Learning to love imbalance in strategy games

From the forum threads full of arguments to the constant tweaking and occasional overhauls via patches – balance has long been one of the pillars of strategy games. It means fairness, a level playing field, and in competition it means that victory comes purely from player skill. But balance, and the quest to reach it, can easily become the enemy of surprise and of the joy that comes from succeeding against the odds.

Balance’s lofty position implies that nobody wants to be the underdog, that conquest is only satisfying if you have the exact same or at least equally effective advantages as your opponents. Sure, when actual money and trophies are involved, this sort of balance is necessary, but when you’re playing for fun? When you’re playing on your own? Give me the imbalanced every time.

Total War: Warhammer’s Realm of the Wood Elves expansion constructs its high points and best battlefield stories out of the faction’s vulnerabilities. Adversity hounds the Elves, making campaigns an uphill struggle, while battles feel like you’re dancing on the edge of a knife. Every success is savoured, and out of each fight come tales of close calls and pulling victory from the jaws of defeat. Though they might seem weak, the challenge and complexity that comes with them brings out Total War’s strongest features.

I’m not suggesting that the folks at Creative Assembly aren’t concerned about balance at all. Have a quick browse of some patch notes and you’ll see that they very much are. How they use their twin powers of buffing and nerfing, however, matters a great deal. It’s not necessarily about making units or factions feel equally strong or effective, but giving them a purpose or a hook. Balance isn’t wielded like an equaliser, but rather it’s a way to make a unit more interesting or enjoyable to play.

It can often feel like balance exists to serve a very specific type of strategy player, one for whom esports and serious competition are inextricably linked to the genre, leaving folk like me out in the cold. One of my most anticipated RTSs of the year fell into this category, and I found myself dropping it from my rotation of strategy games quite quickly. That would be Ashes of the Singularity, a polished, serious game about two huge sci-fi armies colliding. It does brilliant things with unit formations and large-scale battles, but the importance placed on build orders and resource races does little to inspire experimentation, while the often humdrum units rarely stand out. It always seems like there’s a right way and a wrong way to play, and its bland campaign reveals its focus: it serves only to get people into the multiplayer component.

There is a middle ground, however. StarCraft 2, with its massive multiplayer community and expensive tournaments, requires tight balance, but Blizzard are clearly aware that a vast number of players will never leave the campaign, and that’s where things get a little more interesting. Lopsided fights and battles driven by diverse objectives and stories create wrinkles that fight against the perfect balance required in the more competitive scene. It helps, too, that the factions have more than a hint of asymmetry, encouraging diverse playstyles and creating surprises even after hundreds of hours of war.

Amplitude Studios have quickly become something of a poster child for asymmetric strategy through Endless Legend. I’m utterly convinced that it’s one of the all time greatest 4X games, largely because of its bold and weird factions, from a swarm of disgusting monsters in a constant state of war with the rest of the world, to a creepy cult of weirdos limited to a single city. For the developer, the goal was not to throw balance out, but they simply don’t believe that a properly asymmetric strategy game can ever really be balanced. Some factions are just straight up more powerful than others. The result? It’s left up to the player to create an advantage or find a way to exploit a faction’s design.

That’s the problem with balance: despite it seemingly making the game all about skill, it really – at least in single-player – becomes inhibitive. There’s no impetus to create strange builds or think outside the box and no moments of doubt that lead to inspiration. And it takes away the opportunity for us to be the authors of our bids for global domination.

Paradox’s grand strategy ventures are the antithesis of this kind of balance, and so much better for it. One of life’s great pleasures is to start as a count of some backwater in Crusader Kings 2, a nobody with no real prospects, and attempt to create a vast, century-spanning dynasty. Out of this inevitably comes a multitude of memorable moments, of plots gone awry and impossible wars, but equally as important, it forces you to engage with every aspect of this elaborate game. There are more discussions about ways to exploit history, AI, and the game’s rules than you could hope to read, full of sleuths obsessively trying to create empires from unlikely origins or take over the world with the least likely suspect.

