13 Apr Developing a Game Design Philosophy – Balance vs Symmetry
Mark Rivett –
Whenever we get together, Slightly Twisted Games tries to make time to play a board or card game. We love games, and after we play a new game for the first time, we discuss both the things we enjoy and dislike about it. This has shaped our game design philosophy, and we work to incorporate our philosophy into each game we make.
Balance vs Symmetry
Having recently re-immersed myself into tabletop war gaming, I found that many things had changed with Warhammer 40k, and many things (somewhat to my chagrin) remained the same. Warhammer 40k is an asymmetrical game. That makes the already challenging feat of balance even more difficult.
Symmetry in game design can take on many meanings, but what I am referring to here is a wildly different composition of the game for each player. The rules are largely the same for everyone, but each player treats the rules as a vehicle to deliver a uniquely flavored game play. Chess tends to be very symmetrical – although experienced chess players would say that there is a great deal difference between the strategies employed by the player who goes first and the player who goes second – both players start on the same page. Warhammer 40k is very asymmetrical. There are numerous factions that you can bring to the game table, and even if two players were to bring the same faction, their army compositions can differ significantly. Scythe exists in a space that is more symmetrical than asymmetrical, but can still vary based on a player board and faction board.
Asymmetry has a great deal of value in game design because it not only provides design space for flavor, but it also provides opportunity for replayability – diminishing or even eliminating the chance that the same game will be played twice.
But the challenge with asymmetry in game design is that it becomes difficult to balance. The solution is to iteratively playtest until you have found – often through a combination of mathematical analysis and gut feeling – the best balance you can achieve. Slightly Twisted Games has play tested Glory both within and outside our play group exhaustively. Balance was always foremost on our mind, and we wanted to make sure that there was no combination of spells or series of plays one player could make that could definitely set one strategy or player position above the others. The game is balanced for everyone who comes to the table.
Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: The Gathering has dealt with balance challenges to their asymmetrical game through numerous tools – tweaking the rotation schedule, and adding to their banned lists of cards to name a few.
With 2017 Adepticon in the books, I was reminded of one of the big reasons I left war gaming. While the asymmetry of the game is fantastic, Games Workshop (creators of Warhammer 40k) is not a game publisher. Games Workshop is a miniature wargaming manufacturer. Their business is focuses on developing beautiful miniatures, and the game has always been secondary to that endeavor. That’s fine for them, but for players who prefer a well-balanced game, the lack of variation in top-placing army lists at an event as large as Adepticon, illustrates their problem of achieving balance.
As the wargaming community looks forward to the next edition of Warhammer 40k, we all hope that we come one step closer to balance within a game we very much enjoy. In the meantime I will approach my return to the hobby I once loved with the expectation that I will not be playing a balanced game.