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Agreed Differences - A Look at Asymmetry
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.
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.
(Oh and just FYI: Root is first to 30 points.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
> 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.