Step 7: The Need for Balance


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!

-Jay Cormier

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…

-Sen-Foong Lim

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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?

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5 thoughts on “Step 7: The Need for Balance

  1. One thing I think is worth mentioning is that there are essentially two types of balancing:
    1. The “good” type you mostly describe above, where making sure that there’s not one completely dominant strategy, or any completely neglected play areas, resources, etc.
    2. The “bad” type where it seems some gamers and designers are obsessed with every single element of the game being equal.

    I think once you’ve done the “good” balancing, especially if using a spreadsheet, you then have to make sure you haven’t crossed the line into bad balancing. Are there more valuable assets in the game worth fighting for? Do players have a sense of purpose and direction, or is one item just as good as anything else?

    Sure, you don’t want one card, building, resource, whatever to be so overpowered that it’s the only way to win, but at the same time a game where everything is equal really drains both the tension and the feeling of theme. Especially in a game which includes mechanics like an auction, or the ability to “buy” a better spot in the turn order, it’s often important to make sure there are some items which are more valuable for all players to compete for. If everyone wants something different (or doesn’t care, because they’re too equal), then the auctions will usually go for minimum bid, which is no fun.

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  2. We agree and I think it comes down to semantics of the definition of ‘balance’. I think that a balanced game doesn’t mean that everything is equal – just that if something isn’t equal, there’s a reason to it. If bricks are harder to come by, are they also worth more somehow? Even if that worth is purely through player interaction like an auction.

    Also – sometimes Sen and I like to start a game that is purely balanced – where everything is equal. We know this isn’t how we want the game to end up – but we want to get to that first playtest and would like to see if the concept works. Then, once it works well enough, we’ll tweak it to make it fit the game best.

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    • I agree, as well – Balance, for me, is more than just the math – Balance is a feel. That the challenge is “just right” on all levels. Sometimes, we try really hard to ensure everything is balanced, only to have a game with no ebb or flow and only mechanical preciseness (Remember “The Dig”, Matt? Oy Vey!) And sometimes we have no balance whatsoever in the original concept and then balance certain aspects of it to make the game fairer or one strategy less dominant, etc. Having a good, solid starting point – where everything is as equal as it can be – is good in that it helps Jay and I ensure that the mechanics are working. It does not necessarily mean that gameplay is any good, though!

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  3. I realized after reading this that the game I’m currently working on, the main mechanic, which involves placing tiles and moving players on them has almost no benefit and no advnatage/disadvantage. (In other words, it’s pointless). So that’s now my main priority, making it important and meaningful.

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  4. Pingback: Этап 7: Необходимость баланса | Персональная страница Петра Черевко — сайт, посвященный обзорам бытовой техники, сравнениям книг с их экр

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