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Agreed Differences - A Look at Asymmetry

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23 Mar 2021 00:00 #321073 by oliverkinne
Some games use different starting conditions for different players as...

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.

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23 Mar 2021 11:10 #321074 by Shellhead
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.

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23 Mar 2021 11:31 - 23 Mar 2021 11:50 #321075 by Jackwraith
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.)
Last edit: 23 Mar 2021 11:50 by Jackwraith.
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23 Mar 2021 12:02 #321077 by Jexik
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.

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23 Mar 2021 12:21 #321081 by jason10mm
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.
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23 Mar 2021 12:28 #321082 by Gregarius
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.
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23 Mar 2021 12:29 - 23 Mar 2021 12:30 #321083 by Jexik
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.
Last edit: 23 Mar 2021 12:30 by Jexik.
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23 Mar 2021 13:56 #321088 by dysjunct
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.
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23 Mar 2021 14:15 #321090 by the_jake_1973
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.

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23 Mar 2021 14:26 #321092 by n815e
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.
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23 Mar 2021 17:38 #321108 by DukeofChutney
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.
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23 Mar 2021 18:07 #321110 by Shellhead
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.
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23 Mar 2021 18:10 #321111 by Gary Sax
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.
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23 Mar 2021 19:04 #321112 by DukeofChutney
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.
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23 Mar 2021 19:14 #321114 by Frohike
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.
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