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.
The problem with runaway leaders is that while the leader is having a grand time on the path toward victory, all other players in the game are captive on the path toward defeat. The runaway leader problem creates an implicit form of player elimination: players trailing in performance have essentially been removed from contention, but don’t have the freedom to walk away from the table. The more players present in a game, the worse this effect becomes as each additional player is one more person who must endure a negative outcome long before final results are completed.
Runaway leads can be prevented in a few different ways. The simplest way to prevent them is to design a game where the current score doesn’t at all influence a player’s future ability to gain points. Such a design is often easier talked about than implemented, though, because it requires careful tuning of positive feedback and negative feedback (which, contrary to positive feedback, makes it more difficult to score once you’ve scored already).
Positional Balance – Feedback Neutrality
The games most successful at being feedback-neutral are ones where only protracted, short-term strategies are possible. Scrabble is a great example: if you’ve made an 80-point seven-letter word, you’re equally likely to draw a reasonable hand or six I’s and a V at the end of your turn. And although strategy game players tend to discount lighter-weight American games, they’re perfect examples of feedback neutrality. The score in a late turn of Taboo, for instance, is completely independent of the score of the preceding turns. (The mathematics get complicated quickly, but games like Taboo might be classified as Markovian.)
Positional Balance – Catch-up Mechanics
Alternatively, a game can install catch-up mechanics to actively prevent players from seizing too large a lead. Power Grid might be the most commonly cited game with significant catch-up mechanics:
- Boosting the loser: In Power Grid, the player who is furthest from victory is given the opportunity to buy resources for the lowest cost, while the player currently leading the game has to wait to buy resources until they become more expensive.
- Hindering the leader: In addition, Power Grid uses a diminishing-returns payment schedule, such that a player providing power to four cities gets paid much more than another player powering two cities, but a third player powering six cities doesn’t get paid much more than the player powering four.
Therefore, Power Grid contains mechanics designed to ensure that the separation among the rest of the players never grows too large by both holding back the leader and pushing forward the players at the back of the pack.
The idea of positional balance, runaway leaders, and catch-up mechanics can be illustrated visually:
Positional balance doesn’t have to be mechanical. In games with heavy player interaction, like ones using territory control or auction mechanics, players will tend to “gang up” on the one in the lead. They can blatantly attack the leader in Small World, Munchkin, and King of Tokyo, refuse a trade in Bohnanza, or make a city impossible to finish in Carcassonne.
Settlers of Catan has a strong psychological positional balance component, where players will refuse trades, hinder with the robber, and build sub-optimal roads, all to prevent someone from winning once that person approaches the victory condition of 10 points. Because Settlers is so prone to “self-policing,” the runaway leader scenario that might be possible doesn’t happen as often as it might based on the mechanics alone.
Risk is a great example of a game with mechanics that would promote runaway leaders—more territories give you more armies, which in turn let you attack more territories—but for the “psychological” style of positional balance.
- Bashing the leader: A few-player Risk game tends to stagnate once three players are remaining, because the two less powerful empires will always temporarily band together to attack the most powerful, and the alliance will shift once one of the two gains too much power for himself.
Games where the main objective is to bash the leader aren’t any fun, though, and they don’t work as games if they incentivize sub-optimal play so much that remaining in second place is a better strategic choice than taking the lead. If a player gets off to an early lead through brilliant play, or pure luck, that should remain an advantage throughout the game. But everyone else should have the ability to catch up—so long as they play brilliantly themselves, or if the early leader’s luck runs dry.
So a game is positionally balanced if an early lead remains a later advantage but does not result in a sure victory. Why is positional balance important? It keeps players engaged by not making the endgame a foregone conclusion halfway through or crowning a winner turns before she actually wins. It keeps scores close, which gives all the players a sense (whether real or illusory) of being competitive. And it rewards competent play at all moments of the game rather than prioritizing whose strategy was able to succeed first.
Like all the types of balance, maintaining positional balance is critical to giving players a genuine challenge instead of a blowout win or a hopeless uphill battle. The eventual winner will have more fun if he feels overpowered from time to time instead of cruising to an easy victory, just as everyone else will have more fun if they feel competitive throughout the game.
Implementing Positional Balance
Mario Kart is notorious for its aggressive positional balance. The outcome of a race is often not determined until its very last seconds. Although it’s not exactly a strategy game, Mario Kart uses plenty of positional balancing mechanics relevant to strategy game design.
Rubber-banding: You just can’t shake second-place Wario no matter how well you drive or how many mushrooms you use. Banana peels barely slow him down. And after you’ve blasted him off the course, he’ll be riding your tail just a few seconds later. Actively transplanting players into a more favorable position regardless of past errors is (somewhat derisively) known as rubber-banding, and it’s all too popular in racing games. But it doesn’t work for strategy games because it implies that the game outcome is decided by some outside force rather than by optimal play.