The benefits of treating balance as flexible and almost optional, at the very least not the be all and end all of strategy, are myriad, but for someone like me, the type who craves stories and emergent narratives, there’s one major bonus: unbalanced games spin the greatest yarns. Let’s jump back to Endless Legend, a suggestion I constantly make, often out of the blue.

“Would you like some tomato sauce with your chips?”

“Let me think about that, and while I do, let’s jump back to Endless Legend.”

Amplitude put story front and centre of their fantasy 4X game. Each of the exotic factions comes with a distinct history and culture which defines the way that they play, and then the faction moves forward through quests and side quests begging to be undertaken. By following the story, you can end up with powerful units, artefacts and unique technologies that give you a big advantage, sometimes a potentially unfair one, over the other AI or human players. And sometimes it might be easy! Maybe all you need to do is send a unit to a few locations and that’s that.

Luck won’t always be on your side, of course. In another game you might have a similar quest, but your objectives are all locked behind the borders of another faction. And it’s winter. So you march your army across the map, slowly, and fight your way to some ruined temple or what have you, and lose countless units and start a global war, just to get a lovely necklace. Life is unfair! But it’s also the source of grand adventures and brutal wars and the sorts of tales you’ll want to share once you’ve finally come out the other end.

Across multiple games, players will experience both, but individual playthroughs can become unbalanced thanks to both random chance and powerful rewards. With that comes surprises. Weak empires rising to prominence, strong empires falling to ruin in a foolish bid to unlock more power – it’s all part of unique narrative of that particular game.

Maybe it’s easy for me to dismiss balance because I increasingly care more about the experience of running a faction or controlling an army than I do about competition. In competitions, there’s a winner and a bunch of losers, and sometimes I really can’t be arsed with spending 20 hours on a game if I’m just going to be called a failure. If I want that, I can just tell people that I’m 31, broke, and I subsist mainly on cheap microwavable pasta meals. It would only take a minute.

I’ve never lost a game of Europa Universalis, for instance, but I’ve played so many campaigns where my chosen power never makes it to the final year of the game – probably about 90 percent of them. That’s not a loss, though. It’s just the end of my story. There’s a victory score system, sure, but I’ve never met anyone who cared about it. Absent a proper win condition, the game is about guiding your nation through history, wherever it may lead, not something arbitrary like taking over the world.

The good news, at least for me or anyone sitting there and nodding while they read this, is that strategy developers seem to be starting to feel the same way. Or at least a significant number of them. There’s a treasure trove of weird games that approach strategy from unexpected angles.

One of the biggest surprises of the last year or so came in the form of Stardock’s Sorcerer King and its Rivals expansion. In this 4X game, your main opponent is the eponymous Sorcerer King, and for most of the game he’s unbeatable. He’s well on his way to becoming a god while you’re faffing around with your very first settlement. The key strategy to defeating him is to not piss him off, to grow slowly, and to bide your time. If you don’t, he’ll see you as a threat and crush you without breaking a sweat. The entire conceit of the game is that it’s not remotely fair, and there’s a pretty good chance that your opponent will destroy the world.

With players in a subservient role, typical strategies no longer work. More subtlety and underhanded tactics are required, and diplomacy becomes an even more powerful force than hordes of angry warriors. And it’s not a competition. Players and the Sorcerer King have entirely different goals, and must do different things to achieve them. By letting go of balance, the game gives us something that feels genuinely new.

The less we stress about victory, the less importance we place on perfectly tuned statistics and what today’s most overpowered unit is, the more we can simply enjoy the damn game. And it gives developers more freedom to push the genre forward, instead of feeling pressured into sacrificing their vision for equality.


  1. Kaeoschassis says:

    Oh good lord thankyou. I have been waiting YEARS for pretty much this exact article.

    My absolute favourite strategy game of all time still remains Master of Magic, and even if it isn’t still the best of all time on a technical level it’s still almost universally adored. That game might not have NO balance, but it’s in no way tightly balanced. The devs were pretty clearly aware that there was just too much STUFF to balance it all, so they just tried to make sure it was all fun. In MoM, sure, it’s fun playing Halflings with an all Life build and stomping all over everyone, but it’s also fun playing, say, Gnolls with Death and Nature and struggling to survive at every turn.

