Balancing Game Elements: A Worked Example

[This is a re-post of an article I wrote in my game design blog in 2016]

I’ve been working on Harvest lately, an upcoming TMG title in the Harbour universe (side note: watch Harbour on season 4 of TableTop with Wil Wheaton!).

Here’s the description of Harvest from BGG:

Mind the fields of Gullsbottom! Plant and fertilize your seeds, tend your crops, and utilize the various buildings at your disposal. You’ll need to work smarter, not harder, as harvest season is coming to an end! Who will have the best harvest this year? Will it be you?

Each round in Harvest, you first draft turn order (and the benefits that come with it), then send your two workers into town and into the fields. Plant seeds, tend fields, and harvest crops to make room to plant some more! Utilize buildings and magical elixir to amass a bigger and better harvest than your neighbors at the end of five rounds of play.

Harvest is a worker placement game where you first reveal worker cards (spaces that will only be available this round), then draft turn order (the later you go in turn order, the bigger the bonus you receive), then place your workers and take the associated actions. In developing this game I’ve been working with the designer to figure out the appropriate power level of the actions in the game — both the standard spaces on the town board, as well as the value of the worker cards, and the buildings you can build. As that’s mostly accomplished, lately we’ve been working on the power level and balance of various characters you can play in the game.

At several points during this process I’ve been reminded of an article I wrote back in January 2014 called Balancing Game Elements… re-reading it now I think that might be the best game design article I’ve ever written. It continues to hold true today, as I have been using the same process to balance the elements of Harvest.

You see, a major benefit of working this way, finding an average value for an element (say, the buildings in Harvest) which incorporates all the costs and benefits of that element including opportunity costs, is that it leaves you with only one variable when designing things that interact with that element. This makes it relatively easy to determine things like the value of an action which gives you that element.

By way of example

Without knowing anything about the game it may be difficult to give you a concrete example, but I’ll try:

In Harvest, there’s a town board that has 3 main areas that offer a variety of different effects or resources. Each of these areas has a “Choose 2” space (letting you get any 2 of the things on offer in that area) which is limited to 1 worker, and a “Choose 1” space (letting you get just 1 thing) which is unlimited. In addition, each round you’ll turn up a number of worker cards which have more action spaces on them. The value each of these spaces confers is defined as follows:

  • Choose 1 space: 1-2 units
  • Choose 2 space: 2-3 units
  • Worker card space: 3-5 units

So ideally you’d prefer to take a worker card space first, a Choose 2 space next, and a Choose 1 space only if you had no other option, just based on the value of stuff you would get.

However, the game is not quite that straightforward. A space that’s technically worth 5 value might only be worth 3 to you because you can’t use all of it’s benefits at the moment. So there are plenty of times that a Choose 2 space is just as good if not better for you than a worker card space. Very seldom do I want a player to choose a Choose 1 (default, fallback) space over a worker card space though.

Note that these values are sort of average values, and they may depend on your situation and whether or not you can make full use of the resources you get from these actions.

That said, there are buildings in the game which can confer abilities, one-shot resources, or an end game scoring bonus. There is a wide variety of buildings, with 6 face up to choose from at a time, each supporting various strategies. It’s difficult to evaluate exactly how much each of these buildings is worth, which is where my Balancing Game Elements post comes in handy. If you read that post, you know that step 2 in the process involves choosing a desired power level for the elements and designing the elements to be worth about that much. I’m currently choosing to assign a value the buildings in Harvest at “4”. This means that I’m targeting an average value of 4, some buildings will be worth a little more or a little less, depending on whether you can utilize them to full effect or not.

One of the things you can get from the town board, an action that’s always available, is building a building. So, if the buildings are worth 4, and the default “choose 1” space is supposed to be worth 1-2, and you can use that default space to build a building… then it follows that there should be a cost of 2 to use the build action on the town board. Also, if the worker card spaces are supposed to be worth 3-5, then perhaps one that just allows you to build a building for no cost is appropriate. Simple math, which can be applied because I wrapped all the variables into the valuation of the buildings.

Now, I may be incorrect in that evaluation. If I’ve over- or under-valued the buildings then that should show up in playtesting a players recognize and either ignore or capitalize on the imbalance. If that turns out to be the case, then I can easily re-evaluate them and adjust the actions that allow you to build accordingly. Let’s say I significantly overestimated the value of buildings, and that they should really be worth only 2. In that case the standard build action on the town board should not cost anything, and a worker card that allows you to build should also come with 1-3 value worth of more stuff. Similarly, if I’d under-valued buildings and they are really worth an average of 6, then the standard build action should cost more, and the worker cards that allow you to build might also need some kind of cost.

An alternative to tweaking the actions is to make an editing pass at the buildings, either powering them up or down until they are more closely averaging the targeted value of 4, which would then justify the cost of the town board and the worker cards.

Hopefully that makes sense, and indicates the usefulness of incorporating all of the costs and benefits (including opportunity costs) into the value of the game element itself (in this case the buildings), rather than trying to think about things separately.

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