Monday, 8 August 2011

Can any game system ever truly be balanced? Part 1

Maintaining balance can be difficult!!!

This is a philosophical debate that I have had many times over the years with many friends, passers by and random strangers you meet gaming. Sure it's not as high brow as maybe the 'meaning of life' or some of the more fundamental debates that have taxed and entertained some of the greatest minds humanity has produced... but it's just as perplexing. However before I start rambling nonsense I think it's best if I first define the debate so as not to confuse or leave myself open to wandering off all over the place.

By 'game system' I mean the core rule set that governs the mechanics of any given game and the various choices or factions you have within that rule set. So for something like Warmachine I'd say the game system is the core rulebook, the individual faction books and now Wrath. For now I'll leave out Hordes and or the factions contained within that rule set. By balance I mean that the core rules don't favour one certain type of tactic or gamer and treat all stratagems as equally valid and that the choices between armies are balanced and that certain missions etc. don't favour one side over another.

For now I will leave out the individual choices that can be taken within factions as that would just blow this topic wide open, and I fear it might be too big to tackle within my lifetime already. I want to be clear though that this isn't going to talk specifically about certain games and whether or not they are or aren't balanced, it's more an abstract piece so I'm not out to make any individual points about any given system although I might use examples from systems to illustrate a point, if you get my meaning.

The beginning... and then it all goes wrong

As others have said before me, it's normally a good place to start, the beginning. At some point all game systems will have started as a blank piece of paper (metaphorically speaking) or as a spark of inspiration within their creator's mind. At this point all things are possible, but the moment something is set down, any and every game system becomes unbalanced. A bold statement I know, but please hear me out first before deciding to castigate me.

You see no game system can depict everything, it's not possible, they can't be open ended. We need rules, as Monica from friends would say 'to organise the fun'. It's at this point that a game system gets its character and just what sort of game it'll be, by restricting what it is not. Its this restriction that automatically ensures that no matter how small it is there will be imbalances in any game system. Because the act of restricting leads automatically to a favouring of a certain type of tactic or method of play and as individuals we all respond to those things differently. However the fact that the very act of restriction itself leads to imbalance within a system is well established and accepted, well it is as far as economists and lawyers would have us believe... and from a systemic point of view it seems to make logical sense.

Take chess for instance, perfectly balanced right? Well yes maybe its as balanced as you're likely to get but somebody has to go first and somebody has to go second. Now either could be an advantage or a disadvantage, but either way it is an imbalance in the system that is either decided by a flip of the coin or mutual agreement. The very rules of chess that somebody must take the first turn introduces an imbalance, and unsurprisingly this imbalance actually exists in absolutely every game system you'll play today.

Totally not fair she's wearing a low cut top!!!

I've recently had the pleasure of witnessing what happens to chess if you screw around with the basic principles and rules of the game, with Shuuro by Alessio Cavatore. He added some very simple wargame elements to the game, such as army building and points, as well as terrain. Now with my friends we've already had discussions as to whether a Queen is under or over pointed. Whether it's worth taking bishops, etc. Being brutally honest, we've had the same discussions we always have with every wargame about balance. I happen to think things are about right, but above all else the game remains fun... but for others the appearance of a points systems has opened up many a can o' worms.

However chess is a pretty abstract depiction of war as we know it, even with the changes Shuuro made to the rules. Other games have come and gone and dealt with these inherent imbalances differently. Wargames though are a fascinating idea, we seek to represent the act of war on a table, and as gamers we would like the 'challenge' to be equal and fair. We may phrase it as balance, but I don't think that's what we mean. What I think we all struggle to communicate effectively is we'd like the forces and the rules to give both parties a fair crack of the whip and not to openly favour one or the other. All this while retaining some sort of internal consistency and accuracy in the depiction of war... except war is hardly ever fair now is it?

So are game designers doomed from the start? Yes and no, because if you understand and accept this principle of imbalance and you're aware of it you can do things to mitigate it. Rules create imbalance, but it's how this imbalance is dealt with within the game overall that is important and Chess does this brilliantly by limiting you to moving one piece at a time and giving both sides the exact same 'tools' or 'armies'. However high minded this might seem, its also blisteringly restrictive and it's at this point pretty much all wargames wade in and chuck at us the second imbalance we face in wargames... choice.

