Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Balancing a game

I recently misread a post over on BoardGameNews on the game called Age of Discovery. I thought the writer was talking about Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery, but it turns out Age of Discovery is a different game (although with enough similar terms to make me confused.)

In any case, the point of the article was about game balance and it got me thinking. There are clearly some games that have victory conditions that could have been better balanced. I can't believe this is a design choice when one of a few simple possibilities could have been added to the mix to better balance the game.

While that makes a fine discussion in itself, there are a few ways in which a game can be balanced but make me wonder if the game balancing mechanism is more of a cop-out rather than a well thought-out and thoroughly playtested mechanic. I'm talking here about Auctions, natural "pick on the leader" player balancing, and risk management. I'm sure everyone has their own opinion on these, as do I, but whether you like or dislike them I think an argument could be made that they are one of the simplest ways to balance a game that might otherwise have some problems in it. On the one hand, any of these could be added to a poorly balanced game to make it slightly better, but I wonder if some so-so games that incorporate these mechanisms might have made it to the "next level" had the designer found some additional ways to tune their game to rely less on these balancing options.

Lets take them in order. Auctions are found in so many games, and while I enjoy an auction game as much as the next guy I also think some are rather a cop-out when it comes to game balancing. As long as everyone gets a somewhat fair shot at whatever is being bid on it is difficult for an auction based game to become imbalanced. If there is a really juicy, powerful item to be bid on, players can simply bid it up high to make sure things balance out (can you say "Jester in Princes of Florence" - I knew you could....) The main drawback for this style of play balancing is that players simply must know and understand the value of what they're bidding on. Thus, a decent auction game is really only at its best after at least three or four games. Another example is the simple game No Thanks! I really enjoy the game as it is quick to teach and still has some decent decision-making going on. What players are really doing during the game is a sort of reverse auction by bidding on NOT taking cards. The first teaching game I play with people always acts quite strange as some players overvalue the chips and others undervalue the cards. But after two or three games most people settle quickly into a very similar valuation to cards and chips. The fun remains in the game due to its push your luck nature and the fact that it plays fast so taking a risk here or there doesn't doom a player to another hour of painful loss before the game can end.

Expanding upon the auction mechanism for game-balancing is when a designer leaves it up to the players to continue to balance the game as it plays out. Basically, requiring players to "bash the leader" or at least the perceived leader. While nearly every game has some mechanisms that allow players to interact some have very few and limited mechanisms while others have many and encourage lots of player interaction. One extreme might be Goa or other games of its ilk that are sometimes considered “multiplayer solitaire” (although I love Goa.) While the other extreme would be a wargame like Risk where nearly everyone can pick on one person exclusively if they so choose. In a poorly “balanced” game, player interactions can overcome a single player’s advantages but it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth to have to gang up on a person simply to take them out because they had a lucky draw or lucky starting position. Also, having players do your “dirty work” in balancing a game can make the game last a long time as each successive leader is beaten back into the pack until someone sneaks in a win. This can be fun, but since it often rewards the sneakiest or best fast-talker in the group, it can be annoying for others. (To keep my conscience clear I will admit I tend to be one of the better fast-talkers at most of my gaming tables… however, I like it best when I can claim superior play in addition to “good negotiation”.)

A final style of balancing a game (that I’ll be covering) is introducing an element of risk. (No, not the game.) While some players hate risk (and tend to call it “luck”) in their games, I am not adverse to at least some semblance of risk in my games. An example of this type of balancing could be done by comparing Puerto Rico to Age of Empires III. In both games, the end-game has upgrades (buildings in PR, capitol upgrades in AoE3) that help players score additional points in the endgame. In Puerto Rico the buildings are known from the game start and are available to the first player who can purchase them. While a couple of the buildings are usually slightly better than others, they are all quite comparable in the number of victory points they grant. In contrast, Age of Empires III has several capitol upgrades at the end of the game that add victory points but not all of those upgrades are going to be available in every game. Additionally, players have to vie for placement when trying to purchase them, they aren’t simply available to the first player who can afford them. They pop into existence (if at all) when the third age of the game begins. Thus, strategies that rely heavily on capitol upgrades (like most of the money-making strategies) may not always get the upgrades they need (or want). Just which upgrades become available may determine the game. So, while I think some of the money-making strategies are the strongest ones in the game, they also rely on getting good capitol upgrades and thus are more likely to suffer the whims of fate in the last few rounds. Thus, what some might call (me) “stronger” strategies are leveled out somewhat because they become slightly riskier. Push your luck types of games could be put in a similar category. Pursuing riskier strategies can provide larger payoffs, but are also more likely to fail in a big way. While I would have a hard time accepting a large effect of this type in a longer (an hour or two) game, it is perfectly acceptable in a shorter game.

How about you, are there ways you feel that games can be balanced (ie. The various strategies/cards/abilities) more than they are? Are there no-brainer styles of game balance (like just letting players take care of it themselves) that you find overused?


Anonymous said...

For the most part you haven't provided alternatives to these techniques. What do you think are good ways to balance games without using the methods you describe? How about for longer games, like an hour or two, or more?

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Oh, sure. Make me do the work! ;) My main point was to talk about games where one aspect or another is generally held (by the gaming community) to be over or undervalued according to the rules as written.

I'd like to see more pre-valuation added into the picture by developers/designers in order to help the valuation "learning curve" that new players must otherwise go through.

Beyond that, I'd have to think awhile to give you a good answer. (Other than massive playtesting to find balances...)

huzonfirst said...

Elias, the simplest way is balance games without resorting to the things Matt discussed is for the designer to do his job in the first place and make sure balances are already there. For example, let's look at Princes of Florence. I'm not one of those people who think that the Jester is way more valuable than any other item, but for the moment, let's say this is a universally accepted fact. In that case, the designer probably should have toned down the ability of the item, or given it a higher minimum bid, or included a VP penalty for it at the end of the game, or even omitted it entirely. There's several million ways you can balance things in a game, but first it takes hard work to figure out what the proper balance SHOULD be.

Of course, you can take the Eon position ("balance is boring") and have unbalanced portions of your design. But you should really let new players know that this is the case and recognize that it can be a potential problem even if everyone is so informed.

Anonymous said...

: )

Well, I have a boardgame I'm designing as a side project (though it's kind of on the backburner for the moment), so it's always interesting to me to learn about as many game design ideas as I can.

Obviously playtesting reveals imbalances... but what I'm kind of wondering is, are there any specific game mechanics you (anyone reading this) can think of which tend to add balance to a game, besides the ones described in the post? I.e. good ones? : )

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Well, I'm not saying the above mentioned balance mechanisms are terrible. I feel they are over-used and often a resort of poor playtesting. They can be used well but are often used to slack off on better blance type things.

I think one of the key complaints I have about situations I described would be games that are really not feasible to play your first time through, until everyone learns the value of all the various objects... having starting advice for a "first time through" type thing might be useful.

(Like in Princes of Florence... sure the Jesters are nice, but most people bid them up a bit. If they go for like $500 in the first round, thats far too cheap, but how would new players figure that out?)

Karen M said...

A friend and co-worker of mine teaches a class on boardgame design. We played a game together that he created which was pretty great that had a tutorial version. The tutorials version took 15 minutes to play and introduced in a simplified way the core mechanics of the game.

It gave a slightly skewed picture of the way some pieces worked, but it was easy to re-adapt my mindset in the full game.

Of course, playing with the game's designer also helps.