What Does Balance Mean?

May 31, 2017

While this is primarily aimed at Dungeons and Dragons, especially my focuses on my rewrite, a lot of what I’m going to say here applies to other games as well. Well, board and card games. Balance is a much more complex issue when you get into anything with visuals and dexterity-based mechanics. The principles are basically the same in video games and dexterity games (like those weird games that came out in the 90s that involve catching butterfly toys or tapping out fake ice cubes from a plastic frame) but there are far more variables and more assumptions that have to be made during design.

So, anyway, what is balance? And why does it matter?

Balance is, simply, ensuring that everyone knows what they are capable of on a turn, that they know what their actions will accomplish, and that they have a valid option to participate in the game on every turn. This does not mean that a player has to announce their actions, nor does it mean that every turn needs to be exactly the same. What it means is that every action starts from a place of open information and the potential of important participation. A failure of balance could be a player’s options being far, far more powerful than anyone elses’, but it could also be a player that has “already lost” and their only option is becoming kingmaker for another player by attacking or undermining others in the game.

Now, not every game needs to be balanced. There are ways to have fun when not everyone is trying for the same goal. Asymetric goals can make very interesting play spaces, like Raid decks from the old World of Warcraft card game or “hide and seek” games like Scotland Yard, but part of the “balance” in these games is everyone agreeing at the beginning of the game that certain players will have certain abilities that are balanced on the outside of the game (or through core mechanics) that allow everyone to still have a realistic way to reach their goals.

There’s a lot of concepts I’ve stuck  in there, though, that we should break down; goals, mechanics, and actions.

Goals are outlined in the rules; get to 10 souls, be the only surviving player, have the most victory points, conquer Japan, etc. Goals are a necessary part of every game and are the thread that creates the story told by the mechanics of the game. The goals should be clear and understandable before even starting the game, and a player’s goal should be something they can see how to accomplish within the game from the very beginning. Even if there’s information that will be revealed later, like a Traitor or additions to the play space (like revealing places on the board or “global” affecting cards).

Mechanics are the essential rules of the game, all of them including those printed on cards or implemented by players. If goals are the plot of a game’s play, then mechanics are the words the game’s story is written in. Mechanics have one important design rules above all others – legibility. All mechanics should be written in their most simple, most clear forms so that anyone reading them can understand how they work and how they interact with the rest of the game world. For balance, it’s important that each mechanic makes sense for their position in the game’s play space, and that each mechanic has a meaningful effect on the game. While “you may pick up your token or piece then place it back down where it was” is a balanced mechanic, it’s a pointless mechanic that does not do anything meaningful (in most games, I’m sure anyone could come up with a game where that would matter).

Actions are basically whatever a player is allowed to do on their turn. These may be exclusive (you may buy OR build OR fight) or they may be in order (you must draw, then you play stage 1 cards, then play stage 2 cards, then discard) but they should always make sense. When a player’s turn starts, no matter how many times they’ve played this game they should know what they can do, what those actions will do to the game space on the whole, and how effective those actions might be. The game doesn’t need to force a player to only take “correct” actions, but the “correct” actions should be clear based on their available information and the rules and mechanics that they learned at the beginning of the game. Hiding “good” plays behind poorly written rules, counter-intuitive mechanics, or overly-complex interactions is generally bad design – these games aren’t fun to play until you’ve played them enough. Some games don’t need to be fun but, generally, we’re going for something fun. The whole idea of balance is different if you’re making a game for instruction or empathy, as the very goal of the mechanics is different than a standard game.

Balance is taking these things together and creating a game that never punishes a player for something out of their control and never mystifies a player with things that are difficult to understand. A well balanced game ensures that everyone has the chance to have fun, whether it’s their first game or their last.

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