Games Precipice did a nice series on balance last month, and I'd like to continue part of that conversation here. I am thinking specifically of how abstract strategy games achieve positional balance (if at all).
Positional balance is relative equality between the players' winning chances throughout the game. The 'relative' is important: the players need not have exactly the same odds of winning, but a game is unbalanced if it is likely that one player will become a run-away leader. Games that are positionally balanced generally have mechanisms that keep the leader on a leash, or provide extra resources to players that are trailing.
Not many abstract strategy games are good illustrations of positional balance. Instead, they tend to put all of their balance up front. In other words, they have external balance.
External balance is the levelness of the playing field created by the game designer. Most abstracts reach external balance by beginning with a symmetric position. This could be by a symmetric placement of pieces, as in chess or checkers, or a completely empty board, as in go or Dvonn. External balance may not make the game perfectly balanced--there may still be a first-player advantage, say--but it ideally it will be enough to make both players feel that they have a fighting chance.
An abstract strategy game with strong external balance and mediocre positional balance can still be a top-notch game. A chess player who is up a knight is rather likely (but not certain) to win. Since it is difficult to come back from a disadvantaged position, chess does not have a lot of positional balance. But getting a clear advantage takes a while, and there is plenty of gameplay variety in the process, so chess can still be absorbing. (It also helps that one can resign. When one player gets an undisputed run-away advantage, the game just ends.)
One of the few abstracts to wear its positional balance on its sleeve is Yinsh, a member of the acclaimed Gipf series. Yinsh disadvantages the leader by removing one of a player's rings from the board whenever he or she gets a step closer to the goal of making five markers in a row three times. The closer one gets to winning, the less one has to work with.
Yinsh creates positional balance with an ad hoc rule. I don't mean that as a criticism. It is in fact very clever, and it makes the game vastly better than it would be otherwise. But it does contrast with the kind of balancing mechanism that is emergent. In Dominion, having a bunch of victory point cards is, all else being equal, an advantage. But since victory point cards don't do anything, having them in one's deck makes it more difficult to make further progress. There is no rule of Dominion that says that the leader must be disadvantaged in some way. But that is what tends to happen naturally, and that's an elegant feature of the game.
If I'm right about all this, Syrtis is one of the few abstract strategy games with several emergent positional balancing mechanisms. Since half the tiles have the color belonging to one player and the shape belonging to the other, sliding them toward the center tends to create advantages for both players simultaneously. And, as I mentioned in an earlier post, even sinking a tile of the opponent's color and shape will (again, all else being equal) make it easier for the opponent to consolidate the remaining tiles of his or her color or shape. That helps explain why a game of Syrtis is often a tight contest.
What do you think? Are there good examples of positional balance among well-known abstracts? Share what you come up with in the comments.