Balancing the Asymmetry

Welcome to the end of Asymmetry week. On Monday we discussed the different types of asymmetric design at a high level. On Wednesday, we discussed how to begin an asymmetric design. Now, let's discuss ways in which to balance an asymmetric design.

One of the first things you need to recognize with asymmetrical design is that perfect balance may not be attainable. By its very definition an asymmetrical design contains 2 or more unique, unequal elements. Furthermore, the appeal of asymmetry is giving everyone something that is so powerful and special that at times it almost feels like they are cheating.

If you play a game of Rex (or really, any good asymmetric game), you'll constantly exclaim "UGH, THAT IS SO UNFAIR!" Then you'll do something unfair and it somehow all balances out. The key is to examine balance from a high level, meta standpoint and evaluate how asymmetrical abilities balance over the course of the game, not in finite moments.

For example, while one player may win more auctions due to his income advantage, another player may even this out over the course of the game in that he can own more buildings overall. In York, one player was able to hold more territories more easily, but another player could move about to take specific, high value territories more surely.

In Rex, one player has an overwhelming number of cards. They constantly have cards. They have a greater hand limit and they are given free cards whenever they make a purchase. Another player gets to view every card before they are purchased, whereas other players must buy them blindly. This player therefore has fewer cards, but they have the best cards (and the knowledge of everyone else's cards). These things even out over time and it brings attention to one of the simplest form of asymmetry: quantity versus quality.

Quantity may win more battles, but quality will win the more important ones. Quantity may sell more often, but quality will sell at the optimal moments. Remember the roles discussion from the previous post? It's less important to consider them from the viewpoint of individual moments, but more how they will engage in the entire conflict or economic spectrum.

When balancing for asymmetry, you need to keep track of several stats between games. Think about the actions one can take, or conceive of miniature goals and achievements sprinkled within the game.

For York, I would consider things like:

  • How many territories did each faction claim?
  • How many battles did each faction win?
  • How many battles did each faction lose?
  • How many Cities (important territories) did each faction hold?
  • Which factions won which strategic victories?
  • What was the point spread?
  • Against whom were each faction adjacent (to consider individual pairings)?

In an auction game, you might consider:

  • Who won the most auctions?
  • Who ended the game with the most money?
  • How many points did someone get for selling versus investing?

In Summoner Wars, one might consider:

  • How many Units does a faction tend to kill?
  • How many Champions does a faction tend to summon?
  • How many rounds does it take a faction to win, on average?
  • Who does the faction tend to play best against? Worst against?

Over time, you'll notice trends, ideal strengths, ideal weaknesses, and less ideal side effects. Naturally, if you're like me, you'll just observe this without the data. However, the data is a fantastic thing to point to when trying to solve the problem of balance.

So far we're considering the macro over the micro and we're using observation and data to track trends around identified goals. What else?

It's very important for an asymmetrical game to give every faction player something fantastically fun to chew upon. Everyone must feel special. Everyone should feel a little giddy when they execute a move that is spectacular when compared against their foes. In the rush for balance, don't strip the screw, as they say. Leave a little roughness that translates to pure fun for your players. I would say it's better to lose a few percentage points towards perfect balance than to sacrifice something that is just awesome to do.

That's the joy of asymmetry and I'd argue one of my favorite aspects of games. Asymmetry, like life, isn't always perfectly reasonable. But, it should be fair.

Finally, when balancing asymmetry, you need to give a cookie to each of your players. Asymmetric content forms a little bit of a funnel for players that constrains their sandbox in some ways. You should be better at some things, worse at others. Building intuitive goals into your game is a great way to improve the accessibility of your asymmetric game, which is important (as many are just overwhelming).

What do I mean by cookies or intuitive goals? Let's say your game has three methods of scoring: investing in property, selling produced goods, or prestige for having a good business. In an overly simplistic example, let's say you then had 3 factions, each of which tended to be better at one of those 3 methods of scoring points. From the very start, each player tends to have a bearing for what they should be doing. They have a sense for what good looks like and can begin working against that.

Now, the true strength of your design shows when they don't HAVE to follow this to win. In fact, for replayability that's essential. You also want to encourage them to dip their toes in elsewhere, not just to fully take advantage of their engine, but to hinder an opponent. But, as a starting point, in game one, a nice balance goal is to give everyone an intuitive goal they can set for themselves.

This concludes Asymmetry Week (and a half). I hope it was interesting and fun. Please share your comments below!

Comments

Thanks for posting these -- I just finished up a game and really want to add an asymmetrical component to it (which will actually fit in really well) and this all helped a lot. What do you think about having different win conditions?

Awesome idea, but very challenging. You have to think of it as an ability, but also understand that it will limit the breadth of that player's options. Rex/Dune has alternate win conditions, as does Netrunner. What do you have in mind?

I'm not really sure, but I love how it's done in Rex! Especially the Xxcha being able to steal a victory if predicted correctly. My rough draft game right now doesn't actually have a "Win Condition" besides points -- the game ends when there are no more enemies to defeat and then points are counted up to determine the winner. So I'm not sure if I should add extra "End Game Conditions" to a faction's extra abilities or if that would even be a beneficial ability. It might just not be a game that should have specific win conditions for different factions/classes. I suppose things being worth more points for each player might be a way to go. Do you know of any other games that have different win conditions like Rex? I've still never actually played Netrunner.