Apples and Oranges: Joyous Asymmetry

Rex

Last week at game night I was able to enjoy a second game of Rex: Final Days of an Empire, Fantasy Flight Game's revision of the classic Dune. Once again, I was blown away by the beautiful level of asymmetry, player interaction, the amount of tension, and how often people smile because of their player bonuses.

Asymmetry is one of my favorite elements in a game. It gives you something new to enjoy every game, something special and unique that only you have, and forces you to learn not only how to play to your strengths, but exploit your opponents' weaknesses.

Many of my favorite games are asymmetrical and the new design I'm working on now is also significantly asymmetrical. This led me to ask: what are the different types of asymmetry available to a designer and what are the implications of such types? I conducted this exercise when thinking about scenario and campaign design, as well as faction design, and I found it very useful for my efforts. It's a good thought exercise.

This is a bit of an academic or philosophical post, so use that as you will.

Let's Explore the Different Types of Asymmetry! It is important to note that a game doesn't have to be, and often won't be, just one of these. These are very loose, high level categories. Think of this as a Venn Diagram.

Symmetrical Design: It makes sense, to me, to discuss the clear exception first, which is symmetrical design. To me, a symmetrical design is one in which both players have equal opportunities, the same choices, and an identical set of rules which they must follow. Naturally, these games evolve so that options differ, but both players began with equal footing.

In chess, both players begin with equal units, and all units act identically. In Dominion, all players begin with an identical starting hand of cards and have identical options of cards to obtain. Naturally, the games evolve immediately as choices are made.

Examples include Chess, Monopoly, Stratego, Star Realms, Dominion

Light Asymmetry: I define Light Asymmetry as players having identical rules to follow and equal opportunities, but their initial options are varied slightly to differ their paths or provide variation.

You may see this as splitting hairs, but in every hand of Texas Hold 'Em, every player has a different hand to act against. In trick taking games, players are dealt out hands at random, which are the players' options for the trick. Or, in euros like Alien Frontiers, players are given varying initial resources, but also unique Alien Tech cards at the beginning. You can also look at a game like Ascending Empires, where the probability of the planets in your sector tend to guide your technology path in a subtle way.

To break it down simply, this can come about from the hand you've been dealt, starting resources, a simple character card (like in the DC Deckbuilder).

Examples include: Poker, trick taking games like Chronicle, Ascending Empires, or Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy.

Content-Based Asymmetry: I define Content-Based Asymmetry as giving all players a symmetrical foundation of rules and mechanics, layered with asymmetrical content, like cards, that tweak the core rules to create a set of advantages and disadvantages.

Content-Based Asymmetry is driven largely by manipulating the tuning variables. This means it's VERY important that you fully consider the variables your core rule set has to offer. A good example of Content-Based Asymmetry is Summoner Wars. Every player in the game follows the same phases of play. However, each player has a unique army, represented by a deck of cards, filled with a unique Summoner, 3 Champions, and 20 (is that right?) Commons. To further illustrate these variables, let me illustrate the tools the designer has to create asymmetrical content.

  • Move Properties: This includes the number of spaces, moving diagonally (it's typically just orthogonal), moving in just a single direction, moving through other characters, moving through walls.
  • Spawning: This includes spawning next to enemy walls, certain characters or types, being removed from the board to reappear, or summoning on top of an existing character (ex: The Filth).
  • Attack Properties: Hitting on a different dice value, being able to roll extra dice in some circumstances, gaining or losing hits in some circumstances, gaining re-rolls, gaining bonuses for using Melee versus Range, being able to shoot through other characters, damage multiple characters with one shot (straight line, orthogonal), or shoot through walls.
  • Magic Properties: Discard for extra magic, summon freely in certain circumstances, provide extra or negative magic for the one who destroys it.

As you can see, with just a few high level variables, you can squeeze and extensive amount of content variation out of a game. Content-Based Asymmetry is one of the more accessible forms of asymmetry as players don't have to re-learn the rules between experiences. These are also highly expandable and provide incredible replayability due to all the combinations in your play experience.

You don't have to go as far as unique decks and armies. Games like 1812: Invasion of Canada and 1775: Rebellion fully convey the sense of factions and asymmetric play purely by manipulating dice probabilities.

Examples include: Summoner Wars, Theseus: The Dark Orbit, Twilight Struggle, Magic: The Gathering, Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, Neuroshima Hex, 7 Wonders, and X-Wing Miniatures Game.

