Too Much of a Good Thing?

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!

YTN Episode 015

The 15th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

First, I want to say a big “Thanks!” to our community for making the last podcast our most downloaded show thus far by leaps and bounds. We’ll definitely be sticking to the new format. Be sure to tell us what aspects of the show you particularly like, and we’ll try to focus on similar topics in the future. This episode, Ryan and I are joined by Reese, and we kick things off with a brief discussion of what we’ve been up to lately game-wise.

The second segment covers our featured games, and this episode we feature:

Our topic segment for the episode goes a little bit long as we talk about rebooting franchises, adapting them to new media, and our thoughts on reboots that have been handled successfully and… less than successfully.

YTN_AvatarWe’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast.

The email is: contact@clockworkphoenixgames.com

Getting Started with Mathematical Models

In an earlier blog, I briefly mentioned mathematical models and how they’re a great tool for game development. Some folks are already familiar with mathematical models in the context of gaming. For those who aren’t, however, I’d like to take a look at the basics in today’s blog.

The goal of using a mathematical model during game development is to assist game balance efforts by creating a formula to help determine the value of similar components. Those components are most often cards, but they can also be miniatures, dice, tech upgrades, treasures, or any other game component that we wish to present as a viable option that is not an overpowered option relative to other choices. A good mathematical model behind the game can save a lot of time in the playtest process or even lead to a better balanced final product.

As noted in the asymmetrical game balance blog, not every game has components that need to be balanced against one another. Even for the games that do, some games are a better fit for mathematical modeling than others.

For our look at a few building blocks of a mathematical model, let’s assume we’re talking about a card game with lots and lots of different cards that fight against one another (a very good type of game for which to use a mathematical model). We’ll assume they have some sort of Attack stat, Health stat, and Mana cost. The most basic place to start our mathematical model is with ADDITIVE terms in our formula. We could, for example, say that “Attack + Health = Mana.” It’s not a terrible place to start, and it could even lead to some decent game balance. We don’t typically see games use this as-is, because the in-game math surrounding the Mana resource would become unwieldy for players. Unwieldy math behind the scenes is fine, but not in front of the players.

So let’s add a SCALING term to our formula. Let’s move to “(Attack + Health) x (Scaling Factor) = Mana.” A scaling factor of 50% is a decent starting point. It’ll reduce the mana our players need to track, but it also introduces some new questions. We’ll have to figure out how to handle rounding, for one. We also need to consider whether the game in question values Attack and Health comparably. We might need to go to “(Attack x Attack Scaling) + (Health x Health Scaling) = Mana.” If the game favors min/max-ing your Attack and Health stats on different cards, we could even start squaring, scaling, adding, and then taking a square root, scaling that, and then… hmm… I seem to be getting ahead of myself.

There’s something else to consider in our cost beyond just mana, though. Playing a card costs mana, but it usually also costs a card. Most card combat games allow just a single free card draw per turn, so let’s put an OFFSET into the formula to account for the cost of the card. This brings us to “(Attack + Health – Offset) x (Scaling Factor) = Mana.” Now we’re cooking. For those who are familiar with Hearthstone, consider “(Attack + Health – 1) x 50% = Mana.” Glance through a few Hearthstone cards, and it sure won’t take long to find one that fits this formula.

On the topic of Hearthstone, we know there’s more to a card than just Attack, Health, and Mana, but the tools we used in our foundation of mathematical models will continue to serve us well! Cards with a specific minion type (like Beasts or Dragons) have card synergy that increases their value. Well, let’s just add a “Minion Type Scaling Factor” customized for each Minion type (typically in the 105% to 115% range). Cards that belong to each Class could also have an additional scaling factor by Class (typically 85% to 95%). Then we’ve got abilities. Yikes! Some simply add to Attack or Health, which keeps things simple, but others get quite a bit more complicated. Some are direct damage. Some are conditional increases to Attack or Health or are conditional direct damage. We’ll ultimately need a lot more terms in our formula.

We’ll also need to add quite a few more tools to our toolbox before we’ve got a comprehensive mathematical model for Hearthstone or for our hypothetical card combat game. This gives an idea of how to start the ball rolling and hopefully gives a slightly better idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. By the time I completed my model for High Command, I had dozens of individual terms in my formula, and some of those terms had separate mathematical models generating just one term.

I hope you enjoyed scratching the surface of mathematical models for game development. The next time you look at the numbers on a card, I hope you can catch a glimpse of the mountain of numbers behind those numbers and appreciate how that card came to be.