    Among more (relatively) modern strategy titles my favourites always seem to be either asymmetrical or just not very tightly balanced. Something like AI War is a good example of the former – I wholeheartedly maintain that the best way to make a singleplayer strategy experience is to make totally different rules for the player and their opponents. Something like the GalCiv games were a good experiment in trying to make an AI opponent behave like a player, but they rely a great deal on illusion and that eventually does start to wear off. As for the “just not all that balanced” category, Dominions 4 holds a top spot in my strategy library – and THERE’s a game with a very strong multiplayer community despite it not being perfectly balanced. The reason is probably the same one that makes MoM so good – there’s just so much stuff. Yes, a good portion of the players stick to the same old predictable builds, but there’s always someone experimenting. And I’m lucky to be one of those players who’s just not that great at strategy despite loving it, so I actually get a lot of fun out of the singleplayer side as well, the limited AI doesn’t really bother me.

    I haven’t had the chance to try Endless Legend or Sorcerer King yet, but both sound like exactly my kind of thing. If you’re right, and this IS the kind of direction we’ll be seeing more strategy games taking in the years to come, I’ll be overjoyed. I hate to be the “X killed Y” guy, I really do, but strict, super-tight multiplayer centric game balance just killed my interest in an enormous subset of what is otherwise one of my favourite genres.

    • BathroomCitizen says:

      You know, I was going to make the post regarding Dominions 4!

      That game is hardly balanced, and it’s all better because of it. If a player takes up the role of MA Ermor in multiplayer, all the other players will pile up on him because he’s such a dangerous foe.

      Dominions 4’s nations are auto-balanced by players’ diplomacy, and I think that’s a good compromise in what we call “balance”.

    • Laurentius says:

      I second that. MoM is also my favourite stratgy games because “rules of cool” trumps the balance and I am for it in single player game. Many recent 4X stratgy games are very stale and flat with devs striving for balanecd multiplayer experience but imo sp games suffers. Sure players will find the way to exploit the game or AI so what? MoM stood the test of time. Asymetrical campagings of Paradox games are of couse cool but there is more then can be done: more owerpowerd random units, resources that threw balance out of the window, when adding hereos throw some random Leo Messi in to the mix. Let the cool happens to keep player entertained, sure some players like by the teeth grinding to victory but I think thay have ben served properly in recent years. Bring more cool and awsome to strategy games.

  2. stuw23 says:

    One of my favourite examples of asymmetrical, imbalanced gameplay that is fun is Blood Bowl. There are numerous teams in the game that are weaker than others, and are designed as such (chiefly, the ‘stunty’ teams such as Halflings, Goblins). They’re not teams people pick to play if they want to win, but if you want some of the carnage and chaos Blood Bowl provides, they can be an excellent choice (especially Goblins). And if you ever do win, it’s all the more satisfying. My goblin team had a horrific win/loss ratio in Blood Bowl multiplayer, but they’re the team I enjoyed playing as most. Such as shame Blood Bowl 2 doesn’t have them (yet – I hope that changes at some point).

    • Fraser Brown says:

      I’m just starting to get into Blood Bowl 2 (and would have liked to included the game in the article, but I’m still getting to grips with it) and I’m really enjoying that aspect of it.

      • DirectorHaruhi says:

        I feel like you both would have really enjoyed Death Row on the Xbox. You were forced to play your first playthrough as a really terrible team, against teams that were statistically better than you, and increasingly so throughout the game.

        The feeling I got when I was a kid, from beating the best team as the worst team, was honestly fantastic. Some of the games in the article have been games that allow me to relive that feeling and I love them for it.

  3. morganjah says:

    I did not find this article to be Fair and Balanced.

  4. gunny1993 says:

    I feel like this is probably the healthiest point of view to have, I mean if you’re looking for balance, you will never find it …. ever. It’s a utopian concept unachievable by mere mortals.

