Sunday, August 13, 2006

Balance in Multi Player Games

Matt Thrower, MattDP on BGG, stepped up to the plate (with some arm twisting it seems) and sent some material you should enjoy. Thanks Matt.

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Now, heeeeeeere's Matt,

Well, I seem to have railroaded myself into writing an interesting
article about game balance in multiplayer games. I mentioned in
passing on BGG that I had some interesting thoughts on the subject but
nowhere to post them; smugly believing I could fool people into
thinking that I did sometimes think interesting things without
actually having to prove it. Sadly, Fraser kindly suggested I could
post it as a guest spot on the "Gone Gaming" blog and so unwittingly
called my bluff. So here I sit, better hope this turns out to be worth
the billing!

This all came out of discussion users on the 'geek were having about
Puerto Rico on the subject of negotiation in multiplayer games. I'm a
big fan of negotiating games simply because I think the human element
helps keep the game endlessly fresh but sensible points were made
about it potentially spoiling a finely balanced game like Puerto Rico.
Which is true, but I digress because this has little to do with what
I'm about to discuss, just setting the scene. So bear with me here.

Now I don't much care for two player games, or at least two player
games that don't scale well up to more players if need be. After all,
you never know how many people are going to turn up to your game
night. But one thing about two player games is that you can pit your
skills (or luck, or dexterity, or whatever) against your opponent
without any form of outside interference. A two-player non-random
abstract like Chess is nothing else other than a test of the relative
players' skill at the game at that given time and place. You've got
nowhere else to hide. If you want to sit down and test your perfect
analysis machine against someone else's then two player abstracts are
the way to go.

As soon as you enter a third player into the game equation though,
things inherently get messy. It doesn't matter what mechanics your
game uses, if there's three playing then it's possible for the action
of one player to help one of the other two players more than it does
the third player. This is inevitable because the actions of players in
a game need to cause interaction between the players and they need to
help to advance or obfuscate the plans of one or more of those
players. Otherwise you don't have a competitive game: you're either
looking at a co-op game or some form of multiplayer solitaire. You can
see the ramifications of this in even the most finely balanced and
cleverly designed games. Puerto Rico has the left/right hand player
problem where a weak player going directly before you hands you a huge
advantage. Settlers has a kingmaker issue where cards or the robber
can be used to bring down the leader to the advantage of the second
placed player. Ticket to ride can suffer from too much blocking. I
could go on, but I'd bore you, presuming I'm not boring you already of

I'm in my thirties, and I've been gaming for a long time which is a
roundabout way of saying that I was an active gamer back in the 80's
when old-fashioned conflict games had their heyday. I don't recall
that I ever had a discussion about imbalance in multiplayer games back
then. Which isn't to say that it wasn't a problem: I've already argued
that it's inescapable in multiplayer games. It's just that we never
noticed it. The reason, I suspect is because multiplayer conflict
games lend themselves to being played with a heavy negotiation
element, whether one is specified in the rules or not. If you're
playing a game where you can ally with other players, or at least
spend an entertaining ten minutes trying to persuade people of your
peaceful intentions before you nuke them all back to Kansas then
you're tacitly accepting that you're playing an imbalanced game.
Furthermore you're at a situation where you're attempting to correct
or take advantage of that imbalance in as part of the strategy you're
employing to win.

The upshot of all this is that it strikes me that multiplayer game
designs which encourage, or at least aren't ruined by negotiations
amongst the players are always going to be one-up in balance terms at
least against multiplayer games which try to be colder and more
analytical. I'm not attempting to argue that one approach is better
than the other – rather I'm suggesting that if number crunching
analysis games are your thing you might be better off sticking with
two player games because no-one's ever going to solve that balance
problem to perfection. It strikes me that some of the more highly
rated games on the 'geek are designs which have minimised the impact
of this imbalance and I wonder if that's part of their appeal. I
haven't played enough of them to make any reasoned argument in that

The other facet of this little rant is to demonstrate another reason I
like negotiation games, because then the issue of balance is something
I can forget about and just play the game. Someone on the 'geek said
that after a while endless negotiation made every game they played
feel like the same old game of politics no matter what game they were
actually playing. But me, I reckon humans have been enjoying the game
of politics for a lot longer than they've been enjoying two player
abstracts. So I think it'll last me a while yet :)


Anonymous said...

Borderlands is an excellent example of the sort of game you describe. By its nature the game rapidly unbalances through both trade and player production rates, and it is up to the players to collude such that the game remains balanced and interesting.

At a more abstract level I think it is worth placing the argument in a larger context. The entire purpose of a player in a competitive game is to create an unfair and unbalanced situation: ie the one where they win. As such it is the goal of games to become unbalanced and to then end (with a winner declared) when they have becomed so very imblanced.

Gerald McD said...

Matt -- Thanks for contributing a neat article. In our family gaming (5, 6, or 7 players), we certainly see that the seating order appears to have an effect on game balance, for some games. For others, we do not see the same effect. For example, when we play Hearts, I prefer not to sit between my wife and my son, because they never pass cards to me that will benefit me (or very rarely). On the other hand, when we play Bohnanza, seating seems to have no effect, because we engage in so much constant negotiation during each player's turn. I certainly agree that negotiation generally brings balance to games. It also contributes to our gaming enjoyment, as when we play Carcassonne or Hunters and Gatherers, and we each try to influence where others place their tiles. The negotiation, imploring, and threatening ("if you do that, I'll do this") actions in which we engage in those games are a major part of the fun factor.