Balancing Asymmetrical Games

Game balance is always a challenge, but asymmetrical game balance has a whole pile of challenges all its own. In Your Turn Next Episode 9, we discussed some of the games we enjoy that include unique elements for each player, and today I’d like to write a bit about how to approach those elements during the game development process. There are three primary methods game developers use when developing asymmetrical gameplay elements, and we’ll briefly explore each of them.

First, let’s define what makes something a gameplay element with asymmetrical game balance. Quite simply, asymmetrical game balance elements are those where the players have different tools at their disposal to try to win the game. Card games where players draw from a common deck of cards and board games where players use a common set of rules use symmetrical game balance to ensure the chances for each player to win are equal. Games where each player has a different character with unique abilities or a unique set of cards or skills at their disposal have asymmetrical game balance. With players’ resources being inherently unequal, ensuring strong game balance can be a real challenge.

The Playtest Method is the first and simplest method of creating asymmetrical game balance. When using the playtest method, a game developer will simply implement their ideas for each character (or faction or deck or whatever) and then playtest, playtest, playtest. The  weaknesses of this method are that it can be very time-consuming and early iterations of the game may have serious balance flaws that color playtesters’ future feedback. The strengths of this method are that it can handle extremely disparate character concepts and can be used regardless of a game’s level of complexity.

The Baseline Method is the second method of creating asymmetrical game balance. When using the baseline method, a game developer will create a single character (or faction or deck or whatever) and then create all of the other characters around that initial baseline. A second character might be faster but weaker, a third character might be slower but be able to take more hits, etc. The  weaknesses of this method are that it requires all of the characters to be relatively similar and sometimes creates the impression that the baseline character is plain or even boring. The strengths of this method are that it generates a strong starting point for final game balance and it typically requires less dedicated playtest time than the other methods.

The Modeled Method is the final method for creating asymmetrical game balance. When using the modeled method, a game developer will list out all of the variables that can differ between their characters (or factions or decks or whatever) and create a mathematical model to set the game balance between them. Mathematical models vary drastically in complexity based on the degree of differentiation between the characters. The weaknesses of this method are that it requires a specific skill set to perform effectively and can falter if the game developer does not understand the strengths and weaknesses of each variable. The strengths of this method are that it can handle fairly diverse characters and generates that strong starting point for final game balance.

Personally, I lean toward using the modeled method. I’m sure part of that is simply that I’m a math guy and find mathematical modeling to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding aspects of game development, but I also find that it produces strong results. I’ll switch over to the baseline method if my character elements have only minor differences between them or to the playtest method if the game is simply too complex for a comprehensive mathematical model to be a realistic option.

YTN Episode 009

The 9th Episode of Your Turn Next is now available!

This episode kicks off with an introduction of a man who needs no introduction (unless you don’t know him), Geordie Hicks. We also chat about what we’ve been up to lately before discussing a listener-recommended topic, asymmetrical game design.

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:

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

A Game by Any Other Name

During the podcast about skill, luck, and social elements in games (Episode 6), we very briefly talked about whether certain activities could be classified as games or not. Those couple of sentences have spawned multiple discussions about what truly makes something a game or not a game. The topic has come up a number of times with my fellow podcasters, with other folks in the game industry, and at the Penny Arcade Expo convention. Rather than trying to summarize all those discussions, however, let’s start with the absolute authority on everything – the internet. The first definition for “game” to pop up in my web search was that a game is “a form of play or sport, especially a competitive one played according to rules and decided by skill, strength, or luck.”

Based on my discussions, one of the most common elements that some gamers want to infuse into the definition of a game is meaningful player choice. Personally, I want my games to have lots of meaningful player choice. If the outcome of the game feels completely random, it’s not a game I consider enjoyable. But we’re not trying to define a good game, simply a game, and it’s pretty hard to argue that Candy Land and Chutes & Ladders are not games. They don’t involve a single meaningful player choice, yet they’re among some of the top-selling board games of all time. A large portion of betting games similarly lack any way for the player to influence the outcome. There are, in fact, numerous checks and balances in place to ensure that the outcome remains completely random. We could claim these activities are not games, but the gaming commission will likely disagree. So I think we’ve got to concede that something can be a game even if it does NOT have meaningful player choice.

On the flip side, we could argue that a game must have an element of luck, but that’s a far more difficult position to defend. Numerous “classic board games” do NOT involve luck elements or randomization. If Chess and Go are not board games, I think we very quickly need to reassess our definition.

Another common element that some folks want in the definition is that a game has a winner. The definition noted that a game was a form of play or sport, “especially a competitive one,” implying that winners are at least common in gaming. Certainly, many games have winners, but entire genres of games do not have this particular element. The vast majority of role-playing games do not lead to a single player being declared the winner, plenty of video games past and present never reach a “You Win” ending, and numerous party games have arbitrary winners or no winner at all. It seems pretty clear that you do NOT need to have a winner to have a game.