    Just look at Go, a game so goddamn simple and old you’d expect it to be the epitome of balance, but you’d be wrong: The player who plays second has always (well since the 1930s when the game was statistically analyzed) gotten what’s known as the Komi, a number of points to make up for going second, this level of points has changed several time over the years and will probably change again.

    So basically, embrace chaos, blood for the blood god, tzeentch ftw

    That said I fucking hate jack in the box armies in total war games.

  5. Hedgeclipper says:

    Balance is the bugbear of tiny minds.

  6. April March says:

    Wasn’t there an old strategy game in which one of the armies was actually just a giant dude? I think it’s on GOG. Yeah, that’s what I like. I guess it depends on whether you play strategy games for the stories or for the competition; if you play it for the stories, a massacre is just a beat and a loss is just a kind of ending.

  7. teije says:

    I think you’ve nicely put your finger on one reason I’ve moved from Civ to games like EUIV, CKII, HoIIV and Endless Legend – it’s just more interesting to play when there’s a good story to overcoming the odds (whether they be caused by starting situation, faction, etc.) then essentially starting equal to all other entrants into the game. It’s much easier to construct a narrative for your faction/empire when there’s significant gameplay distinctiveness (obstacles or bonuses) connected to it.

    A good example is Stellaris – it can get boring jostling against your fellow little empires – but then a Fallen empire awakens or the Unbidden show up and as the challenge suddenly ramps up and the situation looks dire it gets far more fun to actually play.

    Connected to that perhaps is the enjoyment you get out of a challenging survival game like Long Dark, where just surviving successfully for a time feels like a great accomplishment.

    • harley9699 says:

      I thought a lot about Stellaris while reading this. There are plenty of times that you’re just minding your own business, then run across one you mentioned and/or somebody more powerful and it completely changes your ‘plans’ or approach. Also, I think I only played once with a preset faction. I get a lot more enjoyment out of ‘rolling the dice’, as it were, and playing with Random peeps. “Well, these guys suck, now how am I going to advance and build an empire with these losers?”.

  8. ThePuzzler says:

    I just got the ‘sunset invasion’ achievement for EU4.

    Playing as the Aztecs is not remotely balanced with more traditional factions, which makes it all the more exciting. To start out, you have a religion where you must slaughter a thousand enemy soldiers a year per province you hold or your society will collapse – peace treaties are the bane of your existence. You can only advance by repeatedly gaining five vassals and then releasing them all – and if the doom counter reaches 100% you have to start again. Even if you manage to reform your religion, you’re still stuck with tribal technology penalties and no sea transport until a European coloniser finally decides to settle next to you. At this point you can start to research at a normal rate, but you can easily be wiped out if you offend one of the big nations. To get the achievement, you have to go from there to conquering six major European capitals. I finally took Paris today and now I’m going to stop playing.

  9. Vitruviansquid says:

    No. Christ.

    This article gets wrong what balance is, and why it exists, which is tragic because it then goes on to make outlandish statements about concepts related to balance, like “the less importance we place on perfectly tuned statistics…the more we can simply enjoy the damn game.”

    The article uses the word “balance” as a shorthand to mean “competitive multiplayer balance,” which indeed isn’t needed in all games. But “balance” is, because “balance” is making sure the numbers are correct so that the parts of the game interact as players would expect and so that players would have plenty of viable options to choose between throughout the game. Even the level of underpoweredness of the blood bowl joke teams is something that needs to be balanced to make sense. You can hardly have the goblin unique players end up being so strong that the goblins are actually a better team than the more serious ones like wood elves.

    It’s also balance that allows Wood Elves in Total War: Warhammer (and other intentionally marginal factions in Total War games, like Odrysian Kingdom in Rome 2) to be challenging without being incredibly frustrating.

    • Fraser Brown says:

      The balance I’m criticising is the type of balance used to create a level playing field, which exists in both single-player and multiplayer games. I didn’t get what balance is “wrong” – as you yourself admit, there is more than one type of balance.

      • tigerfort says:

        I think Vitruviansquid’s complaint is that “balance” can mean several different things (indeed, you use it for different things in the article), and it isn’t always clear which of those things you mean in a particular sentence.

