The Issue of Balance

We have all heard game designers talking about balancing their games. This is a very important issue and one that is by no means easy or quick. So, what is a balanced game? And also, how do we know if we have balance issues in a game? Or better still, how do we balance a game that has balance issues? But what about, is balance necessary in order to have a fun and successful game? Let’s take it one question at a time:

What is a balanced game?

The one form of a balanced game is one in which each player has an equal chance of winning. Another is a game in which each player is given the same tools to win. There is a small distinction between these two ideas of what makes a balanced game. From a strictly mathematical sense, a game is perfectly balanced if it is a zero-sum game.

Zero-Sum Game:“A zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which each participant’s gain or loss of utility is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of the utility of the other participants.”

However, in some sense, all multiplayer games that are played for money are externally zero-sum games, regardless of how fair they are to one player or the other. Let’s take a closer look at how people view game balance. We will add the following four sub-types of balance:

  • Perfect Balance: The zero-sum equation both external and internal to the game
  • External Balance: The idea that the outcome of the game is a zero-sum
  • Internal Balance: The idea that the mechanics of gameplay are a zero-sum
  • Practical Balance: The middle ground most people would call fair and/or fun to play

However, there is still more to it. There are games that are not perfectly balanced and are still fun and successful as games. There are also, things outside of the game and its rules that can affect a player’s chance of winning, like player skill. The game might be balanced but the players might not be of equal skill. Some games even account for this and try to build in ways for lower skilled players to have a better chance of winning (adding imbalance or luck/chance based rules). Yet another factor to game balance is turn order. The “first player advantage” is cited among the top balance issues within game design.

Other games are made to be unfair to the players in the form of challenging difficulty, but can still be internally balanced in the way the systems of the game run. As you can see there is more to game balance than just giving the players the same tools or making sure the outcome of the game is a fair win for one player and a fair loss for the other.

For this article, we will look at two examples of truly balanced games. They are on opposite sides of the game spectrum.

Example #1: Rock – Paper – Scissors

This is a prime example of a zero-sum game. Both players have the same tools (hands) and the same power to choose one of the three options (tactics). Each game is won or lost based on a single factor that is non-variable. Each of the three options has the same statistical chance of winning if chosen by the player. The game is, therefore balanced in the pure mathematical sense. While the game as it is is an interesting way to settle disagreements in a fair way, many would not call it “fun”.

This simple, clean, and perfectly balanced game is the basis for many sub-mechanics in other games and has become one of the most widely used methods or guides for adding balance to how the internal structure of a more complex game operates.

Example #2: Yahtzee (not solitaire version)

This is a prime example of a luck based game. Both players are given the same tools (dice) and the same power to choose which dice to re-roll and what to score each round (tactics). In this sense, the game is balanced in what players can do in the form of actions and choices. The game is a random press your luck style game that comes down to who rolls better and also who is better at managing what is given to them moment by moment by the game rolls. While on some level both players have the same statistical chances of rolling each of the combinations needed, there are very few people who would consider or think of this game as a zero-sum game in the traditional sense.

The game of Yahtzee is from the external sense a zero-sum game as one player wins nothing and one player loses nothing by playing the game. From an internal sense, the game is zero-sum as no player has any gain or loss that the other player can’t also experience. Both players are subject to the same force of chance in the same way. There is no player interaction and therefore no way for one player to influence the outcome of the other player’s game. I am sure that you would consider the game to be fair and balanced. I am also sure that you don’t think player skill has very much to do with winning or losing the game. As to whether or not it is a zero-sum game I am sure not everyone would agree.

How do we know if we have balance issues in a game?

For simple games, the answer is, your “players” will tell you during playtesting or you will see it the first or second time you test how it works. If you have a complex game you can assume a first draft prototype it is not balanced from the start. In this case, by testing the way the game mechanics interact you will notice one (or more) of the following things:

  • You have a mechanic or component that is overused or underused by players
  • You will see one path to victory as easier than all others
  • One mechanic in the game completely nullifies another (not by design) making it unusable
  • The first player always (or almost always) wins if both players are of similar skill levels.
  • One powerful strategy will emerge and dominate gameplay making all other strategies obsolete.

In all of this, you are looking for the sources of the power and control players have to change how the game is played and to affect the outcome. The weak spots for balance are “things” that do not cost enough for the benefit the player gets from that “thing”. Quantifying and tracking this cost to benefit ratio for actions and mechanics is part of the game’s power curve.

One misconception about balance comes from there being different levels of power and control within a game. As long as the power levels all fall along the game’s power curve this is not necessary an issue with balance. The fact that there can be units or resources with different values do not make the game unbalanced. Even giving players unique powers might not make the game unbalanced as long as they all fall in the power curve of the game at the same level of power (cost and/or benefit level).

Another red flag might be if the cost of what one player can do costs another player more to do that same level of thing. Keep in mind that, even if this is the case, the game might be designed to shift the cost from one player to the next to compensate for another factor like “first player advantage”.

The main thing with spotting issues with balance is to “stay alert” and watch for anything that is not “acting” or “behaving” in the game’s mechanics the way you designed them to act or behave. If you keep the cost to benefit ratio for each player as close to equal as you can, there should be only minor issues to work out.

How do we balance a game that has balance issues?

For this, the best advice anyone can give is what the “little engine that could” said. “If at first, you don’t succeed, try try again.” and I will add to that, “to get something you have never had you must do something you have never done.”

For game designers this means, while testing a mechanic or system, that you have found to be out of balance with the rest of the game, you will need to change something. This can mean trial and error without end.

Helpful Tip: “Only make one change at a time, the test the game again to see if that change made a difference.”

If you find an issue and then change three or more things before testing again, you will not know which change made the difference and also might create new issues and not know the cause.

This is the main reason for getting a game to the playtesting stage as fast as you can. It will save you countless hours of designing balance in your head to try and find what might work. Through playtesting you will know or discover what works (and what does not work) faster than just thinking or planning or brainstorming.

How do you balance the scales when you have many items of differing weights? You mix and match items on both sides of the scale until you achieve balance. In design, the two sides of the scale are the parts of the game that are not working and the parts that are working. One way to think outside the box is:

“If it is not broke don’t fix it” might not always be the best advice in game design, because you might need to change part of the game that is working in order to incorporate something that is not working back in things that are (say that five times fast). This might mean the change you need to make could be to part of the game that is not working or the change might need to be to another part (that is working) so that the two will fit together. The part that is not working might be a great mechanic alone and the other mechanics of the game just need to be adapted to fit it in. Both are options that should be considered.

Is balance necessary in order to have a fun and successful game?

The answer is no if we are talking about perfect balance. A game does not need to be perfectly balanced to be fun and there are many games that are not perfectly balanced that have sold quite well and been very popular. Does this mean other forms of balance is not important? No, they are all important. The forms that are found in most if not all fun and successful games are practical balance or at least internal balance. On the other hand, there are a few games out there that are fun and successful games without much practical balance or internal balance. Finding the right balance is important, just not as important as some designers might think.

If your game plays the way you designed it to function, and players have fun playing it, you already have something good. If there are some balance issues, don’t lose sleep over it. Remember, the goal is to make a playable game that is fun for the intended audience.

This is intended only as “Food for Thought”. Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.

“Remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!”


“I want to help you embrace the bright hope for your future.”


One comment on “The Issue of Balance

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