“Balance” is a tough thing to talk about coherently, because it means different things in different game genres. In the broadest possible sense, game balance is the way various aspects of the game’s mechanics or properties play off of each other to shape the strategies at play in the game space. In a fighting game, this can be frame data or hitbox properties of various characters’ moves. In a competitive shooter, it can be the properties of characters and guns, such as move speed, armor, damage, special abilities. A “balanced” game is one where, on paper at least, any strategy has a chance against any other. This is all a bit dry, though. You’re not here for definitions.
Part of what I want to talk about today is this: “balance” is stupid. Games that are designed to be balanced are stupid and not fun. “Balance” is how you get Pillars of Eternity when what you wanted was a new Baldur’s Gate. Baldur’s Gate wasn’t “balanced”. Pillars is, and it’s a tedious (if beautiful) slog. When every strategy is equally viable, every strategy is equally boring.
Master of Magic is a game that came out in 1994 that’s still the undisputed masterpiece of an entire genre 25 years later. It’s a 4X game in which you are a wizard in command of fantasy races. You research and cast spells, amass power, build and manage cities like Civilization, fight battles, hire heroes and mercenaries, make magical items, and travel between dimensions. The level of detail, the huge number of spells, the customization of your build and strategies, have never been surpassed. And it is definitely not balanced. It’s unbalanced as hell, and it’s super super fun.
You can’t possibly balance a game that has so much variety, for one thing. The spellbook that comes with the game is 48 pages. There’s 5 schools of magic (technically 6, there’s one everyone gets) each with dozens of spells. A huge variety of summoned creatures, global enchantments, damaging spells, buffs and debuffs, spells to terraform or corrupt the land itself, metamagic to counter other people’s magic or see what they’re up to, just a ton of stuff. There are 18 special properties for your wizard character to choose from, and 14 fantasy races they can command, many of which change your style of play dramatically. This is a game that was designed to immerse you into the role of a wizard in a magical land first and foremost. Nobody was worried about game balance in 1994. The game’s manual opens with a quaint little explanation about “falling through time and space” into a world “like medieval earth”, for fuck’s sake. They wanted you to imagine yourself in this world, and they plant the seeds to let your imagination get there.
It’s a testament to their skill that even though the game looks like this:
and even though the soundtrack is full of farty-sounding synths, they definitely succeed in the immersion factor. You feel like a goddamn wizard, not some lame simulacrum of a historical personality, or the abstract overmind of an entire civilization. You’re you, but magical. So, mission accomplished.
This isn’t even a game with asymmetrical balance. There’s no zerg-protoss-terran triumvirate going on here. Draconians can make an incredibly powerful flying unit with fire breath by just building a fucking stable, one of the earliest buildings you can build in a city. Dwarves can make one of the most powerful infantry units, but they require a fighter’s guild, which is much later down the build tree. Dwarves also get cannons and giant golems, AND a gold bonus, because fuck you. They’re dwarves, and it makes sense for them to do that stuff. Draconians, meanwhile, can all just fly. All their units fly. Because they’re dragons and have wings, get bent if you don’t like it. Klackons don’t have any ranged units. They’re insects, they can’t shoot bows. Every race is designed with their lore and flavor first and foremost. Mechanics are a distant second priority here. Only four races are even capable of generating mana. Nomads suck at everything. So do Beastmen. But they’re still there if you want to use them for flavor reasons.
Contrast this against Civ 6, where every faction is characterized by tiny 5 or 10% bonuses to this or that stat, carefully balanced against each other so that nobody is too strong or too weak. Also you can’t have Ghandi leading the Australians. That wouldn’t be balanced. Master of Magic doesn’t give a fuck about any of this.
And hey guess what, if you take over a city that belongs to a different race, you now also control that race! Take a dwarven city as draconians, now you ALSO have dwarves. Congrats. Take a trollish city as high men, you’ve got both. You get the idea. You can potentially command every race in the game, provided they all spawned in some neutral cities for you to take. And that’s another thing I like about Master of Magic: these aren’t “barbarians” or “minor factions” or anything so colonialist and tasteless. They’re just neutral cities. The only difference between their cities and yours is you’re a wizard. Your main city has your wizard fortress in it. They’re not inferior to you in any other respect, it’s not your manifest destiny to conquer and exploit them.