        • Vitruviansquid says:

          More specifically, criticisms levelled against multiplayer competitive balance are then used to draw conclusions about balance in the sense of looking at and tweaking numbers. See the quote I put in the first paragraph.

    • teije says:

      “But “balance” is, because “balance” is making sure the numbers are correct so that the parts of the game interact as players would expect and so that players would have plenty of viable options to choose between throughout the game.”

      I would define this as internal logic or game design balance, not balance between different playable entities. Your use of balance here is indeed is a different type of balance from what Fraser was referring to.

      • cpt_freakout says:

        I think this is an interesting discussion – how much is balance just the generalized application of the same rules to everyone in order to highlight player skill and how much is it the result of a game’s logic? For example, the Wood Elves have to make sense, as a faction, in a setting where all factions play differently, and the way to achieve that is to follow a certain logic. “The numbers being correct” is a part of that – to put a stupid example that is not meant to be precise but convey a feeling, in a game where arrows do 20 damage and have 10 speed, it wouldn’t be suitable to have a faction whose arrows do 500 damage and travel as fast as bullets. That’s just the logic behind the setting: a ‘world’ that makes sense. Logic does away with the extremes, balance keeps the details in check for things to keep making sense.

        I guess there’s many interlocking balances at play with internal logic at any given moment in games like that, but it might all come down to how interesting the choices players can make are. By breaking many of its own ground rules, Endless Legend provides a lot of interesting choices with each faction; it’s not necessarily the asymmetry but how it’s used that makes that game great, I think.

  10. Captain Narol says:

    Long, long before Sorcerer King, in a time that Millenials can’t even imagine to have ever existed, there was a gem of a game called “The Lords of Midnight”.

    You had to play hide and seek with the AI until you had convinced enough lords to join you so that you could finally raise an army big enough to stand a chance against the evil hordes !

    You can find a remake there, btw :

    link to thelordsofmidnight.com

    • Ericusson says:

      You lost me at millenials.

    • Jediben says:

      You found my admiration and respect at millenials.

      • Ericusson says:

        Using categories and big words to make oneself feel good about himself without really knowing what he is talking about is not a sign of brightness.

        • Captain Narol says:

          Sorry if I have hurt your feelings, and sad for you that you get upset for such an innocent little joke !

          Always look on the bright side of life… Whistles…

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        The thing is, ‘millenials’ is usually used as shorthand for ‘those damn kids’, which annoys me because I thought that at 36 I was finally starting to get beyond being pigeon-holed as young.

        • Captain Narol says:

          You make wrong assumptions, I was just using “Millenials” as a chronological category, with definitely NO DEROGATORY IMPLICATIONS.

          Even more, being myself something you could call a “old geek that never accepted to become adult”, I feel in fact much closer in spirit with the said Millenials than with people of my own generation who have become jaded and boring for the most part !!

  11. Lucid Spleen says:

    “My guys had more a bigger army and better health and weapons”
    “As they committed the last of there troops to the fray I flanked them with Minotaurs when my goreherd were crumbling”

    Some games allow you a better narrative. Some games give you a choice that you have to learn how to capitalise on, some games are just about the numbers. Which is more interesting? Hmm.
    Civ 6 is a lovely game and has been quite fulfilling, but more as a time waster than anything else. Endless Legend is a gem, something that involves you in a narrative not just because of the quests it gives you but because of the disadvantages of your faction and how you personally overcome them.
    In single player TW:W there are balancing adjustments that go on all the time and that’s good. But they don’t displace the faction specific skill/knowledge that you pick up. A certain spell’s damage is nerfed; you just don’t rely on it as much. So far, a really intelligent answer to balance. Small changes, not a move towards uniformity.
    I was about to say something deeply profound about balance in life but fortunately I caught myself in time.
    Have a good holiday, best wishes LS

  12. Sorbicol says:

    Loved this article Fraser and would also be a very worthy topic for 3MA too!

