I once heard the quote "Any man who finds himself in a fair fight is a poor tactician." I have no idea where I heard it, who said it, and I'm pretty sure that my memory has badly paraphrased it, but there it is.
Somehow, a lot of gamers have the notion that fights in games need to be fair. (Though often this definition of fair is "definitely winnable by the player characters) Look at console games... generally, aside from boss fights, the player navigates characters through tons of encounters that are vastly skewed in favor of the party. In many gaming groups I have been in throughout the years, as well as one-shots at cons and other events, there seems to be an expectation among many (but not all) gamers that any fight they can get into should be one where it is possible to win. (I would go so far as to say possible and probable) Later editions of D&D have even set up encounters such that they should, on average, consume x percentage of party hit points, spells, and other resources. If the "average" encounter ("encounter" in gaming very often meaning "fight") is only supposed to consume 10-25% of the party's hit points, spells, ammo, charges, whatever, then it isn't a fair fight. (Well, the players probably consider it so, but really the odds are skewed very much in their direction)
I can understand the appeal of "fair" (to the players) fights. For many, gaming is about kicking ass and being heroic. (Well, maybe for some the heroic part is optional) Media tends to give us fights in which protagonists fairly breeze through opponents, unless it is a "big bad" or climactic final battle. Given that some roleplaying games even style themselves after such media (games that encourage campaigns to be structured into seasons and refer to players as cast members, for instance) naturally bring over the notion that you are going to win because you are the hero or the main character. I can think of at least one or two roleplaying games off the top of my head where character death is impossible unless prearranged between the player and the GM.
I am no expert in military history/strategy. My tactical engagements have largely been limited to turn based strategy games such as the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars series of video games. However, from these games, I know that fair fights are not what you want; you want to make the fight as unfair for the other side as is humanly possible. If infantry will get smoked by tanks, then by the gods hit 'em with tanks. If the next boss monster is a fire dragon, equip all your characters with fire -resistant items and spells. If your party hears the orc patrol approaching down the forest path, hide and prepare sneak attacks or that web scroll you have been saving.
As my taste in games continues to shift and mutate, I find myself utterly bored by the idea of a fight that is "pre-balanced." There might be a black dragon in the Dread Swamp, even if your party is only 2nd and 3rd level. An orc village should be home to hundreds of orcs, even if there is no earthly way your party could engage that many and survive.
Not all fights need be "balanced." Not all fights need be fought. High level monsters and powerful, resource-rich opponents should exist regardless of the player characters' relative strength to them.
These thoughts come to mind because we got our asses handed to us in Shadowrun tonight. We walked right into it. We took on an opponent with vastly more resources in a relatively straightforward fight...well, we had some ambushes prepared, but we didn't scope out his resources, didn't plan for his countermeasures... I think, in a way, we all had this subconscious expectation that the fight was going to be perfectly scaled so that we could win in a head to head confrontation. The only reason half the party isn't dead is because the GM seemed to take pity on us.
During the car ride home (the GM usually gives me a ride to the game), he relented that perhaps he created enemies that were a little too strong for us. (To his credit, our ork and troll have thus far been nearly unstoppable and nigh-invincible in previous combats) He suggested that he might have overcompensated. I told him that we, as a party, were stupid and we got what we deserved. The only way we could have been stupider is if we have refused to retreat and continued to fight while clinging to the believe that we could and should win because we are the player characters, goddammit.
I have been shaken out of my complacency.