Saturday Morning Gaming: Game Balance
I am ALWAYS looking for games that create situations where you’re constantly feeling like Buridan’s Donkey, unable to pick which character you want to play. Once in the game, when you’re playing, games that constantly make you wonder which course of action would be the best one to achieve your preferred goals are a step above even this. And games that give you multiple different goals to shoot for and you have to pick which goal you want to achieve? Even better.
One of the biggest problems with any given asymmetrical game is balance. If you’re playing something like Monopoly or Chutes and Ladders, every single player is pretty much identical. When you start playing games where different characters have different abilities and different strengths and weaknesses, you’re immediately going to run into the situation where one of the characters is seen as “the good one” and the others therefore become “the crappy one(s)”.
In the board game “Descent”, for example, Melee does an amazing amount of damage but, as Mister Miyagi taught us, the best defense is to not be there. So Melee characters tend to get tossed aside as the crappy ones because Ranged and Magic gives better defense. Sure, you can still get hit by Ranged and Magic from two squares away, but you can’t get hit by Melee.
The balance that exists between Ranged and Magic is therefore the whole cost/benefit issue of magic does more damage (but it has less range… maybe reliably hit something 3 or 4 squares away) while Ranged does less damage (but, holy cow, you can be six or seven squares away and hit reliably).
The balance issues become issues of which tradeoffs you want to make versus which tradeoffs you’re merely willing to make.
Good games have you saying “on the one hand, on the other hand” for a moment. Great games have you saying “on the third hand, on the fourth hand”.
Each character you can play gives different special abilities. The Engineer gets bonus money when he visits the Plant, for example. The Manager is allowed to play an extra Office card when he visits the Office. If the Pauper has less than 200 coins, he doesn’t get affected by Misfortunes. So on and so forth. There are 12 characters to play and each one will play very differently than the others but, and here’s the point, the difference between the characters will have you asking which tradeoffs you want to make as you’re playing… and even though most games center around “getting the most points”, each character has different skills that make it easier to get the stuff that you’re going to need to get the points.
Which makes your choice of your character the first move of the game. And from there, you’re left agonizing over which card you’re going to play, which location to visit, which spots to avoid, which competitors to screw over, and watching your own well-laid plans get lit aflame.
What’s most interesting about this, to me, is that the game makers themselves are still tweaking and balancing the game four years later. They have all of the data from all of the cards being played and they know which ones are used most often for movement, which cards are most often played for action, and if they see a little bit of unbalance, they will go in and tweak a card here or there.
The “Jurors For Hire” card wasn’t played for action as often as the creators liked, so they reduced the cost to play it from 4 votes to 3 votes. The “Robbery!” card was played a little too often, they thought, so they reduced the amount of coins it gives you from 350 to 300. They introduced a couple new cards a few days ago. They reduced the number of “An Artifact” cards in the deck. They’re constantly tweaking and fiddling and rebalancing the game.
If you’re thinking “well… I don’t like multiplayer though”, it’s got AI players that succeed at being as challenging as people can be, as frustrating as people can be, without the costs of having to deal with actual human beings chatting at you as you play or feeling like you let somebody down when you ragequit after a particularly well-timed betrayal.
And it’s on sale for 75% off.
So… what are you playing? (And what are the best asymmetrical games you’ve discovered?)
(Featured image is a screenshot of the gameboard, taken by the author.)