The Four Categories of Competitive Games
by Jairus Elarbee on July 18th, 2016

One of the inherent challenges with designing competitive games is balancing the strengths of the players against each other. The goal is to have each player on level standing in their race to victory without anyone feeling the game was unfair to them. In my experience there are two sets of variables you can use to do this: Equal starts vs. Unequal starts and Known variables vs. random Variables. This leads to four possible combinations:
  • Make every player start identically and have all variables known.
  • Give each player the same start, but have some elements determined randomly.
  • Make each player different and have all variables known.
  • Give each player different starts, but have some elements determined randomly.
The design of the first sort can be seen in games such as Chess or Chinese checkers. Each player has the exact same starting position, the only differentiation being turn order. There are several advantages to this sort of design. One is that each player feels like they are equally equipped to win, rewarding skill of play rather than luck. This style of game is also simpler to mechanically design, being inherently symmetrical. The problems are games of this nature can be hard to make compelling. The core game play has to be really compelling for the players to want to return to this sort of game. It can also be more difficult to attract new players, since the skilled players will always have an edge.
The second sort of design is seen in games such as Catan or Monopoly. In Catan each player gets to build the same items at the start, but the tile placement or the turn order can add large variation between players. Monopoly gives each player the same starting cash and location, but the dice will immediately lead to large differences in player positions. These games tend to be among the more popularly successful. Games with these systems allow for some of the skill of the first type, but add more variability that can give advantages to newer players. The random variables can also make defeat easier to swallow players, as the burden of the loss can be attributed to the random elements rather than deficits of skill. This can come at the cost of reducing the importance of skill in a game if not implemented carefully, reducing the games long term appeal to more experienced games.
The third sort of design is used in the game Diplomacy. Here each player starts as a different nation, and can see all the pieces they and their opponents own. These are probably the greatest challenge to design. When executed correctly these systems can convey flavor to players better than any other system, giving each selection a unique play style. ‚ÄčThe difficulty comes in making certain each player feels uniquely situated without making one overpowered. These require careful and extensive play testing to balance.
The final kind of game is seen in Axis and Allies and our very own game, Endless. In the former, each player is given different nations to pilot in the war, but has variability determined in dice rolls of combat. In Endless each faction has unique heroes, units, and technologies, but the randomness arrives during the exploration of the map and the combat.  These tend to be among my favorite games. They are powerful to evoke flavor while also working to balance the inequalities out among the random variables. They share the difficulties of the third category, requiring extensive play testing and refinement. They can also occasionally be frustrating to the player if the randomness falls particularly harshly on a player, requiring careful tweaking of the variable odds.
These are the overall four sorts of competitive games that can be designed. Which you should use will largely depend on the goal of your game. Do you agree with my assessments? What are some games you can think of that fit these categories? Are there any you would say do not fit any of the four categories?

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