Game designers struggle mightily with symmetry. Symmetry in what players can do helps ensure fairness, but it can also produce mirror-image play that’s boring. Besides, players love to identify with their in-game avatars, and having different abilities helps players do that. So do other asymmetries like having different setups, different units, and so forth.
Some games turn symmetry into asymmetry in surprising ways. Karuba is a great example. All players have the exact same tiles and play them in the exact same order to achieve the exact same goals. Yet, four or five turns into a typical game, each player has a different board, and players can actively pursue different strategies towards achieving victory. What’s so fascinating about Karuba is that players don’t just have the same tiles, they play them in the same order, and can’t even rotate them. Each tile is played in the same orientation. The choice of sacrificing a tile for movement is one of the few places where asymmetry is introduced into the game.
Chess is often held up as an example of a nearly perfectly symmetrical game, with only the turn order creating asymmetry. I believe this is a misunderstanding of chess. The first move of a chess game prunes billions of possible games from the tree and immediately imposes a radical asymmetry on the game, one in which one player’s goal is to win, and the other’s is to draw (while still looking out for possible winning combinations). In Go, the use of komi (compensation points) helps level the first-mover advantage, creating a more symmetrical competition in which players have the same goal.
Deck-building games offer players the opportunity to do the same thing, but it’s always a bad idea. If you copy a player who precedes you in turn order, you’ll always be one turn behind.
This design pattern can be thought of as a challenge. What’s the minimum amount of asymmetry you can use to still create a challenging game? Many abstract games use turn order as the only asymmetrical element. Designers may also try and mask asymmetry by creating thematic differences that have no mechanical role. King of Tokyo’s monsters are one example of this. Players choose monsters that have different names and art, but there are no gameplay differences between the monsters, unless you’re playing with the Power-Up expansion. In my own Ravenous River, the game is largely symmetrical. Players play as different animals, ranging from lion to mouse, but each has exactly one predator and one prey. Each player is dealt action cards, but two of the three uses of the cards are identical. The asymmetries stem from player choices, not initial setups.
Another category of games often exhibits symmetry: puzzle races. Ubongo, Set, and Dimension are all examples of players racing to solve the exact same puzzle. Physical races are the same. These types of contest games can be considered very fair, but because of how symmetric they are, they can magnify skill differences between players. Just as a chess grandmaster will defeat an amateur every time, a 12-year old Set addict will defeat her infrequently-playing 40-year old parent every time. To ensure accessibility across varying skill levels, these games often require handicapping rules.
Your turn! What are some of your favorite games that feature the pattern of “We all do the same thing but it comes out different” ? What kinds of design problems do you solve with this pattern?