Balancing on dangerous tables - a S.M.A.S.H. design blog

Published on 7 July 2024 at 15:22

Our revised edition of S.M.A.S.H. is at the printers and a publisher's proof is on order, so if everything comes back looking good, we can hopefully make it available over the next week or so. That also means I've finished doing all the work I've got to do on it, so I've got a bit of free time to put together another design blog. So let's a have a look at a couple of helpful tables in the book - one new for the revised edition, one that's been there since the original release - and the effects that these tables have had on our balance within the game.

What's so dangerous?

Well, I guess the balance part of that title is probably obvious to understand, but what do I mean by "dangerous"? Well, other than a in-joke that only my Monday night group will understand, it's a reference to the main thing I want to discuss here: the idea of balance within an asymmetrical game. The basic mechanical premise of the game is one that takes the idea of game balance and slaps it in the face with a metal gauntlet. If we focus on trying to make everything equal we lose what makes S.M.A.S.H., and the characters you play in it, special.

They key thing that we always talk about when we are working on the game is balance of experience not outcome. Each player should feel that they have had an exciting, thrilling experience playing their character, and that each character should have different chances to shine. There was never any attempt to balance out the damage that each archetype can cause, or the speed that they can move, for example. Each has their own niche, and they should each feel special in that niche. For brick's it's their ability to soak damage for others, for shapeshifters its their healing and flexibility, for speedsters its their ability to cover ground and deal multiple attacks, for blasters it's all about the damage, for martial artists it's their ability to chain actions together. 

However, where we felt there was some room for balancing within the game was within each archetype, and no place was this felt more than with the mimic and every-hero...

So, now we get to the tables

One of the later additions to the original version of the game as we were getting it ready for print was the addition of the keyword summary table. This was a great tool to help you quickly see what powers your keywords gave you access to. The trouble was, this made it clear how unbalanced some keywords and powers were against each other. Initially there were some keywords with only 4 or 5 keywords, and others with 9 or 10. 

Whilst our initial thoughts were that we didn't need balance, given the asymmetrical nature of the game, it soon became clear that we did when one of our playtest games had two every-heroes with very different outcomes based on the keywords they chose. One was a character empowered by the ancient Egyptian goddess of lightning, with Classic, Elemental and Magical, the other a cyberkinetic reporter, with Alert, Elemental and Technology. Whilst Sekhmet had seven power moves in their starting build, General Electron had only four. This was exacerbated by the fact that two of General Electrons powers, Post-Cognition and Super Senses, had very little direct combat effect. After the first few combat scenes it became clear that there was a big disparity between the play experiences of these characters, and whilst General Electron was able to hoover up clues during the investigation scenes, it didn't really go for enough to make up for how useless he felt in a combat scene.

Whilst we did some balancing of keywords against each other as a result of this playtest feedback, there were some decision that just didn't it right with us, and the final balance between keywords was still far from equal, with keywords now ranging from 6 to 8 power moves. 

Here's the current table from the original game: 

The trouble with the revised edition was that we needed to add a few extra powers and keywords. Whilst adding the new keywords of Death, Fortune and Musical did little to affect the balance of the other keywords, the addition of three new powers - Clone, Density Control and Probability Control - made a big difference. There was nothing for it, we needed to give the keywords an overhaul. So, we spent an afternoon just going through the table, one keyword at a time, to check what power moves they should have access to and trying to bring them all into the same sort of range.

We also though we should have a look for balance across the rows as well as the down the columns. We hadn't even considered this in the first edition, so we really weren't sure what to expect and what we wanted to go for. In the end this became less an exercise in balance and more one of considering what power moves should be more widely accessible and which should be more restricted. Some powers, like Blast Attack, Flight, and some of the "super" power moves, are the common building blocks of lots of superheroes power suites, whilst others. like Clone and Teleportation, are the single most defining feature of a superhero's powers. Some powers needed to be common across many keywords, others needed to be less so.

We also felt it was important to make sure every character could have some option to deal damage in combat. There are 3 power moves that directly increase a character's damage output: Blast attack (formerly Energy Attack), Super Strength, and Weapons (formerly Natural Weapons), but a character can also deal a similar amount of damage with a combination of Super Speed with a power move that also provides Advantage, such as Concealment, Probability Control or Teleportation. Across the keywords, there are only two that don't have access to at least one of these options, making it impossible to build a character for theme and not have access to a way to deal damage in combat. 

