At GenCon, I was talking with Kevin Wilson (Sid Meier’s Civilization: the Boardgame, Arkham Horror, Descent, a million others) about balance and playtesting. He said something which I politely balked at: that a simple game needs a lot of testing because it can be easily broken. A very large game needs a lot of balancing and playtesting as well because it is so interdependent. But medium-large games don’t need a lot of playtesting as long as they are complex enough that players can adapt strategies that self-balance the game – focusing on things that maximize their chances and ignoring slight imbalances as rounding error.
I disagreed at the time but was too polite to say so. Now the more I think about it, the more merit it may have. What if many of our games that we find to be paragons of balance are that way because of organic player behavior? I know from experience that balance is largely a guess and check endeavor. I’m playing League of Legends with folks from work lately and I am astounded that there aren’t obvious dominant strategies with such diverse character abilities. Is this because of rugged playtesting and post-launch tweaking and nerfing or because the system is complex enough to allow for self-balancing? What if games that seem needlessly complicated or fiddly (Arkham Horror is a good example) are that way to allow for player flexibility in the hopes that the player, rather than the designer, finds the balance?