The Balance of One

Point costs, mana costs, gold costs, resource costs. You don’t need to be a hardcore gamer to be familiar with costing methods for game components. These costs ensure that the more powerful cards (or miniatures or characters or whatever) require more of an investment than the weaker ones. Costs are a critical tool in the game developer toolbox for creating a balanced and fun experience for the players.

A friend recently asked me if there were any miniatures games out there that use a game balance system other than point costs. There are plenty of miniatures games that use some sort of army composition system and/or field allowance system, but those elements are typically built on top of a point scale rather than replacing it. There are also miniatures games that ignore the concept of a balanced battle between two players altogether and therefore have no traditional point system. And there are also a few miniatures games out there in which each different component always costs “1,” and that’s the type of game I decided to write about today.

Such games don’t usually have a printed point cost of “1” on every card, but that’s the gist of the game’s balance. In certain card games, each card has a cost of “1 card.” In online games like Heroes of the Storm or League of Legends, every hero costs “1 hero.” There is no point system to let you know the value of different cards or heroes. They’re all (theoretically) created equal.

My first experience working on a game that used these principles was on the development team for Monsterpocalypse. While the small-based units in Monsterpocalypse had a cost, the monster figures did not. Each monster had a cost of “1 monster.” This style of game balance leads to unique challenges during game development. In most miniatures games, if a particular model is proving a bit strong in playtesting, the development team can simply tweak its point cost up a little, and if it’s proving too weak, its cost can be reduced accordingly. If a monster figure in Monsterpocalypse was performing too well or too poorly, however, a mere cost tweak was not an option. We’d have to look carefully at the stats and abilities to see what we could change there without overcompensating for the imbalance and without altering the intended strengths, weaknesses, and character of that monster.

When creating new content within such a system, it’s also possible to cheat a little bit. In Arena Rex, most models count as “1 combatant,” yet Titans count as 2 instead. In Guild Ball, a team can have six player models. Four of those models have a cost of “1 player,” but the team must have exactly one captain (who is more powerful than the average player) and one mascot (who is less powerful than the average player). Steamforged Games, the makers of Guild Ball, could even switch things up on us by creating a guild in which the average players were slightly weaker, but the mascot’s power was amped up considerably. Alternatively, they could create a guild in which the captain was a weak player who directed the big plays rather than making them himself, allowing the average player power to come up to compensate. At that point, we’d want to look at the balance of “1 team” to “1 team” instead of the more traditional “1 model” to “1 model.”

Card games sometimes include little cheats in a balance-of-1 system as well. Without any sort of cost stat on the card, it might seem that you’re locked into valuing every card as “1 card,” but game developers can use the word “discard” to give some cards a cost of “2 cards” (or more) or can use the word “draw” to introduce the (dangerous) possibility of reducing a card’s cost to “0 cards.”

Granted, using this sort of game balance system doesn’t guarantee good game balance (or bad game balance, for that matter). Whether a game has some sort of balance-of-1 system or a more traditional point, mana, gold, resource, etc. cost system, the actual balance of the game is still in the hands of the game developers and requires a whole lot of testing and analysis along the way to the finished product.

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