This is the table we ended up with:

So let's copy that idea

The fun thing about playing a mimic is the ability to pick your powers as you go, tweaking what you can do. However, this can mean a lot of flicking back and forth in the book to get things right. Mimics therefore, being copycats, obviously wanted to copy the keyword table for their own purposes. After giving the mimic's power moves a bit of an overhaul/facelift, we decided that we should do a similar process of balancing out their archetype mimicry options as we did with the every-hero keywords. Essentially, the table that now finds itself on the back of the mimic's character sheet, was first written out by hand to help us with this balancing process, but when we were done, we realised it would make a handy tool when playing the archetype, so we typed it up and added it in.

The big change for this edition that really highlighted the need to consider the balance across archetypes was the addition of the Practiced tag, which allows mimics to choose two archetypes and be able to use any power moves and upgrades available to either. In playtesting, it soon became clear that we had a balance issue when every such mimic created used the every-hero as one of their tagged archetypes. We needed to make sure these were much better balanced.

However, I am getting ahead of myself. Before we even started the process we'd already spotted a potential problem with Attack. We'd already done some work on trying to balance this out before we built the table. We had initially taken the approach of giving access to an upgrade whenever the original archetype had access to a similar effect. This gave a crazy disparity between the archetypes, so we had already trimmed down to the effects that we saw as "core" to each archetype before we began the the overall balancing process.

Even after this, however, there was still an issue for a few archetypes with a vast array of available upgrades, and there was no easy way of deciding which to keep and which to throw out. The solution to this problem proved to be some heavy trimming, but alongside the creation of a new addition to the archetype that allowed them to mimic a single upgrade that was not normally available on the archetype list for a power move, but at double the mimicry point cost. This one change fixed a lot of problems for us, allowing us to much better balance out the options amongst the archetypes whilst also meaning that a mimic would always be able to replicate the feel of a given attack.

As we started to put together our initial list, it soon became clear that there was a norm that things were trending towards: blaster, brick, controller and martial artist all had the same number of power moves that they could access, and speedster and shapeshifter were only one away from this number. Only every-hero was an outlier here. When we looked at upgrades the story, however started to diverge a little, with shapeshifter and martial artist having much less that the others and controllers and every-heroes having more. However, if we considered balance in terms of mimicry points costs (2 points for a power move, 1 for an upgrade) rather than just counting the numbers things started to align a lot closer: The shapeshifter's low upgrade count was compensated for by their higher number of power moves.

We still had a bit of an issue with controllers and every-heroes, but this was somewhat solved by two big changes to Summon Follower (a new power move, combining summoned creatures, object thralls and clone effects into one power).

Spawn Follower initially had many different upgrades for each of the different attack options that could be given to a the followers. By shifting this to instead ty in to the options available on the Attack power move, it cut the list down from several to five. An additional pruning of Bodyguard, which was basically the same effect as Shield, got the controllers down to one upgrade over the target points. The addition of the Special Attack upgrade, also freed up the need for controllers to have ranged attacks. The idea behind controllers having access to attack initially was to represent the attacks of their thralls, so their upgrade options were designed to represent the full range of effects that could be applied to a thrall. With the Special Attack upgrade, controllers could apply fancy attack options to a spawned follower and hence make them better at mimicking how a controller operates. Hence their Attack power move was instead tweaked to represent how they might just use simple object thralls, to either hit or entangle a target at range, removing all upgrades other than Apply Condition (Entangle) and Ranged. This brought Controllers into line with the target points.

There was just no getting away from how OP every-hero was as a replication target. We toyed with the idea of instead linking to keywords for every-heroes, but that would have been just way too complicated to manage. So we instead just cut away Mind Control (but kept Spawn Follower, to give the some equivalent of mind control, even if it wasn't directly controlling the enemy), Super Speed, and all the upgrades for Spawn Follower. This, finally, brought them to the target points.

Looking at the numbers just from the table, shapeshifters were an upgrade down on the target, but their Condition immunity provided more options than blasters or bricks, so that kind of cancelled out - a level of balance we were happy with, at least.

This left us with only Martial Artist and Speedster that needed a bit of work. We'd already identified an exploit that allowed a mimic copying a speedster to attack nine times in a round, so we had removed the responsive upgrade from speedsters. Swapping Bounce to Double Strike allowed us to give that upgrade to both martial artists and speedsters, and by removing the responsive upgrade altogether and instead just giving martial artists super speed we were able to get them both to target points.

If you look at the table below and count up mimicry points for every archetype (except Shapeshifter) should give access to 24 points of power moves and upgrades.

Coming Soon

With that I'll wrap up this blog post, but with S.M.A.S.H. revised at the printers for it's final checks, the release is imminent. Watch this space for for more news on it's release!

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5 days ago

Very excited to see the 2nd edition. Such a great way to play Supers so keep up the good work! Hopefully there will be more examples of game play, especially for the GM.