Walking the Wire: Designing for Competition
In any genre of gaming, video or tabletop, there is competitive play. This segment of gaming can be very successful, due to the near-ubiquity attained by the top competitive games; look at classics like Texas Hold'em Poker or Starcraft, or even relative newcomers like Overwatch and Hearthstone. However, designing a good competitive game isn't easy, and desining one that is still fun to play is even harder.
When setting out to design, the first step is to decide just how competitive the game will be. Some games exist primarily to entertain, with not much regard to points; these are often called party games. Cards Against Humanity is a current top player in this segment, and an excellent example of this technique. The points in CAH mostly just determine the length of the game; a winner is eventually chosen, yes, but little focus is placed on winning. Since white cards are randomly dealt to players, and then black cards are chosen randomly from the deck, very little strategy can be used to develop a 'winning' technique. Instead, the major focus on the game is to foster player interaction and create comedy for the entertainment of the group.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are hypercompetative games. These games are often characterized by very little randomness, identical starting positions for both players, and an emphasis on deep strategy. They are often very abstract, with little or no theme, and provide entertainment to the player in the form of complex player-verses-player competition. An excellent example of this type of game is speed chess. The only difference between the starting state of the two players is who plays first, and throughout the game, there is no hidden information other than the strategy forming in the heads of the players. It is a game focused on extreme skill and deep knowledge of the game.
Most other games find themselves somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, providing some competitive elements while still allowing for enough variation in the game to be interesting to casual players. There is no such thing as a perfect balance here; it is up to the designer of the game to decide how heavily they want to focus on competition versus casual play.
If competition is the focus, the most important aspect of the game is balance. No part of the game should overshadow the others, and if multiple strategies are possible, no one strategy should have a distinct advantage over the others. Balance is the primary issue faced by major competitive games such as Magic: The Gathering or League of Legends. To keep the game interesting and fresh, new features are added to these games every year, however, making sure that these new features don't massively alter the game is no small feat. Balance is tricky to achieve, and even trickier when trying to balance new ideas with older ones from a previous edition of a game.
It may seem like the best way to balance a game is to simply remove all variability so that all players start in the same position, like Go or the aforementioned Chess, but this comes at a hefty price. Games that are always the same tend to have little staying power in a a competitive game market. Buyers demand games that will provide a unique experience on every play; otherwise, they will quickly lose interest. The balance problem is nontrivial, but it can be effectivly managed.
To use the previous example, Magic: The Gathering handles the balance issue with multiple approaches. First and foremost, they playtest. Massive amounts of time and resources are expended by Wizards of the Coast to play every single card in every single set in as many different scenarios they possibly can. Significant thought is put into imagined scenarios as well, with designers focusing on card combinations that could become too powerful in specific scenarios.
After internal testing is over and the set is ready for release, the next balance tool comes into play: formats. MtG is designed with a variety of formats to play, each with their own unique idea of balance. The primary format, Standard, only allows for the use of cards from a certain number of recent sets to be used, limiting the number of cards that any given new set must be compatible with. More restricted formats like Limited and Booster Draft need only be balanced with other cards of the same set, and prevent players from seeking only the best legal cards to build their decks with by limiting them to a random selection of the cards in the set, weighted by rarity (and usually quality). On the other end of the spectrum are formats like Legacy and Vintage, which allow players to use cards from a much larger swath of Magic's card library. These formats include much, much more powerful cards, but also come with a player expectation of a less controlled environment, so less focus is placed on balance.
The final safeguard against unbalanced play is also the least frequently used: the ban list. Sometimes, designers make mistakes. Maybe they didn't foresee a certain combo with another card, or maybe they just didn't realize how strong that combo would be. Regardless of the reasons why, sometimes a single card is just too good for the game. If this happens, it might end up on the ban list, meaning that its use is restricted to fewer copies per deck than normal, or even banning it from the format entirely. Each format maintains its own ban list, so cards that are too strong in one format might be just fine in another. While banning is generally a bad thing, it is a very important tool for a game like MtG. No one is perfect, and mistakes are bound to be made over time by even the best developers, so being able to recognize and fix those mistakes as quickly as possible is critically important to fostering a player community.
Balancing a game for competitive play is never easy, but it is possible. As we construct and design new games, we must always be focused on our goals: How competitive do I want this game to be? Where does the primary aspect of fun come from? If it is competitive, is it balanced? If it is balanced, is it still interesting?
The better we can answer these questions, the more players will want to play our games, no matter what kind of players they are.
--Dakota W. Winslow