Game Balance Is Overrated

I recently wrote this bit on a private mailing list. Jeff Tidball saw it and asked me to repost it over at in the discussion about Things We Think About Games, the game-ruminations book he and Will Hindmarch put together. Which I did. And so I thought I’d post it here as well. I’m interested to hear what you think.

Game balance is completely overrated.

People conflate balance with fairness all the time. They are not the same thing. If you’re all playing by the same rules and with the same pieces, the game is just as fair to every player.

By that, I don’t mean that you shouldn’t have a game that’s roughly balanced, nor that you shouldn’t try to root out the bits that throw a game completely off the rails. However, if all choices are always optimal (i.e. equally good), than what’s the point of playing?

Games should have their rough spots, their peaks and valleys in the mathematical sheet of balance. They should be crunchy, not smooth, filled with secret caves of hidden knowledge for players to discover, ponder, and exploit.