Game balance exhaustion

balanceYou know what is an unfun process? Trying to balance a game, specifically this one :) You would think by now, after years and development, this game is relatively balanced. And in the sense of “it’s symmetrical, so everyone has the same resources”, you’d be correct.
Where the problem really comes into play is when one strategy dominates the game. This has been especially noticeable in the Battle to Seattle campaign. Initially two posses were focused heavily on rifles. But in yesterdays game the third posse reworked a bit to also try to focus on rifles. In the end this meant 3 players independently decided to bring 300kW Twin Rifles and build a similar character to wield it.
Now this is not technically unbalanced on it’s own, since everyone could buy the same rifle and use the same stats. Where the unbalance and problem comes in is that’s not how I intended the game to be. I never meant for each game to devolve into a “sniper match” where everyone lines up and doesn’t move very much. I figured the mechanics and choices supported this, such as having tons of pistols to choose from and dinosaurs that are only effective up close. But what actually ended up happening is a sniper “arms race”.
You might have heard the term “kill your darlings”, which basically means don’t just coddle an idea because you spent a long time on it. But what’s really hard is killing someone elses darling (which sounds really dark and morbid). What I mean is the initial rifle users enjoyed shooting at long ranges and outdistancing everyone. But because the game isn’t designed around that, it sort of has to change or go.

A few important points have come out of this:

1. Neodollars on their own are not enough of a balancing mechanic. A lot of guns are priced $10-$20 different from each other, with the idea that each player will be strapped for cash. What actually ends up happening is everyone buys the biggest gun they can, regardless of price, and based purely on the stats, and then just builds a posse around that. Either that or they get flush with enough cash, such as halfway through the campaign where we have $1500-$2000 to throw around, and then money is no object. Armor suffers from the same problem, which is why I had to add a Speed penalty to try to balance, because money alone is not enough.

2. Skirmish games are actually pretty hard to balance and to prevent a dominant strategy, especially in a smaller play group. If a strategy doesn’t have a valid counter besides one-upping the same strategy, that’s a problem. But all this thought on balance brought me back to thinking of Mordheim and Necromunda. Now that I think about it people always complained about the balance in Mordheim, saying mass slings were overpowered, armor was too expensive, etc. That is basically the whole idea of the Coreheim fan project. I’d like to be able to achieve a playing field where most combinations of weapons work and are feasible.

3. Playtesting on your own is not enough. It’s like quality assurance for software in some ways. Subconsciously I think when I playtested I might have thought rifles were overpowered, so I tended to keep just 1 in a posse instead of having that be the focus. Similarly…

4. I need more terrain. Now that we have two 3’x4′ games going simultaneously (which was awesome by the way) I realize I need more terrain. I was happy with the amount of terrain I had for ONE such board, but two just means everything is spread way, way too thin. I’m going to try to get my friend to bring over his terrain which should help build some line-of-sight blocking avenues. I think this has helped demonstrate the power of rifles when you can get a pretty clear shot right up to your max range.

So what to do?
Well, tweak. Try to bring rifles to a point where they are support weapons, instead of basically high damage weapons that are always shooting you from further than you can shoot. My ideal situation is a midrange battle in the center of the table, since there are the most guns available at that range, it gives some leeway for close combat to happen, etc. But due to point #3 above I think I overlooked rules and weapons that prevented this from happening. It’s tough because even when I try to build a posse different than what I normally do, I still feel like deep down it’s influenced by my play style and choices.
Which is why public playtests are great, and also why this longer running campaign with friends is perfect. The one-off games we’ve done in the past normally had prebuilt posses from me, so there was sort of a natural balance. Whereas now it’s “winner take all” and everyone understands the building rules well enough to capitalize on any holes or flaws in the rules.

A good related quote from “The Art of Game Design” on balance:
“…balancing a game is nothing more than adjusting the elements of the game until they deliver the experience you want.”
So in summary right now a sniper arms race is not the type of gameplay I envisioned for Dinosaur Cowboys.

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