Friday, August 8, 2014

Balance and Symmetry

I've been thinking a lot about game balance lately.  And here are my sacrilegious thoughts.  I don't think balance is necessarily the paramount objective towards which we should always strive.  Imbalance creates more interesting strategic and narrative possibilities. Balance in asymmetrical systems is impossible.

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
Now, I understand that not everyone's going to agree with me on this one.  Don't worry!  I've designed some (nearly) symmetrical maps for Clockwork Wars that are well-balanced and properly fascinating to play.  For example, the Lake of Fire map shown to the right is a well-balanced map for 2 players.  However, if you look closely, you'll see I didn't make it perfectly symmetrical.  It just wouldn't be right if it was.

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.


  1. I've been working with a friend of mine the last two years or so designing a game. We are right on the threshold of starting to play test our ideas! I just wanted to say that I've found your blog posts about game design interesting, insightful, and helpful. Thanks for sharing.

    I'm also very excited about Clockwork Wars and look forward to being able to play the game myself.

  2. Hey Adam - Thanks for the support! What kind of game have you guys been creating? Design is a very enjoyable process, but it can also be exhausting.

  3. We started with a western themed game. It's got a shared wilderness component for exploration/resource gathering. Then each player will have their own town that they are building. Our story idea is that the railroad is being built and will reach this section of country soon, and each player wants their town to be the biggest to attract the railway to their town. We've brainstormed lots of ideas for buildings, characters, events, etc. We'd like to do some simple play testing next just to see that the game mechanics "work".

    The friend I'm working with is a very creative person though, and along the way he's had a number of other ideas for games. Many are "expansion" ideas for the western game. Others are new ideas for future games. How many we will ever get to, we will see. =)

  4. Sounds cool to me! I love the idea of exploration & resource gathering as it pertains to building up a western town. Creating a prototype and testing out mechanics early on is always worth it - just to see if the system has potential.