It doesn’t matter if the game is balanced
Recently I’ve begun testing a new game that I’ve designed. The feedback has been so overwhelmingly positive that I’ve decided to fast track its production. That said, very early on its design I hit a rough spot with the scoring. You see each time I played it with four people one of those four would always make a comment like “I can’t win.” about half way through the game. This wasn’t always the case mind you, but the player honestly felt like they couldn’t win, so I would explain to them how they could win. As it turned out if they said that, then odds were in favor they weren’t going to win, but they still had a chance. At first this didn’t bother me a lot because the math said everything was balanced tightly, people still could come back from that position, and it was a short game running about 20 minutes. (The current version runs about 30 minutes.) However, as I continued to test it with people that comment seemed to pop up every single game. Eventually, I had to face facts 25% of my players weren’t having fun about half way through the game. It didn’t matter how much the math told them they were wrong, if they weren’t having fun, then the balance meant squat. I did eventually find an alternate scoring systems that did a good job of removing that feeling while making sure that the right amount of skill and luck determined the winner. I was able to keep the balance, and to be honest the game is a lot better for it.
As tough of a pill as it is to swallow, with game design, the final truth is what the players feel while they play the game is what truly matters. There are games that are fairly dull or uninspired, in my opinion, but if 90% of the people who play those games are having fun, then that’s all that matters right? I mean perception trumps game balance is the point I’ve been making this whole time, right? I mean I said as much in this article’s title.
Well, the article title is only telling half of the story. As I’ve said in previous posts when I play a game if the theme is awesome, but the rules are bad, then the game very obviously suffers. If the theme is boring, but the rules are good, then the game still suffers, but in a different way. If you can have an awesome theme, and awesome rules, then you cast the widest net possible, and maximize enjoyment. It’s why I design fusion games (games that use American type themes, and lighter Euro style mechanics), and why I prefer to play fusion games. Everyone at the table is likely to enjoy those games more than the games that are only American type or only Euro type.
In the same way, a game that isn’t balanced, but feels fun or balanced isn’t as strong as a game that is both balanced and fun. In the end you need both to make the best game possible.