First Move Advantage – How to Balance Turn-Based Games – Extra Credits

(intro music)
After doing that episode on randomness in e-sports,
we realized that there is a particular aspect of game design
that we really should talk about.
First Move Advantage.
And to help us do that is out new artists friend here: Addy.
First move advantage is exactly what it sounds like,
and it’s one of the trickiest design problems
for anyone making turn-based games.
You see, in most turn-based games,
being one turn up on your opponent is a significant advantage.
Therefore, as a designer, you have to build in mechanics to compensate for it:
in Magic, the second player gets to draw an extra card;
in Go, the player playing white gets 7.5 free points;
in Hearthstone, the second player gets to draw an extra card,
gets to mulligan an extra card,
AND gets a special card that lets them get one free mana.
The list goes on and on, but the key thing here to note
is how difficult it is to create a balanced handicap for the starting player,
to counter the benefits of first move advantage.
If you know anything about the history of professional Go,
it’s pretty much a catalog of the best players in the world
realizing how good going first was.
Over the last 150 years,
they’ve continuously raised the number of points
the second player gets simply for going second.
Because no matter how high they raise it,
it’s never been quite enough to make do.
On the flip side,
many professional Hearthstone players want to go second,
because the benefits of going second may be a bit OVER-balanced
especially for all the decks that benefit
from the fact that ‘The Coin’ is technically a spell.
(Hearthstone players know what I’m talking about.)
Okay, so; as designers, how do we address this problem?
Well, first, we have to identify what type of turn-based game our game is.
For our purposes, there are two different types of turn-based games:
Static-Resourced Games,
and Developed-Resource Games.
Static-resourced games are games where
players have access to all the pieces from the outset of the game,
and they don’t build up the board over time.
These would be games like chess,
or Final Fantasy Tactics.
Developed Resource Games, on the other hand,
are simply games where the players
build up resources over time.
Games like Magic: The Gathering, or Go.
The problem of first move advantage
has much more of an impact in developed-resource games,
and so if we find we’re working on a developed resource game
we have to be VERY mindful of this problem from early development.
But this isn’t to say that first move advantage
is a negligible problem in static resource games, either.
In fact, they’re a great deal of debate around it for chess,
as last I heard, at a professional level,
white is roughly 5 percent more likely to win than black.
And in the entire history of professional chess,
no matter when you run the numbers,
when you compile the games,
white always has wins over 50 percent of the time.
So, in turn-based games of any kind
you should always consider first move advantage.
It’s just that its impact is much greater in developed resource games,
and that impact is often felt at much lower levels of play.
So, let’s assume we are making a developed resource game.
What should we do to minimize first move advantage?
Well, the first thing you need to do as a designer
is make sure that you build into your game
the tools that will allow you to fine-tune
how you create the starting player handicap.
Using our Go example,
we see that their points system allows them a lot of flexibility
and granularity when addressing first-move advantage.
Whereas games like Hearthstone and Magic
struggle because the only levers the designers have to work with
can have enormous effects on the game with even the tiniest of adjustments.
The difference between getting a whole extra card
and not getting it in one of these games
is a HUGE shift in player power,
and the designers really don’t have a smaller increment to work with.
Second, you should make sure to build in metrics to your game
to observe first move advantage.
As a designer, you NEED to know how significant the advantage is
and just how effective your attempts at mitigating it are.
if you’re thinking about building a PvP turn-based game,
these metrics are essential.
Next, you should be aware
that first move advantage naturally grows over time.
This… may sound like an odd statement at first
(I mean, how could the advantage grow without you changing the game at all),
but it stems from the fact that
your player base will get better at this game over time.
The more people play your game, think about your game,
and spend a time with it at a professional level,
the better the average player will be,
and the higher the skill level of the very best players will be.
You see this in all professional sports,
in long standing games like chess and Go,
even in our major eSports!
I mean, just look at a professional Starcraft match from the 90s,
or a League game from as little as three years ago
and compare them with today, and you’ll see the difference.
And what this means for us is that, as players get better and better at the game,
they’ll also get better and better at exploiting that little edge that going first gives them.
Which means that you have to watch your win percentages carefully
and be prepared to adjust how you deal with first player advantage over time
Lastly, as designers we have to be aware of first move advantage,
not only in turn-based games,
but in any PvP game that has turn-based elements.
Look at League of Legends, for example:
the ‘pick and ban’ phase of the game
is, essentially, a turn-based element of play.
The designers of that game have clearly used
the way that pick order rolls out
and tried to compensate for first move advantage,
but imagine if they overlooked that.
Imagine if they didn’t address first move advantage there:
it would completely unbalance the game.
So, whenever you’re including turn-based aspect into your game,
even if the core game is real-time and heavily action-oriented,
you should be thinking about potential first move advantage anyway.
I hope that helps some of you who are busy
crafting our turn-based battles of tomorrow.
I’ll see you next week
♫ Music ♫

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