Asymmetry’s all the rage these days. It gained traction with the promise of unique player experiences each game and has only been bolstered by the success of games like Root. Some of the Thoughtful Gamer patrons were discussing this subject on our discord channel the other day, and someone remarked that they think there’s a difference between variable player powers and asymmetry. I don’t particularly care about that conflict, but it did get me thinking about how to classify different types of asymmetry, loosely defined (that is, anything non-symmetrical).
Of course, pretty much all games quickly become asymmetrical to some degree. Even a coin flip has a flipper and a caller, though given a fair coin and fair flip those differences don’t matter in any meaningful way. What’s “meaningful”, though, is subject to some amount of interpretation. I’m going to err on the side of inclusion. I’m also not going to guarantee that this classification is comprehensive. Instead, as the title says, these are some notes I came up with after thinking through what might be a reasonable way to classify the different ways we see asymmetry in board games; think of it as a starting point. If there’s anything you think I should have included but did not, please comment and let me know!
I’m going to focus almost exclusively on asymmetry that exists from the start of the game, or at least after a preliminary draft phase or something quick like that. I’ve divided this into three major categories: starting resources, actions, and goals.
1. Starting Resource Asymmetry
This is the most common type of asymmetry, probably because it’s relatively easy to implement. Mandating simple variation of players’ starting resources also deflects against the creation of “standard” openings, which some eurogamers don’t enjoy. Viticulture does this cleanly with the “Mamas and Papas” mini-expansion. Players get a quick choice between a couple of cards to determine what they begin with. Tzolk’in has a similar quick decision. Dominion is an interesting case, as everyone begins with the same deck, but the opening two hands can provide turns of 3 and 4 coins or, more rarely, turns of 2 and 5 coins. Which split you get can be incredibly consequential to which strategy you adopt.
An interesting spin on resource asymmetry is first player balancing, as it provides one kind of asymmetry in an attempt to balance against a different type. I don’t think there’s much of a functional difference between turn tempo and what would more commonly be referred to as “resources” (coins, bits), so I refer to both as a kind of resource. Some games will give players a couple of victory points if they’re in the disadvantageous position; other games will provide intermediary resources. Chess and Memoir ‘44, in more competitive contexts, are played as a series of matches to help even out the imbalances.
A more precise form of first player balancing is the starting auction, where players bid resources for turn order or other starting advantages. This is often used in competitive play with games like Terra Mystica, Twilight Struggle, and Scythe. It’s, in some ways, an ideal solution, because the players figure out how much they want to value certain advantages. However, it can create an awkward starting point for the beginning player as they have little understanding of how to valuate anything.
2. Action Asymmetry
I’m making this a separate category because starting resource asymmetry provides different arrangements of resources, but the resources themselves are interacted with in the same way by the players. Action asymmetry changes the methods of interaction with those resources. One way this can be implemented is with unique resource prices, where players have different buy, sell, and trade values for certain exchanges. Terra Mystica is once again a good example, because some factions have different prices for certain buildings, even if the buildings themselves function the same cross-faction. Pulsar 2849 also uses this with its player boards, offering different prizes and sequences for the “gate run” action.
A step further in action asymmetry is unique action types, which give players completely unique actions that other players do not have the ability to use. One could make an argument that this isn’t distinct from the previous category, as we can understand actions themselves entirely in terms of resource conversion, but I think it’s, at the very least, thematically distinct enough to give it its own category. This is where we get to many of the games that people often think of when the word “asymmetry” is mentioned. Netrunner is a prime example, with some actions exclusive to the corp or runner player. COIN games often feature both player and “side” specific actions. Any game that gives each player a unique deck of cards, like Magic: the Gathering or Spirit Island, also fits here. Sidereal Confluence is an interesting case study, as it blurs the line between “actions” and “prices” by having most of its discrete actions (outside of the free-for-all trading phase) be black box resource conversion machines.
3. Goal Asymmetry
The goal is to win, of course, but how you win can be asymmetric. This is where we find games that feel the most asymmetric like COIN games, Descent, Netrunner, Vast, and Root. Often it feels like multiple games in parallel, where players are simultaneously racing towards different finishing lines. Fog of Love is a fascinating variation on this, as each player’s goal can change during the course of play, and players independently achieve or fail to meet it by the end of the game. Despite this, Fog of Love doesn’t have any action asymmetry. Usually a game with goal asymmetry will come bundled with many other types of asymmetry as well.
One notable variation on this are team games that have player roles. Captain Sonar gives each player a separate job for which they are solely responsible, giving individuals sub-goals that help the team accomplish their collective goal. Space Alert doesn’t have strict parameters, but the “New Frontier” expansion allows players to take specialties that can guide people into focusing on specific tasks. Similarly, players will often claim certain tasks in For Science! even though each player has the ability to do whichever tasks they want.
4. Developmental Asymmetry
I don’t think most people will consider this when thinking about the subject of asymmetry, but, as I said before, I’m looking at the topic from a broad perspective. Asymmetry literally means “not symmetry”, and if you look at most games sometime during the course of play, they’re not going to look very symmetrical. Breaking it down further, I think we can distinguish the kind of developmental asymmetry that’s a necessary condition of multi-part games (i.e. not “one coin flip” or “who draws the highest valued card”) and the sometimes radically differentiating strategic paths some games allow. More specifically, if a game allows you to claim an item that gives you new abilities the other players do not have, that seems different enough from the fact that a mid-game chess board isn’t perfectly symmetrical to be worth mentioning. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a game that allows for very personalized strategic paths through unique abilities (say, Race for the Galaxy or Caverna) is designed with the same sort of sentiments that lead to unique player powers. That is, the desire for players to feel like they identify with their role on a personal/thematic level. I’ll talk more about this in next week’s article.
5. A First Draft Classification of Asymmetry
I’d love to hear feedback on this, but here’s a sort of hierarchy of asymmetry that I’ve come up with. I am not confident that I’ve thought of all of the possible complications or counter-arguments against it, so treat it as a working definition.
1. Trivial asymmetry: developmental, non-exclusive (i.e. you can’t get a power that the other player(s) are unable to access) and not thematically significant. Examples: more or less every game.
2. Weak asymmetry: developmental asymmetry with some exclusive powers, and/or relatively minor inherent differences between players. Examples: Wingspan, Suburbia, Tzolk’in.
3. Strong asymmetry: inherent, thematically significant, exclusive differences between players. Examples: Terra Mystica, Twilight Imperium, Scythe, Magic: the Gathering if the players are running different decks.
4. Extreme asymmetry: strong asymmetry plus significantly different rulesets and/or methods of victory for each player. Examples: Vast, COIN games, Netrunner, Captain Sonar, Dune.
I don’t know if there’s enough of an objective distinction between numbers 3 and 4 to justify a split, but I know for sure that playing something like Vast feels like you’re playing a different game than the other players where Twilight Imperium doesn’t. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter. Comment below!