Hindering the leader: When you’re in first or second place, you get items that are much less useful than you would if you were in the back of the pack. You’re forced to be more tactical about how you use your items as well as to better value something halfway decent that lands in your lap. Hindering the leader works in a strategy game as long as the leader doesn’t feel unable to play the game; giving the leader poor or expensive resources is fine, but giving him no resources is not.
Boosting the loser: Bullet Bill, as well as the golden mushroom and invincibility star, are great catch-up mechanics. They’re given to players who are significantly behind, whether due to poor driving or unfortunate circumstances. All of them benefit bad players by bringing them back into the game despite their weakness but do not determine the outcome of the game outright. Over time, less-skilled players will eventually fall back anyway, but Bullet Bill at least provides them a moment to shine. An adequate player is given a second chance to perform at a higher level, despite unfortunate circumstances such as excessive targeting by opponents or a string of bad luck. Loser-boosting mechanics are perhaps the fairest way to implement positional balance in strategy games, as long as they don’t turn into “catapult past the leader” mechanics.
Boosting the loser as we’ve defined it here is not exactly the same as rubber-banding. The distinction is that, while a “boosting the loser” mechanic helps players significantly behind the lead to get back into contention, it does not place them in the lead automatically. Player skill is still a factor once the playing field has been leveled.
Bashing the leader: In contrast, the blue shell is a terrible positional balancing mechanic. It punishes competent play, and depending on timing, the shell can present king-making situations, especially on the final lap. Worse, it does little to benefit the player who uses it, as she often can’t win anyway. The lesson for strategy game designers here is that positional balancing mechanics should help the player in last place rather than hurt the player in first.
Positional Balance – Alternative Mechanics
Beyond these straightforward methods of implement positional balance, there are several methods of approaching positional balance involving scoring, victory conditions, and forced regression. Other examples of mechanics that promote positional balance include:
- Hidden scoring: The scoring in some games can be obfuscated so that no one is clear who is actually leading and everyone feels involved. Money is not public information in games like Power Grid and Hotel Samoa, so it is not immediately obvious to everyone at the table who is winning.
Secret objectives that score at game end: In Metropolys secret agendas are distributed to players which provide bonuses at the end of the game if an objective is completed. Careers allows players to select their own secret victory conditions before the game begins. Players can’t dwell on their relative standing as they only have a loose estimate of their current position.
Ambiguous scoring: Players can score by collecting route cards in Ticket to Ride. The route cards are scored at the end of the game but can be positive scoring or negative scoring based on whether or not they get completed by that player. Even if a player has a significant number of route cards, some of those cards could be low scoring or even detract from the player’s point total.
Positive aspects – Obscured Scoring:
- Simple method to keep everyone engaged as players wait to measure their performance at the end of the game.
- Can prevent players from attempting to bash the leader as the identity of the leading player is a mystery.
Negative aspects – Obscured Scoring:
- Can present an unintended memory element in games such as Small World which features hidden but trackable information.
- This is simply a bandage; if a potential runaway leader issue is present this will conceal it rather than resolve it.
Luxury tax: Several games make the wealth of controlling more territory, hiring more workers, or owning more cards increasingly expensive as a method of hindering the leader. In Suburbia and Belfort, the further along on the scoring track a player is, the higher their tax/upkeep. In Agricola, the larger your family is, the more actions you can take, but the more food you have to provide to them at the end of the year. This mechanic is analogous to a salary cap or revenue sharing in professional sports, preventing one team from consistently dominating the competition simply by outspending everyone else.
- Efficiency reduction: In Dominion players add cards to their deck and then cycle through their deck as it becomes more powerful and efficient. In order to win the game, players purchase victory cards, which when added to a player deck, provide points in final scoring but no in-game benefit. By adding victory cards a player will improve their ability to winning at the expense of a less efficient deck.
- Resource inflation: Another element of Risk is the ability to turn in a set of cards for an army bonus. Each additional set of cards increases the army bonus as it is turned in. Eventually the bonus for turning in a set of cards is far more powerful than the current armies on the board.
Positive aspects – Performance Regression:
- Provide an interesting decision to players. In Dominion players will often decide when to transition from accumulating powerful cards to victory cards and trigger the end of the game. In Risk, players can postpone turning in a set of cards hoping its value increases in the future.
Negative aspects – Performance Regression:
- A pacing element comes into play that can change the intended length of the game. The resource inflation in Risk introduces an inevitable conclusion to a game of global domination. In Risk, this is generally a good thing as it brings closure to a longer game. However, if players are discouraged from being in the lead (as they are in Power Grid), the flow and pace of the game can become a concern as stalling can be a legitimate tactic.