Balance? Schmalance!

Today will be a very short blog post, more an anecdote than my usual too-long, not-structured enough babble. Today is about the first piece of feedback I received from the publisher who signed Cartographia, my first design.

Cartographia is a mid-weight Euro with multi-use cards where you have to explore and map out the Earth during the Age of Discovery. It features a card drawing mechanism similar to the one in Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, where when you draw, you pick one of the four piles to add to your hand, and then add one card to each pile (including the now-empty one).

These are obviously a very very prototype components.

At set-up, there are four piles of 2 cards each (as pictured above). First player picks 2 cards; second player usually chooses a pile of 3; then third a pile of 4, and fourth a pile of 5. After nearly a hundred playtests with that drawing mechanism, we found that regardless of player count, there was no statistical differences in average scores nor win rate based on player order.

Fast forward to 6 months after we sign the game, the publisher sends us an email: they had playtested it a lot and felt the “first player edge” was too much. I forward them my data, with a long explanation of why it isn’t. I get another email within minutes:

I’m sorry, I think I wasn’t clear: the players who are last in turn order feel behind throughout, and that they never can catch up because of the race elements in the game.

And that, my data never accounted for. It is one of many examples of a fundamental part of board game design: people talk about balance, but they don’t actually care. What they want is to feel like the game is balanced, like they win or lose because of their actions, not because the game gives some players what they perceive to be an unfair advantage, and that, no spreadsheet can solve, only playtesting.

Which is why I ask my favorite playtester question at the end of every test:

In the end, we gave a tiny, teeny bonus to those later in turn order. Negligible, really, not enough to switch the balance the other way, but enough that turn order is not what they point at when they lose.

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