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The Superheavy Controversy

by Karl K. Gallagher
(with assistance from many contributors on the SJ Games forums)
November 30, 2018

One of the recurring arguments where Ogre fans gather is "Superheavy Tanks are too powerful." That's an ironic issue for a unit that started out so weak players refused to use it. The original Superheavy Tank (SHVY) couldn't hold its own on the field. New editions of the game strengthened the unit until it was more than a match for its value in any other unit. Now the question we face is whether the SHVY needs to be scaled back from its current strength.

The Superheavy Tank initially debuted in the Shockwave expansion, which was released in 1984. It mounted a pair of 3/3 guns and moved at M3, and it cost two armor unit (AU) equivalents to take as part of a force, but any similarities with the current SHVY end there. The original SHVY had the same terrain restrictions as a Heavy Tank (HVY), mounted no AP guns, and had D4 for defense strength.

It was not a popular unit. A single HVY could take one down. Players would not take any more than one or two because of the high cost. Even a pair of SHVYs operating on their own wasn't strong enough to stand up to a swarm of other units. That forced players to keep the SHVYs with the rest of their force, which in turn kept them from using their superior range and mobility to attack first. A Space Gamer article, later reprinted in The Ogre Book, recommended not selecting any as part of a force.

Those who used SHVYs often would put them in the center of a line of HVYs as they faced a similar enemy formation. Since a HVY could destroy a SHVY just as easily as another HVY, the SHVYs would be targeted first. With luck, the SHVYs would take out enough enemies to justify their cost before being destroyed.

An even more embarrassing way to lose a SHVY was to stop within movement range of enemy infantry. Six infantry squads could overrun a SHVY, lose two squads to the main guns, and have an 89% chance of destroying it. Even four squads were an odds-on favorite to win in an overrun. This was far from a dominant unit on the battlefield!

When Ogre Miniatures came out in 1992, the SHVY was improved over the original version. Two AP guns were added to it, to save it from overruns, and it now had Ogre terrain effects, allowing it to move into water. It was still D4. As a result, although it was a stronger unit, this didn't change its popularity.

Then, the second edition of Shockwave came out in 2000. It kept the Ogre Miniatures changes and made the SHVY D5. Now it took two HVYs to get a 1:1 attack on a SHVY, and a lone GEV couldn't attack one at all. The cost was still the same: two armor unit equivalents or 12 victory points (VPs). This Superheavy could be in the center of the line of HVYs and be a useful contributor to the battle.

This level of change isn't unprecedented, even for Ogre. The stats for both the HVY and GEV were changed between the first and second editions of Ogre. Game balance is hard.

In 2008, Ogre Miniatures Update added the D5 change to that version of the game, and added the option of the "partial damage" rule - making the SHVY a "mini-Ogre" that could lose one gun or some of its movement as part of an ongoing degradation of the unit over time. If using that optional rule, that version would cost three armor units rather than two. The partial damage rule hasn't seen enough use for it to come up in the regular debates, so it won't be discussed here.

Gradually, the player base realized that a D5 SHVY was much more than one defensive point stronger. It could take on a pair of HVYs, and win regularly. "Cage match" simulations showed that when:

  • A SHVY gets first shot on both HVYs: the SHVY wins 75% of time
  • A SHVY gets first shot on one HVY (other out of range): the SHVY wins 67% of time
  • One HVY gets first shot on SHVY: the SHVY wins 38% of time
  • Both HVYs get first shot on SHVY: the SHVY wins 32% of time

Given the range advantage of the SHVY, a pair of HVYs would not often get the first shot in.

Superheavies also could use their mobility to outmaneuver the other single AU units. It is faster than Missile Tanks and can cross terrain that GEVs have to go around. There is no "rock, paper, scissors" option with the SHVY - it can beat any other armor unit it faces more often than not.

There is a Kryptonite for the SHVY, however: the Ogre missile. Most missiles are wasted in 2:1 or 3:1 attacks. The SHVY provides a target that lets the Ogre player get the 1:1 attack that experienced players know gives the best chance of an X result for the attack power used.

In "Kill the Command Post," a SHVY is inferior to two HVYs. The HVYs can soak up two missiles. Ramming them will cost the Ogre four tread units instead of three for the SHVY. The additional attack power of the HVY is useful when destroying treads - against other units it's frequently wasted through rounding down or in a 2:1 attack. But when there's no Ogre around, a player who chooses an all-SHVY force has a good chance of stampeding over an opponent.

Is this a bad thing?