    However, I am faintly disappointed that the entire article doesn’t once mention AI War, which surely is the king of unbalanced (or asymmetrical) game design? It’s not admittedly a game I’ve played much at all, but the concept fills that entire game.

  13. Chaoslord AJ says:

    There should be balance in multiplayer I guess so not everyone needs to play like Protoss faction or something.
    However deliver my singleplayer experience from balance.
    Blizzard tweaks Diablo 3 balance every month and people hate the meddling in their designs – they don’t even have working PvP so why bother. They just go “oh I’ll add +1 here this time and do -3 there because they are to powerful”, that’s not balance if your design’s broken.
    Games work best when you game the system, find creative solutions and breakpoints. If I wanted balance I’d adjust the difficulty. Strategy game or action. I’ll stack crates and snipe from behind, I’ll play the enemy AI instead of fighting fair. I use broken units in broken ways. I use the Morrowind enchanter plus potions and potions to increase potion skill to make potions.

    • shde2e says:

      You don’t necessarily need perfect balance in your multiplayer.
      Games like Total War or the Paradox games often have factions that are clearly superior or inferior to most other factions, perhaps with only one aspect they’re good in.

      Yet people still play those factions because they like them. Especially when people focus more on having an amusing game while setting things up.

  14. Smaug says:

    Asymmetry of factions is one of the most interesting aspects of strategy games and overbalancing will make the games poorer off.

  15. Chillicothe says:

    Balance in Imbalance is an art and a science and beware any who would break that goal, as it leads to samey playing archetypes where the only difference between members of said archetypes is, as one former WoW player put it “the color of magic that comes out of their hands”.

    Give uniqueness, so that low-tier factions/characters/etc will have a reason to be picked and to be feared. If it just comes down to someone being 2% less DPS, and all the specialities are moot, they’ll go unloved.

  16. Baines says:

    It is a popular misconception among the “balance is bad” crowd that you cannot aim for balance between asymmetrical forces.

    As for those that find balance a limiting factor, you can argue the opposite as well. Imbalance is a limiting factor, at least in games that you want to win. You cannot just pick a force because you like its design and theme, because each selection is also tied to a difficulty. If you like a “joke” faction, then you have to accept that you are playing with a potentially major disadvantage. If you like an overpowered faction, then you might find playing them dull because the game is too easy. (Personally, I’d rather have an attempt at balanced forces, with separate fine control of difficulty selection.)

    As for unorthodox strategies, you can attempt them regardless of balance. Whether or not a game has optimal strategies is unrelated to whether or not it is balanced.

    • Fraser Brown says:

      I’ve never in my life seen anyone say that it’s impossible to *aim* for balance in games with asymmetrical factions. Whether it can be achieved is another matter. StarCraft 2, as I note in the article, makes a very good attempt, using the campaign to create wrinkles and imbalance while keeping the units balanced but also distinct.

      • Arkayjiya says:

        There’s basically someone saying just that a little higher in the comment section. More generally I’ve sadly seen plenty of people actually saying stuff such as “you can’t achieve perfect balance so why bother at all? Just make it fun”

  17. Nate says:

    Even in multiplayer, imbalance is vital to an interesting game, and can go a long ways toward creating a game where experts can compete with newbies and everybody can still have fun.

    Remember Solium Infernum? A player in that game was at the mercy of so much– starting location, terrain, nearby monuments, random market goods. But that meant that you couldn’t start the game in the assumption that you were going to win. You’d have to look at the map and ask yourself, Is this a game I can win? Or is this a game where the best I can hope for is to act as a kingmaker?

    My funnest moments with Creative Assembly games were never the balanced battles, but always the hopeless last stands, where I said, “Okay, you’re going to kill me, but I’m going to make it hurt. A lot.” That kind of structure is perfect for creating fun competition even among people of wildly different skill. When the outcome is a foregone conclusion, the criterion for a win totally changes.

  18. elracko says:

    Great read – thanks!
    If you haven’t yet tried Twilight Struggle, you should give it a shot. The “balance” of the game shifts as it progresses – early on the USSR has access to more aggressive and perhaps better tools than the US, but as the Cold War progresses the US cards tend to be more influential. There is also enough chance involved to completely change the way you have to play. It is one of the few straight competitive games that I really love (that and Rocket League with everybody muted).

