Devlearning: Advance Wars COs

Advance Wars 1's design rule for COs is 'they have advantage in one area, and a disadvantage in another' and separately balances CO Powers as 'better=takes longer to charge'.

Even aside from how the game breaks its own rules in 4 cases (Hachi and Nell have an innate advantage apiece and no disadvantage, Sturm has two advantages and one disadvantage, while Drake has his air disadvantage, his naval advantage, immunity to rain, and passively imposes a small chance per turn of rain occurring!), this design approach is deeply flawed in practice.

In short, the concept of the game seems to be that COs will be consistently hampered equally by their disadvantages as they are propped up by their advantages. This breaks down for two major reasons:

1: Advantages and disadvantages aren't necessarily relevant to a given map/game setup. Eagle's weak ships doesn't matter on a map with no Seaports, Olaf being unusually bad in rain doesn't matter unless the weather is set to Random or Rain (Or Drake is on the map), etc.

2: Actual play involves minimizing the relevance of your disadvantage and maximizing the relevance of your advantage in a general sense. Max doesn't build a normal number of Artillery and simply accept that they're inferior, and on the flipside Grit is going to spend more money into Artillery and Rockets.

One of the bluntest, most obvious failings of the dynamic is Andy, who isn't competitive and wouldn't be even if you banned the COs who get advantages for free, because his whole 'his advantage is his lack of a disadvantage/his disadvantage is a lack of an advantage' dynamic is essentially inferior in actual play to anyone who has both an advantage and a disadvantage. The only thing he has going for him is a unique CO Power effect -nobody else can heal their units like that- and he provides so little healing so infrequently it's not enough to salvage him.

Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising introduces Super CO Powers and takes the opportunity to stealthily slip in a paradigm shift, wherein CO balance is handled in a much more holistic manner.

Andy's overhaul and Hawke's existence are my favorite examples: Andy goes from being a crappy, boring everyman who has no real place in the meta to being a guy who is defined by having an amazing Super CO Power that charges at surprising speed given how great it is. Hawke, on the other hand, is Just Plain Better Than You on a daily basis, but trades off by having his CO and Super CO Powers charge slowly while merely being good powers, not great ones. The contrast between the two makes them even better examples: Andy is all about leveraging his SCO Power, while Hawke is primarily about leveraging his daily.

Notably, the COs added by Black Hole Rising mostly don't have unit specialties. Lash performs better in rough terrain. Adder pressures you with a fast-charging CO Power for +1 movement. Hawke pressures you by being all-around a little harder hitting with everything, and potentially leverages his Super CO Power to undo damage if he's careful. Colin's units are just plain worse in combat -outside the Power of Money- but he makes up for it by having his economy go farther, letting them accept losses more readily and even purchase bigger, meaner units before his opponent, partially offsetting his attack disadvantage.

Even more subtly, several COs have been subtly reworked to move away from such specialties themselves; Sami was, in Advance Wars 1, more an infantry specialist who included capture advantage as a part of that. In Black Hole Rising, she still has more powerful infantry, but she's structured to be more of a capture specialist, effectively having an overall weaker military in exchange for tending to win out economically -sound familiar?

There's still some design problems in terms of eg air and sea specialties still being around and not really working as intended, but to be fair it would be a lot harder to perform a similar stealthy paradigm shift for those without outright overhauling how the land/sea/air divide fundamentally works (eg making naval and aerial combat more nuanced and having COs affect parts of them; better with fighters, worse with bombers, not better with air, worse with sea, that kind of thing) or replacing the specializations entirely. Similarly, there are new COs that could be argued as in line with old models -but even then they tend to avoid the worst problems. Jess's specialization always benefits her, and a portion of her weaknesses always hurts her; there's no map infantry don't matter in. Sensei is a bit closer to Advance Wars 1 design -if you don't have air, he's a lot less powerful- but still has benefits and disadvantages alike on even a pure land map.

So this overhaul is one of the more impressive aspects of Advance Wars 2 regardless.

Dual Strike doesn't actually make any major changes to this system. It adds Tags/Dual Strikes and some passive synergy stuff, but these aren't really an expansion on core balance so much as a whole separate thing that needed its own separate balance, and to be frank I don't think the devs really tried to make balance all that even when it came to them. Some pairs just plain have superpowerful Dual Strikes. Some have weakened ones. These mostly run off thematics, such as how nearly everyone performs poorly with Von Bolt. Though the new COs do lean away, once again, from unit specialties -even if Javier is inarguably one of the most imbalanced COs in the entire series...

Days of Ruin is a sufficiently different game it's difficult to use it as a direct comparison point, but it's worth noting it mostly shies away from land/sea/air divides for its specialties. Greyfield is a naval specialist, except he also works well with Battle Copters -a core air unit- and his CO Power is a great support tool for naval and aerial battles, allowing him to plant additional Temporary Seaports and Temporary Airports for free periodically, as well as fuel and ammo allowing both sea and air units greater ability to sustain longer range missions. This makes him a lot less wonky than Drake in the previous games.

The progression is interesting, and it's particularly interesting when you consider how the non-Days of Ruin games are trying to slip in these modifications while retaining what was already there. Andy is still the guy whose average at everything and can heal his guys for 2 HP a pop!... but now COs have been reframed and his focal point isn't 'no advantage or disadvantage' but rather is 'got an amazing Super CO Power that charges fast'. Given how often players complain entirely because something was changed at all, even if it was clearly for the better... that's a clever sidestep.


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