Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Why Balance in Games is Important

I recently listened to the Bonus Episode 23 of the Building the Game Podcast and found myself as the un-named subject of a meaningful discussion at 41:50 of the podcast.  Most of what they say is true.  I did have a fair amount of valuation feedback on all of the cards in Rob Couch's design of Rocket Wreckers, although I wasn't trying to come across as saying that the game was a piece of crap.  I've heard this before, it has to do with a combination of my delivery and the fact that I will usually be brutally honest with criticisms.  For anyone who plays my games, I expect the same in return.  I'm glad that Rob didn't take it personally and was able to take the feedback for what it was, which was trying to be helpful criticism about the balance of the cards in the game.  I really like the concept and the theme of Rocket Wreckers and it was one of two unpublished games that were at the top of my list of games I was hoping to play at GenCon which I'm really glad I was able to play.

In regards to what the general concensus was in regards to my player type not being the target audience for the game, in general, they are correct. I agree that 99% of players aren't going to look at a game the way that I did, but I don't think that means it's unimportant.  There was a concept that was brought up shortly after the discussion in regards to interpreting the feedback from the players who are playing your game which is encapsulated by the following quote:

"The customer rarely knows what they want."

-Steve Jobs

I think the same thing can be said about balance in a game, even one intended for a lighter audience.  If things are designed correctly, the player will never wonder if something is balanced or not, because it will be, and the nagging question of an imbalance will never enter their mind.  Players don't know how your game should be balanced, that is supposed to be the job of the designer and the developer. How many times have you heard, or even said yourself any of the following about a game:
  • "This card sucks!"
  • "I would never take that action, it's just terrible."
  • "Whoever uses that strategy always wins."

These are all examples of people who are expressing an imbalance of power levels in a game.  All of the above thoughts can all be perceived imbalances, but as I've previously written, perceptions are just as important as reality.

The concept of player not being a part of your target audience is a common response to feedback given in regards to balance.  But I think it's short-sighted to assume that the type of player you are trying to attract will never think about your game on a deeper level.  That statement may be true for 98% of your players, especially considering the current "cult of the new" boardgame culture, but I don't think that is a good reason to leave imbalances in your design.  Using that rationality to not fix an imbalance in your design is just attempting to hide the flaws of the game instead of correcting them.

This is not to say that a game should never have flaws, or that a game with flaws is unable go on to be a commercial success.  Every "take that" game on the market has the flaw of being able to gang up on a leader.  Every cooperative game on the market has the flaw of an alpha player trying to dictate what all other players should be doing.  Every social deduction game has the flaw that not all people are created equal in their ability to hide their true intentions.  Your game is allowed to have flaws, but if you are designing a strategic game where player decisions are supposed to have meaning, I don't think that imbalance between players should be one of those flaws.  Unless that is the point of the game, such as a historical wargame simulation.

In the end, it is up to the designer to determine what the game is attempting to accomplish, decided which flaws are acceptable and which are not.  There are a ton of imbalanced games that can be fun to play, but I believe that the best games are those that are balanced.