikeJ: Well, Mongols basically used new tactics, and other armies didn't know how to deal with that. Most of great conquests follow this pattern - some new technology or tactics + skillful divide and conquer politics, Alexander, Romans, Mongols, Napoleon, Hitler, all like that. At some point others adapt to the new tactics and the expansion stops.

Anonymous said...

it all depends on what im doing that determins what weapon im holding, on horseback I use shield,lance,1h sword with throwing javlins, Then i sweep the calvary with me throught the lines, then tell infantry and archers to hold a point just out side of the fray, preferably near some trees, rocks or a creek.. anything that will slow any calvary that comes near them , and it makes your mounted troops fight their way out of the fray if they get knocked off their horses. also this gives you a place to fall back to if you need to take cover.

greg said...

the mongols did conquer a lot of europe and mainly asia with light cavalry. however you must realize, cavalry was extremely powerful at the time, be it heavy or light. strnagely people did not develop many anti cavalry defenses until the later middle ages.

Anonymous said...

OK, if you try to be a single-man-army it's ok to be a horse-archer, but if you are trying to be a factor in the politics, you have to have an army - to defeat emeny lords, to take castles and towns and defend them. For that purpose, you will be nearly useless adition to your army acting like horse-archer.
In normal battles 200 vs 100 of yours - how much of a help you will be to your army killing 10-15 people for the whole battle from the horseback riding in circles to avoid massed enemy and friendly fire? I personally unmount, draw out my two-handed SHORT axe 50+ dmg and slash about 30-40-50 enemy warriors + few horses and thats a real help. Anyway - my point is that horsearcher can be powerfull, but not in the main battles, where the action is. Enjoy ;)

Anonymous said...

i think calvary should be nerfed. all i need in my army is swadian calvary and can beat just about anybody. and i do not know where anon number 5 got the notion that calvary and archers do not do good in seiges when you on the offensive. there very good, my knights just destroy the troops i can take on a castle when its defended by 2 lords and a good number of garrison units just with calvary units and some archers.

Anonymous said...

Two-handers aren't historically incorrect. It was a well-known tactic to place pikemen in the middle and two-handers at the side to cover the flanks. The Gothic Knights and their soldiers used them from time to time

taw said...

Anonymous: I said that two-hander infantry was "historically highly unusual", not that it was "historically incorrect". They were used by Renaissance Landsknechts and a few other infantries, but these are tiny minority of historical armies.

Two-hander swords from a horseback on the other hand, are a historical nonsense.

Paulo said...

In real battles you don't nerf your enemies because they beat the crap out of you. Some weapon combinations (horses counting as weapon) we're always very good. Horse bowman had been used all over the world and across the ages because they can do a lot of damage/harassment with little danger for themselfs. And there's always good and bad warriors, each ones uses the weapon that best fit it's own characteristics in order to be the best possible warrior, but it's always possible that someones is better than us.
Personally I like to use a bow (1 quiver) a lance and some 1H or bastard sword (as backup), the longer and faster the weapon, the better. In fact i don't see a 2H weapons easy to use on horse back. And btw i prefer the staff type (blunt damage) so that i can knock enemies down and later sell them for money. They all sell for a fixed amount.

Anonymous said...

Disiplined and properly equipped infantry will ALLWAYS beat a similarly sized cavalry force, that's just how it works in real life.

Ever try to use cavalry in mountains? They are pretty much useless. Dismount them.

Foot soldiers can exploit the terrian to their advantage. Cavalry cannot.

I run a company of archers, or the good crossbows, and I dont even use infantry or cavalry. I just have my men form a tight line on the high ground, and any cavalry charge inevitably gets bogged down, and then in immediately hacked to pieces. The heaviest cavalry stop dead, or at the very least exit the back going very slow. As for horse archers, good soldiers on foot are much more accurate, not to mention they present a smaller target. the only cavalry I use are myself, and my generals, plus the occasional rescued prisoner or something, and I either dismount them at the start of battle, or keep them back and only use them to cut apart a scattered and disorganized foe.

Anonymous said...

The game really is more balanced than you may think. 1-on-1, a horse archer or axeman easily defeats a spearman, but then again, a lone spearman is already a defeated spearman. They are meant to be cohesive and closely packed. Obvioucly you have to account for terrain and so on, as well as if the battle is in the field. A siege, for example, is basically a battle for an artificial mountain, so you can forget cavalry. A good commander can always use his troops in the most effective way, especially if fighting on familiar soil (see: Bannockburn, Carrhae, etc...).

Also, there is something to say about the AI. A Nord army fighting a Khergit Army in an open field should form up a shield wall and wait out the barrage of arrows, using its own archers to bother the horsemen, then stay close to withstand the charge (in reality, of course, the Khergit army should probably withdraw if it runs out of arrows and sees that the enemy has not been seriously hurt). Of course, the quality of the troops, their bows, their shields matters, but the point I am trying to make is that the AI is much better at fighting with the free-flowing Mongol style than the cohesive Viking style.

Josh said...

I disagree with your idea that horse archers are the best - I could be hopping over the first 20 mutilated corpses, axe in hand, before you even pulled your bowstring back. Basically, I prepare a wall of heavy armoured infantry for their cavalry/foot soldiers to crash into, jump off my horse and commence chopping em up with my 2h skillz. Maybe against looters, the bow would win (ie, no armour, no chance), but when you're against units with shields or against other mounted units (I hate going against khergits on open ground) whose only AI tactics appear to be "run the fuck away until you hit the edge of the map and get pwned", the bow is awful slow and boring. Sure it can kill from a distance, but its only really a necessity when you're against mounted archers.
As a sidenote, full vaegir marksman army = amazing. Personally, I like to combine them with the mincing power of Nord Huscarls - only my heroes get horses because it means I can control them separately to the rest of my men, just in case I want to level them up some, y'know.
So, in a nutshell, you can kill faster on foot than with a bow (ie with the same skills + agility level you can attack faster with a weapon than with a bow - it's just a fact :P) - but you need damn good armour and you need to actually be good enough at the game to hold your own in a fight. If you can, then throw down your arrows and get into the thick of it - it's much more fun.

