A single element too obviously overpowered can ruin a game’s balance.
The thing is, balance lies in numbers, and even in the simplest games, these numbers can get really big, really fast. Computers, with their spreadsheets, custom scripts and programs, or online gaming platforms, are a game designer’s best friends.
But even such tools have their limits, and they are quickly reached. Examining the strength of every item of a game individually (such as the cards in Agricola, for example) is one thing. Looking at their possible combinations is quite another. Meet the combinatorial explosion. Getting a list of all possibilities offered by even a moderately complex game would require many times the age of the Universe. And then we would still need to analyze the results, draw conclusions, devise fixes… and retest them!
Better spend that kind of time gaming, right?
Of course, sometimes thanks to tens of thousands of gamers, a popular game will get more plays in the first month following its release than during the years of its entire development. So undetected flaws can clearly emerge at that stage.
Still, game items are rarely—and with good reason—declared overpowered based on facts. They will be publicly condemned based on perception, and what’s worse, often after just a few plays. Which will lead to endless, sometimes heated online debates.
“Overpowered!” has become such a common, somewhat tiresome complaint about game elements that it is tempting to be cynical regarding this term’s usage. A Google search for Overpowered returns over 20,000 pages on Boardgamegeek alone. Indeed it is so widely used that it got its own widespread abbreviation, OP (not to be confused with the forum slang for Original Poster, the person who started a discussion thread).
Stating that a faction, a card or player order in any non-trivial design is overpowered, just because you’ve lost to it three, heck, let’s make it ten times in a row, doesn’t mean much in the realm of Really Big Numbers. It’s all about the massive number of possibilities, about how the design compensates, and of course about your own and your opponents’ knowledge and experience of the game.
A bug, or a feature?
Let’s not forget that balance is not always a design goal. Some games have embraced overpowered items and turned them into their trademark, such as Cosmic Encounter (Peter Olotka, 1977, 1991, 2000, 2008). Overpowered alien races in this game are an essential part of its hectic, chaotic signature experience.
In contrast, competitive or tournament play needs at least perceived balance and fairness. Which is, ironically, harder to achieve with some of the most popular tournament games, such as collectible card games. Competitive CCG players will sometimes agree to use paste-ups to curb the effects of more powerful cards. Likewise, some clubs and tournaments publish and maintain lists of banned cards.
All in all, asymmetry should not be confused with overpowered items. If anything, the more asymmetrical a game is, the more likely it is to be exciting and long-lasting. Any clear advantage offered by a game item doesn’t mean, in itself, that the item is overpowered and the game, flawed; it’s all about how the design compensates for this. Asymmetry is made of overpowered items that are managed. Imbalance is the result of overpowered items that have been overlooked.
“Dominant strategy” is a related expression, but it involves a set of circumstances and operations discovered during play rather than targetting a particular item made available within the game’s mechanics themselves. And contrary to an overpowered item, a dominant strategy is easily reproduced and confirmed. For these reasons, it is more likely to sink a game, or lead to a hasty reedition.
References and Further Browsing
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