Think back to most wars or battles and what you'll find is that one side had the advantage. They didn't both have equal resources and positioning and the side that wins is actually the side that better used its advantage over the opposition, be that overwhelming numbers, superior weaponry or better tactical position on the battlefield. At some point this imbalance between type of forces will creep into most wargames and by most I mean all. You'll find this in the shape of different factions who'll have different characteristics and although there are ways of quantifying the differences, it is choice that adds yet another imbalance that I'll discuss in the next article. Peace out!

Links to subsequent articles

Game Balance: Part 2
Game Balance: Part 3
Game Balance: Part 4
Game Balance: Part 5


  1. I see the point you're trying to make here, but the usage of the term "Balanced" in wargaming tends to mean "Not broken" rather than "Completely fair to all sides at all times".

    The example I draw most often is to compare a wargame (any wargame) to Magic: The Gathering. Magic has strict, grammatical rules that leave very little room for ambiguity. It is kept frequently updated with errata and cards that turn out to be a Bad Idea™ get removed from the competitive scene. A Magic judge is the utmost authority, and almost never make bad calls due to the strict nature of the rules. I consider this the basis on which you can build a balanced system.

    Compare the "whipping boy" of the moment, Games Workshop - the rules are grammatically ambiguous, the books are frequently written years apart with big style changes in rules and intention, and the "judges" often make calls that run against the actual written rules. When they do release FAQs they often make the game worse, or actually muddy the waters further. Upon this shifting foundation balance is incredibly hard to achieve. I happen to think 40k is closer to being "balanced" then it's ever been, but that's not to say it's balanced by any stretch. That they can make anything out of that foundation is a credit to the better army writers.

    Warmahordes drew me in from page one for one very simple reason: It read like the Magic rules. It had specific grammatical meaning to the words it used, and strict rules on how one rule trumps another ("Can't" always beats "Must" is a good example). Again, Warmahordes isn't balanced, but the foundation is there. With careful writing it could be pretty damn close to it.

    I think balance can be achieved in the sense that a game favours no one side in particular. I'm not sure it could ever be balanced perfectly without, as you point out, being Chess (with the addendum that you have to play two games to determine a winner, one as White, then one as Black).

  2. @Ant I 100% agree as this quote directly from the article states:

    'What I think we all struggle to communicate effectively is we'd like the forces and the rules to give both parties a fair crack of the whip and not to favour one or the other while retaining some sort of internal consistency and accuracy in the depiction of war'

    You see I've had people fob me off when I claim that a game system 'isn't balanced' because they can never be truly balanced. What I'm saying is I accept that point, and perhaps we need to move away from the concept and debate of 'balance' to one that uses the phrase 'fair'.

    My next article is looking at points systems and its that aspect that gets most of the discussion in wargaming when it comes to 'balance' or 'fairness'. The third article is on scenery, 4th on missions and the final article is on language.

    I found your comments on MtG really interesting because I haven't played Magic is absolutely ages. I'm not a card gamer and I don't think I ever will be because I'd get far to addicted to collecting chuffing cards!!! :P

  3. The REAL issue is SHOULD every game be balanced, because its not realistic FOR A SET OF RULES TO BE BALANCED - in real warfare, for example - Forces are rarely on an equal footing. Something that almost never comes into play with Scenarios (for example) except in games Like Necromunda - is how utterly out-gunned a force can find itself. These thoughts also spread onto other game type - IMHO RPG's should never really be balanced (something I'm quite passionate about) because you either weaken the Magic Using Characters too much, or over-power the other Characters. True Balance comes from the GM in the way he runs his games and the challenges he puts before his players. Back to the topic at hand, when Wargaming - Have you ever played under-pointed and won? If you have the feeling of achievement if you win is incredible! Being the underdog is cool sometimes!

  4. @Doc I absolutely agree, as another quote from the article backs up what you've just said:

    'Think back to most wars or battles and what you'll find is that one side had the advantage, they didn't both have equal resources and positioning and the side that wins is actually the side that better used its advantage over the opposition, be that overwhelming numbers, superior weaponry or better tactical position on the battlefield.'

    When I look at all the historical wargames I've seen played its very rare if EVER that the two opposing forces are balanced. Most of the time the players balance things out via scenario, like one side having to hold the line while the other breaks its and setting a turn limit. Those sorts of games genuinely have provided me with some of my best and most entertaining gaming challenges and memories.

