My last blog talked about the basics of mathematical models and how they can be used in game balance. Almost universally, when players play a game, they’re encouraged to look for “powerful” cards, characters, abilities, etc. to reach certain goals. Even in fully cooperative games, players gravitate to what they perceive as strong and shy away from weaker options.
Since the goal of the game, by definition, is to accomplish the goal of the game, it makes perfect sense for players to seek out the tools that will be most effective at helping them reach that goal. It also makes sense for players to stratify the available options. It even makes sense for them to critique certain options as “overpowered” or “underpowered” when those options continuously rise to the top or fall to the bottom. It also makes sense, however, to dislike a game because it is too balanced.
I’d be willing to bet that most readers have never claimed a game was too balanced or heard other gamers do so, but without some differentiation between the capability of different cards, characters, abilities, etc. in an asymmetrical game, there is very little meaningful player choice. If playing any given card, miniature, tile, etc. in any way it could be played had no net impact on whether a player won or lost the game, the game wouldn’t be enjoyable. There needs to be some differentiation to encourage players to interact with the game, to explore its possibilities.
Too-balanced games aren’t typically criticized for being “too balanced,” though. They’re dismissed as “boring” or as not having “meaningful player choices.” Given that games need some degree of imbalance to be enjoyable, it begs the question “how much is enough?” The answer depends on the game in question.
For casual games, the degree of imbalance should be very small. Games like Lanterns and Sushi Go give players choices, but the difference in score between a player making the right choices and a player making the wrong choices is typically fairly small. Scores are very close, options are narrowly balanced, and that suits these games very well.
For intermediate games, there’s more leeway for imbalance between game components. Players want their various characters, monster races, kingdoms, etc. to feel varied in their strengths and weaknesses. Some might excel slightly or lag behind slightly, but having lots of flavor is more important than perfecting the balance. Plenty of board and card games fall into this middle category, as do most dungeon crawl games and role-playing games.
For hardcore games, the balance pendulum swings back again. If a game has frequent large-scale tournaments, it qualifies as a hardcore game that needs tight game balance. The various games that fall into the category of “esports” certainly fall into this category as do many hobby miniatures games and collectible card games.
With such an emphasis on balance, though, how do such games avoid the trap of being boring?
First off, they recognize that only the top choices truly need that razor’s edge of game balance. In a pool of 100 player options (deck builds, heroes, army generals, etc.), it’s difficult if not impossible to make all 100 choices truly unique and truly balanced. But you only really need the top choices among these player options to have such finely tuned game balance. “Lesser” options should still be interesting, creating more diversity in the game and generating additional appeal for gamers approaching it as an intermediate-weight game rather than jumping into hardcore tournament-style play.
Second, though, they recognize the power of situational effects. If one option is more powerful in certain positions, match-ups, combinations, etc., while another options excels in others, it creates additional depth of gameplay without creating an option that is strictly “more powerful” or “less powerful” than the alternative. Collectible card games embrace this direction. Games like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone have plenty of cards that are more or less powerful than other options based on some aspect of the game state – what you have in play, what your opponent has in play, what you have in hand, etc.
Third, they shake things up on a regular basis. New gameplay formats, new releases, new balance updates, and new editions all force players to reassess the strengths and weaknesses of the tools in their toolbox. Sometimes, players resist or even resent changes to the status quo, but those changes are necessary to keep the game fresh and to keep gameplay engaging.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look at how a little bit of imbalance is critical for good game balance. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!