Writing fiction for money is a demanding craft. It allows you to create anything you want, and then you have to justify why it’s there and how it interacts with the rest of your world.
The best advice on this I’ve ever heard is from a Writing Excuses worldbuilding episode with Mary Robinette Kowal (if you haven’t listened to Writing Excuses, and are in the least interested in writing or reading science fiction and fantasy, you should check out Writing Excuses, it’s worth it [/shameless fanboy pitch]).
There are three things that have been really fabulous tools for me when dealing with new magic or new technology in a world: that I should look at how that magic or technology affects the poorest class, how it affects the richest class, and how it can be abused.
The rich, the poor and the abused. Doesn’t have much to do with designing games, right?
On the contrary. If you’ve got a new mechanic in mind, or an old one you’d like to insert into your game, think about this: how will this affect the leading player, the losing player, and how can it be abused?
Let’s take a look at Google’s Ingress, which is a fun alternate reality game but is, from a game design standpoint, rather broken. Ingress is a bit like orienteering and cowboys and indians combined. Or perhaps FourSquare and StarCraft. In Ingress you have portals (real world locations) to which you physically travel. If they belong to your team you can get lots of stuff from them. If they belong to the other team you can get a small amount of stuff from them and then use that stuff to blow them up with your Android phone and take them over for your own team. Then the other team can come by and take them back. StarCraft and FourSquare.
Can you spot the design mistake? Let’s take a look at what happens with our rich/poor/abuse analogy.
The richest team has lots of portals. Since they’ve got lots of portals they’re getting lots of stuff and can use that stuff to blow up the poorer team’s portals. Now the richer team is richer and the poorer team is poorer. It’s a self-aggravating situation heading for the total elimination of the poorer team. And when that team is eliminated there’s nothing for the rich team to do. The game breaks.
So the Ingress players don’t want to break their game. The have a big meeting between the teams and decide to split the city. One part will belong to one team, another to the other team and the middle they’re going to fight over. But all it takes is one player, or a group of players in a larger city, to go on a crusade, eliminating the “safe zones” for the cycle to start over – weaker team gets weaker, stronger team gets stronger.
How about in board games. What would we use there.
Testing by extremes
Well, for every resource in a game you could look at how a mechanic affects those with the most of that resource, the least of that resource and how it can be abused. Let’s take a look at Through the Ages, which I like but which is occasionally unbalanced.
In TTA you’ve got military might. If you’ve got more, and you have the right card, you can attack other players and steal their resources. So if you’re rich in military might, and lucky in the draw of cards, you’ll end up with more resources. Since you can defeat an attack by playing cards if there’s not too much of a difference in military might it doesn’t make sense to attack those who are almost as strong as you. Instead you attack the weakest player. That player grows even weaker and it’s a cumulative weakness: not only does he lose resources, he also loses time and has to switch his strategies, meaning that some of his cards may be useless as well. And since it pays to attack the weaker player, once the imbalance grows too large the weaker player hasn’t got a chance to catch up (and that’s why TTA allows for players withdrawing from the game). Effectively knocking a player out may be within the system but it sure feels abusive towards that player.
Of course there are other resources in TTA. So lets look at culture (VP). The player with the most culture isn’t able to do anything with it. Possibly they’re able to keep their lead throughout the game but the culture itself doesn’t affect gameplay; it’s a passive resource. A player with little culture could use other resources to gain culture. Some of those items may generate immense amounts of culture. But since TTA is about combining different abilities to create synergies that’s not a big problem, right? People know that they’ve got to take that special card of the row before it get to be that particular player’s turn. But if everyone knows that, then it can be metagamed: I’m not going to take it, now either you take it or you’re kingmaking and allowing him to win.
Perhaps that might be termed as abusing the system, perhaps not. But when you’re designing a game, having a tool that lets you take that into account before your playtesters show you how broken your game is sure helps.