Here's an episode of Extra Credits about "Perfect Imbalance" on Penny Arcade. While I appreciate that the topic of game balance is getting covered, I don't think the arguments hold up.
First it makes these two points, which I agree with:
1) The two sides in Chess are similar enough that we can call the game symmetric. ALSO, Chess requires a huge amount of memorization to play, and he wishes that you could play in a more adaptive way and have memorization be less important.
2) Starcraft requires a huge amount of APM click speed to play at a high level, and only players who are super great at that really get to innovate in the strategy space (also bad players playing against bad players can get away with more strats). He wishes that thinking about new strategies had more relative importance to the common player than high APM does.
I have posted and spoken many times about those exact two issues, so I agree. But there is then some strange leap lof logic happens. The problem of how "solved" parts of those games can feel at times is claimed to be BECAUSE they are well-balanced. The problems involved are actually 0% because the games are well-balanced. Well-balanceness is a wonderful property and should not be blamed for these problems.
Chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer also agreed that Chess had become too rigid and that memorization played too large of a role. He wanted Chess to be a game that reward moment-to-moment decisions more, strokes of genius more, adaptability more, even general grasp of fundamentals more, and memorization less. To achieve this, he created Chess960. The starting position of the pieces are randomized (according to a few rules) and then mirrored on the other side, so the game is still symmetric. He strived to keep the "perfect balance" of Chess while addressing the problem. I think it's a great idea.
The same problem that bothered Fischer and Extra Credits bothered me too. In addition that problem, the problem of too many draws bothered me, as did the slippery slope nature of the game causes it to end with conceding which is kind of anti-climactic. And in addition to that, I think asymmetric games are just more interesting than symmetric ones. So to address all of those issues, I developed Chess 2.
Chess 2 has 6 different armies (for asymmetry, creates lots of matchups) and a "midline rule" that removes all those kind of broring, solved endgame situations that you concede rather than playing out. It addresses the problem of too many draws. But all that is irrelevant to the point at hand. What's relevant is there is a bidding system when you capture an enemy piece that involves a double-blind decision. That decision is a test of how much each player values the particular pieces involved at that exact moment. It also shatters the stranglehold of memorization from regular Chess, as there are too many ways that memorized openings can play out. You have to actually adapt.
We shouldn't get hung up on the specific details of Chess960 or Chess 2 here. The point is that each game addressed the memorization problem in a different way, and there could be other ways still to address it. Intentionally making the game unfair to one side ("Perfect Imbalance" from Extra Credits) would not be a way to address it, and wouldn't make any sense at all. The problem is just totally unrelated to balance.
I wish Starcraft focused more on strategy than it does. If there's a pie of 100% of whatever to focus on, some of that is strategy and a whole lot is related to APM (actions per minute). The more the focus is on one, the less on the other. And Blizzard has been explicit that they want the skill test to include high APM.
Blizzard improved the UI of Starcraft 2 over Starcraft 1 to allow things like selecting more than 12 units at a time, and using tab to cycle through unit types within a selection. This allows the player execute decisions better. That is, first the player decides what he wants to do (strategy) then physically issues the commands to make that happen in the game (execution). The UI decisions I just mention shift the emphasis towards strategy mattering a bit more, so that's good. Fighting against the UI to perform the exact same tasks in Starcraft 1 does add "more skill" for sure, but it's a kind of skill that is not related to strategy, hence its removal. That said, other extra clicks were added on purpose in Starcraft 2, and units designed specifically to reward very high APM usage.
Some other similar game could be very similar to Starcraft, but focus less on execution and more on strategy. In other words, it would give much less reward to a 300 APM player over a 100 APM player than Starcraft 2 does. The result of this would be that if more players were on equal footing APM-wise (because it's less rewarded, or capped or whatever) then strategy matters more. This is what Extra Credits wants, to have more freedom of strategy choices without spending so much time honing skills on perfectly timed, memorized build orders. This has NOTHING to do with game balance though. That Starcraft has really well-balanced races is not the CAUSE of this problem, and making the races intentionally imbalanced so as to create a less fair game would not solve the problems.
Some Imbalance is Good
Extra Credits then makes the point that some imbalance is good. Before we get to their explanation of why this would be, I would like to inject my own reason why it would be. I'll clarify by saying "local imbalance" is good. By local imbalance, I mean the kind of imbalance that takes place during gameplay, as opposed to before gameplay starts and encompassing the whole game.
For example, in a first-person shooter with several weapons laying around for anyone to pick up, the weapons do NOT need to be exactly equal in power. In fact, they shouldn't be. Players will be using different weapons over the course of one game, and they may fight for position on the map in order to get a strong weapon, or deny an opponent from getting a strong weapon. That's fine, and still fair because all players have access to the same weapons if only they can pick them up. If all the weapons were the same, there'd be fewer ways to push the game into your favor, and you'd lose some of the nooks and crannies of strats that you have in a game with a bunch of differently powered weapons.
A second example is getting knocked down in the corner in a fighting game. That is "imbalanced" in that it puts you in a really bad situation while your opponent is in a good situation. But that's the point. Our goal is not to make every single SITUATION that occurs during gameplay exactly even, because then good decisions wouldn't even lead to any kind of advantage, which is sort of weird. Imbalanced moments that occur in the middle of gameplay are fine and desirable, even.