Rules-Based Asymmetry: I define rules based asymmetry as giving players unique strengths and weakness primarily through modifications of core rules and mechanics. This is more difficult to pull off, especially due to balance concerns. Furthermore, it's a challenge to not go hog wild and create a game that is incredibly difficult to learn and play. Just because you CAN create new rules, doesn't mean you should.

A favorite game of mine to demonstrate this is Dune, which has a new version called Rex: Final Days of an Empire. This game takes advantage of content-based asymmetry, altering some of the tuning values, but it also gives players entirely new rules, immunity, and so forth to make every players' experience entirely different.

The other poster child for this type of asymmetry, which is one of the best selling games around right now, is Netrunner. In this game, the Runner adheres to one set of rules, whereas the Corp player adheres to another. Their decks have different types of cards, their phases are different, they have alternate victory paths, and different deckbuilding requirements. Netrunner's learning curve is understandably steep, but the pay off in depth is just monstrous. This is demonstrated by its sales!

Although I could make an argument for it belonging to content (and really, who cares?), I think Cosmic Encounter would belong in the Rules-Based asymmetry category. The shifts are so big and distinct that I think it is more appropriate here.

Examples include: Dune/Rex, Netrunner, Cosmic Encounter, The Ares Project.

Two Games in One: This may not be asymmetry as much as it is mechanical fusion, but I feel it bears mentioning in this article. Some games are so asymmetrical that different players are playing different games. In Ladies and Gentlemen, one partner in the team is playing a light chit-pulling real-time game. The other partner is playing a set collection drafting game.

Whereas rule-based asymmetry alters mechanics to varying degrees, cases like this create two entirely different sets that somehow talk to each other, but are distant cousins, at best, instead of siblings. For example, in Netrunner, the Corp and Runners are still clearly members of the same family. They just hate each other.

Conclusion: Later this week I may discuss how I'm going to mix some of these elements for my personal design. Or, go off in another direction. Hopefully this was interesting and useful to your efforts. Share any comments below!

Comments

I also LOVE asymmetry in games! I regret that I have not been able to try the 2-in-1 system. Now that you and Mr. Hung have listed out a few options. . .
And I agree with Mr. Davis - QuarantineZ is a smaller one I'm excited to get into. I love it so much that I'm working on a medium weight game where each of the factions have different options for initial setup, different things to do through the game, and, of course, different win conditions.

Man, we seem to have really similar tastes in games. It's a shame you don't live closer: I bet you have epic game nights!

I've always enjoyed asymmetry, and I enjoyed your abstract (yet thoughtful) breakdown of the different types. I think Smash-Up would fit under your "content-based" asymmetry games, since the only difference is the different factions players select to create their decks.

I distinctly enjoy the "Two Games in One" mechanic, largely because it requires a game to be played at least twice to get the full experience. But balancing these games just be just grueling, since you're essentially making two games that must work together. I can think of two other games that fit this category: Middle-Earth Quest (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/31563/middle-earth-quest) is one, where one group of players play as the heroes, while the other plays as Sauron, who has a completely different set of actions.

The other is the classically obscure Clue: The Great Museum Caper (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/1484/clue-great-museum-caper). All but one player play as people stuck in an art museum, trying to find the thief, who is sneaking around in the dark (represented by their marker not being on the board at all). It requires the thief to plan, on his own map, how to steal all the paintings without being seen by the other players and the security cameras.

There are also the several Dungeon Master vs. Player games that are deeply asymmetric.

And the Werewolf social games.

Both in your 2 games in 1 family?

I think so. I think, according to my deeply scientific break down, they'd be one foot into 2 games in 1 and another foot into rules based asymmetry.

Perhaps "role based" symmetry?

Maybe. I tried to go super high level as you can split hairs in a million ways. That's the problem with a broad approach - some things don't quite fit perfectly.

I propose the term "divergent asymmetry" for your 2-for-1 category, so it sounds cool like the others. Divergent because each role has a completely divergent experience, although they have to intersect somewhere or you're just literally playing 2 different games.

Nice!

Two niggles:

Chess and it's ilk are not truly symmetric because they have turn-order asymmetry. This asymmetry has a clear biasing effect on the outcome of many games, sometimes even to the point of breaking them (e.g. Hex) so this isn't just an academic point.

Owing to the above, there is a class of games even more symmetric than games like Chess. These are games with simultaneous games (e.g. Set).

Great points! Thanks for the contribution.

grrr, typos