Alright, people, listen up. I don’t have many gaming pet peeves but this is the biggest one so pay attention. Can we stop calling games “broken” so willy-nilly? I think this hyperbolic terminology comes from CCG’s but I’ve seen it slowly infiltrate the adjacent board game space slowly over the past few years. Can we drop it? It’s rarely descriptive in any way and typically doused in an overly-confident swagger.
What does it mean for a game to be broken? Typically the answer is related to balance in some way. But balance is more complex than many people think, and not the most fundamental goal of any game. Flipping a coin is pretty darn balanced, but no one’s calling for that at game night. Certainly there’s more to a desirable game than balance. Another use of “broken” seems to be an emotivist statement of “I do not like this”. Fair enough, but that doesn’t make an argument so I won’t be discussing it here. Finally, a claim of brokenness can also relate to the goals of the game or the type of play experience the person wants to have when playing the game. I think this is the best use of the term, though it also highlights how limited the word “broken” is by itself in this context.
Balance is tricky as there are a number of dimensions at play. What is balanced, the game that is balanced between the typical new player, or the game that’s only balanced among players who have 20 games of experience? What if one particular strategy generates a relatively consistent result (20-30 pts) and another is more variable (10-40 pts)? What if movement within those ranges is primarily luck-driven? What if it’s primarily skill-driven?
I remember years ago when I was playing Hearthstone regularly and a particular meta emerged that was quite controversial. Shamans, I believe, were perceived as being particularly strong, and the hearthstone subreddit was ablaze with cries of “broken!” After some time the developers released some stats to reveal that this particular archetype wasn’t even the best performing deck in the game, with a ~53% win rate. It was good and extremely popular but it didn’t appear to be having an outsized effect on the game.
However, there was a persuasive counter-argument: since this deck was the talk of the town, so many people were running it, assuming it to be a near-automatic win, and the number of low-level casual players running the deck brought the win rate down compared to other archetypes. I don’t remember if more stats were released, but eventually some small nerfs were implemented in what I saw as a compromise move by Blizzard.
What’s the lesson from this anecdote? Balance is complicated, and perception, to a certain degree, can matter more than reality. Or not, depending on your priorities.
Perception and Understanding
The clearest example of a broken game is one that is solved. In the hobbyist space we saw this, notably, with A Few Acres of Snow, which had an unbeatable strategy for one side. Does that make AFAoS a bad game? Perhaps, though I’d counter by suggesting that it’s only a bad game if one of the players knows the unbeatable strategy. Otherwise, where’s the problem? Checkers is solved, but only by computers. Does knowing that it’s a solved game affect one’s enjoyment of it? I suspect for most people it has no effect.
With the dispute between perceived balance vs. actual balance for experienced players, I don’t think there’s a clear answer. If your game is meant to be a highly competitive, intense affair, you probably want to optimize for the expert. If it’s presented as a casual affair perhaps you want to lean in the other direction a bit more.
What’s the game?
Ultimately the answer for when a game is “broken” is highly dependent on what the game is. I think the more constructive conversation is about the intended play experience, rather than strict matters of balance, perceived or not. In terms of highly competitive, evolving-meta games I’m most familiar with Netrunner. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Everyone’s favorite evil toy company executive was the most used card in the history of Netrunner. Three copies of him were in literally 99% of all Corp decks because his ability was so fundamentally powerful. This was, in one sense, a completely broken card. In another sense it was introduced to fix what I believe was perceived as a Runner-favored imbalance in the early meta (before I played). Perhaps more importantly Jackson protected against an annoying situation that could happen if you’re the Corp. Similar to Mtg’s “mana flooding”, you could get stuck with too many agendas in hand early in the game in Netrunner. Jackson let you overdraw your hand, letting you discard those agendas, and then if the Runner came snooping around you could sacrifice Jackson to shuffle those points back into your deck. Mr. Howard was an imbalance to fix a difference imbalance and protect against the annoyance of really bad luck. Broken? I don’t think so. Perhaps crude, at worst.
The best Runner card ever printed lasted only a few weeks before it was straight-up banned. Unlike Jackson it didn’t have an underlying balance fix in mind but was simply an extremely powerful card in a cycle that tried to create big, swingy effects. Banning it was the right idea. While Jackson was the best utility card there weren’t any strategies centered around him. Sifr created a situation where every Corp strategy needed to counter this one specific card. Furthermore, it made a core fundamental of netrunner–building and protecting servers–significantly weaker as a strategy. This was the most convincing argument against Sifr–not just its strength but its effect on the gameplay experience.
This strategy can’t be attributed to just one card, but the strategy as a whole dominated a lot of discussion during my time playing Netrunner. Instead of building and protecting servers, asset spam decks built many unprotected servers, usually with lots of traps sprinkled in with more valuable assets and agendas. Sometimes the asset spam deck would simply overwhelm the Runner with too many economic and tempo advantages before building a single, overwhelming scoring server. Ultimately while some nerfs did happen the strategy remained strong for years. But the discussion surrounding it was deep, exploring not only issues of strength but of what makes a game fun. What makes Netrunner appealing? Are the cards catering to that experience? What benefits do alternative strategies bring? Is a diverse meta intrinsically good?
Stop Saying Broken
Those are the kinds of interesting questions and discussions we can have when we move beyond the vague term “broken”. Next time you’re tempted to toss a game aside with such a cry, challenge yourself to more articulately explain the problem you’re encountering. By slowing down and questioning our initial reactions we can develop a more complex and nuanced vocabulary for how we talk about games.