Handicaps are a regular feature of some games and sports, go and golf being two prime examples. Often among game players it is resisted, however, because if they play at an advantage and win – well – it isn’t really a victory. I used to be in that camp, but became a complete convert a long time ago playing squash.

My experience playing squash was that of being crushed repeatedly by my more advanced opponent, and while I enjoyed the game it was a bit depressing. We talked about handicaps, but I was resistant because I felt like that would take away the value of the win if I did win. Eventually we tried it though, and I immediately started having a much better time. I realized my resistance was founded on a false premise, that if I win without a handicap it was a glorious victory. In fact, if someone is much better at squash they will expend less energy beating you, and how glorious is it if your victory was based on your opponent slightly underestimating how much energy he had to expend? It was wonderful seeing that my opponent was working now as hard as I was every game, and that if they slacked I could take advantage of it.

The other part of the handicapping experience that I found appealing was the method by which I could reduce my handicap. The method we used (known as Kadoban in go and sumo) was to play three games in a match – and if one person swept the games the handicap was adjusted in their favor. There is an elegance to this rule since the third game was always meaningful – if we split the first games the third decided the match’s victor, if one person won the first two then the third game was a battle for the handicap. It became an appealing metagame to improve my handicap, and gave me a much more visceral appreciation for my improvement than seeing my win percentage go from 15% to 25%, which I might not even notice.

Games are not equally easy to handicap. For example, chess is handicapped in many ways – starting with less pieces, being forced to deliver check with a particular piece, beginning with two moves rather than one, winning draws, or simply playing white are all handicaps people have used. These don’t have the scalability of giving a point in squash or a stone in go. Giving additional time on a clock is fairly scalable for chess – though this more relevant for blitz chess than chess of more traditional length.

In addition to considering the scalability of a handicap it is worth considering whether the nature of the game will change a lot. Being forced to checkmate with a particular piece may be an enjoyable contest between two chess players, but the game is different in a fundamental way – in a completely different way than receiving a few extra points in squash. Sometimes it looks scalable and consistent in nature but isn’t – such as with a life handicap in Magic. Giving extra life or docking life in Magic may have no impact at all or may completely change the nature of the decks played. With some matches for example, a deck will have a fixed chance of getting control and will then win almost regardless of how much life the opponent has – while others will have a much improved chance of winning if the opponent begins with just a few life less.

For team games a simple handicapping method  of “team balancing” may be possible. This is done by somehow track the record of your players then form teams based on those records. We used this in Starcraft, calculating the ratings of our players using a chesslike rating system (Elo system.) Then we balanced teams so they had more or less the same aggregate rating of players on a side. A simpler system that may be adequate is to keep a record of wins and losses, and use that as your “rating”. If you form teams based on those stats over time I believe the system will give good handicapped games.

For other games one may have to use one’s imagination. An interesting example is Wayne Schmittberger’s Trivial Pursuit handicapping where a player gains one handicap point for each victory in a circle of players. A player assigns each handicap point to a particular category of question. A player must answer two questions rather than one each time they face a question in a handicapped category. My first handicap point I would assign to Science, my second to Literature, and my dreaded sixth would be Entertainment. But each handicap I had would be a badge, and I would try to collect as many as possible.

If a play group doesn’t play any particular game a lot then there is no reason to think much about handicaps. But if a play group has a favorite game that they come back to it might be worth trying to figure out a handicap system for it.

For some ideas on handicapping you might consider the excellent book New Rules for Classic Games by Wayne Schmittberger.


8 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. But what about the broken toes that inevitably follow squash handicaps?

  2. I had forgotten the toes John, perhaps I should have mentioned them as a cost of the handicap system!

  3. Doug Schulz,

    I’ve actually been involved in a regular Magic group for many many years, and we do keep results for most of our games but completely agree that life is not really a great handicap for the game. What about starting cards? I feel like cards in hand are more powerful then life and can rarely imagine situations where it’s good.

  4. I think handicapping Magic is extremely hard, if not impossible to do fairly. Life doesn’t always matter because a deck can win via milling or poison counters, or more realistically a red burn deck facing an opponent with less life has a lot better chance at winning than a combo deck who can combo on the same turn with regularity, but for it life doesn’t matter.

    Also reducing starting hand sizes would be tough, because some decks can win with very few cards in hand while others can’t. I think the best way to handicap Magic is to reduce the effectiveness of your deck, which keeps it fun for both players, because then you’re playing with the same rules and have an “equal” chance at winning.

  5. I’ve not actually tried this one (though the reverse is common), but what about playing with decks built by the weaker player? Or if the skill level is similar, swapping decks?

    As I see it, deck building is a huge part of the skill curve, and making the best of a “bad” deck might be a fun exercise for a skilled player. Granted, it seems the more skilled player should still win more, since he/she understands the game better. But, at least it might make things a bit more sporting for gross mismatches.

    The typical solution of giving the noob a “good ” deck only goes so far in helping because, in a lot of cases, the synergy of a good deck is wasted on the novice. If it is a teaching game, that is something different since the synergy should be explained as you go.

  6. Ryan N.,

    I think one of the elements that makes board/card games especially hard to handicap is the wide division between skill and mechanics. In squash, tennis, basketball or any other physical sport, the mechanics and skill are tightly bound together. In many cases success at a sport is decided by a player’s skill at performing the various manuevers involved. The same can be said about many competitive
    video games, coordination, precision and speed in operating the controls seperate the tiers of skill.

    In games the mechanics are usually mastered by most players within a few play sessions. Turning cards, moving pieces, and adjusting stats are all ‘manuevers’ that each player can perform at the same level (though I feel making dinosaurs out of my reserve trains in Ticket to Ride does set me apart :P ). In most games you need to know and be able to execute all the mechanics just in order to play. However, ‘skill’ at these games is defined by careful and deliberate use of the mechanics, that all players can use equally, to achieve the goal.

    This puts strategy at the front of games, while in sports it is generally second to ability. High performing sports players are definitely playing with strategy in mind, however, they have already mastered the mechanics necessary to execute those strategies.

    For a naive example, say two players are playing a card game. One player is physically incapable of drawing a card every third turn even though the game rules say he has to draw a card every turn (regular lapses of Papyrophobia). The other player is at a mechanical advantage and thus a handicap requiring him to skip every 3rd turn of his would even the game out. This leaves the stragey, deck building and general play flow of the game unmolested while accounting for the other’s disability.

    That is not to say one can’t use handicaps in games to make it more fun for all, it is just a more delicate operation. One often has to approach it from a ‘redesign and refine the rules’ perspective rather than changing the context in which it is played.

    Thanks for the article

  7. Mammalman,

    I haven’t played magic for years but I used to love it and I mess around with designing games and thinking about this kind of stuff. Just stumbled on this blog recently through Quadradius.

    What about giving a weaker player a pool of X rainbow mana that he can spend at any time during the game? It’s not absolutely perfectly even with respect to different kinds of decks, but probably better than adjusting life totals or hand sizes.

  8. atomweaver,

    Even more so than Magic, the Jyhad/Vampire:TES community has a difficult time with the issue of handicapping effectively; the game has a lower turnover rate than Magic, and thus more active players with over a decade of experience. That leaves a bigger gap for new players to span, which further hinders an already difficult learning curve.
    The most frequent handicap in those instances that I’ve seen is poorly-tuned decks for the experienced player. Until recently, precons have been consistently very weak, and so are a fairly effective handicap, and enjoyable for the experienced player, as well, as they are challenged to devise untried tactics, and sometimes utilize infrequently used game resources (the so-called ‘wallpaper’ cards)…

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