A Question of Balance

I’m stuck at work this week, literally watching paint dry so instead of a review I thought I’d post up some thoughts on the idea of game balance.

There is a theory that states that the universe and everything in it is seeking a state of equilibrium, a state where everything is balanced and in order. But is that what we want in our board games?

Games can be balanced in two ways, either the game is inherently balanced or the player’s actions provide balanced.

For example, in Chess you each have the same pieces that can perform the same moves and it is the skill of the player that unbalances the game creating a winner. Because there is no luck in chess it is possible to analyse all possible moves without needing to account for something unforeseen, this is in essence the most balanced a game can get.

Now, lets look at a game like Settlers of Catan. All players begin the game with the same number of pieces on the board and the same number of victory points. However the game is not balanced. Each player will receive resources on different numbers and even if all players receive resources every turn they would receive different resources, which will effect their possible strategies.

Then we should take into account the dice. Even though probability theory tells us that on average five 6’s and 8’s will be rolled when 2d6 is rolled 36 times, but we all know this is not the case, sometimes three 2’s are rolled in a round and sometimes 2 doesn’t come up all game. Even the Event Cards which attempt to even out the randomness add their own brand of randomness to the game.

So, what does Settlers of Catan use as an equaliser? The Robber. This is a piece that stops one hex on the board producing resources. The Robber can only be moved when a 7 is rolled or a Knight card is used. Because the chances of a non-winning player rolling a 7 is higher than the chances of a winning player doing so the Robber helps give an edge to the losing players. Because this penalty is not a fixed one against a single player it can be altered as the balance of power shifts between players.

A counter example of this would be games where the players can levy a permanent penalty against a specific player that continues to hamper them even if they are no longer in the lead. Although vindictive players can use the Robber to achieve this affect, see my article on the ABC Rule for more about that!

So, some games use the players ability to know who is winning as a way to balance the game, while others have formalised this process, such as Power Grid, which levies a high penalty on the winning player, forcing him to go last in both the resource and building phases.

Any game which uses cards or dice becomes difficult to balance due to luck, however as a general rule cards are easier to balance than dice. For example, a game like Thunderstone, or any other Deck Builder, has a randomness to it in the cards you draw for your hand. The first way that this is balanced is that you will only shuffle your deck once all cards have been drawn, meaning you will eventually draw all your cards. Secondly after the game starts you have a large amount of control over what you put in your deck meaning you can change the odds of drawing a particular card by purchasing more of it or by buying cards that allow you to draw additional cards.

Other card games balance themselves by playing multiple hands to increase the odds of all players getting a set of “good cards”.

Dice are less easy to deal with in terms of balance, although generally if you are dealing with numbers, multiple dice are better than a single die. This is because two or more dice create a curve of results between the minimum and the maximum, while a single dice has equal odds. For example, in Runebound, originally the game used a 20 sided die, the switch to two 10-sided dice created a more even spread of numbers. The problem with multiple dice is that it creates a higher probability of rolling a middling number. In the Runebound example, the chance of rolling a 20 on the d20 was 1 in 20. The chance of rolling it on 2d10 is 1 in 100, five times less likely.

Some games offer multiple winning conditions. This is different than paths to victory. I would consider Settlers to have multiple paths to victory, building roads, buying cards, building cities or combinations of all three, but it has only one winning condition, first to 10 points. When you have a game that allows players to win in one of many ways it becomes difficult to balance those conditions so that one is not any better or worse than the others.

If one victory condition is easier to complete than the others players may ignore whole sections of the game. Or it is possible that all players will compete for that condition making the non-contested path the easier condition for victory. A problem with multiple victory conditions can be that players need to decide their path early in the game meaning they cannot shift condition even if they are later blocked out by another player. Thus the game needs to be balanced to a point where all players need to achieve some progress in all victory conditions as part of the game, allowing the players to choose their path at a later stage or switch without being to heavily penalised by a run of bad luck.

In some games which offer multiple paths to victory the actual conditions are hidden from the other players, for example Ankh-Morpork or Risk. In this case the game balances these conditions through the players knowledge of the game itself. Being able to read the board and know what your opponents goal is is an important skill in these games that comes through repeated play. However clever players will attempt to bluff, either appearing weaker than they are or making a deliberate play for a different victory condition to trick their opponents into dropping their guard at a vital moment.

Other games like Collectable Card Games or Living Card Games are inherently unbalanced. Even when the players have an identical set of cards to draw from the choices the player makes when constructing their deck will ultimately determine how well balanced the matchup will be. The same can be said about most miniature games with multiple armies and any game which gives you options about what you will chose to bring to the table. However it is this element that makes this games such a cerebral exercise and creates the tactical and strategic depth that the players are looking for.

A final set of games that flies in the face of all I’ve said here is cooperative games. A game like Pandemic for example is purposefully balanced against the players because the fun and challenge lies in beating the game. If you always win then the game becomes boring, while if you always lose the game becomes tedious and frustrating. So, in this case the balance comes in creating a game that, while difficult, is in fact beatable. An addendum to that would state that the game should be beatable by skill, not by luck, victory derived solely from fortunate circumstance is just as hollow as defeat.

So, do games need to be balanced to be fun? No, not really, like everything else in the universe they have a way of balancing themselves. Generally the players will balance the game, as long as they are given ways to do so. Even games that are so random and so unbalanced as for example, Munchkin are balanced by the fact that everyone gangs up on the winner.

Often games are about finding the right balance for you. Do you hang back, remain invisible and then strike, ninja-like, from the shadows when victory is in your grasp? Or do you brazenly run at the forefront of the pack, using a fistful of high powered cards and amazing dice rolls? Or, and this really is the best equaliser of them all, do you flip the board and refuse to play the stupid game ever again?

It’s all just a question of balance…

Until next week…



  1. Great post. I just had a second play test of the game I am working on and while the game went well, its clear to me that I have to much randomness swinging the final out come of the game. i think you have giving me some good ideas where I can make some changes to improve the game. Thanks.

  2. Thanks Eric. I miss doing these posts. It's always interesting to compare the way different games find different solutions to the same problems, or in some cases, don't find solutions.


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