There was an interesting article doing the rounds last week entitled “Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance“. It’s worth the read if you haven’t already seen it, but if you fancy a summary the core argument is that balance is not desirable in RPGs because the structures/rules that are needed to obtain game balance either do not contribute to or directly oppose the core purpose of RPGs. This got me thinking about the structures that are necessary for game balance and how often they do or do not contribute to player’s enjoyment of the games. What is game balance? Which games benefit from it? Which games are better off without it?
There are a lot of opinions on what game balance is, but I think most of them boil down to a simple thing: Successful players will use all of the options presented to them by the game in one situation or another. If a skilled player who wants to win would always or never select a particular character/race/card/option/move/whatever then that thing has some sort of balance issue. Generally something being too powerful is more of an issue than something being not powerful enough, as a game with only one good approach quickly becomes stale but a game with one fewer approach than it might otherwise have could still be very enjoyable.
On a quick aside, I think that game balance issues are distinct from the level of randomness in a game’s outcome. A card that makes the player who draws it instantly win is probably a bad thing for the game that it’s in, but despite the power invested in a single card I wouldn’t call it a balance issue (Assuming players draw the same number of cards).
There are lots of different reasons to play games and game balance only influences some of them. As the article above points out, if you’re playing a game to tell a story then it’s not important, if you’re playing primarily to interact with friends, enjoying the game as a work of art or just looking to waste some time it doesn’t matter. Even highly competitive players who are looking to prove mastery don’t need it, though in this case once one player has proven their analysis of which option is the unbalanced one is correct then they may not wish to replay the game.
There are people for whom it’s essential though. Players who care about who wins (or has the biggest influence in the case of coops or RPGs) and who want to replay the game and explore lots of different options benefit a lot from a finely balanced game. While competitive players can find fun in exploiting an unbalanced game, competition scenes around more balanced games can become far more in depth and engaging.
Game balance is also something that exists to degrees. At one extreme a game could be entirely determined by a single important choice (Such as playing the Prophetess in Talisman) at the other a designer could make AIs play hundreds of games against each other and adjust the balance of the cards until they’re being used evenly (I heard that Race for the Galaxy was treated this way) and everything in between. Often the choice facing a designer is not “Should my game be balanced?” but “How much balance does my game need?”
A better balanced game is more difficult to make and it will often come at the expense of other attributes. Once you’re committed to a certain level of balance some ideas or options might seem awesome but be impossible to practically introduce without upsetting the balance. Choices might have to be made that compromise the theme of the game, for instance preventing an action that a person would logically take.
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At the end of the day decisions about balance are themselves a balancing act. It’s important for a designer to identify why people will play their game, understand how important balance is for that and to refine towards that level of balance. It can be tempting to chase after playtester feedback suggesting ways to improve balance, but going down that road will always be at the expense of another.