NaGa DeMon 2012: Finding Balance

Balance. It’s something all game designers struggle with at one point or another. No one wants to create a game that’s broken or that has an easily exploited loophole. No one wants to play a game that is easily won by simply having the right piece or combo – it makes players feel as if they have no real agency within the game, that their decisions matter less, and that games are won and lost not by using good strategy, but by whomever grabs “the nuclear option” first.

Let’s admit that there’s some gray area here. Without getting too philosophical (because I want to get to the meat of this) there are certainly some mechanics or combinations of game rules that can be exploited by a clever player. Is the game imbalanced, or is the player using good strategy to win?

In the context of Backyard Wars, each player has a team of bugs with which to skirmish. If I see a combo that works really well, do I need to “fix” that, or do I leave it in for clever players to discover and use? Here is where I come down on this issue: Combos are ok, and are the result of clever gameplay, but a single mechanic that can be exploited to win the game needs to be fixed. So, I need to balance the stats of each bug *individually* so that a single bug isn’t obviously better than all the rest. For example, I won’t make a bug with 40 health if the health range of all the other bugs is between 2 and 5. That’s obviously imbalanced. Unfortunately, sometimes – no, usually – the imbalance is more subtle, especially when you’re dealing with incomparables.

What are incomparables? In Backyard Wars, every bug has three attributes – an attack/defense die, a movement score, and a health score. If that was the *only* thing bugs had, comparing them would be fairly easy. Tradeoffs could be made between health, attack die, and movement to make bugs roughly equal. However, each bug also has at least one “special.” The special attribute is generally an incomparable – something that other bugs don’t have, so you can’t easily compare one’s ability against another’s. The ant can move terrain (rocks and sticks) around the board, and the locust has an area attack. How do you compare the two? You can’t; they’re incomparable. There will be situations where the ant’s ability is more valuable, and other situations where the locust’s is.

What I am doing is trying to eyeball which bugs’ special ability is more situational (e.g. the stickbug) and which bugs’ ability is more often useful (e.g. any bug that has “fly” or a heal ability). Bugs with universally useful special abilities will see a downgrade in their stats, while more situational specials will get a bump up. I know that I’m not going to get it exactly right, even after playtesting, and I know for sure I won’t even be close until some rigorous playtesting is complete. But my hope is that, when a player looks at the field of bugs, there isn’t an obvious choice about who to pick first. In my example above, comparing the ant and the locust, I see the area attack as more useful, and the ant’s as more situational, so the ant has a d10 attack/defense die. I also dropped the locust’s area attack to a d4, but left the normal attack alone. It’s all about fiddling with the dials.

The baseline for the bugs is d6, 4 move, and 3 health. That’s where each bug starts before I adjust for special abilities. In fact, in v2 (downloadable below), the last several bugs in the packet haven’t been adjusted yet. I have a spreadsheet with all the stats and abilities listed, and I’m hoping that helps me do a side by side comparison. This is the first time I’ve presented this game to the world at large, so please play with it, and let me know what you think!

Download the playtest packet
This game is meant to be played on a 10×10 grid. The bug cards are formatted to be printed on index cards.

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