Tuning the Appropriate Value

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m tuning and balancing Flipped at the moment. I haven’t been changing the mechanics much at all for several tests, but I’m gently tweaking, nudging, and modifying the values on the tokens based on testing. This has been largely an economic experience rooted in the foundation of supply and demand, opportunity cost, and perceived value.

I loved economics in college (I was an international business major), so this has been really fun. I thought I’d share some of my observations and tips in the hopes it’ll help you tune and balance your game. Whereas Flipped is a euro style game in which you’re optimizing limited actions for the best outcome, these principles are also useful for a war game or any experience in which a player has limited options and must choose between varied opportunities. You know, a game.

Know your Knobs

I like to refer to all of your tuning variables in a game as your knobs. These are the things you can tweak, vary, increase, and decrease, in order to change player behavior, improve balance, and wholly influence the game.

In Ticket to Ride: Europe, the knobs are:

  • Number of cards you can draw
  • Number of cards of each color
  • Number of stations
  • Length and points awarded for routes
  • Penalty for uncompleted routes
  • Value of stations at end of game
  • Value of building a route
  • Distribution of route lengths and colors on board
  • Number of trains in a player’s supply

In Flipped, my knobs are:

  • Cost of acquiring the property
  • Number of properties in the neighborhood
  • Number of neighborhoods
  • Number of neighborhoods with inspection issues
  • Number of total properties
  • Number of clients
  • Number of demand types for clients
  • Demand satisfied per client (and type)
  • Points awarded
  • Requirements to build the property
  • Cost of adding the improvements to meet requirements
  • End game bonuses and points awarded

As I write about things below, try to imagine the knobs your game has and think about what you could tweak, and how, to adjust to the problems I call out.

Watch and Learn

The key to many of these things is player behavior. Yes, vocal players will complain and point out problems, but most people will act in accordance with their beliefs. The market will tell you what is good and what isn’t based on how it performs. The market being your players, in this article.

Value versus Perceived Value

It’s good for your game to have layers and depth, especially of the economic variety, but some of your layers may be a bit too subtle. As a result, the perceived value, which is what your players THINK something is worth, will be too low. A good way to detect the perceived value for something is off is if:

  • Players are entirely ignoring an option. It isn’t used and is therefore too expensive.
  • Players are overwhelmingly using an option. It’s used too frequently and is therefore too valuable.

In Flipped, there are two small neighborhoods with only 3 properties each (whereas the others have 5-9). End game bonuses are granted based on the composition of the neighborhoods at the end of the game. Because there are only 3 properties, these two “luxury” neighborhoods have fewer chances for interference and disruption. I saw that as an opportunity to increase their price.

Unfortunately, after repeated tests it was clear that players did not agree with the value. They overwhelmingly preferred to invest more deeply in the other neighborhoods and take more chances for success instead of doubling down on these expensive, single properties. To compensate, I made them less expensive and their perceived value went way up.

Instead of solving their value through a price mechanic, I solved it instead with demand. These properties are now very reasonably priced AND offer the benefit of a smaller, less chaotic neighborhood. This means players are willing to spend their initial turn to claim these over other properties. Therefore, they are still valuable, but now fairly so.

Penalties versus Incentives

If your players have the choice of an action paired with a penalty, observe how or whether they use it. An interesting one that many of you may have seen is corruption in Lords of Waterdeep: Scoundrels of Skullport expansion. There are new, incredibly powerful and lucrative actions. However, taking them gives you a corruption token. At the end of the game, using a very clever variable value mechanic, the corruption can be worth -5 or even -8 points apiece. It’s really dangerous and players must evaluate whether to take the action in light of what it’ll cost them, what they’ll gain, and whether they can eliminate the corruption.

The really difficult part is that good players will take some corruption. It’s just a matter of how much and for what purpose.

In Flipped, I have a mechanic where, if the need for infrastructure is at its peak, and you build a business or house, you take a decay token. In previous tests, this decay token would be paired with a variable number of penalty points and potentially would nullify any bonuses gained at the end from neighborhood bonuses.