While I’m waxing political for a sec here, allow me to clarify that my attitude on game balance should not be taken as an anti-egalitarian political stance. I’m an anarcho-communist, after all. This is strictly an argument for what’s fun in a game, not real life society. In an economical and political sense, balance and equality are absolutely good things.
You get 11 “picks” for what kind of wizard you want to make. You can take books from each of the 5 pickable schools in almost any combination (the exception being you can’t have both Life and Death books). These same picks are also used for “retorts”, which are those passive abilities I mentioned earlier. Some retorts take 2 or 3 picks, some take just one. A book is one pick. Eleven-book strategies can be pretty powerful, and let you start with a lot more spells as well as research any and all of them from the school you dump picks into. Some retorts, like Warlord or Myrran, give you access to things either difficult or impossible to get if you don’t take those picks. Runemaster and Artificer in particular is a game-breaking combination, letting you make magical items and then break them for a mana profit.
You can make a build that revolves around buffing halfling slingers all to hell and making a super-elite holy slinger unit that just steamrolls towns by itself. You can make a build that has only undead units, relying on killing enemy units to recruit more, because oh yes, anything killed by the undead becomes undead. You can try to play without using any magic at all (good luck though). You can completely fuck yourself over with bad or useless picks. It’s fine. It’s all good, do whatever you want.
A lot of the so-called “spiritual successors” to Master of Magic have failed to capture the chaotic, wild and free nature of the gameplay on offer here. They’re very concerned with updating the graphics and user interface, and with ensuring game balance in accordance with modern sensibilities. And in so doing, they completely destroy the essence of what makes Master of Magic so good in the first place.
Nobody can seem to get the combat right, for instance. The thing about a turn-based battle system that takes place off the world map for every single encounter is that it’s a pretty huge break in the pacing. Master of Magic’s system works because of its low-fidelity graphics. It walks that fine line between battles being involved, but not too slow. You have a great deal of flexibility in combat, thanks to magical intervention. You can nuke or debuff enemies, buff and heal your own, change the landscape, a bunch of stuff depending on what you’ve researched. The actual positioning and attacking at the units level, though, is very simple. And stuff animates very quickly and simply.
You see all those little blobs? They’ve got like 2 frames of animation, tops. Whack whack, attack over, on to the next one. Whack whack, whack whack, zoop, whack whack, oh the battle’s done. Units have simple stats that scale with the number of “figures” in the group (which, by the way, is why halfling slingers are so good), it’s easy to wrap your head around how good each one is, whether it has a ranged attack, etc. When you cast combat spells, they have more elaborate animations, but nothing crazy, they’re still over in a second or two. Stuff isn’t taking forever to move from one square to the next, with elaborate walk cycles and sound effects, all trying to be realistic. No. They just scooch around. When you start making this stuff more true-to-life and complicated to look at, battles become a slog very quickly. Nothing epitomizes this contradiction more than Endless Legend, an awesome and remarkable game where I find myself auto-resolving basically every time because otherwise it just takes so damn long for anything to happen. Even though the battle system is much more involved and complete in that game, I just can’t be bothered with it; I’ve got an empire to run. In Master of Magic, you want to get in there and cast spells and control your units in battle.
Especially if I’m going 11-book Chaos. You think I summoned all these hellhounds so I could not watch them chomp? They are my good chompy boys, they like the big dinner, I gotta check that shit out.
So yeah. I think I’m out of steam for now, I don’t have the energy at the moment to give a well-sourced coherent argument as to why exactly perfect balance is both impossible and a bad thing to strive for. But Master of Magic stands as probably the best example of a game that’s wildly imbalanced and also the coolest most fun game in its genre because of that. It hasn’t been surpassed in nearly 3 decades. It’s on GOG, it’s cheap, it runs on Linux out of the box, just go play it.