Writing a blog on game design can share a similar challenge with its subject matter; how can we juggle trying to summarize extensive topics while ensuring we include enough detail. Balance in game design is our monthly topic for January and it is appropriate there are no shortcuts to help us explain it. Join us each week as we explore three primary areas of balance and review the most effective methods to apply to your next game design.
We know when a game lacks balance, but how do we know this? Games generally lack traditional measurement tools to make objective judgments, yet nowadays games quickly become labeled “well-balanced” or “broken” upon release.
This month we are examining three types of game balance and how creators implement these types into game design. This week we’ll look at Internal Balance; the opportunity cost between available options on a player’s turn. Internal balance covers objects such as locations for worker placement or a player’s upgrade decisions using a tech tree.
A primary concern of game designers is to ensure a game has strong replay value and provides a varied experience each time it reaches the table. Internal Balance increases the longevity of games by eliminating false decisions and regulating dominant strategies.
This month we are examining types of game balance and how creators can implement balance into game design. This week we’ll look at External Balance; gameplay elements beyond the control of players, or more simply everything the designer is responsible for prior to the start of a game. External Balance has a strong relationship with the concepts of perceived balance and symmetrical gameplay. External Balance relates to gameplay mechanics such as randomly distributed player powers and starting resources and locations.
Symmetry holds a special role in nature. Bilateral and radial symmetry carry an important role in biology to ensure balance and efficiency in organisms. Facial symmetry has been shown to have a positive correlation with evaluating attractiveness of humans. In game design symmetry has played an important role in the longevity of games. Chess, Checkers and Backgammon are among the world’s oldest surviving games and are also several of the most popular games of today. Each one features the usage of symmetry.
The final type of balance we’ll cover is positional balance, which is a bit different from internal balance and external balance in that it deals with the relative position among the players of a game, rather than the absolute value of certain strategic options or game elements. Uniquely among the categories of balance we’ve discussed, positional balance can either be encoded in a game’s mechanics or be entirely psychological.
Positional balance is a relatively new notion in game design, and it seeks to lessen the possibility of a runaway leader and keep players engaged through the duration of a game, even ones nominally at the “back of the pack.” The primary concerns of positional balance are addressing the runaway leader problem and implementing catch-up mechanics.
Positional Balance – The Runaway Leader Problem
We’ll define a runaway leader as a player who establishes a lead, and by virtue of having that lead, is able to continually press the advantage to make the lead insurmountable. An example is in Settlers of Catan, where having more settlements allows a player to gain more resources, which in turn enables that player to build more settlements. In mathematics and control theory, that’s called a positive feedback loop, and it’s associated with exponential growth. When a poker player wins a hand, he gains chips, which in turn allows him to make bigger bets and win more hands, so poker is prone to runaway leaders.