Critical Play: Is Set Balanced?

Set is one of my absolute favorite games that has both single player and multi-player game modes. I think the reason that I continue to return to this game is that it is a well-balanced single player and multi-player game.

In single player mode, one of the main challenges in creating a well-balanced game is pacing. Each game of Set is unique since you shuffle the deck of cards before play every time, dealing out 12 cards at a time. Because of this, there is constant novelty in the rounds as you play by yourself, and it is a fun challenge to try and clear the deck as fast as possible! You can also practice identifying different types of sets so that your chances of winning are higher (i.e. there are multiple strategies to win)!  Additionally, because you are not competing against another player, the game takes on more a “practice” feel, so the individual player can actually set the pace of the game. Therefore, individual players can adjust the challenge level of the game, where you can either really pressure yourself against time, or just use it as a leisurely pattern-identifying activity.

In multi-player mode, Set relies on time pressure to create challenging game play. From experience, the main way that players find different strategies to win is finding a “type” of set that they identify the fastest. For me, I usually see the sets that have all three features be different (shape, color, number, pattern), while I’ve noticed some of my other friends are much better at identifying the more homogenous sets (all the same number, shape, color, or pattern). Because there are four features to the cards as well, there is enough variation in the 12 cards per rounds that allows players to harness their different pattern identification skills.

A set with all different features.

 Sets with multiple features of the same type (same color and all striped).

While the game mechanics are quite simple, the pattern identification remains tricky even after playing since I was about seven years old. I think that it’s an incredible feat that Set is able to engage players of such a large age range, and shows that the game is a fairly balanced game – I was a seven year old playing against my parents and my five year old brother, and it never felt too easy or too hard for a certain age group.

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