Thoughts on Asymmetry Part 2: Design Challenges

Last week I attempted to classify asymmetry in games, and I think I was fairly successful at doing so (let me know if you have any ideas to improve my classifications). This week I want to talk about the design challenges and opportunities you may face when designing a game with strong or extreme asymmetry. If I had to guess, asymmetry as a trend peaked a couple of years ago and we’re slowly descending down that peak now. I remember discussions in 2018 and 2019 about board gamers demanding special player powers to meet demands for “replayability”. I don’t see that discussion so much anymore, and a number of popular games of the last couple of years, like Wingspan, Everdell, and Cascadia, have little or no starting asymmetry. 

Still, for a lot of players, asymmetry is a sign that adventure and discovery is to come. At the very least you can play all the different characters, right? Snark aside, I actually do enjoy games with strong asymmetry. Looking at my most recent list of my favorite games of all time, seven of the top ten are strongly asymmetrical, and two others are bordering on it. I love when asymmetry works. What I’m skeptical of are feeble attempts to shoehorn it in when it’s not thematically or mechanically justified. Here are five challenges you have to consider when designing an asymmetric game.

1. Balance

If everyone begins on the same ground, the only thing you might need to worry about is turn order. If everyone has completely different skills and actions, that’s a much more complicated matter. Games do not have to be perfectly balanced, and “over-balancing” is certainly a problem, but designers should probably do a good amount of work collecting data and crunching numbers to make sure the different factions are relatively balanced.

Or you could pass along the problem to the players. If you look at many of the most asymmetric games you’ll notice that they have a lot of direct player interaction. If your game is a diplomatic game, the players can recognize who is in the strongest position and adjust their approach to combat them. Look at Diplomacy, Cosmic Encounter, Dune, the COIN series, and Root for examples. Peter Olotka, designer of Cosmic Encounter and Dune, famously said that “balance is for wimps”. The board gaming world is better off because of his belief.

If you don’t want to make a diplomatic game, do your best to run the numbers and make sure there aren’t any severe balance discrepancies. If the game is good enough you can get away with a decent amount of imbalance. See Terra Mystica and Scythe for proof. Both use player-made balancing techniques for competitive play (usually some sort of auction). They’re aided by both being compelling game systems and by being opaque. They’re complex enough that it’s not obvious to someone not specifically looking for it that there are significant imbalances. This is important to note because of the…

2. Perception of Balance

The first play or two people have of your game are going to have a massive effect on what they think of it, for good or for ill. Balance is a tricky thing, because it’s not one dimensional. Factions that are balanced for new players may not be balanced for experienced players. Which do you balance for? Variability also complicates matters. If one faction is balanced in win percentage, but when it wins it wins decisively and when it loses it loses in dramatic fashion, how will people perceive it? They’ll probably judge it based on what happens the first time they use it. 

I’ve seen more cynical attitudes recommend that you only balance for the first play, but I think there are ways to fight against that. Spirit Island is very helpful to new players by rating each of the spirits by difficulty, so you know which are more straightforward for your first games and which are more complex. Inserting some strategy tips for beginners in the back of the rulebook can also help ward off unpleasant first play experiences. You can also simply say, straight up, that the game is designed for strategic depth. Don’t try to make your game everything for everyone. Be upfront about your intentions.

3. Identity

The very best games use asymmetry to help players identify with their characters or factions in the game. Twilight Imperium factions are so unique and distinct from each other, forged from broad genre stereotypes, that it’s easy to dive in and roleplay your civilization for eight hours. Netrunner is a masterclass on world-building and storytelling through mechanisms and images. Even a small game like Harvest makes its characters strategically different enough that you quickly start thinking in terms of their playstyle.

Games that have weaker asymmetry, like Roll for the Galaxy and Exodus Fleet, are fine, but you never identify yourself in the context of the game’s setting. Mage Knight, as much as I love it, straddles the line. The base game distinguishes its characters by a single card in their starting deck and a handful of skills that you develop as the game progresses. An expansion shifts that to two cards, and the game is much better because of it. That single card makes the characters feel significantly more distinct from each other; more fleshed out as characters in a setting rather than slight variations on the same thing.

4. Complexity Creep

Even a relatively simple game can quickly become significantly more complex through the introduction of a lot of asymmetry. I think Vast is a perfect example, as learning your one specific role isn’t too bad, but understanding everyone’s role is quite a task. Even more difficult is understanding how all of those roles interact with each other. Introduce enough asymmetry and you’re not only introducing more things to learn, but you’re creating a more complex web of interaction between them. Starting at 2p and going up the number of inter-player interactions increases at a triangular rate. A five player game of Vast, therefore, has 10 different ways the players interact with each other.

This can be rich and rewarding. I think the COIN games do a brilliant job of making the connections between players clear, even as the games have a significant rules burden. Once you overcome the steep initial learning curve the primary methods of interaction between players are clear and you can start exploring the deeper, more subtle methods. This is because the COIN games are richly thematic, so if you know something about their historical setting you’ll be ahead of the curve, and because they use two different binary conflicts to simplify things. For most of the COIN games, you will have a nominal ally that is on your “side” of the conflict, and you’ll score points based on one of the game’s two types of control, with your ally scoring on the other kind. So you know that one player is sort of on your side, and one player on the other side is directly pulling on the control tug of war you’re engaged with. They’re not quite 2v2 games. They’re 1v1v1v1 games fashioned as a series of parallel 1v1 conflicts. Except that everyone’s interests bleed over on everyone else’s all the time. Trust me, it makes sense. The point is that by anchoring the system in strong thematic design the complexities make intuitive sense.

5. Fake Depth

Variable player powers or distinct factions do not necessarily create depth. Indeed, they can delay players from exploring the game deeply by extending the strategic discovery process. Some people falsely attribute asymmetry to replayability, but the most replayed games in the world are not asymmetric. I love the strategic discovery process—the time spent figuring out a game’s fundamental rhythms and interactions—so I think I have a higher tolerance for asymmetry than most. But even I find simple, straightforward, symmetric games, more and more, a refreshing oasis against design bloat. If you want to make a box full of goodies to unpack and explore, great. But don’t let that distract you from seeking depth in your design. Think closely if you want to make a design that fizzles as soon as you’ve seen everything in the box, or if you want to create something that will still be rewarding after dozens of plays. No judgment here on which you choose, but don’t be fooled into thinking that asymmetry, haphazardly tossed in, can create depth.

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