Last week I talked about the various phases in a strategic game, from when
you lay out the board and arrange the pieces, to when you sweep everything
back into the bag. And, in doing so, I purposefully skipped over two phases
toward the end of a game: the aptly named end game and the victory phase.
At the time I said that they were a topic in themselves, which is true.
Even more important is the fact that the whole idea of victory in a game
expands far, far beyond the end game. You have to think about how your
game's end will play out from the moment the first token is placed upon the
As I progress toward the final calculation of victory, I'm going to talk
about some meta balance issues which affect every aspect of play and
also some specific aspects of balance related to player involvement
and player interference. Then we'll get to the end game and
see what types of problems you can discover in the last quarter or so of
Types of Meta Balance Problems
Clearly, no game is ever actually balanced. Some player will be more
intelligent than the rest, or another will be able to play more
strategically. One player might not have gotten enough sleep the night
before, and another might have an innate advantage just because he happens
to think like the designer.
Except in the most dystopian science-fiction stories, none of that's your
problem. Instead, when thinking about balance, it should be your goal to
make sure that no element in the game itself is innately unbalanced.
Below I've compiled a list of some of the most common balance problems,
which I call meta balance issues because they can affect the entire
play of your game, not just the end game and the victory phases:
Starting Imbalance: Is some player innately favored because
of his starting position in the game. Is some power marker given to players
at start better than the rest? Is some environmental position favored? How
about some limited token? (In Galactic Emperor: Hegemony, one player
collected stats saying that the player down in the southeast corner of the
map never won.)
Play Order Imbalance: Related, is the player who gets to go
first innately advantaged (or disadvantaged)? Or, less commonly, is there a
specific sweet position (say, the third player to play) who tends to always
do the best? Or the worst?
Random Imbalance: Is there some random element in the game
(usually a card drawn from some sort of deck) that is innately "better"
than any other? Is there a "win-the-game" card of any sort? Does a
particularly unlikely die roll give a player a notable lead?
Power Imbalance: Does a player tend to do better in the game
the better he's doing? Is the winner in a position where he innately
increases his lead step by step?
Meta Balance Strategies
In all honesty, you will have imbalances even in your game design. The idea
isn't necessarily to eliminate them all, but rather to account for them, so
that your game remains fair. The following strategies seem to be some
general ways to offset meta balance issues:
- State Your Imbalance. If in some way you make it very clear that
someone is in a more powerful state, the other players in the game will act
as your balancing mechanism by trying to bring the leader down (though also
see my discussion of player interference, below). The Settlers of
Nurnberg, for example, has a victory track that records what everyone's
built; players can thus see who has the "power imbalance". Some games
actually purposefully accentuate this imbalance to really make players
mad and encourage them to overthrow the winner. The Great
Dalmutti is one of the best examples of this, because it gives the
winning player the most comfortable seat in the house and the losing player
the least comfortable one at any time. (Applicable to all four meta balance
issues, though most widely applied to power imbalance, which might
have originated from other balance issues.)
- Give Your Advantage Disadvantages. Alternatively (or in
addition) you can make sure that anything which has an innate advantage,
has a disadvantage too. If a power marker is really powerful, give it
something that hurts the player. For example, in The Settlers of
Catan the player who places his starting piece first takes advantage of
a clear starting imbalance, because he'll place his settlement on the best
space on the board; however to offbalance this he places his last
settlement last of everyone. (Most applicable to starting and
playing order imbalances, though somewhat applicable for the rest.)