It would sure be nice if we could say all games are fun. Unfortunately, most of us don’t have to think back too far to come up with an experience with a game that was NOT fun. Perhaps it was because of the behavior of another player at the table, perhaps it was because of some bad luck regarding the luck-based elements of the game, or perhaps the game itself is simply not one you would ever find enjoyable. But as noted earlier, we’re not trying to define a good game but simply a game, and we’re unlikely to find a game in all the world that every single player would agree is fun.

So we could say a game is something you play. It’s in the definition above, and no one can really claim that it’s wrong, but the word “play” isn’t quite as clear as it could be since we “play” music and movies and such. So what if we shift that just a bit and call a game an activity that has one or more players? It still isn’t a complete definition of a game, but I think  it includes a lot of game activities our previous criteria ruled out. Whether a game is player choice oriented or luck based, co-operative or competitive, fun or un-fun, a game DOES have one or more players.

And the last portion of the game definition the internet started us with is that a game has rules. This is another element that’s come up in conversation fairly frequently. One could potentially argue that the rules aren’t always codified or that they aren’t always clear, but there is always some form of rules underpinning a game. I think we could make the case that rules are what separate a randomized event from a game. A ball falling on a spinning plate with numbers and colors on it is not a game, but if you add in the betting rules of Roulette and add some players, I think most readers could agree we’ve got a game there. Again, we’re not defining a good game, just a game, and a game DOES have rules.

So that leads us to define a game as “an activity with one or more players performed in accordance with established rules.”

What do you think? Is that an accurate definition of a game? Are there activities we’ve accidentally included that are not games? Are there games we’ve excluded with our definition? Perhaps most importantly of all, how would you personally define a “game?”

The Waiting Game

You may have noticed that humans aren’t the most patient people. They’ll risk injury and thousands of dollars in damage to get home one car length earlier than they would have otherwise. So it should come as no surprise whatsoever that people don’t like waiting for games.

If you spend much time on gaming forums or social media, you’ve probably seen someone complain about the delayed release of a game, an expansion, or new miniatures for a hobby miniatures game. Recently, you’ve probably also seen an increase in complaints about delays regarding crowdfunded games on platforms like Kickstarter. Today, I’m going to write about some of the reasons delays occur in the industry of traditional games (card games, board games, hobby miniatures games, and role-playing games).

Quality Control

I can’t back this up with mountains of data, but I believe that issues of quality are the #1 cause of game delays. By the time a company gets the proof copies of their game, it’s nearly time to release the game to the public. If there’s anything wrong with the colors, the components, the rulebook, the packaging, or any number of other variables, the company is faced with a difficult choice – release a product that’s lower quality than desired or delay the product’s release.

For hobby gaming miniatures or miniatures intended for inclusion in a board game, those delays could be quite severe. If a miniature intended for hard plastic production goes all the way back to the sculpting phase, it could cost two years or more. If it’s “only” a smaller change to make the miniature easier to produce or reduce warping or something, that can still mean a delay of several months. That degree of impact makes it easy to understand why some miniatures are released even if their scale is slightly wrong or if the individual parts don’t fit together quite as perfectly as we’d like. If the final product still looks great and the problems aren’t insurmountable, the company might stick to their desired release date rather than attempt to resculpt something a slightly different size or re-engineer the components for easier assembly.

Even a card game or role-playing game could face production issues that incur a hit of several months to the desired release date, and we haven’t even mentioned non-production quality control situations yet. If a piece of art isn’t up to snuff or a card design turns out to be confusing, the game company must make the tough decision to delay the product or make sacrifices in terms of quality.

Changing Course

Changes are an interesting source of delays because many change-induced delays occur before a product is announced. This means many of these delays are transparent to the game’s customers, but changes are another really common cause that games are released later than originally intended. In some cases, a game will be redesigned half a dozen times or more, each iteration chewing through development and playtesting time that should be moving the game toward its final form rather than meandering through different ideas that don’t stick around. I’ve seen games go back to the drawing board half a dozen times or more and have even seen solid game designs put on hold for years or even indefinitely. And substantial changes in art direction or graphic design have the same kind of impact as game development changes.

Course change delays are most visible to you as gamers when we’re talking about expansion material rather than new products. If the plan for the next expansion suddenly changes, especially late in the project’s life cycle, those changes can cause delays to the expansion’s release schedule.

It’s also worth noting that changing course does not always relate to the product itself. If game developers or artists or editors or graphic designers are moved into different projects, the new member of the team may lead to delays. Sometimes, they’ll make changes that directly cause delays, but most times the shake-up in personnel will simply incur delays as the team adjusts to its new composition and as new members get up to speed.

Breaking New Ground

The last big origin of delays I want to mention is breaking new ground. If a company has never used a particular manufacturer before, any estimates of how long production will take and how long those aforementioned quality corrections will take could be significantly off the mark. This risk is increased several times over when a company enters a whole new segment of the market such as making their first board game that uses a licensed intellectual property or their first pre-painted miniatures line.

That already increased risk is then magnified tenfold for a company that is attempting to produce a game for the very first time. Every Kickstarter campaign must include a “Risks and Challenges” section as part of the base template for releasing a Kickstarter project. For first-time game makers, that section should be sure to note there’s a HUGE risk of missing their estimated release date. They don’t yet know how any changes will impact their schedule. They don’t yet know how quality concerns will delay production. This is why you’ll often see a new company’s subsequent Kickstarter projects use more conservative delivery dates than their initial offering.

