The Board Game Design Course

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Game Design

3 great ways to balance your game

Last week we looked at where you can go to get professional-looking prototypes made. Today, in the last article of this list series, we’re going to talk about 3 ways you can balance your game.

I’m often asked by other game designers for tips on how to balance a game. It’s a tricky thing. You don’t normally want your game to be too “swingy” (although in some games this IS exactly what you want) but at the same time, if you make a game that is too linear, it can quickly become boring and predictable.

So, it’s good to think about how you can make your game reasonably well-balanced, without any cards, powers, or strategies that are overpowered (OP).

Let’s look at some ways that you can balance your game.

#3 Test different strategies

I’m a big advocate for self-playtesting. I’ll set up players’ positions around the table and play as multiple players competing against each other (or working together in the case of a co-op game).

But the trick is to self-playtest with a goal in mind. Usually, that goal for me is testing different strategies. I want to know which strategies are viable and at least stand a chance of winning and which do not.

However, it’s really easy to lose track of who is going after what when you’re trying to play a game 3 or 4-handed all by yourself. So, I always make sure to write this down on a piece of scrap paper or sticky note and place this in front of each player’s spot.

For example, in my flower collection game, Avoid the Cacti!, I may write things like “Daffodils”, “Roses”, “Queen Anne’s Lace”, and “Balanced”, indicating which flower type each player is aiming for. I will take turns and select flowers for each player based on the type they want, and then I will compare scores and strategies when the game ends.

If one strategy failed miserably but should have been a contender, I will note whether it wasn’t viable or if that player just had a bit of bad luck. Then I may change some values and test this again, ensuring that all valid strategies stand a chance at winning, whereas other obviously sub-optimal strategies will not.

This last point is something you definitely want to watch out for. If someone can just collect gold each turn and do nothing else, then claim victory at the end, this is a boring strategy that you probably want to fix to ensure players can tell right away this will not lead them to success.

You can also test your hypotheses while watching others play your game. Note which direction each player takes, notice if they change that strategy part-way through the game, and how close the score was at the end. Understand whether each player actually could have won with each strategy that was taken.

#2 It’s all relative

When you are balancing costs with their actions or effects, what you really want to do is look at relative values.

Start with a baseline – your least valuable resource or card. Give this a value, say 1, and then scale everything else based on this value. Just make sure not to be too linear in this approach. You want the resources that are harder to get to be much more powerful and worth a player’s time to capture them.

For example, if you have a card that costs 1 gold and gives you 2 wheat, you don’t want to simply have another card that costs 2 gold and gives you 4 wheat and keep going with this linear line of valuation.

Instead, you may want that card that costs 2 gold to give you 5 wheat. This is more valuable than simply getting two of those cards that cost 1 gold. Perhaps 5 gold will net you 15 wheat. Scale things up to make more costly cards or more challenging objectives worthwhile.

The same goes for set collection. You will notice that many games scale up scoring as you collect more resources of one kind. Often it will be something like 1/3/6/10/15 points for 1/2/3/4/5 of those goods collected. Essentially, the first one will gain you one point, the second will earn you two more points, the third will get you 3 more points, and so on.

#1 Playtest, playtest, playtest!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you need to playtest your game until the point where people are loving your game and asking to play it again or buy it right there on the spot.

You may have spreadsheet upon spreadsheet with all the costs, calculations, and values for each card in your deck, and have figured out the perfect relationship. But if players repeatedly call a certain card weak and never want to purchase it or they feel that one card is OP, you have to listen to what they are saying. If anyone feels that the first player to get a specific card will automatically win, that’s a problem.

Even though in reality everything might be very well balanced, if players don’t perceive your game to be well balanced, this can be problematic. They are not in the know and aware of all your work behind the scenes. They only know what they feel. And if they feel things are out of balance in your game, especially if multiple people are telling you this, you need to listen. This may result in some minor changes that make players feel that everything is fair.

Playtesting with others is the best (and only) way to find out how players really feel about your game and their chances of accomplishing what they set out to do, given the strategy they chose.  

So, listen to your playtesters. Don’t try to convince them that you’ve done the math and you’re right. Instead, listen to their perceptions and take them into account.

Wrapping it up

Having a game that is 100% balanced may take the fun right out of it. Instead, aim for a game that feels relatively balanced to yourself and players, where multiple viable strategies and powers all have a fair chance of winning.

Hone this through testing these strategies thoroughly, determining a solid base value and other values relative to this, and playtesting the heck out of your game. 😊

What methods do you use to balance your games?

Please leave a comment and let me know!

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    Solid advice! You are pointing at my primary weakness, which is playtesting.

    I would add a word of warning to your suggestion about using spreadsheets. I love using these (fast, efficient, always accurate calculators), but I have learned to mistrust them. When playtesting, you build certain assumptions (averages) into your model, and it is so easy to fail to update these as you tweak your balance. So I manipulate the results I want, try it out on my peers – and discover to my mortification that a basic assumption in my spreadsheet model no longer works as I had intended.

    I would blame the programmer, but as I avoid mirrors, I cannot find him.