- Offer Multiple Paths to Victory. One of the best ways to control
imbalance is to make it not matter, and you can do that by allowing
multiple paths to victory, so that whatever unlikely event occurs, a player
can try and build on it. Poker is a fairly clear example of this: if you
get multiple cards with the same number, you build toward pairs, 3s, or 4s
of a kind; and if you get multiple cards with the same color, you build
toward flushes. Carcassonne also shows this type of design:
depending on whether you draw a good city, road, or field piece, you'll
make different decisions about how to play. (Most applicable to random
- Explicitly Help Players Who Are Behind. Some games perfer to
take a more explicit tact and have elements in the game which help out
players who are behind and/or hurt those who are ahead. For example in
The Starfarers of Catan there are some power markers you can win
from the aliens which allow you to take spaceship pieces from the player
with the most victory points. Other games allow players without money (or
something else important) to "beg" to earn that piece from the bank--or
from the player with the most of it. (Almost entirely applicable to
You can actually use every one of the core strategy systems which I've
discussed in previous articles to help create balance in your game.
For example, take the issues of timing which I discussed last week. You can
use turn timing to offset power imbalance by always ordering turns
in such a manner that the players that are the furthest behind get to take
the most advantageous position in the turn order (usually that means going
first, but it also could mean going last in a game where it's advantageous
to see a player's move before you go).
To take another tact, consider the random factor of three weeks ago.
Wizwar has a "chaos" card which can be played to force all the
players to turn in their cards, and then randomly redistributes them;
clearly this will only be used by a player who's behind to try and get
better cards (from the "winners"). Other games might randomly give out
markers or tokens which will be benficial to people who are behind, because
they don't have many of them, but which will be irrelevent to "winning"
players who are already stocked up.
Ultimately, you need to think about balance because you're creating a
competitive game, and people need to feel that, as they move toward
victory, they remain on a level playing field.
Balance & Player Involvement
Inevitably the meta balance issues will closely interelate with game
players, and how they react to balance. You can have a serious problem with
player involvement, wherein power imbalances can lead to
bored players. However, players can also be the savior to your game's
balance if you build in rules for player interference (though that
causes problems of its own).
We'll talk about player involvement first.
You can have bored players, and thus lowered player involvement, if you
either knock players out of the game or allow their position to degrade to
such a point that they can't possibly win, but must keep playing. Which
situation is worse is somewhat debatable.
If you're using some of the meta balancing techniques I've already
described, you'll hopefully be pushing players toward the middle. Some
other solutions that can help solve the problem of player (un)involvement are:
- Carefully Think About if Players Should Be Eliminated. I can't
just say "never eliminate players", because it's actually OK in some types
of gameplay, and adds nice aspects of risk and reward. Generally, it's
acceptable to eliminate someone when you're already in the end game phase,
or if they can come back into the game as a new (if disadvantaged) player.
Beyond that, elimination is usually acceptable if you're running a game
that's either geographically remote (PBMs, PBeMs, or web games), or
chronologically lengthy (many days), as in either case the game isn't
centered around a single social occasion where you're trying to keep
everyone involved. And, the nice thing about allowing elimination in all
these cases is that you have to worry less about players getting bored,
because if they're losing, they'll get knocked out. However, for more
standard strategy games, which tend to take between a couple of hours and a
day, and are done around a tabletop, you should probably avoid elimination
if you can. I think Wizwar is a good example of a game that ignores
this rule to its deficit; any character can be killed at any time, and
after that there's no real chance for participation, thus players can be
left twiddling their thumbs for an hour until a new game begins.
- Hide Some Victory Information. Even if a player can't win
a game, he'll still enjoy himself if he doesn't know that. Thus, it's often
useful to hide at least some of the victory point information. Keep enough
visible that players can have a general sense of what's going on, but not
enough for a player to decisively know that he can't win. Tigris &
Euphrates is a good example of this, because you get to see players
accrue their victory points, but the physical representations of the points
are hiden behind a screen. Carcassonne is an example of a game that
obscures Victory Points by pure complexity; the scoring period at the end
of the game takes 5 or 10 minutes to compute, and thus no one can really
figure it out during gameplay--but at the same time some percentage of the
points, earned during the main game, are marked on a score board and thus
players can use that as a basis for "who's winning". (Though, as a caveat,
it's possible to overplay this tactic; if you make victory information
entirely opaque, to the extent where a player really doesn't know how he's
doing at all, you risk turning him off entirely, a mistake I think Skotos
made with its early Galactic Emperor: Succession game, where the
activity-to-victory correlation was very hard to fathom.)