To this writer, yes, no matter how many games he has won doing just that. A danger faced by all game designers is players who "optimize the fun out of the game." If both sides are using the same units in the same way, we lose the complexity and variation that has made Ogre such an attractive and beloved game.

Players can avoid this by choosing non-optimum strategies. Many experienced Ogre players do just that when introducing newcomers to the game. But there should be strategic variations at higher levels of play as well, and different scenarios should have different optimum strategies. The scenarios "Ceasefire Collapse" and "Last Train Out" shouldn't always be won by the same mix of forces.

So, what's the solution? Multiple options have been discussed on the Steve Jackson Games forums:

  1. Change nothing. "Breakthrough," "Raid," and Ogre scenarios don't let SHVYs run wild. We can accept that the stand-up fight scenarios favor the toughest units. But if people liked this option, we wouldn't have so many forum threads complaining about Superheavies being too strong. That said, this option is preferable to making another change that would make things worse.
  2. Roll back the SHVY to D4. This simply isn't an option. There are too many D5 counters out there, too many players who discovered the game after that rule was already in place, and we'd wind up with a unit that went from overwhelmingly powerful back to being woefully under-used once again.
  3. Remove the AP guns and water movement capability. This wouldn't fix the problem. Most head-to-head battles don't use those features anyway.
  4. Limit the fraction of SHVYs in a force. The typical recommendation is allowing a player to use only 25% of the starting armor units as SHVYs. This would prevent stampedes by herds of SHVYs and force more variety into players' force selection and strategy. But it is a brute-force way of achieving the goal. Ideally, we'd have a solution where players would want other units, not just be forced to use them.
  5. Increase the cost of SHVYs to 2.5 armor units each (15 VPs). This would keep Superheavies as an option, but tilt the scale mildly against them. It is a popular option. The Cobb Calculator rates the SHVY as 14.93 VPs, almost exactly 2.5 AU. What's lacking is a history of playtests showing 8 SHVYs having a 50-50 chance of beating 20 HVYs, or any of a variety of other combinations. Without that, we can't be sure the folks arguing for a 3 AU value aren't right, and then we'd be having this argument again once the new rule was used enough to test it.
  6. Mandate the partial damage SHVY. Instead of having partial damage as an optional rule, make that the only version players can use. That would increase the cost to 3 AU (or possibly even more) and make the SHVY more durable. But the bookkeeping challenge might discourage players from taking an all SHVY force.
  7. Make the Ogre versions of scenarios the default. SHVYs can only run wild when there's no Ogres to keep them in check. The solution to that is to always have an Ogre on the board. Right now, the basic "Ceasefire Collapse" is perfect for Superheavies: a stand-up fight in mixed terrain with no Ogres. But we already have an Ogre version of that scenario. If that's the default instead of an optional rule, SHVYs won't have as strong an advantage. Players will choose other units so the Ogres can't use missiles and rams to wipe out the SHVYs.
  8. Make the cost dependent on the rule set used or scenario side. On the orange map, SHVYs lose many of their advantages. In asymmetric scenarios, the attacker gets better use out of SHVYs than the defender (who needs to cover a broader area). So, on the orange map they'd cost 2 AU; for green map defenders, they'd also cost 2 AU; and for green map attackers, they'd cost 2.5 AU. For "Ceasefire Collapse," both sides would be considered attackers. Again, this would need playtesting to check if it is balanced.
  9. Expand the CRT to allow 1:3 attacks. If SHVYs can catch a D result on a roll of a six from a strength two attack, they can no longer completely ignore some units. Nor could they overrun a disabled HVY without taking a risk. This would fundamentally change the game, however.
  10. Embrace the power of "and." Look at the SHVY as a unit that has evolved over time; many systems have been upgraded after not working out as well as expected in the field. The game could have an "early" SHVY, being the original Shockwave 1st Ed. version, and a "late" SHVY, which has all the APs and D5 added, for 2 AU and 2.5 AU, respectively. Scenario designers could restrict which one is available depending on the time period. [Ed. Note: We have included counter "skins" of this earlier SHVY option for those of you who wish to try it.]
  11. New ideas. Dear reader, if you have a better idea, please share it.

The author leans toward option 5, but isn't certain enough to insist upon it. Whichever solution is picked should be playtested to ensure it actually solves the problem. The key is not just keeping the game balanced, but keeping it fun.

Download Superheavy Counters here.

The Ogrezine II PDF, combining all of these articles with additional new material, will be available on Warehouse 23.

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