Balancing Act

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My very first ever blog post was not in fact at F:AT. I was granted a guest spot at Gone Gaming which I used for a brief discussion of balance in multiplayer games. Today I wanted to revisit that argument and take it a bit further. In fact, I'm going to make a blanket statement which I'm fairly confident is 100% true.

It is impossible to design a near-perfectly balanced, non-random multiplayer game in which there is any kind of direct player interaction.

We need to do a little definition of terms here to make sure we know what were talking about, as you always should when making blanket assertions of truth. Firstly by "multiplayer" I mean multiple competitive players - you could make a balanced game with two sides and a team playing on each side. Secondly "near perfect" is an acknowledgment that no game can be perfectly balanced because moving first is always an advantage, even if that advantage is very slim. So we're looking at levels of balance reached by generally acknowledged games of skill such as Chess and Go.

The reason I feel able to make this assertion is because it seems patently obvious to me that as soon as there are three players in the frame and even the tiniest amount of interaction between them, the choices and play decisions of that third player are going to impact more on one of the other players than they are the other. The game is then instantly not balanced. There only possible exception I can think of to this scenario is one in which all the players are faced with the same set of choices each turn and that the results of the choice made by a given player are applied equally across all other players. However, if there is the slightest amount of complexity in the game set-up then eventually the game will reach a point in which the impact of a decision made by the active player will still favour the current position of one or more non-active players over others. And then the game has become unbalanced. And if the set-up of the game is simple enough to prevent this from happening then you have an extremely dull game.

Euro designers have striven, extremely hard in many cases, to try and solve this problem but each attempt has not only failed but for the most part introduced different problems to sit alongside it. My description of an imaginary game might remind you of a real life game - it does me - and that game is Puerto Rico. It features the same sort of setup with choices being offered to the players and the impact of those choices being applied more or less equally across all the other players (the active player gets a bonus, but it's pretty small in most cases). The differentiator that makes it an interesting and playable game is that the choice pool shrinks each time as once one player has chosen a role, that role is closed to the other players for the rest of the turn. The direct result is the oft-bemoaned left-right binding issue which makes the game imbalanced. Spending some time considering the various games I'm familiar with the one I thought managed to get closest to perfect balance was Blokus. It manages this through the simple expedient of having a victory condition which favours players keeping the area between them and their neighbours as equal for as long as possible. Eventually, however, a player must play a piece into the area to one side or another of their initial line and choose to interrupt the play choices of one neighbour more than the other. The game then becomes imbalanced.

The reason I wanted to revisit this question was because I spent some time at the weekend playing Mare Nostrum for the first time. I liked the game a lot. Indeed it seems to me pretty much the epitome of what I'd look for in a Euro style game since it offers fairly simple rules (though not without ambiguity), fairly short playing time, is largely non-random (it has just enough to keep the game interesting) and has several layers of strategic depth. These are all aspects of the euro design paradigm and they are - in my book - very desirable outcomes. What it isn't is balanced - indeed it makes no attempt at being balanced at all. Not only are the start positions not balanced but play isn't balanced since if your neighbour decides to take a piece out of you then you'll be worse off than a player who has maintained peaceful borders. It has kingmaking, it has kill-the-leader and all the usual multiplayer game "balance issues" although the strategic framework limits their impact. There are lots of other games that fit a similar mould - shortish, fairly simple, limited randomness, strategically rich and have frameworks which limit or stop direct interaction in ways which help the balance without trying to make it perfect. "Waro" games like Shogun, Imperial or Struggle of Empires are one example. If you want more traditional Euro-fare then euros which feature plenty of negotiation also manage it - try Traders of Genoa or Bohnanza or even the venerable Settlers of Catan. If you're averse to both fighting and talking to people then there are still games to satisfy you, so long as you're not looking for perfect balance - how about the Knizia classic Ra or Attika. It will surprise no-one to learn that these are all eurogames that I rate highly - higher, in many cases, than some of the dodgier Ameritrash "classics" of the eighties. I know that other members of the F:AT staff share my opinions on these games.

The question this raises for me is why, when it is clearly so possible to design an exciting, challenging, strategically skilled game which ticks most of the boxes of a good Euro, is so much time and energy spent on pursuing the near impossible dream of a balanced multiplayer game in the same paradigm? Why do the people who seek this out not just accept that they're on a hiding to nothing and take what seems to me the obvious solution and just stick to two player games instead? In a two player game you don't have the impacts-one-more-than-the-other issue and you can have near perfect balance. With two players you can indeed make a fairly direct comparison of your relative skills at playing the game. Why not just stick to this model? I don't have an answer to this - I'd be interested to know your theories on why it might be. The only one I can come up with is that gamers simply like to gather together and play in larger groups but this seems a bit unlikely - after all the sorts of games I'm talking about tend to limit social interaction in a group rather than facilitate it and in any case, two seems to be a number most wargamers are very happy with, even if they're together in a larger group of people playing different games. If we take out the caveat about direct interaction in my original statement then it does suddenly become possible to have multiplayer competetive games which are fairly well balanced. You can have a set up in which players are competiting with each other to reach a set goal in a time or turn number limit, within the constraints of gameplay mechanics and where their choices affect only their own race to the finish line, not those of other players. But these aren't games in the sense that I understand them - they're competitive logic puzzles. Unsurprisingly there are few, if any, games along these lines. But for me the great joy of gaming comes partly from the unexpected and chaotic situations that can arise when the decisions of another player directly impact on your position so long as the result doesn't turn into complete farce (as can happen in some badly designed multiplayer games). Why you'd want to strive for balance, still play a multiplayer game and in doing so reduce the amount of this sort of interplay in the game to virtually nothing, is quite beyond me.

There Will Be Games

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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