  19. Ericusson says:

    This made me give another try to Endless Legend after a very bad first contact some years ago.

    I really wish the Crusader Kings 2 Complete edition on Steam would actually be complete. But every time I am interested in buying the damn thing, 18 DLCs are actually not in the complete version of the game.

    Really too bad as I would have made the jump on it some time ago already. I find it both dishonest from the editor and discouraging for a new customer.

    • commisaro says:

      I bounced off it the first few times I tried, largely, I suspect, because I expected it to be more similar to Civ and didn’t take the time to really learn what was going on and so was utterly bewildered. But the other day I decided to really dig into it (and play as Wind Walkers — one of the recommended starter factions as they are relatively straight-forward) and I am loving it! Can’t believe I almost let it pass me by!

  20. SanguineAngel says:

    holy mackerel this article is spot on expressing something I’ve felt for yonks. thank you!

  21. Crimson says:

    I have no problems with others enjoying games that I might not. I understand that a lot of players like story over strategy, and that is fine. The real problem (as seemingly missed by the author of this article) is that these games are being advertised as strategy games.

    Its real simple, in strategy games the outcome is primarily dictated by the players actions, story driven games the outcome is dictated by other factors (usually pre-scripted, but can be randomly generated/rogue-like, or otherwise). Now its a continuum, strategy on one hand, story on the other, but many of the games you mention as being unbalanced (and yet still fun) are, for the most part, NOT strategy games. So when they are marketed, advertised, and sold as strategy games, people who wish to play them as such get pissed off and often wind up on the forums venting.

    A large majority of Civ/TW players complaining about these games are just that, strategy gamers sold a game that wasn’t actually a strategy game (I know, because I am one of them).

    Just because a game is turn based, or has ‘stats’, spells, or skills, or is played on a grid, doesn’t mean its a strategy game. Strategy requires meaningful choices.

    • Arathorn says:

      You have a very narrow definition of strategy. In fact, I’m not sure what your definition of a strategy game is. How does the ability to generate stories have any bearing on how the game plays on a strategic level? Why do strategy games have to be symmetrical? Lack of balance just increases the challenge if you play with a disadvantaged faction. Wouldn’t that give players more opportunities to show their strategic skills?

  22. maninahat says:

    Asymmetry is fun in concept, but more often I find it just encourages me to try and exploit bugs. If the game isn’t being “fair and balanced” with me, I instinctively take the gloves off and start looking for ways to break the game. And that often stops being fun.

  23. left1000 says:

    Writing this article without mentioning dominions should be a crime. Heck what about master of orion 2 or sots1?

    The games actually mentioned are less asymmetrical than these.

    Dominions is all about lack of balance, to the point that the devs couldn’t even try to balance the game if they wanted to!

  24. Jim9137 says:

    One game I’ve always been really strong advocate for and really exemplifies asymmetric design is the Dune boardgame, or Rex as it is now known. Six different factions, with vastly different powers and gameplay (though some less than others) – and naturally, completely skewed balance. Statistics show that few factions are statistically more likely to win than the others, but then again,so what?

    That game creates stories of victories and betrayals. A game like Eclipse though, does it really? Your mileage may vary.

  25. EwokThisWay says:

    I see your point of view and i tend to agree with it partly.

    Unfortunately your argument is flawed.
    When talking about “imbalance”, you adress the “AI is unfairly stronger than the player” thing but you (intentionally ?) ignore the other side of the balancing issue : “the player is unfairly stronger than the AI”.

    When the AI don’t have the same chances as the player… what is even the point of a strategy game ?
    Why even thinking of a “strategy” when you can destroy the AI easily without much thinking ?
    What is the fun of playing a strategy game without the need of strategy ?

    It also applies to RPGs with levelling. What’s the point in gaining a level and picking between skills if you could already beat the AI before, without any new skills ? Unless there’s a particularly good story and you just focus on the story of course. But then why even implementing the levelling and skills system… ?