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Completely Balanced is Boring

Completely Balanced is Boring

In an earlier post I talked about how I graphed out each of the faction decks that make up Armor & Ash.  By the numbers, it looked like the Undead deck was the weakest while the Ghob-ling deck was the strongest.  However, during playtests, it seemed that the Undead could certainly go toe to toe with any other faction.  I started keeping track of win/lose numbers and although underpowered when compared to the attribute numbers of other factions, the Undead deck had a better than average win ratio.

Despite this, I began believing that the Undead faction was indeed underpowered.  The fact that they had a decent win ratio was testament to how well the players played the faction.  In the hands of an inexperienced player, I feared, the Undead would simply be steamrolled.

I started tinkering with things to try to more evenly balance out the graph.  I wanted each faction to have roughly the same distribution of stats.  This proved folly.  Initially, it did help spot clear power gaps, but it quickly led to all factions feeling basically the same.  Why choose Undead over the Forest Elves besides the art?

After I had my hand at balancing the factions, playing the game lost some of its appeal.  It no longer felt like battle was being waged, but rather an abacus was being used to evenly remove cards from the battlefield.  Let me tell you: that’s no way to play a battle game.  The game felt too balanced.

I wasn’t sure that a game could be too balanced, but let me assure you that it can.  Playing one instance of an overbalanced game might not really stand out.  The game might feel close and if you don’t play the game again real soon you might forget just how even everything felt.  Playing multiple consecutive games, however, is very telling.  When both sides can’t easily damage the other or each side damages the other equally each turn, the game starts to feel like a draw.  It doesn’t feel like anyone is really winning.  And, the game gets drawn out; it simply takes longer to finish because of the precise balance.  Having no advantage, having each card met with a doppelganger, feels all but fruitless.

Back to the drawing board.  Time to adjust abilities.  Time to think about the strengths and weaknesses of each faction.  How should the Undead faction play?  Why would someone want to play Forest Elves instead the Ghob-lin deck?  What makes the decks different?  These are key questions to keep in mind.  The whole point of having a game with multiple factions is to have some variable player powers, some uniqueness, some asymmetry.

I think I have everything back on track now, although at times the game still feels a little too balanced.  I question whether a new element of randomness is needed.  But where to stop?  How much is too random?  How much is too balanced?  This is where player feedback is important.  And the best player feedback, I’ve found, comes from strangers.  Friends and family don’t want to hurt your feelings and so they don’t always tell you that your game stinks.  Strangers, while face to face, will often want to spare you from brutal honesty as well, but if properly prompted I find it easy to get honest, constructive feedback from them.  Often, they’ve even got a list of ways to “improve” your game.  “What if the Vampire had this power?”  “Have you thought about adding event cards?”

And so, a word of caution to aspiring board game designers.  Balance is often difficult to get right.  Playing a game that is completely balanced is like playing a game of Rock, Rock, Rock (as opposed to Rock, Paper, Scissors).  Imbalance is what makes the game interesting.  The belief that they can win is what draws people to games and makes them want to play (that and fun).  Graphs and spreadsheets may aid in some of the design process, but don’t solely rely on them.  Does each tweak of the numbers make the game more fun or does it simply serve to balance things on paper?