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  • Essays
  • Agreed Differences - A Look at Asymmetry

Agreed Differences - A Look at Asymmetry

O Updated
(Photo by Nick Ferwings on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

Gone are the days where every game gave every player the same starting setup and the same actions or abilities. More and more games these days come with factions who all have different powers, or if they all have the same, then they at least have a different starting setup. In this article, I want to look at those types of games where every player around the table basically plays a different game.

Some games use different starting conditions for different players as a way to counter the benefits players get due to turn order. The first player advantage is a generally accepted term that describes games where the first player will have a benefit over the second player, who will have a benefit over the third and so on, purely based on turn order. It's nothing to do with a player's experience of the game, but purely by going first, they will do better.

Often that has to do with having a wider choice, allowing the first player to pick the best card, the most resources or something else that's most beneficial, leaving the second player a lesser choice, who in turn will leave the third player an even lesser choice, and so on.

To counter that, some games give the second, third and later players a benefit that increases as you go around in turn order. So the first player gets nothing, the second player gets a small benefit, the third a bigger benefit and so on. Often this is extra money or some other resource that is used in the game.

However, it's not always about first player advantage. Some games let players start with different starting resources that are randomly chosen, but carefully balanced, so that nobody gets an advantage over other players. The difference in starting resources merely steers players down a certain strategic route, maybe making it more appealing to one player to go into sheep farming, while another player's starting resources make it easier for them to focus on building buildings.

Starting resources aren't necessarily coins, wood, energy or anything like that, but could also be cards or workers or maybe upgrades to a player character's abilities. In fact, many card games give players a starting hand, that's dealt from a shuffled deck, giving every player a different setup.

There is another way of creating some sort of asymmetry in a game and that is having factions or player characters that all have different abilities. These abilities aren't randomly assigned, but pre-defined to create a well-balanced set of options for players to choose from - or sometimes players are randomly assigned a faction or player character.

Suddenly, you don't just have different starting resources that can help you decide what to do at the beginning of the game, but you have something that's different to other players throughout the game. You might be better at building buildings than everyone else, but are worse at mining ore. You have to try and formulate a strategy around the abilities you've been given and, if your abilities cannot be changed during the game, you need to follow that strategy throughout.

That's different to starting resources, which can be used during the game, but still allow you to get whatever resources you need later in the game. Faction abilities are fixed, so if you're good at one thing, you need to focus on that.

Some games take this even further. Not only do you have a different starting setup and a faction that has different abilities to everyone else, but you also have different victory conditions. Suddenly you have to work out how you can use your advantages to get to the victory condition first, before everyone else.

Yet, the whole thing can be ratcheted up another level. There are games where every player follows different rules. You all play on the same board and maybe share the same resources, cards, etc., but what you can do on your turn is different, to a larger or smaller extent, to everyone else. Your victory condition may still be the same, such as being the first to reach 15 points, but how you score those points is different for everyone.

It sounds mad, but Leder Games are known for games like this. Root is probably one of the more famous examples of this type of game, where everyone plays on the same map, uses the same deck of cards and everyone tries to get to 15 points first, but every faction works really very differently. At the same time, you do interact a lot and you need to try and work together to stop whoever is in the lead from gaining any more points, but you still play your own game within the main game.

I definitely enjoy games where every player character is slightly different, be it just because of different starting resources or something else. It is almost like there are mini-expansions in the game, where each player chooses one for themselves, but we all still play together. It means that every game can be different, not because you try a different strategy or play with different people, but because of your starting resources, your faction or because something else changes each game.

