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The Most Balanced Games

Please help me with a personal project. Tell me what you think "the most balanced games" are. Don't include sports. Stuff like Chess and Backgammon, while true, isn't that helpful either. These should be competitive multiplayer games that have demonstrated they hold up to high level play.

It seems like the games I'm looking for have to have the concept of different races/classes/characters/sides to qualify. Otherwise, it doesn't mean much to say something like Settlers of Catan is "balanced." It's a great game and all and we could study it to learn how to make a great game, but not really how to balance a competitive multiplayer game.
My nominations:

  • StarCraft
  • Fighting Games:
  • Street Fighter (Hyper Fighting and Super Turbo)
  • Virtua Fighter
  • Guilty Gear
  • Soul Calibur 1 (yeah, I said it)
  • Magic: The Gathering
  • Puzzle Fighter: HD Remix (??? I don't even know, but I can nominate it at least!)

StarCraft probably requires no explanation. Guilty Gear designed defensively by including many self-correcting balancing features, as well as lots of tuning over the many versions of the game. Virtua fighter has relatively low variety (compared to Guilty Gear) but extreme care has been taken over MANY iterations (over 14 versions of VF so far, maybe way more, I lost count). Soul Calibur 1's parry system does a lot to level the playing field, and it was pretty balanced in general anyway (SC2 and 3 maybe not so much and ruined by bugs on top of that).

Magic: The Gathering also has a defensive design with somewhat self-correcting balance. I realize this one is probably very controversial because there are times in the history of the game that it was pretty unbalanced, but I also lived through long periods where the so-called type 2 environment was healthy, had no banned cards, and a diverse set of viable decks at top-level play.

Does Counter-Strike belong here? Team Fortress 2? Halo? Enemy Territory?

Please add your own nominations.


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Reader Comments (6)

Hello, Sirlin. I understand that you consider Puzzle Fighter (HD) to be the best competitive puzzle game, but what about these competitive puzzle games:

Bomberman (Online, PC)
Bust-A-Move 4
Dr. Mario
Magical Drop 3
Puyo Puyo 2 Tsuu
Tetris (versus)
Tetris Attack
Twinkle Star Sprites

And what is your opinion on a good competitive racing game? Have you seen or played any that you have considered worthy?

November 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTarkanX

I don't think Bomberman is a puzzle game. Bust-a-move is not nearly as good as Puzzle Fighter because you can't plan as much. If you hesitate, your stuff gets covered up. In Puzzle Fighter, you can build against the enemy drop patttern and embed crash gems so that getting your stuff covered up is ok.

Some games on your list are ok, just not in the same category. I think Meteos is incredibly good and deserves special mention. It's a symmetric game though (can't play different characters versus each other) so that makes it a little less interesting, but excellent still.

Twinkle Star Sprites is the true gem of your list. Very well designed game and it is asymmetric (each player controls a different character with different moves). It has all the makings of being super great, I just don't know if it holds up to high level competition. It did hold up in all the intense battles I had, but I don't know if it's somehow broken at even higher levels.

November 16, 2008 | Registered CommenterSirlin


Starcraft certainly holds up well at the highest levels of play. It's worth mentioning, however, that the game has been balanced for about 10 years. This is "fair", and so for the most part I agree with Starcraft. However, from what I know about it and have been told about it, it tends to have a rock-paper-scissors element to it (each race is good at beating another race). Perhaps this disappears at the highest levels of play? But in general, I would frown upon this as being balanced in that Rock-paper-Scissors is trivially balanced (pick a random strategy and it's a tie in the long run).

I'm a big fan of the RTS genre, and I'm currently in Supreme Commander (Forged Alliance). While there is currently an issue with the new race, the Seraphim, the game seems to be otherwised balanced. It is true that it has not withstood super high levels of play like Starcraft. However, there are *so many options* in the game that I feel like it has to stand up. There are always unexpected moves to make; and in this way, Yomi Layers come into play, and also the advantage of keeping on the attack.

Perhaps you disagree with me. I am certainly biased! But, I would like your opinion on the matter. I tend to feel that the game has at least an appropriate structure for high balance, and were it given 10 popular years to balance, it would perform quite well.

November 16, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEvilmeat

I'm a bit late with the comment here but I want to mention one other balanced asymmetric game; Starfleet Battles. This is a hex based spaceship combat game that's been around for about thirty years now and played at a very high level of competitive play that entire time. Unbalanced scenarios are possible within the game system but the tournament scenarios and tournament ships undergo constant play and tuning to establish balance. These ships have a highly varied set of capabilities within a pretty complex rules system. It seems to me that the most balanced games are those which manage to maintain a active competitive community for a prolonged period of time and undergo iterative improvements during that period.

November 25, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterEthrunbal

What about games that are symmetrical at the outset, but create asymmetrical gameplay? I might be misattributing "asymmetrical" to the situations I am about to describe, but I still think they are similar and potentially useful for you to think about as a game designer.

In the deckbuilding game Ascension, each player has the exact same choices available to him at any one time--the choice to buy or defeat cards in the center row, an area similar to the pool of action cards in a game of Dominion. However, in Ascension, if a player buys a card or defeats a monster from the center row, that card is removed from the area, prohibiting his opponent from making the same choice, while a random card is drawn from the deck to replace it. I think this dynamic makes gameplay asymmetrical because early game decisions to specialize one's deck towards money or power, or recalibrating it numerous times over the course of a match change options that are viable as the game progresses. Player interaction, over time, creates decks that are much more unique than the ones found in Dominion, whose decks equate to ones that "chose correctly" (won) or "chose incorrectly" (lost) from the pool of action cards that was equally available to each player.

Another example is the board game Caylus. In traditional Eurogame fashion, the object of the game is to have the most points at the end of the game. However, there are many and varied ways to acquire points, and the asymmetrical aspect is that no two players may utilize a specific method of acquiring points in the same turn, or, if an exception is allowed, that each player receives a different amount of points. This system creates asymmetric gameplay similar to Ascension, in that players curate their options throughout the course of the game, building specialized resources that change the way subsequent turns are optimally handled from player to player.

I suppose a quick way to summarize these examples is by an abstract notion of "creating" the asymmetrical, pre-game choices you desire through the course of playing the game. In Ascension, I may not pick a Ryu or a Blanka before I begin, but in examining my deck at the end, it might appear that I had.

Does this help, any?

February 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNIck

Your examples are completely symmetric games. Asymmetric means you have different starting conditions. If you have the same starting conditions but during gameplay you gain various different advantages, cards, situations, etc, then it's absolutely symmetric. It's expected that there are moments of "local imbalance" during all games, so that's like a normal thing.

Any game, symmetric or asymmetric has to deal with those adding up to fun and non-degenerate gameplay. In an asymmetric game, those things also MUST be balanced equally against each other, which is a huge difficult task. Things that happen in the middle of a game don't need to be balanced at all against each other. For example, in a symmetric game of a first person shooter where we all start with the same pistol, and we can all pick up various DIFFERENT weapons, and if I have a certain weapon then you can't get it--those weapons need not be balanced. In fact, they should not be. It's completely fine if the rocket launcher is generally better than the shotgun because there is gameplay in us maneuvering to get one or the other of those weapons.

February 15, 2012 | Registered CommenterSirlin
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