What is Balance?
Game Balance is a tricky subject, and just about any developer will tell you that his game is ‘balanced’ by one definition or another. Understanding the schools of thought behind each balance philosophy and what motivates it is a foundation to discussing game balance. In this article, I’ll be considering balance in terms of competitive games–one side against the other, or multiple sides against each other. Everyone has a preference, and there isn’t a ‘right way’ to balance a game, or even a ‘right definition’ of what balance is, as we’ll see below…
Local (Micro) Balance
“If all the decisions have equal merit, the game is balanced.”
Suppose we are participating in a race. The race provides three choices for us: a bicycle, a helicopter, and a sportscar. The race’s objective is to make it to Central Park in New York first. Depending on your proximity to central park, the best choice is fairly obvious. In this case, the decisions available do not provide an equivalent chance of winning. The game is not balanced on this scale. There is a school of thought that posits that for a game to be balanced, every individual option must be balanced against the others. Rock-Paper-Scissors is a good example. In a micro-balanced game, the sides are very often identical, or very close to one another in power. A white rook is balanced against a black rook, for example.
Most abstract games and cost-balanced games fall into this category.
“If all the players have equal odds to win, the game is balanced.”
From Blackjack and Poker to Munchkin and Zombie Dice, random balance is common in games where the objective is not to test player skill, but to have fun or to gamble. It doesn’t matter that a pair of kings beats a pair of 2′s, because players aren’t choosing the options. The game is randomly balanced–every player has equal access to the winning hand.
Now, you might say “Brad, you’re missing the entire point of Poker,” and I realize that. What I’m positing with these examples is that individual cards or components don’t have to be balanced against each other: as long as every player has the same odds of getting winning cards, then every player has the same odds of winning. The player decisions usually have a little or no impact on the outcome of the hand or game.
Most large-group games and gambling games fall into this category.
Statistical (Macro) Balance
“If every side has a similar chance of winning, the game is balanced.”
When most players and designers talk about balance, they’re talking about statistical balance. This is the balance of entire strategies or differing option-sets against one another. In symmetric games, the Statistical Balance is derived from a local-scale balance sustained throughout the game. Consider:
All players have similar options -> All options are balanced -> all players are balanced
This is only a one-way relationship, however, as statistical balance can exist without the options being balanced:
All players have a limited set of options -> Each limited set is balanced -> all players are balanced
Games with this second idea at their core are called asymmetric games. It doesn’t matter if the War elephant is better than the phalanx, as long as the Africans and the Southern Europeans are balanced against one another as a whole.
Most games designed with competitive play in mind fall into this category.
“If the odds of winning are proportional to player skill or experience, then the game is balanced.”
When playtesting and balancing a competitive game (especially one with few or no random factors), one of the things the designer might think about is “if I, as the creator, am losing, then the game is probably not balanced.” This may seem like a conceited or self-centered point of view, but consider–You’ve played more games with this prototype, you’ve had more time to think about it, and you’ve had more influence in the design than anyone else. If you are playing to win and amateurs are beating you, the most skilled player in the world, then you may want to consider that the game is not balanced according to player skill.
Not all games are tests of player skill, but many are. The more a game favors highly skilled players, the more incentive there is to master it. By the same token, the more the game favors skill, the harder it is for new players to pick up and play the game with experienced players.
Sports or tournament-styled games usually fall into this category.
Limited or No Balance
“The game does not need to be balanced to be interesting.”
Some games are intentionally unbalanced. If we’re reenacting a historic battle between the Greeks and the Persians, there’s no need to artificially guarantee that the sides are balanced–it wouldn’t be historically accurate. If we’re playing a basketball-themed board game, and one team has less skilled players, it would be silly to give that team unrealistic advantages to account for their weakness. While one side or the other might be favored, as long as the possibility for victory on either side exists, the game is still interesting. Plus, there’s nothing quite like winning with the underdog.
There are some games for which balancing is impossible, or just doesn’t make any sense. Consider Dixit, Pictionary, or Charades. There may be some points where these games could be balanced, but on the whole the exercise of trying to balance them is meaningless.
This category is not technically a kind of balance, but it is included here as a reminder that balance isn’t necessary for a game to be fun or interesting. It’s an option that developers have, if it suits their particular game.
Most simulations, storytelling, and wargames fall into this category.
Few games utilize just one of these schools of thought–many are balanced with several in mind, and there is a little bit of overlap between any set of them. There are plenty of great games, and plenty of player preferences. Each school of balancing provides enjoyment to a different kind of player, and is used by designers as a tool to provide a certain gaming experience.
Can you identify games you know that are balanced according to each of the different schools of thought mentioned above (or to specific combinations of the schools)? Can you think of any other ‘schools of thought’ that might not have been mentioned? What idea do you have in mind for balance when creating a competitive game?