EXPOSED: Balance in Game Design

As gamers, we know when a game lacks balance, but how do we come to know and recognize this? 

Not all gamers have the necessary knowledge, skills, and tools to evaluate whether a game is balanced mathematically, yet nowadays, they will quickly label games as “well-balanced” or “broken” upon release.

Balance in Game Design Explained

It is critical first to address what we mean when we say “balance,” especially since literature suggests that actual mathematical balance is often disconnected from perceived balance.

In board game terms, balance is often interchanged with “fairness” in many contexts, but game design requires a higher standard of the term for a game to be considered balanced.

Balance is a property of each game that involves the relative value of the game’s choices. When a game is balanced, players begin with the perspective of their starting goals; each decision holds value, and the outcome of the game tends to be revealed during final scoring.

This also means raising the stakes over the course of gameplay and providing interesting paths and strategies across the entire playthrough.

Three Categories of Balance: Internal, External, and Positional

1. Internal Balance

Ensuring each option holds comparable value.

Internal balance involves all the actions a gamer has control over. When players need to carefully weigh their options in a worker placement game or decide which role to select, an assumption is made that a game has a strong internal balance.

A lack of internal balance often generates criticism of a game item or mechanic being “broken” or “overpowered,” as these terms imply that specific actions cannot always be performed without exception and significantly impact the outcome.

Key questions a game designer needs to ask themselves when checking for internal balance are the following:

  • Are there items or actions in a game that should always be selected when possible?
  • Is there ever a reason not to take object A/ to perform action A over object/ action B?

Internal Balance in Game Design

2. External Balance

External balance encompasses the designer’s intent at the beginning of the game. This kind of balance mainly focuses on fair gameplay and perceived balance. These concepts help enforce the idea that a game is a challenge worth pursuing. 

Lack of external balance often prevents a game from being played entirely.

Key questions for External Balance:

  • Do any starting positions or special powers confer a strong advantage?
  • Does going first generate a significant advantage?

For example, chess is known to give an advantage to White because the player controlling White starts first. Magic: the Gathering also recognizes it but alleviates this edge by denying the first player’s draw. Oceans drives things to the other edge, as it is better to be the last player. The first players have bonus endgame points.

External Balance in Game Design

3. Positional Balance

Positional balance is all about ensuring every turn counts. This game design concept is relatively recent and focuses on maintaining player involvement. An emphasis is placed on controlling feedback loops (a mechanical gameplay loop that results in a positive or negative outcome) that cause games to become highly predictable long before final scoring. The core concepts of positional balance are runaway leader issues and catch-up mechanics.

Key Questions for Positional Balance:

  • Can a player with an early lead accelerate toward victory without interference?
  • Do players that face an initial setback have an opportunity to return to contention?

Hidden objectives or endgame objectives can be used to add uncertainty to the outcome of the game. Catch-up mechanics, such as the rat tails in the Quacks of Quedlinburg, can help catch up to the runaway leaders.

Positional Balance in Game Design

Balance is not an end in itself

While perfect balance would appear to be the ultimate goal, it cannot be achieved in most cases. In some ways, it could even act as a detriment to a game design:

RPS

In Rock-Paper-Scissors, players reveal selections simultaneously, and each action has an equal chance of winning, dependent only on an opponent’s action. The game is wholly balanced, yet the optimal strategy is to select randomly to prevent opponents from picking up on frequency or trends. The best decision for players to make in RPS is for players not to decide at all. This makes for unappealing gameplay but can be enriched to an extent.

Memoir 44

In a skirmish game like Memoir ‘44, a lack of balance can allow for historical accuracy. By providing scenarios with an exact underdog role, a player can attempt to overcome a great challenge and have the thrill of a difficult victory. On the other side, an opponent gets to feel powerful and use their significant starting advantage. This dichotomy can be a very successful tool to create great tension and memorable experiences in games. Many military and war games have used this idea to a significant effect.

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