Yikes! The behavioral result is that players simply didn’t build when infrastructure was maxed. If the choice is Wall of Spikes versus no Wall of Spikes, people are never going to opt for Wall of Spikes. That means I tuned a false choice into the experience, which isn’t depth nor strategy, but a behavioral rule.

There are ways to address this, which you can also see in successful regulation with governments. Often, folks chafe at the notion of regulation and penalties. However, if you provide incentives to change, you’ll see even the most dug-in of corporations march towards the dollar signs. No, I’m not trying to initiate a massive regulatory argument here, just take that with a grain of salt so we can discuss games.

More carrot, less stick. For Flipped, I’m introducing a few changes. Firstly, if you satisfy Infrastructure when it’s at high demand, you’ll earn a higher bonus. You already earn a bonus for satisfying high demand for anything, but for infrastructure it’ll be the highest. I’m also removing the immediate penalty of penalty points and instead making it a long-term potential problem.

If you have 2 or more decay in a neighborhood, you gain no end game bonuses. This has always existed, but now it’ll be even more prevalent. Sure, you can push the infrastructure of the city. Go ahead. But in the future it might cost you. This makes it an actual choice AND introduces a new angle for your opponents to exploit. That is a much better design.

Approximate Balance

There should be general balance in a player’s choices among similar avenues. For example, end game bonuses should be approximately equivalent in difficulty and value. The output for shared efforts should be roughly equivalent.

Let me explain this with an example. Clients have certain requirements, like remodeling or landscaping work. These tasks always have the same cost. That means I know the fixed cost of satisfying the wishes of the client and therefore what it should be worth.

I’ll be honest with you — in creating the clients for Flipped, I used my gut instincts. I did the math for the number of Housing, Business, and Infrastructure clients, but past that I generally used my cut to determine distribution and point spread.

Before the game is published, someone will need to use a spreadsheet to quickly map this out to find out the number of simple, complex, and difficult tasks there are, the general point spread, and the supply and demand of the game. This is easy to do with a spreadsheet.

The general suggestion then is to apply approximate balance to your game. Things don’t need to be 100% perfectly balanced. I don’t think that’s required and sometimes, it’s not fun (though sometimes it is required). But, examine the fixed costs and inputs of your game and make sure that, in general, the rewards are fair for the amount of work put in.


This post may be a bit high level and hand wavy. Hopefully it helps! Tell me in the comments what you think, what I got wrong, and make any suggestions for the class.

This entry was posted in Blog and tagged demand, economics, game theory, incentives, opportunity costs, perceived value, supply, tuning by Grant Rodiek. Bookmark the permalink.

11 thoughts on “Tuning the Appropriate Value

  1. I really like the question of carrots vs. sticks. I generally like games that trigger positive feedback responses in people–rather than punish you for doing or not doing something, these mechanisms always make you feel varying degrees of happiness. So I definitely like what you’re tending towards with more carrot, less stick with Flipped.

    • This is a generalization, but stick tends to drive inaction. In my games, I never want players to not do something on their turns. Carrots tend to drive action. Action with potential consequences is far richer and more interesting than inaction.

      • Absolutely. It also provides the feel (and actuality) of forward momentum, which I think is really important.

        • When I started with Farmageddon, I observed my general frustration with games with interrupt cards, or you lose a turn, and so forth. I took that further to think: players should do something cool on every turn. Now, cool varies wildly. You won’t always attack, or buy the big thing, etc. But, you should always make project towards that cool thing. This keeps people excited, engaged, and leaning in.

  2. I can’t stress “watch and learn” enough. In playtesting, I’ve always found just watching what people actually *do* to be way, way more informative than the feedback forms or discussion after the test.

    • I agree. It takes time and is harder to do, but by observing the actions of your players and asking questions based on observations is the best. A feedback form is easy, and not useless, but observation is the best if you can learn the skill.

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  5. Reading this post and your conversation with Jamie left me trying to write a comment about reward systems that turned into a full length post (http://boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/24643/carrot-vs-stick)

    I found the whole of your post interesting to think about, I’d not approached tweaking balance in this way before so it’s set me off thinking in some new directions. Thanks for writing about it :)

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