You’ve got the idea, you’ve got the rules mostly figured out, so now it must be time to make a prototype right? Not quite. Before making any prototype you need to ensure there’s some balance in your game. You’ll save yourself a lot of work if your first prototype is somewhat balanced. Without a balanced prototype then it’s harder to pinpoint why some aspects aren’t working.
Balancing a game can get pretty math-y so to balance my games I always use a spreadsheet. This helps me keep track of how many red character cards there are, or how many of a certain resource is required etc… You should get familiar with some basic formulas in Excel like Countif and Sumif as these will help automate counting as you inevitably change some of the stats in your spreadsheet.
If you rush to make a prototype because the game in your head is perfect, then you could find yourself with a game that just doesn’t work. Maybe the game seemed unfair to one player more than others, or maybe no one ended up going to a certain area of the board, or using a specific resource. You could spend time fiddling and tweaking as you re-playtest over and over again (which you will be doing no matter what), but you can reduce the frustration by at least having your balance all worked out beforehand.
For some types of games, no matter how much balancing you do before your first prototype, you’re not going to get it right and you’re going to have to go back to the drawing board. This is where having that spreadsheet already done is going to come in handy. Maybe a certain type of resource was just too hard to get, so now you can go back into your spreadsheet and alter the numbers while still ensuring there’s balance. This might mean that you have to make another prototype from scratch, or it might mean that you have to scribble out some text and re-write it.
Example of spreadsheet used for upcoming game Rune Masters:
For our Rune Masters game we have the following statistics for each Creature: Class, Alignment, Power, Casting Cost, Abilities. It’s a game where Good Creatures are battling Evil Creatures. We balanced it such that the total Casting Cost for all the Good Creatures cost the same as all the Evil Creatures; that the total Power for all the Good Creatures was exactly the same as the total for all the Evil Creatures and that each of the 6 Classes were also balanced with Power and Casting Cost. The last thing to balance is the abilities and that’s going to take a lot more playtesting to determine that, but at least now we’re at a stage where we can make a prototype.
For Belfort we have buildings that each have a different cost to build them. There are three resources for building: Wood, Stone and Metal. You need 1 Elf to gather 1 Wood, 1 Dwarf to gather 1 Stone and 1 Elf and 1 Dwarf to gather 1 Metal. We needed to ensure that Wood and Stone were balanced with each other and that Metal wasn’t needed as much as either Wood or Stone. Imagine if Stone was used more than Wood. Players would always play a strategy that ensured they had more Stone. As the game progressed the cost for buildings would change as we learned which building were preferred to others, but the balance of Wood and Stone always remained. Because of this we also had to ensure the balance of how you can acquire more Elves or Dwarves was equal. We couldn’t make it easier to get Elves than Dwarves, for example as that would affect how many resources you could get.
So remember to take a bit of time before rushing to prototype to get some balance in your game!
Excellent article. There is so much of the scientific process in the design of a solid game. We try to eliminate as much of the guesswork from the question “why didn’t this work out how we planned?” right from square one. This is where balancing comes in very handy. Balance is most definitely a feel, a generalized impression that all is well and good in our little microcosm of a game world, but it is attained through very specific application of the scientific process. We constantly make hypothesis and test them. Using a tool like a spreadsheet, we can tweak and see how things are affected by tracking total values in the game system so that we’re not changing things too much, nor do we change too many things at once.
This is probably why Reiner Knizia makes such balanced games (and generally good ones!) – he’s a mathematician.
All we need is another mathematician and a statistician…
For each of your games that you already have, create a spreadsheet and track each statistic. Is there balance? Dig deeper – do all Orcs have the same casting cost as Dragons? If not, was that planned? Is your blue resource used as much as your green one?