- Make Victory Points Transient. If there is some way for victory
points to exchange hands, even if it's unlikely, this will keep all players
playing on, feeling that, until the last die is cast, there's always a way
to gain back the lead. You clearly want to allow players who are ahead to
keep the advantage, but even having that small chance is enough, as I'll
discuss in a second. Carcassonne takes advantage of this idea too,
by allowing fields, cities, and roads to be controlled by the player with
the most tokens, and thus giving them the opportunity to change hands up to
- Control Risk-to-Reward Ratios. It's a general truism that the
greater the risk, the greater the reward. You can use this to your
advantage to help players stay in the game, especially when combined with
the transient victory points that I just suggested. If a player is way
behind, you always give them some opportunity to catch up, even if
it's really, really unlikely. You should probably exponentially increase
your risk in relation to your reward, so that the player who's ahead has a
strong advantage, but you can still allow for some way to catch up.
Formula De is a pretty good example of a game that allows "hail
marys" like this. When you're behind there are usually small chances for
you to catch up; for example you might need to roll exactly a "21" on a die
numbered 21-30. If you succeed, you catch up with the front drivers, but if
you fail your car blows up in a mass of expended tires and brakes. It's a
very high risk and the payoff chance is low, but the reward is getting back
into the game.
Balance & Player Interference
When considering player involvement you have to balance your game
carefully to keep players enjoying themselves. However, there's a flipside:
you can also allow players to help keep the game balanced through player
Player interference is, quite simply, a way for one player to have an
adverse affect upon another. Without player interference, you might
as well have a bunch of people playing simultaneous games of solitaire,
which can be very frustrating, because everyone can see one player taking a
lead, and no one can do anything about it. With player interference
any group of serious players will constantly be ganging up on the winner in
an attempt to make sure that no one's dramatically ahead as you move into
the end game.
You can allow for player interference in a number of different ways:
- Allow Direct Avoidance. Just by allowing players to interact in
some mutually beneficial way you'll innately set up a method whereby a
"winner" can be punished. The Settlers of Catan shows a good example
of this: players regularly trade each other for required resources, and as
a game moves toward conclusion the leader is left out of these trades with
- Allow Indirect Interference. If you build a game with limited
resources of any sort, then there will be indirect intereference in your
game: you can try and take a resource--be it a space on the board or a
card--that you know the "winner" wants. This is typically the greatest
level of interference allowed in "family" games, which tend to be built
with lower competition levels.
- Allow Uncertain Interference. This is one of my favorite types
of interference, where you can interfere with something that you
think hurts another player, but aren't certain. Citadels, for
example, lets you steal from a certain character or kill a certain
character, but you don't know at any time which player is playing which
character. Titan: The Arena allows you to attack arena monsters, but
you rarely know which monster each player has their "secret bet" on, and
thus your interference is never a sure thing. This is somewhat related to
the idea I already mentioned concerning hiding victory information, and
goes to a topic of "information" that I haven't really discussed much to date.
- Allow Direct Interference. At the height of interference is the
ability to directly attack another player, usually by destroying their
tokens or taking their environmental territory.
Ultimately the question of interference level will be somewhat related to
what type of game you're designing--but if you want a fun, balanced
strategy game, I'd suggest always going up to at least level 2.
Interference & The King Maker Problem
However, introducing player interference doesn't come without
problems of its own. (Isn't that always the case?) The biggest of these is
that you introduce the possibility of king makers.
The king maker is a losing player who gets to decide who wins, even
if he can never win himself--thanks to levels of player interference being
sufficiently high in your game. This is a more common problem in games
which remove locality from some aspect of the game. If you can trade with
everyone in the game or attack everyone in the game or take some other
important activity regardless of geography, then you can make arbitrary
decisions about who to help and who to hurt.
A few ways to eliminate this problem include:
- Control Locality so that Players Can Only Affect their Enemies.
