Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Chaos Theory in Game Design

The post about nature's revival reminded me about a very important concept in game design.

Chaos Theory

And I'm not talking about the bullshit that Malcolm talks about in the movie Jurassic Park. And I'm not talking about the classic "butterfly flaps it's wings and causes a tidal wave."

I'm talking about the fact that a subtle, seemingly small change made can cause an incredible impact on a system.

I think the greatest example of the importance of subtle changes in game design comes from the game Dominion. If you haven't played it, I highly suggest it.

In that game, there are literally over 100 cards to choose from, and each game is played with 10 of those cards. And yet, the actual range of effects from those cards are pretty limited. As such, there are a number of cards that are very close in what they do.

As an example of subtlety changes in cards, I want to look at the cards Adventurer and Venture. Adventurer is an action, while Venture is a treasure. Adventurer goes into your deck and grabs the next two treasures while Venture only grabs 1. Venture is also worth $1. Now, if someone untrained were to look at these two cards, they'd say they pretty much do the same thing and have pretty much the same value.

As it turns out, statistically* Adventurer is one of the worst cards in the game, and Venture is one of better cards. Just because the venture can fetch more ventures and adventurer makes you discard your other adventurers.

Game balance is an extremely difficult thing. Just ask Blizzard. In order to get an accurate vision of how something changes a game, you have to look at how it fits into the grand scheme and see how well or poorly it's adopted by the players of the game.

Note: If you'd like to give Dominion a try at some time, you can play it online at or And if you want a little help learning the game, hit me up.

*There is a site online where they track all the games played and mark whether a card was bought or avoided in a win and loss, and compiles all that information. Math don't lie.

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