Podcast #11: Balance

The most recent edition of the Games With Garfield podcast walks the tightrope between love and hate as the guys take on the touchy topic of Balance. Join game designers Tyler Bielman, Skaff Elias and Richard Garfield as they discuss negative feedback loops, Super-Scissors and tons more about the Magic Spreadsheet.

LINKS: Amasir’s comment | Chess openings | Tribes | WoW | Monopoly strategies | Warcraft 2 | Color hosers in Magic: The Gathering | Ancient Art of War | Dungeons and Dragons | Magic: The Gathering | Rock Paper Scissors | MTG Pro Tour

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6 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. I see what you did there! Quote some bozo from the replies and in doing so you encourage more people to leave comments. Clever!

    (Serious, flattered and thanks for that answer! If you’re really curious I pronounce it “A-mar”: much like “A-Rod” only I think i was doing it before that Rodriguez guy.)

    A lot of really good information in this. It sparked half a dozen points to think about in my mind, which I haven’t absorbed yet. Some things I want to ponder:

    * Bad cards in MTG = Vendor Trash in MMO = rainy days. They make us appreciate the sun.
    * Certain balancing mechanics work when resources are fixed, or relatively so, but fail to work when input resources become un-fixed.
    * How unequal options are received relative to permanence of the decision.
    * Negative feedback loops enforced by the system vs those enacted by other players.

    But the thing that’s on my mind right now is how strategy relates to imbalance, and if it isn’t perhaps dependent on it. I thought of this theory:

    A precisely balanced game (meaning perfect balance with no self-correction) would fail to have any strategy.

    True/false? I don’t know, but part of me says “yes”.

  2. Mammalman,

    it’s not that a precisely balanced game would have no strategy. rather, no SINGLE strategy is able to defeat all others. in essence, the ‘strategy’ in such a game comes down to meta-strategy: how you select your strategies from the available (balanced) options. you might try to start aggressive and then shift defensive to keep your opponent guessing, or alternatively to try first to read your opponent’s strategy and react accordingly at the cost of time. just because a game IS, in theory or as practiced at a high level, balanced, doesn’t mean its at all clear how you, a specific player in a specific situation, should try to achieve that balance (or improve on it, should your opponents be unwary). indeed, the game is still on :-)

  3. Cassie,


    I just discovered your podcasts. I’m really enjoying the interesting discussions. Keep up the good work!

  4. Willi B,

    One of the better balances I have ever seen in player elimination games was in Jyhad. As a player that usually has a target on my back from the get-go, this balance was more than welcome.

    Also… I forget if it was just tournament rules, but there was a GREAT system wherein players received 1 point for eliminating prey and (I think, it’s been a long while) 1 point for being the last person standing.

    I’ve often thought this was a decent system that should be used in other games. So many games eliminate without recognizing the accomplishments of the player, that this is one that I try to incorporate in other games. I tell all the designers I meet about the overlooked innovations in Jyhad and it’s tournament rules and they usually have not heard of them.

    I really appreciate Mr. Garfield’s contribution to focused player elimination and wonder if he has heard of other mechanisms similar to this.

    Thanks again for the great podcast and wonderful games!

  5. What do you perceive as the role of “gimmick” in maintaining favorable imbalance? Niche decks and “anti-[color]” decks come to mind. I see gimmicks being more valuable in the causal circle (where, for instance, money isn’t at stake).
    Perhaps it’s a bit of the old adage “familiarity breeds contempt” but I remember decks being constructed strictly to combat specific decks in my play circles. They wouldn’t be well-rounded for tournament match ups, but when the opponent strategy is known, they can add some spice.
    As a designer, is it good to aim for some gimmick or niche possibility – or is that more a matter of happenstance?

  6. @Amarsir
    I’m not sure that it would fail to have strategy, i think it would simply have less rewarding strategy.
    I think a bit of imbalance is a happy thing if it is a moving target because competitive players will chase it for the edge it gives.
    After all, how rewarding is a game of Paper Rock Scissors? I think a big reason to up variables in a game is to make imbalance both more likely and more uncertain. It’s the uncertainty that makes experimentation possible, and it is successful experimentation that is rewarding.
    A perfectly balanced game would only be rewarding as long as the player doesn’t know for certain that his choices didn’t matter.

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