Game Balance, What’s That?

Balance. I hear that all the time in so many different contexts. Balance the checkbook. Eat a balanced meal. Balancing work and home. Marriage is a balancing act. Athletes need balance. Mathematics needs balance. Scales need balance.

What about games?

I probably hear “balance” and “game” together more often than any other context. Is the game balanced for three players? Can home rules re-balance the game? Are the two sides balanced? Balance, balance, balance, balance. You hear it so often it starts to become a nonsense word.

So what exactly is game balance? Why do so many people think achieving balance is the ultimate goal of game design?

Well, the hell if I know. Because I’m not certain game balance, as an absolute, actually exists.

If people look at balance as being a mathematical equality — i.e., each player has the same mathematical probability to succeed or achieve victory — then this view only takes into account one very small aspect of the overall game experience.

Even games with near-perfect symmetry don’t necessarily have “balance” in that way. For example, Chess is a game in which both players have identical pieces with identical rules, and the players share an identical goal. However, as soon as one player takes his first turn, this type of balance starts to unravel. Why? Any advantage or disadvantage gained through a player’s move changes the definition of balance.

If Player A moves this pawn to that space, is the game still balanced? Does Player B really have any and all moves open to him in order to achieve victory? Or does he need to choose from a smaller subset of decisions to avoid a negative board position later on.

This brings up another shortcoming of viewing balance mathematically. That’s the issue of Emergent Gameplay.

Emergent gameplay is what happens when a game sees so many plays that certain patterns or dominant strategies start to spring up. The game starts to become “solved” for certain situations. Like going the Jester route in Princes of Florence. Or for several years, a predictable opening turn in our games of Puerto Rico:

Turn 1, Player 1 selects Builder
Player 1 builds small market
Player 2 builds small market
Player 3 says $%#!%

For each move there is an optimal response, and any other response would be suboptimal, ergo there are fewer actual player decisions than first appear. When gameplay is taken out of the hands of the players and plugged into a calculator or flow chart, you lose part of what the gameplay experience has to offer, and part of the sense of balance goes out the window.

Even games with a great deal of asymmetry may fall victim to emergent gameplay. One of my favorite boardgames is Chaos in the Old World by Fantasy Flight Games (disclosure: I’m the FFGer who designed the expansion). Each player has unique means to achieve similar goals, and unique rewards to earn along the way. While there are some shared elements (they each have cultists, they each roll d6s in combat), there are numerous differences. The different players approach and play the game differently.

I’ve heard and seen numerous accounts of the following. New players, as they adapt to the learning curve for these asymmetric goals, often fall victim to certain emergent patterns. They see Khorne, the most aggressive, combat-oriented player power, often run away with game after game after game. To compensate for Khorne’s aggression, the other players often do whatever they can to stall and wait for Khorne to “tap out” of resources before they make their moves, which can sometimes make things worse.

So this often leads to a certain predictable cadence or rhythm to the game. Everyone at the table is focused on playing toward their own personal goal. But with the resources and goals being unique, this can become a losing strategy because the players forget one crucial element to the game: the other players! Once a player can recognize this pattern, he can react to it, changing the potential outcome by throwing a wrench into the emergent gameplay and showing how a different series of decisions can lead to a different outcome.

…far away.

In Chaos in the Old World, that can come down to something as simple as “run away from Khorne.” If Khorne is racking up points and dial ticks by killing people spread out across the map… then don’t spread out across the map. If you think you need to spread out to achieve your goal, you’re failing to appreciate that this approach is actually more beneficial to another player! Changing your focus, and getting the other players to change their focus, can suddenly result in a very different game.

It’s the interactions with the other players that provide “balance” to the game, not the game rules, events, or actions. When the players start playing each other and not just the components, not only do new strategies and opportunities arise, but the game starts to self-correct.

There are many games that feature this ability to self-correct. My favorite example of all is Cosmic Encounter. It doesn’t matter how weak or strong your alien power is relative to the other players. A terrible combination of alien powers and a weak hand of cards don’t necessarily mean a weak position in the game. Cosmic Encounter is all about playing the other players and self-correcting. You can literally win with any combination of… well… anything.

One player gets too far ahead, the others openly and appropriately work against him. They conspire with each other to pull off schemes, double-crosses, and negotiate with each other. They welch on deals and stab each other in the back. They devise joint wins. While cards and powers certainly influence the game, I’ve seen many games won by players with perceived weak positions because of deft manipulation of the other players.

This is the sort of player interaction I enjoy the most, where players truly influence each others’ positions and have the direct ability to interrupt, redirect, or challenge each others’ decisions. Auction games like Modern Art or Princes of Florence inherently have this interaction — drive up prices, force the other to outbid, change their perceived value of the offerings. Games with bluffing like Dice Town or Poker feature this as well… what do I really have? Are you willing to risk it all? Can you out-think, outmaneuver, outwit your opponent?

So where am I going with all this? Didn’t this rambling start with the word “balance” somewhere? Sure it did.

And I’m getting back to that. Really, I am.

So what is game balance?

Ultimately, I default to my cop-out answer. I don’t think there is an absolute, all-encompassing definition of game balance.

However, I do think games that feature high player interaction and the ability to influence others’ decisions and outcomes are as close as you can get to game balance. I just don’t know if a game itself can provide balance with rules or restrictions. I think in its truest form, it’s the people playing the game that provide their own personal definition of game balance, and they work to achieve it by how they interact with each other.

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