In conclusion, I think the key when dealing with game delays is patience. I realize that’s a whole lot easier said than done, but you can rest assured that game makers out there are even more excited about getting their awesome new game ideas into your hands than you are to receive them. Any delays are just as frustrating to them as they are to you.

Three Element Alchemy

Most games can be broken down into three elements – Skill, Luck, and Social. These three elements are mixed together in vastly different ratios and with vastly different results, but the basic building blocks are always the same.

Skill game mechanics take innumerable forms, but the essence of such mechanics is always player choice. The choices you make building an army or constructing a deck, the choices you make when positioning your pieces or tiles, the choices you make when determining the right card or spell to use at a given time – any player choice that can impact the outcome of the game falls under the umbrella of skill-based game mechanics.

Luck game mechanics are the simplest of the three elements to identify. Their core essence is randomization. Rolling dice and shuffling cards are extremely common luck elements, but spinning a spinner, mixing face-down items on the table, blindly pulling an item from a bag, and various other means of randomization are all luck-based game mechanics.

Social game mechanics have a core essence of player interaction. Any time you need something you can only get from another player, it’s a social game mechanic. Voluntarily trading cards, resources, or information is a very common and easily-recognized social game mechanic, but any game mechanic that requires players to read one another or bluff is also a socially-based game mechanic.

Let’s look at a few examples that focus on just a single element.

Chess is a great example of a pure skill game. There are no cards or dice providing luck elements. You can play a whole game without ever communicating with your opponent, so there is no intrinsic social element. Chess, Go, Mancala, Checkers, and the like are games of pure skill.

War, the traditional card game, is a pure luck game. There are no decisions the players can make or social interactions the players can have that will impact the results of the game. War, Bingo, and Chutes & Ladders are games of pure luck.

Some Diceless RPGs fall into the category of pure social games. Some include player decisions that impact the outcome of encounters but others are a purely social experience. And naturally, the big draw of diceless RPGs is the lack of randomization that typically comes from dice. Diceless RPGs and various story-telling games are some of the rare games that are purely social.

Chances are, your favorite games are some alchemical admixture of at least two (if not all three) of these elements.

Most Hobby Miniatures Games lean heavily on skill-based game mechanics when it comes to constructing an army, positioning your figures, and engineering favorable trades. There are typically luck-based elements, though, and even occasional social components requiring player interaction in order to resolve the game.

Most Dice Games lean heavily on luck-based game mechanics since the entire genre is based around a randomization mechanic – rolling dice. The popular dice game King of Tokyo, however, incorporates some critical player decisions as well as lots of player interaction if you’re playing with three or more players.

Most Co-op Games lean heavily on socially-based game mechanics. There is typically no chance of success without working together toward the common goal. But randomized cards and/or dice are common, and individual player choices (skill-based game mechanics) greatly influence the outcome of the game.

The three core elements – skill, luck, and social game mechanics – come together in some ratio to form the greater whole. The biggest piece of the pie varies greatly from game to game, but (nearly) every game out there boils down to a mix of these three elements.

The game mechanic of card drafting is particularly noteworthy, here. This increasingly popular game mechanic is one of the few that is intrinsically skill-based (card choice), luck-based (card draw), and socially-based (card passing).

Do you favor one element above the others? What games do you think have the best balance of skill, luck, and social elements? What mixture of the skill, luck, and social elements leads to the best games? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or via email at

YTN Episode 005

The 5th episode of Your Turn Next has just gone live!

Join the YTN team as we discuss the Stay on Target blog from July 6th and then discuss target audiences, the games we think hit their target audience, and the games we think have appeal even beyond their target audience.

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:

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

Stay On Target

The target audience is a critical consideration for any product. During my engineering days, such considerations were very clear. The customer would provide specifications, and I would create the control panel or wiring diagram or program to meet those specifications.

As a game developer and sometimes-writer, the target audience’s wants and needs are far less cut and dried. When it comes to creative pursuits, it’s very easy to fall into creating the game you would want to play or the story you would want to read, but this can be a trap. It can lead to an audience that’s much narrower than the target audience you truly want. In the worst cases, it can lead to restricting yourself to an audience of one! Obviously, this is less than ideal for any sort of product.

And so it becomes very important to define the target audience at the start and to keep that target audience firmly in mind, even if you are not a member of that target audience, make that especially if you are not a member of that target audience. Target audience will impact art choices, game mechanics, and even aspects of your game as seemingly innocuous as packaging.

It’s also highly beneficial to consider ways to expand your target audience. Movies frequently tone down certain elements in order to achieve a PG-13 rating instead of an R rating. Whether you personally like it or loathe it, the fact remains – PG-13 movies gross two to three times more than R rated movies on average.

Cutting down on over-the-top gore or sensuality can have the same impact for games. In some cases, it can broaden your audience by entire nations that have censorship laws against certain themes or imagery. Always be mindful, however, that aiming for too broad an audience can dilute the appeal. Just because a game doesn’t offend anyone out there doesn’t mean it appeals to anyone out there, either.