Balancing the Game – Part 3

Posted on March 20, 2017 By

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Welcome to the third installment of our math-tastic* series on game balance for tabletop and video games! The first installment is here. The second is here. And the third is… um… below.

Playtesters, as I mentioned previously, will have many opinions on your game’s balance. These opinions are essential to the game development process—especially as they relate to what’s “fun” and what’s “worse than doing your taxes”—but shouldn’t necessarily be taken a face value. As you ponder the playtesters’ insights, ask yourself some questions:

Do the testers want what I want?

Players (and by extension, testers) want to win the game. You, on the other hand, want all players to have fun while having a specific play experience. In other words, you have a pattern of play in mind. (We talked about that before.) For example, while the “kill all the zombies” card may be over-costed compared to the “kill this one zombie here” card, if the point of the game is to kill zombies individually, that “imbalance” is actually a feature, not a bug. It drives players to play in the manner you intended.

Is the imbalance somewhere deeper in the system?

When I was working on trading card games, I’d sometimes hear from playtesters that certain cards were “overpowered” when, on paper, they were perfectly fine. Turns out, the real problem was not those cards themselves, but with certain other cards that allowed the troublesome cards to be game-breakingly efficient. Believe your testers when they tell you there’s a problem. But don’t assume the problem’s cause is as obvious as it seems.

Is it truly unbalanced, or does it simply feel unbalanced?

Often related to the question above, playtesters may report an aspect of your game that they feel is totally unfair that actually only feels unfair. For example, video game testers may say that a cannon that does 60 damage every 6 seconds is way worse than machine gun that does 10 damage every second. Mathematically, the two weapons do the same damage over 6 seconds, but feel different. Do you just ignore the feedback? (“Numbers don’t lie.”) Adjust the visual feedback on the cannon to make it feel more impressive? Or change the machine gun to do 20 damage every 2 seconds? As the designer, it’s up to you, but remember that perception can be as important as reality when it comes to game balance.

Once you’ve established that there really is a balance issue, is it acceptable to sometimes leave that part of the game unbalanced? I’d say yes, and I’d explain why in part 4.

* I assume you’re doing the math. Don’t look at me. I’m not going to do the math for you. And if you can balance a game without math… That’s actually pretty intriguing. Drop me a line and let me know how you pull that off.



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