Let's move on the Extra Credits kind of "imbalance is good" though, which is not about local imbalance. It's about global imbalance, meaning as soon as you sit down at the table or console or whatever, before the first moment of play, you are disadvantaged. Yeah, that's not good and it violates a basic concept of fairness. Keep in mind that I personally think asymmetric games are much more interesting than symmetric ones, so starting a game with an advantage or disadvantage is common to me (because the characters aren't exactly equal in power). But that is a *drawback* of asymmetric games that in my opinion is outweighed by rich complexities you get from having so many different possible matchups. It's not something you actually strive to do, like make some character terrible or too strong. If there is some matchup that is unfair, then the developer fixing it is great. Likewise if there's some matchup that is close (like if Protoss vs Zerg were 5-5) it would be terrible if the developer intentionally changed it to make it 7-3 unfair or something.
A Quick Aside
Extra Credits mentioned League of Legends, and as someone interested in the future of games, I have to fault any mention of the game that doesn't include a mention that a competitive game shouldn't have a forced grind (even for those willing to pay) to get gameplay-relevant elements. It would be ridiculous in Street Fighter to force a grind to be able to pick the real Blanka, it would be ridiculous in Starcraft to force a grind to be able to pick the real Protoss, and it *is* ridiculous in League of Legends that a forced grind is part of a competitive game. It goes against the sprit of competition to throw up an artificial, time-wasting barrier where you play some different game until you finally get to play the real one. Don't let that cancer infect other competitive games.
Back on point. While I think the earlier arguments that good balance leads to problems in Chess and Starcraft make no sense at all, the argument about the metagame is much more subtle. I believed this same argument for a long time, but I don't any more. The argument goes like this: it's ok for a character to be too powerful because then players will try to find ways to beat that character with otherwise weaker characters who happen to be good against that particular strong character. Extra Credits further says that you explore more strategy in a game with this property than with a game with actually fair characters because with fair characters you'd be locked into doing the same kind of thing and not looking for counter-characters.
You could make that same argument about decks in Magic: the Gathering. I think this is an illusion, and I was caught in it for years because it's kind of "conventional wisdom" and never even really questioned or talked about. I only really started to realize why this doesn't add up when I was working on my own customizable card game. A "rich metagame" means there are lots of decks that counter other decks, and you get to sit around thinking about which deck will be common at a tournament and which you should choose in response. For example, if you discovered an unusual deck that could win 9-1 against the most of the field and lose 1-9 against part of the field, that could be a very, very strong deck. This is metagaming at its finest, yet it also leads to 100% of your games having terrible gameplay.
And there's the rub. The kind of metagame under discussion is one where global imbalance is assumed to be "good." The assumption is that sitting down to play another player and having a advantage or disadvantage before the game even starts is a great thing. Well, it kind of sucks actually, and violates the concepts of basic fairness. You could define "the game" to be the larger thing that involves "picking a deck/character + playing it" but that's hardly an answer. It's just admitting that the part where you actually play is kind of sucky and unfair.
I'll tell you the key moment of discovery I had about this issue. I had several decks mocked up for my CCG. You would expect a variety of decks to happen to have several really unfair matchups, and for that to cause a metagame to form. The thing is, I didn't design these decks to win a tournament, I designed them to test out how the game plays, so I used a few rules of thumb in deckbuilding that actually prevented any really unfair matches like 8-2 from happening. I figured that later when we thought about how players would really build their decks (not according to my personal rules), we'd have to figure out how to deal with those inevitable 8-2 matchups. The CCG community often assumes they are great ("it's the metagame!") but I think the emphasis should be on the part where you actually playing the game and making decisions. Deckbuilding is great, but not if it wrecks the fairness of individual games you will actually have to play.
Anyway, allowing players complete freedom in deckbuilding in my game absolutely would lead to 8-2 matchups (like in any customizable card game) AND it would actually lead to worse strategy than my playtest decks! When metagaming and trying to win, you really want to take out all the "strategy" you can, and make sure you just stomp as many opposing decks as possible, even if you have pretty bad matches in there somewhere.
You probably already see the revelation. Why not codify the rules of thumb of deckbuilding I was using into real rules of the game? Put limits on deckbuilding in such a way that still allow it, but that prevent the majority of unfair matches from happening. This seemed so obvious in hindsight.
Now, unrelated to that, I also went to great lengths to give the player more strategic choices during a game than is usual in the genre. Tricky to do without being too complicated, but that's another story. The bottom line is so far this game is shaping up to be a game with more strategic choices during gameplay than other similar games I've played AND with fewer unfair matchups. This is possible by REDUCING the importance of the metagame. It's just more fun to have the GAME, the part where you actually sit down and play give you a) a lot of strategic options and b) as fair a match as we can give you.
We shouldn't dwell on this particular in-development card game though. It's a general principle that you get more strategic depth during a game session by, well, focusing on making that as good as possible. As good as possible means putting more strategic decisions in and taking unfairness out. That's the opposite of the intentional imbalance glorified in the Extra Credits video. It's the opposite of making the decisions made before the game even starts become more important (necessarily making in-game decisions that much less important.)
Making a bunch of unfair matches intentionally is just a poor man's solution to the problem of strategic variety. In the end, that poor man's solution constrains your strategic choices anyway, rather than opens them up. You're constrained to playing the overpowered characters or the counters, rather than having free choice of all characters. Having a set of characters who ALL have fair matches and who ALL have a lot of strategy options makes you wonder what the point of intentionally having unfair matchups ever was in the first place.