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

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

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:

YTN Episode 012

The 12th 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 talk about our preferred gateway games. Everyone’s tried out some card games and board games, but what about getting folks into drafting games, co-op games, or even tabletop miniatures games? We talked about several great gateway game options, but we’d also love to hear about your ideas for the best games to use to get folks involved in new types of gameplay.

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:

YTN Episode 011

The 11th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

We start out this episode talking about what we’ve been up to lately in the world of gaming which transitions into the topic of what I’m calling multi-games, games where different players are playing different games at the same time to form a cohesive whole. What do you think of this emerging gaming trend? What other games would you put into this category?

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:

YTN Episode 010

The 10th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

We start out this episode talking about Warmachine Weekend, Blizzcon, and weekend gaming before launching into our main topic for the show – collectible games. Collectible games have changed a lot in their relatively short lifespan. Where do you think they’re heading in the years to come?

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: