I read a post on BGG today about a fan who felt that a resource in one of our games was a bit too strong (Influence Points in Argent). Another fan replied to him that if the person who got the most of this resource always seemed to win, then he should probably fight over it harder, and that in his group they often fight so much over this resource that the cost of acquiring it changes.
That got me to thinking–there are a lot of self-balancing mechanics out there, and these are great tools which designers can use to make their lives easier when building games both symmetric and asymmetric. I’ve brainstormed a few of these, and I’d love to hear your suggestions as well in the comments.
Auctions are a great self-balancing mechanic, since they let the players decide how much they are willing to pursue any given thing. An auction of course requires players to be good at evaluating the relative values of the things they are bidding on. Also, an auction tells us the value of a given item for the whole table, but it doesn’t gauge the relative value of that element to each individual player.
Drafts allow players to evaluate and organize a list of options, deciding which is best for them. Unlike an auction, which lets the players determine the absolute value of an item for the table, a draft allows a player to decide the relative value of a number of elements for himself alone. The fact that multiple players might make different choices when faced with the same draft picks makes Drafting a good self-balancing method for elements that need to be evaluated relatively rather than absolutely.
Circular Trumps are commonly used in head-to-head and blind selection games, the most common example being Rock-Paper-Scissors. If every action has at least one option that always beats it, the game will self balance. Even if some options are more viable or less viable than others, these options balance themselves, since the more powerful one option becomes, the more useful its counter becomes.
Free markets are those which allow players to buy and/or sell directly with the market. The easiest example would be the commodities market in Power Grid, where players can buy fuel for their power plants. As more people buy the same fuel, the price of that fuel goes up. As fewer people buy, it goes down. It is up to the players to decide whether the market price accurately matches up to the needs of the moment, or whether they should invest in alternative energy sources.
A Common Thread
A common thread in all of these self-balancing mechanics is that they place the valuation of different items or game elements into the hands of the players, and give the players the information necessary to make an informed choice. Humans are naturally tuned to valuation, so when we let players make value judgments, assuming they understand the system fully, they will tend to make balanced decisions. Like a tug of war with each player pulling in their own direction, the center eventually is lifted up and reaches an equilibrium.
Have you played any games recently that use these or similar mechanics for self-balancing? Any interesting ones that I’ve missed? Tell me about them!