Players Define the Game and its Balance

I’ve rattled around the idea for an article like this for quite some time but I wasn’t sure how to put it together. I’m still not sure it’s going to be put together well but at least I finally have a direction for it so we’ll see where this goes.

If there’s one fundamental thing I’ve learned with a lifetime of gaming it’s that a game is only as good as the players. A game is only ever as balanced as the players allow it to be. Now, that’s a pretty broad statement. There are some games, some systems, that are inherently more balanced than others and I do not argue that. However, even the most balanced of games can be ruined by the players and then that carefully crafted balance accounts for nothing in the eyes of a player.

Let’s take chess as an example. Chess is considered a balanced game as both players are given the same pieces to play with. Let’s say I’m a new player wanting to learn chess and I find someone to teach me. The person teaching me decides to just destroy me in a few turns and continues to do it game after game. He’s not trying to teach me, instead he’s taking it as an opportunity to just win games. Here I am playing a balanced game and having a negative experience because of a player. In turn I might come to hate the game. It’s not the fault of the game that I dislike it, it’s the fault of the person teaching me the game, but it doesn’t matter at that point because of my horrible experience with the game.

Chess
I bet this guy is a very nice chess instructor.

I also find that within balanced games there exists room for aggravation just as with any game. It’s not that something is unbalanced but that a player chooses to play the game in a certain way that annoys other players. Maybe with chess it’s that the player always opens the same way every single game. With an FPS game it could be that some guy always camps in the same spot all the time. The reasons are limitless really. These people aren’t breaking the game but they might be ruining your experience, making the game less fun.

On the other hand, really great players can make the most mundane games fun and give balance to a game that has little of it through shared expectations. Every game has flaws, some larger than others, but if you can play with like-minded individuals then you can have an amazing time regardless. My fondest memories gaming have always been with games that are far from perfect but played with the right people. If you find a community that shares your view on what makes a game fun then even the most unbalanced game becomes balanced because you all want the same experience out of the game.

As I said, my greatest memories come from games that aren’t necessarily balanced and often times it’s because of that. I personally find games that are perfectly balanced dull and predictable. I know how to play chess; I played it for years and years but it’s just boring to me. There isn’t much that can’t be predicted if you’re a good enough player. Your opponent may surprise you but ultimately it’s a game of finite moves and strategies. Games that don’t aim for perfect balance I find offer more creativity in how they are played and are seemingly limitless in potential. It’s the creativity that makes it interesting to me and offers the players a way to play their own way and not in a defined manner. The caveat being it also opens the game up to exploits and undesired player behavior. Again, this is why finding the right community of players to enjoy a game with is crucial.Game Balance

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My whole point with this is that people should not judge a game by its rules but by the experience you have with the game amongst those you play with. The most amazing game ever invented could draw a huge crowd of douchebags and ruin it for everyone else. Who cares it’s the best game ever created when your fun comes second to your opponent’s desire to win? Why does it matter that the game you enjoy has some serious balance issues and the internet rages about it amongst a competitive community you don’t even participate in? Do you like the game? Do you enjoy playing it with your friends? Good because that’s all that matters despite what anyone else says.

 

  • Lots of interesting points here and for the most part I agree the only point I’d disagree on is about getting beaten up on when learning chess I think that’s the only way to learn the game you ahvd to see all the ways to lose before you can start to win its certainly how I learned and every defeat made me more determined to get better at the game also you learn so much more from being beaten by a better player than you ever do from a win

    • There’s a difference though between learning through defeat and a teacher who doesn’t teach but instead takes it as an opportunity to simply win a game. That’s what I was trying to illustrate. Maybe I should clarify that point. I do agree about learning that way though.

      • This. All of this. Well said Thor.

  • Zab

    HOW dare you put the onus on the players to have fun and find balance! HOW DARE YOU?! The games must be fully developed supported and played exactly as intended by the companies who have made them with absolutely no room for interpretation or the chance for them to take on a life of their own. I will miss you. The tidal wave of nerd rage will likely scour you from the interwebz altogether o_O

    • Meh. I don’t get enough traffic to warrant a scouring, though some may try. But yeah, how dare I expect people to define their own enjoyment instead of it being handed to them? My audacity is astounding! ;)

  • Castigator

    I disagree that people shouldn’t judge a game by its rules. If the rules were utter rubbish, then no one would play ;-) …..but I also agree with your point about it being the players that make the game.
    40k is an odd fish, it can be many things to many people. One of its strengths of being an open ended game that allows players to explore the grim dark future, is also one of its short-comings, as a competitive tournament game it is open to abuse.
    Ever since 3rd edition (Tournaments didn’t really get going until 3rd) 40k has been split into two camps, the fluff bunnies and the power gamers.
    The power gamer’s biggest focus is on squeezing every advantage from their army to give them the best possible chance of victory. The fluff bunnies biggest focus is on the game’s background, eschewing obviously powerful units in order to stay ‘true’ to their army’s background. When the two meet it’s understandable that neither type of player will enjoy the game that much. To complicate matters further, my experience has shown that a player is rarely one type or the other. Most fluff bunnies still want to compete and most power gamers still want their army to be a recognisable faction from the 40k universe. Obviously this is simplifying the two ‘camps’ somewhat, I won’t go into fluff bunnies playing the game as an RPG or power gamers seeing it more as a sport, needless to say, everybody plays 40k for their own experiences.
    Unfortunately, because 40k is such a niche hobby, it can be difficult to meet or play regularly against like minded people. Those cool open-ended rules can quickly become a problem when that is the case. It’s easy to play the blame game, fluff bunny blames the power gamer for not playing it his way, the power gamer blames the fluff bunny for not playing it his way, GW blames the players for not forging the narrative. Nobody is wrong, we all play for our own reasons, it’s just unfortunate when the game becomes a one-sided slaughter-fest that neither player enjoys.
    As a tournament game I think 40k has gone backwards, the rules are too convoluted and I think the Battle Brothers rule has turned the game into ‘bring whatever toys you want,’ which is great marketing for GW but can be disheartening for someone who wants more structure in a competitive environment.
    Fortunately for me, I have a few like-minded mates to game with, so as a beer and pretzel game, I think 7th is great.

