Asymmetric Beginnings

Maybe it's the simple fact that I managed to write a post at all, but I was so excited about my asymmetry post from Monday that I decided to make it asymmetry week here at Hyperbole Games! Woohoo!

Now that we've discuss asymmetry at a very high level in terms of symmetrical, light asymmetry, content-based asymmetry, rules-based asymmetry, and 2 games in 1, we now have a foundation upon which to craft a design. At least, a theoretical one. For this post, the goal is to discuss how to go about beginning an asymmetrical design.

Therefore, where does one start?

Step 1: Identify Purpose

I think the key to a solid asymmetrical design is thinking about what every role means. What makes it special and unique? Where does it excel? Where does it fall flat? This was fairly simple to answer in York, at least at the outset, due to the clear thematic inspirations from the time period I was sampling.

  • High mobility army: Moves quickly and can reach distant battlefields quickly. Inspired by the Wehrmacht's Blitzkrieg, Israel during the 6 Day War, or the American army today (carriers that give long reach to distant lands).
  • Highly disciplined, defensive army: Can hold ground better with fewer men. Tough to dislodge, but also, less mobile. Inspired by the British army of the 18th and 19th century or the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
  • Guerrilla Army: Can appear and disappear and hit their foes anywhere. No ground is safe. Their mobility is exchanged for difficulty in holding ground. Inspired by the Vietcong or Spanish Guerrillas of the Napoleonic Wars (the origin of the name).
  • Irregular army of peasants. A people's uprising. The idea is that they would avoid direct conflict, and instead work behind the scenes (assassination, spycraft), or have sudden popular uprisings to disrupt the status quo. This idea was inspired by French and Polish partisans during World War II, the French Revolution, the American Revolution.

If you've read my blog, you've probably heard me promote the notion of goals early in the design process to preserve focus and move things along. Asymmetry is no different. Now that I had 4 high level ideas, it was far simpler to design content that fit with each of them.

Really, every asymmetrical component should have a very clear purpose or theme. If it doesn't need to exist, if it doesn't have a purpose? Cut it and move on. In fact, if you can't justify the exception at an early phase, and asymmetry is just that -- exceptions -- you should focus on a symmetrical design.

Step 2: Recognize the Knobs

Remember in the previous article when I discussed the various nobs available to the designer in Summoner Wars for content-based faction? At a very early level, you need to think about the important factors that can be modified through tuning for your game.

If you're making an economic game, your knobs might be:

  • Selling cost
  • Buying cost
  • Taxation and Upkeep values

If you're making a game that involves hand management, your knobs might be:

  • Rate of drawing cards
  • Discard rate
  • Modifiers on drawing (ex: draw 2, keep 1)
  • Hand limit
  • Limiting or de-limiting the number of cards that can be played

If you're making a military game, like Risk, with spatial elements, your knobs might be:

  • Movement properties
  • Army size limitations
  • Number of dice that can be rolled in combat
  • Rate of recruitment

You'll notice for each of these that I only list a few nobs and if you're using Content or Rule based asymmetry, you only need a few! Keep it simple! One of the key challenges -- and thrills -- of asymmetrical design is squeezing blood from the turnip. Seek to fully exploit your systems as they stand without adding too many exceptions and one-offs. Remember that asymmetrical games are fundamentally more difficult to learn for your players than symmetrical games. Keep that in mind as you design.

Therefore, try to identify the parameters you need from the outset. Think about all the different things you can do with them through the lens of your roles.

Step 3: Test the Base First

If asymmetry is a fundamental element of your design, you should test it sooner than later. However, while trying to test your asymmetrical elements you may overlook the fundamental flaws with your core mechanics. Before you test ANY asymmetry, create a single generic faction or force and test your mechanics in a symmetrical environment. At most, your players should deal with Light Asymmetry, which provides them with variable starting positions, differing initial cards, and so forth.

Sol Rising, a game that features light asymmetry and scenario-based asymmetry, was tested 30+ times before I created a single scenario. I had to validate the core knobs of movement, dice for combat, formations, and ship abilities.

Likewise, York was tested 30+ times before a single faction was introduced. Now, earlier in York's life I didn't even know it was going to be a faction game. But, once that became apparent, I still had to ensure my systems of Tactics, Reinforcements, Movement, and Scoring were relatively solid.

Asymmetry is a fundamental pillar for your game, but it's not the foundation. Design the foundation with asymmetry in mind, but don't chase the variation too soon. It's like redecorating your house while it's on fire.

Step 4: Test 2 sides first

I'm fairly certain Colby Dauch knew he wanted multiple factions for Summoner Wars relatively early. But, he built and tested the game with just two factions to begin with (Shadow Elves other?). In the same way you don't want to test the core game with asymmetry before you know the core game works, you don't want to spend design cycles on most assuredly bad content before you have a few examples of "what good looks like."

As you design and test a few factions, you'll get a feel for a few key things. How many variations and twists should the faction have? What kinds of things, at a high level, should every faction have? Much of this design work is organic and will be discovered through development and experience.

For example, while testing York, I began to recognize a framework for every faction.

  • A strong, passive quality/ability.
  • At least 1 Offensive Tactic.
  • At least 1 Defensive Tactic.
  • At least 1 Support Tactic.
  • 4 Factions total.

I began to work within these constraints. Initially, I didn't even have Defensive tactics. But, I realized they were not only essential for the experience, but another knob. Out of this, my defensive/disciplined faction was born. Support tactics emerged due to the need to change things outside of battles. Had I attempted to design all the factions to begin with, I would have spent an extensive amount of time, much of which would have been wasted. Furthermore, updating all of those factions per testing input would have been laborious and would have only slowed improvement in a game when rapid iteration was needed.

Similarly, to create scenarios for Sol, I designed a single one first. I tested it about 15 times before I designed other scenarios. By focusing on one, I learned about troop distribution setup, approximately balance of forces, how to create objectives and persistent effects, how to design dynamic events, and how to write the story.

Identify what good looks like, then spread it to other pieces of content.

Here's my attempt at creating an early road map for asymmetric design. What do you think? Useful? Where would you start? Leave your comments below!