The common wisdom about game balance–that it only matters for top-level players–is incorrect. It is true that balance is more important to the outcome in matches between highly skilled players than it is when newer players compete. However, balance has a far greater impact on fun for weaker players than it does for stronger ones. Both groups benefit from balance and are hurt by its absence.
“Balance” is a tricky word in game design. It sweeps in a lot of issues and discussions about different types of games that arguably shouldn’t be directly compared. Here, I’m talking about balance in initial choices: between characters in Street Fighter, champions in League of Legends, interstellar empires in Twilight Imperium, and other situations where players select a set of capabilities before the conflict begins.
Players of these games often argue that balance is only important at high levels of play. The argument goes something like this: in games between low- to mid-skill players, the difference in ability between the players decides who wins. Slight advantages in one’s choice of character/champion/empire are swamped by relative skill. It’s only when both players are quite good that those slight advantages matter.
The flaw in that position is that it assumes balance only affects winning. It also plays a role in determining how much fun the players have. For experienced players the role is smaller. With new and less skilled players, however, balance can be the single determining factor in whether or not they enjoy the game.
Top players, in my experience, derive most of their fun from developing mastery. They like exploring the game, understanding it, practicing it, and demonstrating the skill they gain thereby. Whether they do that with this character or that empire doesn’t matter as much as the play and the results.
I can’t think of a better example of this than Mike Flores’ view of Caw-Blade. For those who don’t play Magic: the Gathering, Caw-Blade was early 2011’s dominant tournament deck. “Dominant” can’t be emphasized enough; Caw-Blade won again and again and again, sweeping all competition before it. In its day Caw-Blade was the only reasonable choice for what to play in a tournament.
Mike Flores, a well-known Magic player with a history of tournament success and writer of many influential articles, loved the Caw-Blade environment. He conceded that Caw-Blade was by far the best deck–but, he pointed out, Caw-Blade vs. Caw-Blade games were extremely skill-intensive and rewarded good play. It didn’t matter to him that there was only one valid deck, because that deck enabled players to show their stuff.
Newer and less practiced players, however, often have neither the experience nor the mindset to mitigate balance issues. They don’t know what the good choices are, and if they find out may not feel able to switch to them. As a result, these players can have frustrating experiences when they encounter high-level play.
This dynamic played out very clearly in the old Star Wars miniatures game. If a player did not have a plan for the “Black-and-Blue” strategy, or really wanted to play the Mandalorians even though they were weak, he or she could lose games in rock-paper-scissors fashion even against an opponent of equal skill. High-level players, and those aspiring to that status, took note of the imbalances and moved on; others just got aggravated.
To be fair, the differences in power between SWM pieces was stark. Games with smaller imbalances are less likely to produce these joyless situations. Even small imbalances, however, can build into commanding leads over time–especially in casual games between friends, where everyone involved is a repeat player and streaks are likely to be noticed.
Balance affects which top-level player wins. However, it can also affect which lower-level player has fun. Thus, balance shouldn’t be seen as irrelevant to new players and the lower ranks on the ladder. It’s important to these groups in different ways, but it’s important to all of them.