There have been a few blog posts up recently about terrain and balance in Malifaux and, considering I have been doing a lot of work recently on getting boards ready for #goodbadfated on May 24th in Sunderland (shameless plug :p), I thought I would chime in with my own thoughts. This then will lead onto my thoughts on narrative gaming.
The common rule of thumb with Malifaux terrain, it seems, is that a third of the board needs to be covered with terrain. This terrain, to ensure the game is as balanced as possible, needs to be broken down into things that block line of sight etc.
Now don't get me wrong, I think it is important to have a balanced game. I think for me terrain, of all things, should really aim to simply bring the game to life. Take, for example, the stereotypical western board you find in Malifaux (as a sub point, I finally found out why western terrain is used in Malifaux while reading the old rulebooks for fluff. It always seemed odd to me before). I think that for balance purposes there should probably be some forests of some kind and maybe some strewn boxes about the place. But in order to make the scene more tangible I think that there should really be a central unblocked main road running between two columns of buildings. You can imagine the Ortegas with hands floating over the holsters in such an environment. If you stress too much about terrain balance and I think that the board can become soulless.
I also think, however, that making things slightly uneven leads to a more visceral gaming experience. For me the most memorable moments of any game are those when I have beaten the odds, when the underdog has triumphed over adversity. Obviously, there is a balance to be struck though. Make things too uneven and it will be a walk over and it will be no fun for anyone. But the aim of the balance is to make things fun and the way to do that, for me, is to provide room for the narrative of the game to develop.
It almost feels like I am contradicting myself from a few posts back. There I said that calling other players 'filthy' was bad because it undermined the triumph one felt when they won their game. If the game was not balanced, the victory was not theirs. This is true, I am not denying this, as I have said above a measure of balance and narrative needs to be included. The key point, however, is that you want to triumph over adversity, to create a cool story and to feel like you are truly challenged, and both players need to feel that.
I feel like I am spinning round in circles with what I am saying so I will just summarize and conclude. Terrain should be narrative in focus, not obsessed with balance. Balanced gaming and narrative gaming are naturally opposed, equality does not lead to gripping story lines. It is important, however, to let both players feel like they have a story to tell and challenges to face.