    • Well, you get my point. The rules alone do not define the game. Obviously better rules are better but better rules also don’t make for a great game either. It’s all very subjective and really up to the players as far as what they want to get out of the game, be it a competitive game or a casual one; hence finding a like-minded community either way.

      40K At tournaments I can see as a mess right now. I, however, do not attend tournaments outside of at my LGS so how 7th impacts Nova is of no concern to me. Same thing with the potential abuse of certain armies. Yet, where I play the people are more casual and the threat of exploiting a codex is irrelevant.

      I just grow very tired of seeing pissing and moaning about X or Y. Often times the complaining is just to complain and those people aren’t even going to encounter the crap they bitch about. If it doesn’t apply to you then just stop bitching. Not you personally of course, generalizing here. And if you do run into the stuff you don’t want to see then find another group to play with instead of crying about it.

      • Castigator

        I agree Thor, it’s just finding like minded opponents can sometimes be difficult so I can understand peoples disillusionment.
        That said, I can relate to being fed up of all the negativity out there. The internet can be a vitriolic and miserable place, fortunately there are a few sites (like this one) that celebrate the hobby rather than try to drag it down.

        • Thanks.

          40K is, and always has been, a beer and pretzels kind of game. The problem is that people try to make it something it’s not and then complain when it doesn’t work. Some rule sets made it easier for competition, like 5th, but it has still never been the goal of the game and to think otherwise is just ignorance.

          • The only problem with 5th was it was soooo boring. It was just the same lists repeated over and over again, with little to no variety. Now we have nearly endless variety. It’s pretty rare to come across the same lists, even in a massive GT.

            One thing that many don’t realize, is the GT’s self filter themselves. As your overall ranking is determined by your win/loss setup, if you bring a less competitive list, you’ll lose a few games, then end up in the “mid pack” or lower pack, where you are playing someone in the same skill level and mindset.

            So even a fluffy player can go to a GT and still have a good time, as long as they don’t mind being steam rolled once or twice (out of 8 games).

            • It was only boring by its virtue of being the most balanced rules and in turn it becoming the competitive edition of the game and thus everyone spamming the same shit and net lists being the norm. It wasn’t the rules that made it boring, just the player mentality.

  • Berman

    Love the article. I agree a game is only a tool used to have a good time with great company. Fortunately I came into miniature games from D&D. An unbalanced game if you ever saw one. That said both sides (players/DM) work together to create balanced encounters so everyone has a good time. 40k feels the same way to me. Players should have a conversation with each other before coming to the table. An experienced player should help a less skilled player to tighten his list allowing him to learn to play better without his own list building mistakes undermining his ability to play better. At the same time the better player can build his list to be softer creating balance between the two. A stronger player with a weaker list vs a weaker player with a stronger list.
    Unfortunately doing this kind of thing requires more knowledge of both yourself and your opponent than most players get. Myself included unless I have a regular opponent, something life this last year has been getting in the way of.

    • Very true.

      The problem, as you said, is not having that knowledge ahead of time as to who you’re facing and really that’s where a lot of whining comes from. It’s expected you could walk into a store and play a game against anyone fairly. Admittedly 40K makes that a bit hard at times but it’s not a big deal if you aren’t creating super cheesy lists.

  • great article Thor. I agree that it is the players who make or break the game. A bit part of the reason I never got into FPS is that every time I tried I wouldn’t last a second – very discouraging and I completely disagree with Dragons_Claw’s comment – if you are constantly getting beat, I don’t learn, I get discouraged and find something better to do.
    This is why I would much rather play pickup games of 40k with people at the store rather than play a tourney, the people are there to hang out and have a fun game, not screw you with what ever rules, mods, or army is the hot stuff right now.

    • Learning through defeat is extremely valuable. It really comes down to the person defeating you. When I teach players I don’t let them win for the sake of winning. I also don’t go out of my way to defeat them; I’ll pull some punches. What I will do though is explain the reason for their defeat. What they could have done better. Not everyone is this way though and some just enjoy winning regardless of their opponent’s enjoyment. Those are the people who can turn a great game into something terrible.

      • You are a rare breed Thor. I agree that you can learn more from a failure than a success, but at least for me, too many failures can lead to frustration. When someone like you turns the loss into a learning opportunity and gives encouragement, it goes a long way to make a rough game into something fun.

        • Post game chat is something we all do where I play. After a game we talk about our mistakes, what we should have done better, etc. Talking to your opponent like that right after a game is really the best way to learn. I couldn’t imagine playing a game and then just walking away after.

          • Berman

            Oh yeah the post game chat is the best. Do it at all the tournaments as well. As to getting frustrated, it also depends on how you are loosing. If it was a blow out from the get go that can be very disheartening. But a tight game up to the end can be more invigorating to loose than winning a blow out. Those moments the game swings and your left cheering yourself or your opponent are the best.

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