A matter of Balance
When you get into the weeds of tabletop game discussion there are words that get people fired up. For some they seek out depth beyond all else, often mistaking it for complexity. Others rail at the presence of chance in games, wanting a deterministic game state over any other consideration. The one that gets people the most hot under the collar is Balance.
Balance is one of those words thrown around with a lot of weight: this game is unbalanced, that faction is overpowered, was this playtested for balance? Most often it is used to attack or defend a particular game. In the heat of debate the word is thrown around. Evoked with passion and judgement to banish the bad and summon the good.
What do we actually mean when we use the word Balance? When we seek Balance what do we want the designer to have considered? I don’t think any single definition would really do. Isn’t that the problem? Let’s consider Balance as more of a container for what we want to see in a particular game.
I think what we really mean when we say Balance is that we want to feel that the game we are playing is treating us fairly and that we have agency to make decisions. We want to feel that we have choices and that when we make those choices they will have outcomes we feel give us a chance to win. If we feel the game is constantly turning our plays on their heads, we can feel like our moves don’t matter.
You’ll notice I’ve used the word ‘feel’ a couple of times while laying down this definition. We often talk about Balance in empirical terms: points should be adjusted, dice rolls mitigated, costs re-evaluated. These things matter, of course they do. I think they matter less than if the game feels balanced to you. The minutiae of costs vs power and that type of consideration is more for the world of competitive games.
For the majority of people, what they want is to have the sense that their decisions matter. They want to feel that they can affect the game state on every turn. We want to know that the actions we are taking will take us one step closer to achieving our goal. If the game presents courses of action does the variety also provide fairness? If it turns out only one of those courses is the correct one then we feel put out. Why provide these options if only one matters?
When we play a game we want to know that everyone around that table has a chance of winning. We want to know that the game starts from a point of fairness and will continue that way. Our actions need meaning and weight. That does not mean that everything needs to be perfectly balanced.
Take one of my favourite games Lords of Vegas. This is a game where you start with a couple of parking lots to develop into casinos and a bunch of cash. The amount of money and the value of those casinos is different for every player. You don’t even start out with fair positions. The game revolves around dice rolls and card pulls. A high amount of chance built into the rules. It is a game that feels fair though. You push your luck as much, or as little as you want. The game encourages it. It feels like everyone has the same chance to win.
Lets look at a counter example. I’ve only played this game on Baordgame Arena. Tapestry from Stonemaier Games is a civilisation building themed game. Part of the mechanisms involving getting Civilisation cards. These represent different types of government, civilisations, and even religions. Mostly they are different ways of getting points. You start with one of these and over the course of the game it is possible to pick up more. In some cases these can result in massive leaps in points right towards the end of the game from a single card pull. I’ve seen hundreds of points between 1st and 2nd place. It feels unfair and that I could not have done anything to respond to this change in fortunes.
There will likely be some reading these last two paragraphs will disagree with my assessment of both of these games. That is precisely my point. Balance isn’t a definitive, empirically measurable feature of games. It comes down more to the feeling and perception of fairness. Lets stop treating balance like this perfect factor that we can codify and measure.
Competitive games are their own special subset of games. Magic: The Gathering, X-Wing, Pokemon, all big games with a vibrant competitive scene. In playing these games in this style, balance matters a great deal. Within their own ecosystems, competitive games can be talked about more empirically. Costs weighed. Abilities compared.
Even with this subset of games there are arguments. Analysis differs, and heated debates abound. Sometimes these conversations come about because of a lack of knowledge. We can educate as much as we want, but sometimes that is not enough. Often these conversations come from a feeling of power and fairness rather than an academically arrived at conclusion.
The folks who design these games are often great at what they do, but even they cannot predict how exactly every interaction will play out. The emergent strategies. The idea that anyone can perfectly balance a competitive game that has thousands of eyes on every new product that comes out for it with no mistakes is unrealistic.
What do I want you to take away from this little trip into terminology and loaded terms? What I would like is for you to really think about what the term Balance means to you. Realise that it is not a scientific measurement of a game’s worth. Nothing is a definitive measure of a game’s worth. Not the terms we use to describe them, nor the BGG top 100.
It doesn’t matter if the game you love is considered balanced or not. If your experiences of that game bring you happiness, then that is what really matters. When you see others playing games that you think are unbalanced, let them have at it. It doesn’t matter. If you do have to weigh in, remember that Balance is more of an umbrella term for a measure of how much agency we feel and our perception of fairness. It is a more personal factor than we realise.