What about you? Do you like games where every player is slightly different? Or do you prefer games where everyone is the same and you directly pit your wits against the other players? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #321074 23 Mar 2021 11:10
I love asymmetry in games, but it tends to result in imbalances that can only be addressed through direct interaction between players. I have only played Root a few times, but I found the asymmetry in it to be excessive, requiring experienced players to level the playing field. With a regular play group, that isn't a problem, but most people in the hobby seem to value variety over depth.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #321075 23 Mar 2021 11:31
I tend to associate the term "asymmetry" with games like Root or Villainous, where everyone is essentially playing a different game, but the same game, rather than just what BGG lists as "variable player powers." You do some different things than the Monk if you're playing the Hobgoblin in Talisman, but you're still basically doing the same thing. This goes back to Cosmic Encounter, which is why I usually refer to it as the foundation of modern, non-German board game design. Everyone is doing the same thing, but everyone just has a little something (OK, sometimes a big something) that lets them break the rules, as it were. I think asymmetry in the modern sense (e.g. Root, etc.) really began with Chaos in the Old World, where everyone was still playing the same game, but all of the scoring methods and dial events and card decks were completely different. It's simply ramped from there.

On the one hand, I tend to like games that tell a story, so I like games where everyone's role is different; sometimes entirely like Root or sometimes in pretty simple ways, like Cosmic Frog or 51st State. By the same token, I still find myself fascinated by the mechanical elegance of things like Taj Mahal or Amun-Re, where everyone is the same but trying to move the levers of the same machine in a different fashion on their own initiative, rather than being "told to" by the game. But, yeah, I look at my shelf and realize that I still probably like story games more; from the minor differences of Hammer of the Scots to the major differences of Blood Bowl: Team Manager.

Good stuff.

(Oh and just FYI: Root is first to 30 points.)
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #321077 23 Mar 2021 12:02
I enjoy Root and a lot of 2p combat games with asymmetry.

It could also be why I enjoy Race for the Galaxy too - the starting homeworld often directs you along a different set of paths than you might otherwise take. Settlers of Catan also has different starting setup based on a draft, which I like. And much like Root the end game is something pursued rather than arrived at an agreed upon time.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #321081 23 Mar 2021 12:21
Another great mechanics discussion. I view asymmetry as a bit different than just multiple paths to victory or variable starting powers. Small World, for example, isn't assymetric IMHO despite one random race combo being quite different than another (and increasing resources for those left unchosen on top of that!) because those combos are, perhaps crudely, balanced against each other and players will cycle through several of them.

True asymmetry would be this sites original namesake, Fortress:America, where 3 players have essentially identical forces versus a 4th who starts with a smaller, scattered force that increasing grows in strength as the game progresses. But even then the base mechanics are shared with the exception of a few unique units. This would satisfy a military definition of an asymmetric conflict though.

True assymmetry is pretty rare outside of 2 player games, i think, since game balance gets progressively harder. But plenty of wargamish games have players essentially playing 2 seperate games versus each other with some degree of interaction but few shared mechanics or units. These are usually predicated on the historical experiences of the setting with some game balance measures thrown in.

It would be interesting to see more games with widely separated player experiences outside of military encounters. For example, a game where one player is placing train routes while another is shipping goods, a third is playing a stock market game based on the actions of the first 2 players and the 4th is a robber baron. Small niche audience i think.
Gregarius's Avatar
Gregarius replied the topic: #321082 23 Mar 2021 12:28
Nice, thought-provoking article.

Rather than CitOW, I would trace this asymmetric trend back to Magic: The Gathering and it's descendant Dominion. Each player is playing the same game by the same rules, but it's really just a sandbox in which you can do whatever you want. The modern asymmetric games take some of the creativity out of the equation by dictating how each faction works. I don't mean that as a negative, just a different approach. Maybe I'm crazy, but I definitely see a throughline there.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #321083 23 Mar 2021 12:29
And Magic was reportedly inspired by Wiz War and Cosmic Encounter, so...

But yeah. I think cutting my teeth on Magic and Warhammer kinda made me more inclined to enjoy asymmetry than people who start off with Puerto Rico and will argue about the imbalance of starting with Corn or whatever.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #321088 23 Mar 2021 13:56
I used to love asymmetric games but have soured on them due to the difficulty in teaching them, and how easy it is for experience levels at the table to wildly diverge unless everyone plays roughly the same amount. Small variable player powers are fine, but it seems like a few designers are pursuing high levels of asymmetry as more of a design challenge rather than the theme really needing it.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #321090 23 Mar 2021 14:15
I like asymmetry, but at a low player count.....2-4. Like another poster intimated, it happens in wargames frequently. I like wargames, so.... I have not yet played my few COIN games to see how I will like that asymmetry at the 3-4 player count.
n815e's Avatar
n815e replied the topic: #321092 23 Mar 2021 14:26
There are different kinds of asymmetry.

