Designing a Game is a Grand Balancing Act

Do you remember playing tic-tac-toe as a kid? What about checkers? Both were fun when you were young but got old just as you got old, right? That’s because both of them are solved games.

Are solved games what I think they are?

A solved game is a game whose outcome (win, lose or draw) can be correctly predicted from any position, assuming that both players play perfectly

Wikipedia, Solved Game

That’s one reason for a bland game, which results in loss of replay zest.

Then there are games that rely too much on random chance to support their mechanics. Both of these issues lead to the horrid plague of imbalance.

I’ve played Monopoly, now get on with it!

A well-designed game contains a medley of elements that prevent it from being solved and keep it from being imbalanced. I want to talk about these mechanics at their core. Note that these elements aren’t everything that you need to make a great game, but they’re four attributes that are important to think about when designing the mechanics.

Chance

This is important, but should be the smallest aspect of a game. Everyone has fun playing the odds a bit and it increases replay. Chance is also fair, as player outcomes aren’t as beholden to direct attacks from other players.

Too much chance comes with its own problems, though. It can drag some games out indefinitely (I’m looking at you, Risk) or it can make players feel like they have no control over their own outcome; like the game is pure destiny. You might as well spin around in a circle and point to the winner without even bothering to set up that game (Yahtzee, you’re only dice and paper but you’re still not worth the set up time).

Take a game like Bang! The Dice Game, for instance. There’s a lot of chance involved. But it’s balanced well with two factors:

  • The different mechanics of chance actually make the game nice and short
  • Chance doesn’t interfere with each player’s ability to take action—on the contrary—it lends to it

Attack and Counterattack

Fun games are ones that allow the players to take action against the game itself or other players (or both). I know that sounds like every single game ever made, but designing a fun, balanced attack move is difficult.

In Bang! the fun isn’t just in your ability to attack other players, it’s in what attack options they’ll have and their strategy for who they should attack and possibly counterattack.

Connected Mechanics

This is an easy idea to think about but a difficult one to continually put into practice. Mainly, because it means that you’ll need to continuously change and remove mechanics that may be amazingly fun, but don’t work well together.

Winners

I get it, this one is even more obvious. But at the same time, it’s not. The best part about winners in a fun game is that it feels like they deserve it. If the other three aspects are singing in harmony, then your win condition will be the least of your worries.

So, what did we learn?

I’ve been developing this game for a year, but designing mechanics for a tabletop game is still new to me. I’m familiar with storytelling, but my stories are always linear. I write them down, try to make them intriguing and fun, but the words on the final draft will always be in the same order.

The theme of the game (the setting, the events, and the player’s involvement), the players and the overall moves they could make—all of these ideas came naturally to me. Through trial and error, I’ve learned to make sure that attack and counterattack, connection between mechanics, and a little bit of chance make for a well-deserved winner. But if there are issues finding a winner, or that win doesn’t feel like it’s been earned—looking to tweak those three attributes allows the last one to fall into place.

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