This basically subsumes the king maker problem into part of the risk
assessment of interfering with another player. If a player tries to
eliminate an opponent, he innately knows that the opponent can take a "last
strike" against him, which will affect him adversely. Wizwar is a
good example of this. You can only attack players whose wizard you can see,
and thus you're generally only going to be hurting the person who's hurting
- Control Beneficial Player Interactions. Consider carefully
before you let players freely exchange benefits. Instead you probably want
to constrain them by something within your game system. Wizwar is
again a good example of this idea. You can trade cards, but only with a
player whose wizard you can see. If one player is killing you, you're much
less likely to be able to dump cards to another player.
- Decrease Player Power as His Victory Decreases. If a player is
less able to do beneficial (or destructive) things as his place in the game
decreases, then by the time he realizes he can't do anything to win he
won't be able to affect the outcome one way or another. Galactic
Emperor: Hegemony in general shows this idea. As a player slowly loses
ground in the game, his number of worlds decreases, and thus he has less
income to increase his wealth and less factories to build fleets. Thus, by
the time he's lost he can make a small final strike (against a localized
opponent) but not much more.
- Make Kingmaking Explicit. Finally, as with many game design
"problems", you can integrate the issue into your game. If, for example, a
kingmaker gets some bonus which might help him in future rounds of play,
then kingmaking becomes a strategic decision where you're trying to throw
your heft behind the winning player. A game could easily be imagined where
it's the kingmaker who wins, rather than the king himself. (In fact Avalon
Hill's Dune game incorporates this idea. The Bene Gesserit player
gets to prdict a winner and a turn on which they'll win; if that player
wins on that turn, the Bene Gesserit wins instead.)
Types of End Game Problems
All of the topics that I've covered thus far--meta balance, player
involvement, player interference, and kingmaking--can affect the entirity
of your gameplay. However, you'll eventually arrive at the game phase that
I labeled "end game" last week. This is when it becomes increasingly
obvious that someone is going to win, and players begin to make
their last ditch struggles to emerge at the top.
There are several new problems that can emerge here if you're not careful:
Setback Problems: Most games do have some player interference
built into them, as I described in the last section. Although generally
good, these can cause problems here, in the end game, if they're not well
Limited Setbacks represent one side of the spectrum. In this
situation there are a limited number of ways to stop a winner, usually
represented by stop-the-winner cards drawn from a deck during the play of
the game. The problem with this setup is that after all the setbacks are
used up, the next person to close in on victory is the one to win.
Generally, this isn't very fair because it means the 3rd best player (or
the 4th or 5th or whatever) is the one that actually wins, rather than the
Unlimited Setbacks go to the other side of the spectrum. There are
so many ways to setback a winner that no one ever wins, and play continues
on pretty much forever, or rather until every one is so sick and tired of
the game that they finally let someone win out of desperation.
This all seems to be a bit of catch-22, but there is actually a middle
ground where you can allow for unlimited setbacks, but control their power
so that they can't elongate the game indefinitely.
Here's some ways to avoid setback problems, based on controlling their power:
- Offer More Positive than Negative Possibilities. Generally if a
player moves forward 3 steps for every 2 he's knocked back you'll be OK,
because the game will slowly move to conclusion. However, you may not be
able to calculate this as a simple ratio, if player interference isn't
controlled by locality. For example, if your game allows for up to 4
players, and every player can adversely affect every other player, than
positive cards must be more than 3x as common (or 3x as useful) as negative
cards, because a "winner" could potentially have 3 bad cards played on him
- Allow a Player to Grow Beyond Setbacks. This is perhaps a
different way of looking at the same solution. You can allow setbacks to
indefinitely setback a player as longer as he can continue to grow his game
position to a point where that's no longer possible. Fist of
Dragonstones is a game that supports this idea. There are 3 core ways
you can gain victory points: by turning in 4 different dragonstones, by
turning in 4 identical dragonstones, or by turning in 3 dragonstones, one
of each color. As a player reaches a point where one of those routes could
be used to achieve victory, other players can make sure that victory isn't
available to him (by stealing the character that would allow the victory
condition), but as the player matures his position he can reach victory via
multiple paths, and eventually the other players can't stop them all.