There are pursuing different goals, having different capabilities, different starting strengths, different victory conditions and combinations of these.

I’ve also been thinking lately about games where players start in roughly the same way but develop asymmetry during the game.
An example of this may be Puerto Rico, where the buildings you purchase change your capabilities over the course of the game.
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #321108 23 Mar 2021 17:38
I like asymmetry in certain circumstances;

> If there is a strong narrative reason. Most 2 player wargames fall in this category.

> If it is a negotiation game. Cosmic and Dune run on their asymmetry. Yes part of it is board position/card value that could develop in a symmetrical game but weighing up the asymmetrical abilities and goals generates a much richer environment for negotiation in games.

> The game is really broad and complex and asymmetry will help focus the game. Magic fits here, without faction asymmetry and limitations on deck construction it would be a wild mess.


I am less convinced by asymmetry when it just limits a players decision space in an already focused game. A good example of this i played recently would be Terra Mystica. The game is very complex but what makes a good decision is quite narrow at most points in the game, and having factions with a correct way to play them just further constrains the space. Asymmetry can also make the game much harder to learn from both a rules and strategy perspective.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #321110 23 Mar 2021 18:07
The factions in Root are somewhat scripted. You can see the script right on the faction card, with the specialized turn sequence. It's popular to observe that each Root player is playing a different game, but each of them is also playing less than the full game.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #321111 23 Mar 2021 18:10
Strategically, Root factions are very scripted between at most 2-3 options, I agree with you.

But the game is all in the tactical responses with Root to squeek out a few more points every turn or surge to a big turn.
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #321112 23 Mar 2021 19:04
Agreed. Root looks like a very open strategy wargame at first glance, but it is in fact 4 very focused race games, where your race objective may clash at various points with one or more players. I think it works as a very focus raced game per faction but it can lead to some misplaced expectations of the game.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #321114 23 Mar 2021 19:14
I still think the Ogre dynamic of asymmetry needs to be revisited in newer designs: one side with multiple weaker units with gradations of abilities (movement, firepower, etc) and one overpowered target with some vulnerabilities/constraints, or the ability to evolve abilities over turns. I know the one-vs-many approach is no longer in vogue, though. Maybe a Predator license tie-in would give something like this some presence on Kickstarter.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #321118 23 Mar 2021 22:12

Frohike wrote: I still think the Ogre dynamic of asymmetry needs to be revisited in newer designs: one side with multiple weaker units with gradations of abilities (movement, firepower, etc) and one overpowered target with some vulnerabilities/constraints, or the ability to evolve abilities over turns. I know the one-vs-many approach is no longer in vogue, though. Maybe a Predator license tie-in would give something like this some presence on Kickstarter.


Team games are always shunned.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #321119 23 Mar 2021 22:14
That asymmetry of the one v many works well in Letters from Whitechapel and Fury of Dracula on the board and in video games like Dead by Daylight. I'm not sure that it isn't 'in vogue' rather than not much new to say in the oeuvre.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #321122 23 Mar 2021 23:04
On a few occasions, Fury of Dracula (2nd) I've seen games that were unpleasant for the Dracula player due to an overly competitive player on the hunter team. Not just competitive like the usual I-Win Guy, but like the toxic rules lawyering jerkishness of someone who can't stand to lose, escalating into the table ganging up on the solo player. It's not specifically a FoD problem, but the one-against-many format can sometimes put the one in a position of feeling persecuted, in a way that wouldn't likely happen in a co-op or multi-player or team game.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #321124 23 Mar 2021 23:20

the_jake_1973 wrote: That asymmetry of the one v many works well in Letters from Whitechapel and Fury of Dracula on the board and in video games like Dead by Daylight. I'm not sure that it isn't 'in vogue' rather than not much new to say in the oeuvre.


