BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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Balancing Act: On Fun and Fairness

BrettSpiel

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same.

Rudyard Kipling, If…

I hear a lot about ‘balance’ in board games. And it pisses me off.

Of course, not everyone uses the term in the same way, but there is certainly a large, vocal subset of commentators who directly equate the virtue of balance with a close finish. More accurately, perhaps, said commentators look at any Eurogame that delivers a close finish and happily declare “it’s balanced”: the twin implications being that this is empirically, unquestionably a Good Thing — and that if it didn’t then that would be quite the reverse.

This thinking is very much a byproduct of modern Eurogames, which, by their commonly understood definition, are neither simple race games nor games of survival. The winner is neither the ‘first past the post’ nor the ‘last man standing’. No-one would label Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly as Eurogames.*

In both those games, victory is clear-cut and absolute. And a miss is as good as a mile. The mistake, I think, is to read Eurogames the same way.

Here’s an example: I played a 4-player game of Egizia a little while ago. When the game ended, after an hour’s play, all four of us had scored exactly 100 points. This, in my book, is not a ‘success’. This is not a ‘Good Thing’. This is not the triumphant result — and hardly the ideal metric — of the designers’ expert understanding of the art and craft of game design.

The directionality of my argument is important. I am not arguing that a game that contains the potential for a close finish is bad — and all my example has to say about Egizia is that it contains just such a potential. I am simply arguing that a close finish is no definition of quality, and should not be seen as some Platonic ideal. ‘Balance’ is no virtue if it’s been carefully engineered to be inevitable.

Games should be fun and they should be fair — and it’s reasonable to surmise that the latter is necessary for the former. But a four-way tie is neither. Fairness — and this is just as true in games as it is in everything else — isn’t about equality of outcome, but equality of opportunity.

So my plea to the game designer is a simple one: Don’t rob the victor of his victory, nor the loser of his loss. Where, after all, would be the fun in that?

* Interestingly, the game that defined the Eurogame genre, The Settlers of Catan, actually does have a ‘first past the post’ winning condition. It may have given the world the ‘victory point’, but it also gave its players a specific target. In this sense, you could argue that it no longer properly inhabits the genre it originally created.

Nick Bentley said...

June 29, 2013 3:25 pm

I couldn't agree more. It helps to remember that "close finish" is a relative term. It has to be defined relative to some other kind of finish. If every game is decided by a point, then it will often end up feeling not particularly close at all. A second point: I'm convinced that a large part of what constitutes "variety" in feel of play is the way games end. Close finishes, blowouts, sudden reversals of fortune, barn-burners, foregone conclusions, etc. Third point: to me, an ideally "fair" game is one in which the greater the difference in skill between players, the larger the average margin of victory. So, equally skilled players have an equal chance of winning at the outset and their average margin of victory is nil, but there's a big average margin of victory between players of very different skill levels.

C├ędrick Chaboussit said...

July 15, 2013 12:17 pm

Nice article,

I don't agree on the "balance" term though. To me, balance in a board game deals more with the mutiples way to victory.
A better player must be able to win more often than somebody discorering the game, the uncertainty being important also.

Chris Astefanous said...

September 17, 2013 2:49 pm

I agree that balance doesn't mean it has to be a close finish. I think it's more important that the game through most phases, feels balanced. That balance comes from each player feeling like they have the choices and paths available to them to have a chance to win.

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