And here's some ways to avoid setback problems by fiddling with when the
- Put a Timer in Your Game. Totally orthagonally, you can worry a
bit less about unlimited setbacks by putting a timer in your game which
will eventually signal game end, even if no one has reached the designated
victory conditions. Many of the Settlers of Catan games do this. In
Settlers of Canaan the game ends when the wall at Jerusalem is
completed, and in Settlers of Alexander the game ends when the title
character reaches his final battle. The recent Risk: Lord of the
Rings offers a similar mechanic where the game ends when the Fellowship
reaches the Cracks of Doom.
- Hide the Victory Condition. If players don't know quite when to
offer a setback, setbacks implicitly become less powerful. Some games do
this by randomizing when the game ends. Starweb is an example of
this; the game ends at 10,000 victory points, plus or minus a fairly wide
percentage. I've considered a similar mechanism in Galactic Emperor:
Hegemony, to change the duration of the game from 21 days to 19-23.
Other games simple give different players different victory conditions, and
don't reveal who's trying for what. Mystic War is an example of
this: you draw a victory point condition at the start of the game, and thus
could be playing for 40 mystic power, 40 gold, 40 population, or else a
balance of the three. This technique can also serve some purpose in
alleviating some of the boredom and kingmaker problems that I earlier
discussed, because of the uncertainty introduced.
Chaos Problems: A less common but real end game problem is
that of chaos; even though a winner might be "evident" leading into the
endgame, random and arbitrary factors could be so large in your end game
that this can be totally changed before the game is resolved (and tends to
be in true chaotic games).
One of the "setback" problems I discussed actually falls into this category
too. When you have limited setbacks, you're really creating a chaotic
situation where the winner is fairly random.
Some general solutions to chaos problems include:
- Increase the Number of Individual Random Events. Randomness will
tend toward an average, expected value. Thus you can paradoxically decrease
the amount of randomness in your game by increasing the number of random
events. (Or, to use mathematical terminology, you decrease your variance
through increased sampling.) Risk is a good example of this. Since
you roll dice for every couple of armies, you could roll dozens of times
just in one attack; your variance will average toward norm in any
individual assault, and definitely in the game overall.
- Control Your Power Curve. Some games have a very steep power
curve at end game, where chaos is created by the fact that each random
result is a lot more powerful/important than the one before it. Sadly,
Risk, at least in its older variants, offers an example that flies
in the face of this problem, rather than solving it. Every army that you
redeemed for a collection of cards was larger than the one before, and thus
you created a very chaotic end-game situation where armies swept back and
forth across the board in mass, and the ultimate winner wasn't necessarily
related to who was ahead just a turn or two before. (And this is really
another way of repeating what I said last week, when I talked about making
early parts of your game important.)
I won't go on much more about chaotic end=games, because I think I already
covered possible solutions a couple of weeks ago when I discussed the
Simply, be aware that the problem exists.
Game balance and end game issues are both pretty big topics (as the
preceding 4500 words no doubt demonstrate). I've offered a lot of solutions
this week, and you'll be able to see which work for you on a case by case
basis. If everything else fails, I think the biggest points are: to make
game imbalances obvious; to give players the opportunity to interfere to
correct those game balances; but to ensure that interference doesn't result
in additional problems, from king making to indefinite extension.
Before I close up I should thank RPGnetters Cerebus, who helped get me
thinking about some ideas of player-induced game balance in a response to a
previous column, and Mark Green, who reminded me about the king maker issue
in a response to a review of Tigris & Euphrates Thanks also to
Skotosians Quigg and Christopher Allen, who offered some valuable thoughts
on the first draft of this article.
For my next discussion of strategy, in a week or two, I play to cover the
topic of information, and maybe some other subtleties that I've missed
along the way, if there's space.
And after that it'll be a few different codas and conclusions before I
bring this series to an end (whew).