Balancing Strategy Games

Game Life Couch Game Design Blog Part 7

Beta is where the final touches are done on a game before release. For strategy games, many of you may know how difficult it is to balance hundreds, if not thousands, of variables. There are different sides with varying unit stats, typically, multiple resource systems, and gameplay mechanics that all need to come together to be fun. Again, there is so much value in getting fresh eyes on any game, and this is why public beta testing is so important.

Here are some tips to develop a fun, balanced strategy game:

  1. Start Big - Map out the scale of the game, the number of units, and the classifications of units. Strategy games are about giving pieces to players to use inside the confines of rules. Locking down the scale will help all of the following tips. Keep in mind that nothing is final until the game ships, but doing too much that doesn't ship is a waste of resources. Ideally, the 80/20 rule applies. In my experience, this is an ideal target and often not realistic but still an important metric to strive for in the interest of efficiency.
  2. Then Start Small - In game design, one often hears about the importance of game mechanics. First, yes, absolutely, game mechanics are critical in any game ... And yet game design is about an overall system of units, resources, and rewards and how game mechanics drive gameplay. So start small with the game mechanics: What kinds of battles, how many weapons per unit, what are the major units like, what is unique about sides, etc.  
  3. Fill out the Middle - For big, complex games, having good documentation is key to being efficient and being able to enjoy the fun at the end of production. Now that the scale and the mechanics are thought about and documented, the game features and, in particular, the mission and rewards will support the scale and game mechanics. All of the design done thus far starts to weave together into a cohesive game. 
  4. Full Design - After the full game is designed or in parallel, a robust, flexible editor needs to be created. In strategy games, the ability to quickly iterate and test stat changes is one of the primary drivers for success. Often, designers are not programmers, so having a data-driven editor will greatly speed up development and minimize errors. Keep in mind, it is common for earlier design elements to be massaged, changed, and even deleted depending on whether it still makes sense given all the game features. Tip: Scale is the hardest thing to keep in check, but be ruthless and over-design so one can have some room to cut.
  5. Stats - A little bit of statistics goes a long way. Use a funnel system by starting with high variance on numbers to see meaningful changes and then consistently bring the range down. For example, in Infinium Strike, large changes in the power of the turrets will result in very meaningful and observable changes in the chances of winning a mission. Making a laser that kills everything in one shot doesn't make sense, and over a few days of tweaking, the laser will become relatively just right.
  6. Set Baselines - Often, you will have 3 or more categories of stats. One should try to set a baseline with one, then the next, and then the next one. Baseline is defined as the target and is the best stats to date. Try to avoid too much of the "ping pong" effect where changing numbers throws everything off. Compartmentalize and test to verify a baseline before moving on. 

Hopefully these tips will help out your game.