There is tremendous push back against any new dungeon crawler that is one vs many. That pressure resulted in FFG creating coop app based campaigns for Descent and Imperial Assault. It lead to the coop mode in the new edition of TMNT too.

A lot of people don't like to play the one in a one vs many game, but another large group of people demand everything should be able to be played solo.

Also, Sag, team games can succeed. Captain Sonar was an enormous hit and deservedly so.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #321127 24 Mar 2021 00:02

charlest wrote: [but another large group of people demand everything should be able to be played solo.


One of the worst recent developments to the game industry, IMO.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #321136 24 Mar 2021 08:48

Shellhead wrote: It's not specifically a FoD problem, but the one-against-many format can sometimes put the one in a position of feeling persecuted, in a way that wouldn't likely happen in a co-op or multi-player or team game.


Isn't that the whole point of a 1 v many game? In FoD and Whitechapel, both antagonists are being 'persecuted' by the protagonists. The only other option is to have the One be a much greater power level than the Many a la Dead by Daylight.

The pushback against a 1 v many game is a bit baffling to me. You can get the same 1 v many in smaller doses in games like Risk and Clash of Cultures where the weakest position is likely to be exploited. For a dungeon crawler, I would not look to play a one v many in board format. That seems to be better attuned to numerous RPGs out there.

I do play a number of my games solo, but to insist that the designers spend their resources putting together an automa for solo play is going a bit far. I hadn't realized that there was a vocal set of players demanding that solo rules be included from the start.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #321138 24 Mar 2021 09:32
They're one of the loudest groups on BGG, at the moment. At every game announcement: "But will there be SOLO?!!" Someone announces a clearly multi-player, socially-influenced game like Rising Sun: "But will there be SOLO?!!" And, of course, when the designer/publisher tries to explain why that isn't in their plans, the wails of persecution begin. It's absurd. Yes, I get that not everyone has a ton of people to play with, especially in the last year. But, no, I don't agree that catering to the whims of people who think that the only thing standing between themselves and fun with a game is other people is a good thing.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #321141 24 Mar 2021 10:26

Jackwraith wrote: They're one of the loudest groups on BGG, at the moment. At every game announcement: "But will there be SOLO?!!" Someone announces a clearly multi-player, socially-influenced game like Rising Sun: "But will there be SOLO?!!" And, of course, when the designer/publisher tries to explain why that isn't on their plans, the wails of persecution begin. It's absurd. Yes, I get that not everyone has a ton of people to play with, especially in the last year. But, no, I don't agree that catering to the whims of people who think that the only thing standing between themselves and fun with a game is... other people is a good thing.


I dunno who’s louder, the solo whiners or those demanding “Euro friendly shipping”.
Ah_Pook's Avatar
Ah_Pook replied the topic: #321142 24 Mar 2021 10:39
Yea there's definitely not anything going on in the world that has caused a huge spike in interest in solo gaming. People wanting solo options are definitely all just whiny assholes who hate playing games with other people.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #321146 24 Mar 2021 11:19
And if I was just talking about the last year or people solely expressing their need for options because of the pandemic, you'd be right!

But I'm not. And the apparent inability of people to express their desire for such options without acting aggrieved makes the label "whiny assholes" entirely appropriate.
the_jake_1973's Avatar
the_jake_1973 replied the topic: #321163 24 Mar 2021 14:04

Ah_Pook wrote: Yea there's definitely not anything going on in the world that has caused a huge spike in interest in solo gaming. People wanting solo options are definitely all just whiny assholes who hate playing games with other people.


And that is when one ought to seek out games that can easily be played solo and not harangue a designer for not looking to tack on a solo mode. Aside from party games, one can solo just about any game out there. It may take a little compartmentalization and separating what you know from what you would actually know, but it can be done. Rude clamoring for solo modes is just bad cricket.