Critical Play: Balance in Clue

I have enjoyed the game Clue, which was released in America in 1949 by Parker Brothers, since I was a child..

I think it is strong in all 4 kinds of balance.

  • Challenge Level:

In terms of whether the challenge level is appropriate for the audience, Clue is well-balanced. It is marketed as a mystery game, so players know from the beginning that they will have to deduce information from clues, and they will only play the game if they are interested in this kind of challenge. The difficulty of these deductions for a player depends in some ways on the craftiness of their fellow players. For example, Player A might choose to ask Player B for information that Player A already knows, just to confuse other players. Thus, if players play in groups where all members have around the same amount of experience in games of deduction, the challenge level of the game will automatically adjust to be appropriate for them.

  • Starting Positions:

Clue is a multi-player game with asymmetry: characters start in different locations on the board and have different initial information. Since the information cards are randomly distributed between characters, no one character always has an information advantage over any other character. In terms of starting position, some characters in Clue could be considered to have slight advantages over others. For example, Miss Scarlet moves first, which could help her get into a room (so that she can make a suggestion) more quickly than other players. Colonel Mustard’s beginning square is closer to (i.e. fewer squares away from) a room than other characters’ beginning squares are; this might also allow him to get into a room more quickly than others can. However, characters’ speeds are determined more by players’ dice rolls than their starting positions, and chance is the same between players. 

More importantly, beyond the questions of speed and initial information, the game is balanced; the same strategies are available to every character. Thus, I consider Clue’s characters to be well-balanced.

  • Strategies:

The many possible strategies in Clue are also well-balanced. For example, a player might decide to stay in one cluster of close-together rooms on the board, so that she can spend most of her time making suggestions rather than moving around. This strategy would be beneficial if the solution room were one of the rooms she stays near, but would waste the player’s time if the solution room were a room on the opposite side of the board. This demonstrates one main reason the strategies are well-balanced: different strategies can work or not work depending on the chance solution to this particular game and the chance distribution of information to other players, neither of which a player can know. Also, different strategies might be best for different players in a particular game. For example, if Player X’s initial information cards are mostly of rooms, then she might choose to spend longer in each room, since she doesn’t have to eliminate as many rooms as the other players do. 

There is an optimal strategy when choosing which cards to show to other players: try to show them cards that they have already eliminated. However, since this strategy is not always possible (other players don’t always suggest any cards that you have), it does not make the game feel less balanced. Rather, the fact that other players will certainly try to show redundant information is something that players must take into account when making their suggestions.

  • Resources:

Players do not choose which cards they are given at the beginning of the game. However, they do choose which suspects, rooms, and weapons they name in their suggestions, and this influences the cards that their fellow players show them. As mentioned in part 3, there are no cards that players should look for first in every game. Rather, the suggestions they make are always influenced by the information they already have, which changes from game to game.

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