Balancing Games

February 24th, 2024
When I play an N-player game I want everyone to both:

  • Try to win
  • Win about 1/N of the time

With many games and groups of participants these are in conflict: if I play bridge against my kids I'm going to win all the time, but I'm not very good at the game so if I play against people who are serious about it I'm going to lose ~all the time.

One way some games handle this is by including a lot of luck. The more random the outcomes are, the more you'll approach 1/N regardless of player skill. Kid games where you make no choices, like Candyland or War, take this to the extreme.

Instead, I think handicapping is a much better approach. For example in Go the weaker player can start with several stones already on the board, which gives them an advantage while still keeping it interesting and without turning it into a different-feeling game. When I was little and playing Go with my dad I remember slowly reducing the number of handicaps I needed over months, which was really rewarding: each game was fun and challenging, and I could see my progress.

Other examples:

  • In Dominion, changing the ratio of coppers to estates that each player starts with.

  • In Settlers of Catan, allowing weaker players to place both of their settlements before stronger ones.

  • In Power Grid, Monopoly, Modern Art, or anything else financial, letting weaker players start with more money.

  • In Ticket to Ride, Thurn und Taxis, Settlers of Catan, or anything else with resource cards, letting weaker players start with more cards.

I like it when games are designed in a way that makes this kind of adjustment easy and granular. You can calibrate by removing a handicap after the weaker player wins some number of games in a row (I think three is about right though it depends on granularity) and vice versa.

I'm curious, though: why isn't this more common? It's very normal in Go, mostly of historical interest in chess, and in most game cultures I'm around it seems like the expectation is just that weaker players will just lose a lot or or stronger players will "go easy" on them? Is it that acknowleging that some players are stronger than others is awkward? Too hard to calculate for games with more than two players?

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