Mary Russell

I have a strong preference - as a player, as a designer, and as one-half of a publisher - for dynamic games, by which I mean games where the balance is highly mutable and prone to distortion based on player actions. One of the ways I try to achieve this in my own work is through the use of feedback loops, in which succeeding makes it easier to succeed, and failing makes it easier to fail. The winners keep winning and the losers keep losing. The balance of the game is in flux, capable of being tilted in one direction or another. 

While I'm not the first (nor likely the last) to make these sort of games, I recognize of course that this is in direct opposition to perhaps the prevailing conception of balance as static and binary - a game is balanced, or a game is not balanced; the balance is there, or the balance is "off" and "needs work". And I suppose if I was in a more mainstream part of the industry - if I had managed to make and attract publishers for the sort of safe, staid, mathematical, widely-appealing mid-weight eurogames I had aspired to before I fell into the wonderful world of wargames and weird games - then I would conceive of balance in the same way, and design my games with that sort of utterly dull and meaningless balance in mind. Another reason why, in retrospect, I'm grateful to exist at the margins of the industry, making unusual games for unusual people. 

All that being said, designing games to be mutable and distortable certainly isn't any easier than designing "normal" games, and in some ways is more difficult. When you conceive of balance as a binary, it can be relatively easy to tell when a game is "imbalanced", because the equilibrium is thrown off. When you approach balance more dynamically - when allowing players to throw off the equilibrium is in many ways the point - the question becomes quite a bit murkier. When the system gets distorted, is it because of good play or bad play, or is something wrong? Players not only need to be able to provide "input" into the system, but they also need legitimate, accessible ways to prevent their opponents from doing the same.  When the game becomes sufficiently distorted, its momentum in one direction becomes inexorable and irreversible - but where is that tipping point, do the other players have enough opportunities to prevent it, is something overpowered? Lots of things that might be red flags for "traditional" designers are able to hide in plain sight, insidiously camouflaged. A designer who wades into these waters needs to be discerning, needs to simultaneously trust their gut and to doubt it. 


It can be a little exhausting, and there's a reason why about half of my game designs are more traditional hex-and-counter affairs. It's not that those games enforce a static and symmetrical balance - that would hardly do justice to the history - but that the distortions are usually more subtle and less discernable, shifting this way or that as units are plopped into the dead pile or come onto the map as reinforcements. 

The balance is arguably still dynamic but much less elastic, and getting it right takes up less of my mental bandwidth and time. If every game I did was a super-weird Molotov cocktail lobbed at "normal" games, I would get tuckered out pretty quick and be far less prolific. Dialing it back now and then demands less of me as a designer.

It also demands less of the players. Sometimes you feel like playing something fiercely competitive where every move can lose you the game, where you have to fight tooth and nail every inch of the way, to push, push, push against an opponent that's pushing just as hard against you. And sometimes you really don't; sometimes you just want to push some counters around, roll some six-siders, and shoot the breeze.

1 comment

  • “unusual games for unusual people”
    I’ll take that as a compliment!!!


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