AdreNochrooM said...

I love this game.. i allways go in first with sieges because otherwise itll take a while before you can join the fight and lose quite a few men, i havent lost one siege on which i went in first.. good armor + heavy military pickaxe is epic win..usually with one good hit to the head you already nail huscarls and knights let alone all the other guys.. also getting sieged is great fun, i allways go stand on the top of the ladder to block them and hit them down one by one.. happens that i dont lose any men at all vs like 300 opponents of any skill..

Anonymous said...

My personal combo is one lance, a masterwork 1hander for backup, a stout shield, and a large set of throwing weapons. My Tatics are basically horsemen charge and scatter the enemy and then just slash their guys to pieces until all of our footmen arrive to destroy the wounded and scattered force.

Anonymous said...

Im trying to find your logic in thinking two-handed weapons on horseback should be banned. Because technically the bow and arrow is two-handed. Hands are not needed to ride a horse. A horse can be directed just as well with the legs as with hands and reins.
If that wasn't the road you were thinking down, then I'm completely lost.

Anonymous said...

Try the Prophecy of Pendor mod, combat is more difficult. Infantry generally have longer reach, more armor and higher levels. Some infantry can knock you out with a single blow, so slashing from horseback is more dangerous than before. Most infantry also has a ranged attack, often throwing weapons. The non-joinable factions also have far better troops than you can usually recruit, mostly cavalry around level 60. Much more difficult. Try it.

Anonymous said...

Let me tell you something about pikemen: they've got a kick-ass shield that blocks 19 out of 20 arrows, making archery (including horse-archery) useless. you have to get in close to defeat them and if you do that on a horse, chances are you get piked. so the best way to take out pikeman is on foot.
Horsemen: I once had 150 kerghit horse archers and lancers, and got completely destroyed by the heavy vaegir knights and crosbowmen.
Knights are probably the best units, but they are hard to get and suck at sieging.

I'm the Nord leader and my 200 huskarl army can take on 200 knights EASY, but more importantly they'll crush any castle. just saying.

Axel said...

With my horse archer build I can take down any army alone. I play at maximum difficulty with 100% damage. People seem to underestimate how effective speed is as opposed to armour. Against one opponent, sure, armour will protect you adequately, but shields break after enough arrows and armour simply wont help when you are the victim of 10 headshots or so. With my riding skill of 8 or so I easily avoid all and any projectiles as long as I stay far enough from the enemy. Then I just oneshot the lot with my pimped out archery damage, even without HS (except for those tincan-knights who warrant two shots). I deal couched lance damage with my head shots. All sizes of shields are useless due to those tasty feet being constantly exposed. The only danger is other horse archers and they are all typically very stupid due to AI problems.

And to those claiming that they can kill faster than a horsearcher, I'd like to see that. As this is being written I am offing 42 nord archers at a rate of about one per two seconds. Dont know how that would work with slashing tactics while at the same time surviving the hail of arrows.

Of course this is only the optimal way of killing many enemies alone. It is not superior in any way if you want to have fun, but I like the kills way too much!

Warren said...

2H weapons are very common on horseback. they are held in one hand, which is fine because the swing as you ride doesn't require much dexterity with your weapon, but it DOES favor a longer reach. The simple fact of the matter is you don't use it the same way as you do on foot.

Anonymous said...

2H swords/axes/etc. should not be used on horseback.

Think about the physics, people.

Do you know what kind of tremendous, recoiling force would come from a distal swinging motion?
You'd either drop the weapon or be fall off the damned horse.

taw said...

Warren & Anonymous: As we all know laws of physics don't apply to video games ;-)

Sobutai said...

I'm sure the heavily armoured professional French knights thought the rules of archer combat were out of balance at Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt. ANd of course anyone who had to deal wit those cheating Mongol horse archer/lancers was miffed at how overbalanced and "cheating" their tactics were.

Quite a few people at the time thought that combat on horseback had too much of an advantage. Part of the result was to make feudal knights the common combat component of the era. The advantages of archery ensured that mercenary yeomen in Wales had a steady income for centuries. Of course, the combination of mounted archery and lance use that the Mongols perfected ensured the Golden Horde would have the largest empire of the time.

As the Mount & Blade game rules generally result in the same sorts of weapons choices most military professionals were making during the medieval era, I'm satisfied with their "unbalance" as such.

Anonymous said...

What i think the M&B lacks the most is the existence of a catchy story line. After a while, if you manage to be powerful of course, the game gets boring as hell. True that I have never conquered Calradia nor have I taken part in its total invasion. However, besiege and defeat, besiege and defeat... this really gets boring after a while. If only we could add a bit more role playing and scenario to the game, everything would be perfect.

Besides Khergit lancers and horsebowmen drive me crazy as they are mobile, fast and long ranged. It sometimes takes hours to defeat a Khergit Army. This is the main reason why I join with Khergits most of the time. On the other hand, I agree with some of our mates here that every unit has some kind of advantages and disadvantages. My preference and play style favors the mounted units though... You do not really need to think much unless you're fighting on the top of the hills.

I wish you the best and kind regards from Turkey.