October 3, 2010

The Balancing Act, Part 1: Balance vs. Proportion in game encounter decks

Adding new (not replacement) cards to any game deck for random draws changes both the proportion and balance. These two terms don’t mean the same thing, though balance is often thought of as little more than the proportion of card types and subtypes in a deck. But both proportion and balance must be addressed separately and then interactively, or additions to a deck (commercial or fan made) will throw off the way the game plays.

It’s one thing to purposefully change either of these to create a controlled effect overall; it is another to alter either haphazardly. The latter approach can make one’s efforts futile when players discover their game has changed in ways they didn’t expect and weren’t mentioned in the expansion’s documentation. This is especially so for the Talisman Adventure deck or like decks in other games, such as the encounter decks for Runebound.

Sticking to Talisman as an example, proportion is about the count of card types and subtypes in a deck… the rough classification of the types of encounters. It certainly does have some influence on game play, but it doesn’t deal with the details. An increased proportion of Enemies vs. other card types can produce increased occurrences of combat, possibly with an overall change in difficulty and toughness (again, two terms that do not mean the same thing). Since most of Talisman is about killing things (and gaining stuff), that might seem okay… unless it produces a deck where that which is killed is too often a character… or too often the Enemies. Both are undesirable outside of controlled intent and can make any level of developer look bad.

Balance is a whole separate matter and the most often ignored aspect of designing additions to a deck. It is regularly mistaken as just an issue of proportioning card (sub) types, or at best the distribution of potency in built-in game opponents, like Talisman’s Enemy cards. Balance is actually about the total influence that all cards have upon play through statistical advantages and disadvantages, benefits and deficits, challenges and opportunities collectively, regardless of — but in conjunction with — card (sub)type proportions.

The difficulty here is that balance is harder to achieve than proportion. It takes time to do a statistical inventory of a standard deck as a baseline for designing an addition. And it assumes that the original deck is balanced and has functional proportionality as well.

Further complicating it is that not all of the statistics are easily judged. Sure, anybody can look at the count of different Enemies, note their Strength and/or Craft, and attempt to emulate the high and low, the distribution along the range, the median, and the average. But what about how many and how potent are the bonuses the deck offers to characters for going up against Enemies that come up? Are the benefits conditional, permanent, semi-permanent, or one time uses?  And so on.

Few people dig this deep when they make new cards, and I for one only use fan cards (or commercial ones) where it is evident the creator has done the deep work. In some expansions, it quickly becomes evident when a deck addition is little more than a fanciful hodgepodge that was given little, if any, of this type of scrutiny. Worse still are the additions so obviously randomized in an effort to hide a lack of strategy in that inherent chaos.

Both proportion and balance must be addressed correctly to balance any addition to a deck. To do one and not the other is like playing poker when the Two of Hearts has been replaced with another Ace of Hearts. The proportions of the suits are the same, but obviously the deck’s balance has been changed.

This is something I always keep in mind in any additions to game decks that I create. I can’t say I’m an expert at it, or even good at it, or even get it right at all. But I hope that in taking the time to try, the end product might get closer to acceptable.  For now I’ll leave off and, in the next part of this topic’s sequence, we’ll look deeper into the issue of balance, since proportion is the easy done-to-death side and needs little discussion.

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