YTN Episode 014

The 14th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

This is the first episode to use our new format. Starting now, Ryan is the permanent co-host of the show, although you can expect Your Turn Next veterans Tony, Reese, Geordie, and Jess along with new guest podcasters to be joining us in future episodes from time to time. Speaking of which, Jess joins us for this episode as we kick things off with our intro segment where we discuss what we’ve been up to lately in the gaming world.

The second segment covers our featured games, and this episode we feature:

Our final segment covers a gaming topic. This time around, we talk about how having multiple constructed formats with limited selections of cards or models (for card games and miniatures games respectively) can actually help create more choices for players in the long run rather than limiting their choices as it appears at first glance.

YTN_AvatarWe’d love to hear from you! Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast.

The email is: contact@clockworkphoenixgames.com

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.

YTN Episode 013

The 13th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

We start out this episode with the usual discussion of what we’ve been up to lately gaming-wise and then… well… we discuss more of what we’ve been up to lately. It’s just a good old fashioned chat between gamers covering their ideas about different games and about having fun with the gaming hobby. We hope you enjoy it.

Let us know in the comments or via email if you have any topics, questions, or ideas you’d like us to discuss in a future podcast. The email address is: contact@clockworkphoenixgames.com

And if you’re looking for links to some of the things we discussed this episode, here’s where to find more about:

The 5 Stages of Prototypes

During one of the panels at OrcaCon last weekend, we discussed the various stages of playtesting. It was an interesting discussion, but as I thought back on the panel later, I realized that there was an element of the discussion we didn’t talk about, and that’s the stages of game prototypes, a very important consideration when talking about playtesting games!

Different game developers approach prototyping differently, and there are plenty of successful methods of prototyping rather than clear “right” and “wrong” approaches. I will caution would-be game developers against paying to get their game created by an on-demand printer too early in the process, however. I’ve had more than one game developer tell me they wish they waited another iteration (or five) before spending money on on-demand game printing.

In my book, the first game prototype is the mechanics test. At the earliest stages of game design, you don’t even know if you’ve got a functional idea much less a fun idea, so you don’t want to spend hours upon hours making an awesome prototype of something that doesn’t work. So grab a marker and some card stock and figure out if you’ve got something that works. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It’s just a quick and dirty test of the new game mechanic in your game. I’ve subjected my wife, Jess, to some truly ugly prototypes to test mechanics for a new game idea. You’ll typically know very quickly if you’re on an interesting track or should just scrap the idea and go with something else.

The second game prototype is the proof of concept version. If you’re working towards a specific goal rather than sandboxing it, you might start here instead of starting with your innovative game mechanics. The proof of concept prototype helps determine if your vision for the game as a whole is going to hold up. You’ve got some cool new mechanics, and you’ve got foundational mechanics like rolling dice or drawing cards, but how does it all come together? It might take several iterations, but the proof of concept prototypes will help you see what needs to change and how. Your final proof of concept prototype still won’t be pretty, but it will be a true and playable game.

Stages three and four will look very similar physically and could arguably be considered a single step. Since I’m writing this blog, however, I’m calling step three the gameplay prototype. In this stage, you’re definitely moving from game design (the big picture) into game development (the detail work). By means of example, you might take the two character decks from your proof of concept game and turn them into ten different character decks. You’ll expand upon your core ideas to add more diverse gameplay and more unique player choices. You’ll also start iterating on the appearance of your game, making the playtest components easier to read and understand even though they still aren’t as pretty as they will be in the final retail version of the game.

Stage four is the game balance prototype stage. At some point, you’ll need to stop adding new content and start focusing on balancing the content you have, the content that will be part of the final game. This stage could have many, many iterations, and it’s full of analysis, playtesting, and revisions. At times, it can be discouraging because the forward momentum is less visible than other stages, but it’s a crucial part of the process. During this stage, you’ll probably also start receiving final artwork for aspects of the game, which can build even more excitement for the final prototype.

The fifth and final stage is the game mockup. You might not have the exact card stock for the final game, and there might be a few missing illustrations or icons, but the game mockup is essentially your finished game. You won’t want to make big changes at this point in the process, but you shouldn’t skip the game mockup either. It could show that certain icons or colors are difficult to differentiate or that certain fonts are difficult to read. Stages one and two helped with the game’s design, three and four were the core of the game’s development, but stage five is as much a part of game production as it is game design and development.

So that’s how I see the five stages of game prototyping. Feel free to comment if you agree or disagree with these thoughts or if you have game prototyping ideas of your own you’d like to share. Thanks!