For example, I'm hoping that the 5 races in Clockwork Wars are "balanced." The only difference between the races is their unique unit, which possesses a special ability. The Troglodyte unique unit, the Engineer, gives you a +1 bonus to IP generation on any territory it's stationed on. The Rhinoch unique unit, the Crasher, automatically kills 3 enemy soldiers during the reinforcement stage in combat. These are very different abilities. But are they balanced? I understand the basic issue: players want the special abilities to be relatively equal in power, such that no race possesses a significant advantage in the quest for victory. And balance is primarily assessed through repeated play-testing and collection of empirical data. But, I'd argue, in the board game world, such balancing is very difficult because it's nearly impossible to have a high enough "n" (in the statistical sense) to make meaningful conclusions. The developers of Starcraft II or League of Legends can rely on millions of data points (win/loss stats) to determine whether Banshees are properly balanced or Jax is overpowered. They also have the advantage of being able to tweak balance easily post-release, whereas in the table top world, that's more difficult and perceived more negatively.
Furthermore, balance is overrated. I've mentioned before how I much I love Space Hulk, Claustrophobia, and Memoir '44. All three of these games, I would argue, feature scenarios that are heavily imbalanced. If you win as the humans in Claustrophobia, you've got something to be proud of! I also love how both Space Hulk and Claustrophobia feature highly asymmetrical sides. The difference in play mechanics between the Genestealers and Space Marines makes balance somewhat irrelevant - but not, I would argue, to the detriment of fun.
|Claustrophobia: demonic advantage|
Another area where balance is of central concern in Clockwork Wars is map layout. Prior to each game, players generate a unique map using anywhere between 20-40 hexagonal tiles (or more, if they want!) that come in 11 different varieties. So, a 3-player map might feature: 3 Capitals, 5 Villages, 4 Citadels, 5 Shrines, 4 Manufactories, 3 Towers, 4 Forests, 3 Lakes, 2 Barrens, and 1 Nexus. If the players want to, they can set up these tiles in whatever configuration they wish - perhaps ensuring that each Capital is relatively close to at least one Village, one Tower, one Manufactory, etc. For the purposes of balance. But you know what? My favorite maps in Clockwork Wars tend to be those that are 90% random, 10% balanced. In other words, I like to come up with a general layout or pattern first and then just randomly choose the tiles to fill it out. This way, you might end up with 3 Forests in a cluster (interesting!) or the Mongrel capital adjacent to 2 Towers (sorcerous dogs!) or, heaven forbid, the Rhinoch capital surrounded by worthless Barrens. Let me play the Rhinochs, then, and spit in the face of balance! I'll always choose the underdog, for thence comes the greater glory.
Asymmetrical maps are more interesting because they allow for better narratives to unfold. Was the terrain of Gettysburg symmetrical? Or the forest of Ardennes? You take what is given to you, turn it to your advantage, and worry not for unfairness in the world.
|click to enlarge|
This map is fun because the Lake in the center of the map is worth 4 VPs instead of the normal 3 for Lakes, and that extra VP tends to draw players' attention (perhaps more than it's actually worth!). I imagine that it's got a huge oil reserve underneath, and that the oil on the surface periodically sets afire. I like maps with slight rules tweaks like this, and I hope that players of Clockwork Wars delight in creating unique maps and scenarios with the many tools we're going to give them.