I read somewhere once that it’s helpful to maintain a game design journal. That’s where you chronicle every step of your game’s design process from start to finish. So consider this my first post in that journal (for Gateway), but because this is Darkanacademy, I also want to point out some things that can help you with your own games. Pay close attention, because balance is important. If you don’t believe me, ask Wizards of the Coast. Imbalanced cards need to be handled quickly or the game gets broken. Even better, though, is to avoid them altogether (whenever possible).
The game we’ll be balancing is going to be called Gateway (I’ll be putting this up on Kickstarter eventually, so keep an eye out for it). The object of the game will be to get as many units through the Gateway as possible (they’re trying to get home). The board will be set up as a 5×5 grid, and each player will have a deck of cards. The cards will consist of units, which can maneuver and attack, glyphs, which will be unique to each deck, and action cards, which will be less powerful than glyphs (spells). There will also be five different decks, each with a different style of play (this is not intended to be a CCG; the game will probably contain all 5 decks in the core set).
Balancing is Important
First off, games need to be balanced because we want the game to remain fun for players for as long as possible. If they play it once and something is broken, they won’t want to play it again. The point of making games is to entertain, to inform, or to teach something. For the purposes of this article, I will be focusing on games that aim to provide entertainment.
The simple fact is that when a game is unbalanced, victory skews in favor of one player, play style, etc. This is why playtesting is important, but we also need to consider that balance must be applied to the mechanics overall, as well as each individual element of the game. Maybe your rules are good, but you just have an overpowered card. If you don’t balance things properly, after a while it will become evident to players that the easiest way to win is to simply use the overpowered character, race, class, cards, spells, abilities, weapons, etc. This eliminates the challenge, but it also renders everything else a little bit meaningless. Other players might feel like there’s no point anymore.
With these things in mind, I want to make each deck’s units completely unique to that deck (remember, there will be 5 different decks, each with a unique play style). It would be easier to balance the decks if each deck had exactly the same number of units with the exact same capabilities, but what fun is that? So now we begin the task of figuring out how to make the units unique but still keep them balanced.
I did this by simply making 5 types of movements and 5 directions of attack. That gives me 25 possible combinations to work with, and I can simply give each deck 5 out of the possible 25. That makes it so that no deck has more units, and no deck has more possibilities. They each have 5 possibilities to work with. We’ll balance these out in a bit.
Here are the five types of movement and attack directions (based off the 5×5 grid that is the game board). From left to right: forward/backward and lateral, diagonally, all directions, forward/backward only, lateral only.
Now that we have these figured out, I made the grid to keep track of the combinations. On the left we’ll call that the movement direction and the top we’ll call the attack direction, since I want these two traits to be different for each unit (i.e. a unit can move side to side but perhaps it can attack diagonally).
Now we could easily just assign these randomly to the decks and call it a day, right? Not so fast. It could very well happen that one deck could end up with a bunch of guys who can only move sideways and attack forwards and backwards, while another deck ends up with being able to move and attack in a multitude of directions. So it’s very important that we get this right, otherwise our decks will be broken. Anyone who picks one of the weaker decks will feel cheated. So how do we measure how powerful a card is, then?
It doesn’t really matter how you do it, so long as you have some type of metric to rank each card. I simply combined the movement direction and attack direction to give each possibility a power rating. So for example, a card that can move in four directions and attack in four directions has a power of 8. Here is the rating grid now:
Now we have a simple visual guide to seeing just how potent each card can be. We obviously don’t want to have a deck that only has 4s and 6s while another deck has 10s and 12s. And take a look at the middle square. One deck is going to end up with the card that has the power of 16. So we need to figure out a way to compensate for that. How can we do that? We just need to figure out the average overall power rating for each deck. Since we have 5 decks, we’ll just add up the total power of all the cards and then divide by 5:
- 4 possibilities with a power of 4 = 16
- 8 possibilities with a power of 6 = 48
- 4 possibilities with a power of 8 = 32
- 4 possibilities with a power of 10 = 40
- 4 possibilities with a power of 12 = 48
- 1 possibility with a power of 16 = 16
- Total power = 200
- 200/5 = 40 power rating per deck
Now we know exactly how much power each deck should have to keep things balanced. Since we want each deck’s possibilities to be unique, we can start figuring out each deck’s configuration. After some finagling, I finally got it figured out. There are probably a multitude of ways I could have broken this up, honestly, but this is what I eventually settled on:
|Deck 1||Deck 2||Deck 3||Deck 4||Deck 5|
That was the hardest part about making these units balanced. So now that I know what each deck should have, I’ll want to give each deck 30 units. The simplest way is to have 6 of each configuration. Now all I need to do is dole out the unique configurations, using this chart to number each one.
I simply allocated each configuration out according to what we had before. I know that Deck 1 is going to have cards with powers 12, 10, 8, 6, and 4. Looking above I just need to pick which ones I want to put into Deck 1. Once that’s done, no other deck will have those exact movement and attack patterns! (Can you tell I’m excited about this?) Here’s how I doled out the configurations:
|Deck 1||Deck 2||Deck 3||Deck 4||Deck 5|
Easy stuff. Now every possible combination of movement and attack is represented exactly once, and each deck holds the exact same power. The last order of business I want to attend to is giving some of these cards different ranges. Right now every card, lets assume, has an attack range of 1. It can only attack other cards in adjacent spaces. But what if I want to give some of them extended range? I’d like some cards to have a range of 2 and some a range of 3.
Let us now say that if we offer cards of ranges 1 space, 2 spaces, and 3 spaces, we want the higher powered cards to be less common. Since each deck has 30 units, I felt like breaking them up like so:
- 15 units with 1 range
- 10 units with 2 range
- 5 units with 3 range
That, I think, keeps everything fair. There is an inverse power relationship. And since each deck has 5 different card types, each with 6 cards, we can make this happen with very little brain power:
- 1 from each card type will have a range of 3
- 2 from each card type will have a range of 2
- 3 from each card type will be a range of 1
Ta-da. And that is how we balance the units for each deck perfectly. No deck is more powerful than any other. Everything is equal. In the next portion of this tutorial, I’ll go over adding special cards (spells?) that give a distinct advantage in the game. We’re going to need to balance those out as well.
The whole point of me sharing this with you is to illustrate that you don’t want to just wing it. You may feel like you’re getting it right, it may feel balanced. It’s like if you tried to make a knife by hand. Imbalances might not be readily apparent at first glance, but they will stand out with use. Or an experienced wielder can tell immediately that something is off. So weigh things as you go. Make certain you have it balanced. It is better to do this as you make the game than trying to fix it after you’ve already released.
For a look at the next step in development for this game, take a look at my article Brainstorming Mechanics.