    I have won many a game as the 'underdog' and yep the sense of achievement is awesome. I once took part in an Alamo reenactment wargame as the defenders, i.e. the republic of Texas and we won just by the skins of our teeth it was a very tough and close call. The other two times those gamers had relived that battle the Mexicans had won comprehensively... so yea that felt good!!!

  5. I think:

    balance = 1/amount of rules

    Where 1 is a perfectly balanced game.

    And yes, I realise that if you can have zero rules, it means the balance will tend to infinite... I guess that's like in War Games (the movie):
    "A strange game. The only winning move is not to play."

    Alessio the zen games designer


    1. i have oft wondered how it worked. i now know the answer.

      thank you for your wisdom.

  6. @Shuuro, Alessio I've always thought of you as more of a Yoda like figure ;)

    I'm a psychologist in training and therefore systems analysis is something that comes naturally to me and its almost impossible to make a perfectly balanced system. the thing is as Doc has said and as I believe I'm not even too sure its necessary.

    There is a strange relationships with rules and balance though. Too many and it'll become too restrictive and as discussed restriction in systems leads to imbalance. Too little though and the ambiguity of it all can lead to people taking advantage of the voids created. I have to be honest and say on one hand I envy you your job as I have loved writing my own rules over the years, but on the other its clearly a big ask to get them just right... if you ever can!!! ;)

  7. I can see you do not know the *real* Alessio. More like the Emperor ;)

    I once designed a game that was intentionally unbalanced in that the sides did not have equal chances of winning (Lost Patrol). This was a decision driven by the setting of the game which pitted a lone squad of Space Marine Scouts against a Deathworld. The clue really is in the name there. Part of the fun was winning against the odds. Inevitably, regardless of how many times I told people that this was the intention, the biggest complaint was always that the game wasn't "fair".

  8. @Quirkworthy, PMSL the Emperor. Does he have force lightening?

    I only played Lost Patrol once I think round a friends house. I never managed to get my hands on a copy. I think though in board games imbalance is far more common place and is see as a valid design choice. Well it is by me. That's half the fun of some of my favourite board games of all time, you knew they were out to kick your ass!!!

    However when things become adversarial I think its different, or difficult. I mean it was fun playing as the Texans at the Alamo, but if I had o face the Alamo every time I played a wargame it'd bore me and also piss me off. Its ok if we set aside a specific game to try and play a uphill struggle scenario, but when a game is supposedly balanced and markets itself as such and it fails.... well I can understand the grumbles.

    I'm about to put my post up on point systems to further the debate.

  9. Good write up old friend, I'm very much looking forward to the next article!

  10. @FG it's the advertising yourself as something and failing to deliver bit that's the problem. Whether it's balance or anything else, people don't much like being misled.

  11. @QW yep I think that's a very fair comment. People don't like being misled, especially when this hobby is as expensive as it is.

  12. @FG - you really REALLY should try out AE-WWII - it would be like a wet dream for you with Force Organization and Scenarios!

  13. FG: Balance is a difficult thing to define, but you seem to have thought this out pretty well. There is also an assumption that the plays themselves will be equally balanced, so that if the game/scenario setup is fair, the players should be able to have an interesting (and fun!) game. There is also a subjective aspect, in that someone might think they are a better player than they really are, get wiped-out in a "fair" game, and then claim the game is unbalanced. It's hard to get people to understand balance, much less agree on that it is.

    I've put a lot of time looking into point systems for games, but I will save those comments until I read part 2.


    A few miscellaneous comments:
    1) re: The Chess player - Fair, AND nicely balanced. ;-)
    2) The first move (white) advantage in Chess is well documented.
    3) War is definitely unfair. There is a military maxim of the 3-to-1 rule, which says that you should never attack a defending force unless you outnumber then by at least 3-to-1, or else your casualties will be far too high (see also: Lanchester's Laws).

  14. @Dan, cheers. I sometimes try to think things through before I start writing crap down. I've found it useful over the years to engage brain before putting pen to paper or opening my trap. I'm a sad nerdy math geek at heart so I find this sort of thing massively good fun because of all the variables involved. I think its fair to say I'm a geek of the highest order... my friends humour me but really I know they all just pity me!!! :P