A Question of Balance
The question of balance is one of those which seems to weigh heavily on the minds of new game designers, who are always anxious to create a "balanced" game, but without good knowledge of what balance actually means—and try to find out from a seasoned warrior of design how to get a game to that esteemed place. Not having myself understood for the longest time the actual question, and not paying homage to the saint of balance, I have often flippantly quoted Peter Olotka's response to a player who thought his game Cosmic Encounter was unbalanced: "Balance is boring, Life is unfair!"
I have aged, I have played games so bad that I cannot imagine anyone convincing me to play again, and I think I have finally grasped what game balance is—even though the term balance is, in fact, poorly chosen.
In physics, balance is a stable situation resulting from forces which cancel each other—a situation in which nothing changes and nothing moves. This does not really resemble the state of a game, which is essentially a dynamic system where the forces involved create a permanent motion from the starting line to the end of the game. What players call balance is more of a sense of justice (in English I prefer to use the word "fairness", which does not have a French equivalent), rather than balance. The balance of a game is thus more of a balance between players of which none must profit from an excessive advantage. That does not mean that only the initial setup should not excessively support one player or another, but that over the course of play it should not be possible for one player to easily take advantage of chance or certain tactical situations. No advantage of playing first or last. No "I win" cards. No hole too deep you cannot dig yourself out. No single strategy which always wins.
In most games, this balance is reached only through testing and tweaking, which is a long, involved process if the game is complex and strategic. It no doubt required many games of Tikal to decide the respective costs of the various actions; many games of Puerto Rico to choose the actions of the characters, and especially the costs and effects of the buildings. I hardly dare imagine the amount of work it took to choose the mana costs for the cards in Magic: the Gathering. If Saint Petersburg did not seduce me, it is perhaps because the balancing act does not seem to me to be complete, which is all the more awkward as the game's systems encourages serious calculation.
Because of the tedium involved, and the many playtests which are required, balancing is one of the least exciting aspects of designing a game. This is why I choose, as much as possible, to more or less skillfully circumvent the problem by using auto-balancing mechanisms.
A gamer's game naturally equalizes itself when forces and weaknesses are sufficiently apparent to cause alliances favorable for the weak and unfavorable for the strong. Thus, Diplomacy is a game which is perfectly balanced in spite of the obvious "imbalance" of the starting positions (although that is not enough, in my opinion, to make it a good game). In Valley of the Mammoths, a player whom nature seems to despise will be attacked less frequently than a player developing his tribe without great difficulties.
In Cosmic Encounter, undoubtedly the best game ever conceived, and certainly the richest and most varied, a great number of elements are added to the possibilities of alliance—which makes it quite probable that a player is not favored in all aspects. This complexity, making it impossible to take into account all of the elements in play, creates a kind of higher balance composed of all of the small imbalances of the various systems of the game—something which contains a little bit of chaos, but is not in itself wholly chaotic.
Auctions are also an excellent means of cleaning up the problem of balance. In a bidding game, the costs of different items up for sale depends not upon the system, but upon the players. To keep interest and variety in the game, it is obviously necessary that the cards, pawns, and actions on sale have different values and levels of interest. In Boomtown, we deliberately accentuated imbalance in the power of the various cards.
Finally, I am rather proud of the simple techniques used in Citadels. The presence of the Thief and the Assassin kept me from needing to balance the characters. If a group of players perceives that a character, rightly or wrongly, is more powerful, he will often be robbed or killed, which restores balance. The same thing happens with districts—if one of them is really more powerful than the others (which does not seem to me to be the case), it would simply more often be the target of the Warlord.
Note that balance is not an aim unto itself. It would be so if a game were merely a competition intended to determine the best player, like certain sporting contests. There is nothing more vulgar to the soul of a game than the phrase "The best man wins!" There is certainly competition in a game, as each players seeks to win by opposing his adversaries and countering their actions—but the competition is not the entire essence of the game. Instead, it is only one of the means at the disposal of the author to create excitement which will attract players to the small world of the game, creating the tension which will rivet them there. Balance is also there to provide a rhythm to the story which must develop from each playing. Unless the players are entirely focused on determining the most intelligent player, or most skillful, or best cheater, they can put up with a certain level of imbalance, or a certain level of justice.
To get to the bottom of things, I should undoubtedly write two other articles out of the two concepts which I have just suggested—the tension, and the "story arc". These two, much more than balance, seem to me to be at the heart of a game design.
A game should indeed generate a constant tension which keeps players "in the game"—a state of concentration and intellectual attention that can even, in extreme cases, make the players forget exhaustion or ignore the effects of alcohol, as sometime Poker or roleplaying seem to do.
A game should also create a complete story—a script with actors, a setting, plot developments, and an ending. This is true even for an abstract game because even a game of Chess can be "told." If I have not thoroughly developed these two aspects, it is because they have already been covered better than I can do it by Jonathan Degann in two excellent articles. [Game Theory 101 - Part I, Game Theory 101 - Part II]
- Bruno Faidutti
(Translated from the French by Frank Branham.)