Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The curse of Brit-like games: play balance

After a partial session of Arthuria on Thursday, I am reminded once again how bloody difficult it is to get balanced sides in a Britannia-like game. On the basis of one playing, many people will say that Britannia itself is unbalanced--then pick any one of the colors to be one that has a big advantage or disadvantage--but we know from statistics that it is in fact quite well-balanced. Part of that is a result of what I call the invisible hand, the way the four players interact to keep someone from running away with the victory, and the way experienced players know what they need to do. You can bet that even those players when they first played the game did not know whether it made sense to attack Caledonians early in the game or whether the Welsh should fight tooth and nail rather than submit, and so on. (And some groups come up with different answers to those questions.) Playtesting a new game, there's none of that experience base to draw on. But given the length of games of this type it is pretty hard to get people together to play again and again, at least for me where I live.

My original sides in Britannia were slightly different than the ones published. And despite several occasions when I've tried to find another set of four with the current forces in points that would be balanced, I have not found any that are satisfactory. The game has to be tweaked to fit the sides.

For some of my prototype games I think I've got pretty good sides; for others it seems like every time there's a playtest, something's lopsided. The trick is not to overreact. Arthuria was originally designed to have players draft their nations. But I quickly decided you can have players doing that when they have no idea of how the game's going to go, which is why I'm trying to figure out a set of sides. *Shakes head*.


Peer said...

One Question out of curiosity: If the players haver to do certain things t prevent - say - the blue player to win, does that mean the game is balanced or unbalanced?

Lewis said...

I suppose it depends on what "have to" means. In most games that aren't multiplayer solitaire, you will often have to do certain things to prevents others from winning. For example, the Romans are going to make the Belgae submit. And the Belgae are going to do their best to slaughter Romans when Boudicca comes along. (I've seen games where people experimented with peace between Belgae and Romans after the Belgae submitted; they decided not to repeat the experiment. Though either side could conceivably win with this strategy, it reduced the chances of success.)

Peer said...

It was just that Im intrigued about your "invisible Hand"-comment. Its clear that people will fight themselves. Its also clear that if the black player wouldnt play the danish it would be unbalanced and not in his favor.
But for the sake of the argument lets pretend there would be the "Martians" which would be an incredible strong group. It would be only be possible to stop that player from gaining a mass of points if all other players concentrate and gang up on him. If they do it the player would come out a bit less then euqal to the other players. if Not he will win.
Is the game balanced? If not - where would you draw the line? How much can you (or any designer) rely on the invisible hand?

Lewis said...

Good question. In that sense virtually no turn-based game is balanced; there may be an advantage to moving first (or last) even with symmetric forces (chess allows a great advantage to first-mover).

So all we're trying to do is to get the situation to a point that reasonable players will sometimes act to pull back the leader even when it is not in their immediate interest (as in, scoring points this turn) to do so. We don't want "too much" leader bashing, nor "too much" multiplayer solitaire.