26 March 2009

Scrabble and overvalued points

There’s an interesting article on the Wall Street Journal site by Carl Bialik: Price Drop: Stocks, Homes, Now Triple-Word Scores

"Za," "qi" and "zzz" were added recently to the game's official word list for its original English-language edition. Because Z's and Q's each have the game's highest point value of 10, those monosyllabic words can rack up big scores for relatively little effort. So now that those high-scoring letters are more versatile, some Scrabble aficionados would like to see the rules changed -- which would be the only change since Alfred Butts popularized the game in 1948.

Which reminds me of the link between skills and the skill points in role-playing games. (Where you can replace “skills” and “skill points” with various abilities and the mechanics for acquiring them.) When you add more skills, you often have to consider whether to change the number of skill points characters get.

These imbalances could theoretically be addressed by narrowing the football goalposts, bringing the three-point line closer to the basket and raising some Monopoly prices. But removing these strategic advantages, and the ability for smarter players to exploit them, can make a game boring, some say.

See, roleplayers aren’t the only gamers to worry about balance or claim a rule is broken. (And don’t think it is something new among RPGers. I remember plenty of balance discussions in the 1980s.)


Don the Bassman said...

This comment is more about the RPG rather than the boardgame part of the post.There has always been (at least as long as I can remember gaming) a discussion/debate/complaints about what is balanced and what isn't in Gaming. Some say to balance a game where everyone is on equal footing then more rules are needed, while others have stated that less rules are needed. Honestly, I have always thought that the GM is the one to balance the game out. This is true with all the systems that I have played in.
I have always been a fan of skills and skill points in a lot of systems.

Robert Fisher said...


The NBA made zone defense illegal and instituted a shot clock. To some, these changes make the game more exciting. To others, they make the game less interesting.

Although balance might be cited by one side or the other in these discussions, I think it often isn’t about balance at all.


There’s also this uniformity issue. D&D 3e tried to make fighters more interesting by giving different mechanics for different to different styles of fighting. This, of course, was tricky to balance and just about everyone can find something to complain about there.

4e seems to have achieved much better uniformity of balance, but at the price of making the experience much more uniform as well. There’s less difference between playing a fighter and a mage than in other editions.

In previous editions, you had a...well...balance. All fighters played by the same rules, but fighters and mages played by different rules.

I’ve been really interested in Risus, which is arguably even more uniform mechanically than 4e. The uniformity in 4e really turned me off, though. So, I’m wondering if I’ll feel the same way when I actually play Risus.


When I said “skills” and “skill points”, I was trying to talk abstractly. Almost every game has traits and some sort of resource spent to acquire them. Many have multiple examples of this. e.g. Feats and feat picks. The comment isn’t really pro or con any specific system.

Rather, I’m pointing out that the economy thus created is similar to this question of letter scores in Scrabble. In fact, it is much more complex. In most cases, there are so many variables that it really can’t be “balanced” at all.