Game Balance? Yes, No, and It Depends

I wanted to talk today about “Balance” in games. There is much debate on the need for balance in games and where and how to accomplish this. I will admit what follows is my own opinion on this but it comes with over 25 years of playing and designing games.

When I was young, I thought Balance was necessary to a game simply from a pure mechanics basis. If list A didn’t balance list B then neither list mattered and needed to be redone. I spent hours making sure that armor balanced weapons which in turn allowed for Magic to balance with martial abilities. It was an all consuming thing to find that pinnacle of game balance.

It was hard work; difficult and unyielding work to balance every piece in how a game works. Then I read something, I cant remember who wrote it originally but I know somewhere it was through Mick Bradley, of Harping Monkey Fame, that I came to this quote. (I paraphrase) “Don’t sacrifice awesome for fear of Game balance.” I was blown away as I deconstructed this thought.

This is when I started to shift focus. Game balance is important don’t get me wrong and mechanical balance can not get to far out of whack, but where your balance point, that’s what’s important. Now every type of game has different points of balance and for each GM and gaming group you have to find your own, that’s the simple truth, but I digress. We will get back to this in a moment.

Where was I, ah yes. The focus of balance. As I grew into understanding “Don’t sacrifice awesome for Game Balance.” I came to realize it was never about Balance but about mechanics. I started looking outward and realized that the game we play and the hobby we define ourselves by is one where the artists are the participants and the critiques at the same time. The art of Role Playing happens at one time in one place and with only the people participating with it and can never be duplicated again. We can argue later on podcasts and vidcasts and art later.

With this in mind I started to see how the group I was with determined Game balance on such a different level then pure mechanics. Mechanical game balance needs to happen but only in as much as playing the game needs some kind of rules. Outside those rules the group is the ultimate determination. As GM I found that balancing the game had more to do with Spotlight then pure Mechanical balance. We had a social contract, most often unspoken about sharing the cool and the awesome at our table.

This is where Design and balance start to fall apart. You have to be careful and not rely to heavily on one or the other, mechanical balance and social balance. Both of these are needed in some way. The game you are playing must have some internal consistency or the whole thing falls apart, and the group must agree on a balance of play that everyone has fun with. Otherwise the purpose of gaming falls apart.

When asked about game balance in games my answer has become, Yes, No and it depends. It is important but don’t let it kill the awesome, which you and your gaming group determine.