Design Pattern: We All Do The Same Thing But It Turns Out Different

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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.

In Karuba players use the same tiles at the same time to make different boards

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?



  1. Randy Hoyt July 31, 2017 12:00 pm Reply

    NMBR 9 does this.
    Roll and write games with shared dice rolls (like Rolling Japan) do this.

    It definitely eliminates much of the complaint about fairness: “You just won because you had better cards.” And when you win, it can be even more satisfying because you know it wasn’t just the luck you had.

    • Isaac Shalev July 31, 2017 6:27 pm Reply

      Shared role games, eg Roll for the Galaxy do this too,but it seems like the simpler games get away with it more. As the games increase in complexity, the ‘random walk’ of rolled dice, or drawn tiles, etc. starts to feel less fair.

  2. Joshua July 31, 2017 6:17 pm Reply


  3. Dan Blanchett July 31, 2017 7:09 pm Reply

    I love how Onitama handles this, with both players having 5 pawns and access to 2 of the same 5 movement cards and that rotate between them, based on their choices. Use a card’s movement and you lose it to your opponent. Or hold onto a card until the right moment, denying that option to your opponent, but then limiting yourself to one option each turn. Brilliant.

    • Isaac Shalev August 2, 2017 2:27 pm Reply

      The way the five actions cycle among the two players is really fascinating. For a multiplayer version of this experience, try Inis. Players draft from the same set of action cards each rounds in this area majority game.

  4. Ian Reed August 1, 2017 11:17 am Reply

    Convert is an excellent example of this.
    Player 2 can copy player 1, but by the third piece, player one will sometimes score one point for their placement and play or two will score 0 (if the same pieces are used)

    There is also the strategic use of the smallest piece, used in an effort to effectively pass turn, allowing your 10th piece played to be larger for end game coverage.

    It also, like chess, becomes immediately asymmetrical. In chess you talked about pruning from the decision tree. In convert you get a full physical representation of that by consuming potential plays from your pool of pieces.

  5. Bastiaan Reinink August 2, 2017 12:15 pm Reply

    What I’m missing a bit in the analysis is what this means when designing (or playing) games. Yes, s symmetry exists. Is that good, bad, how can I use it for interesting effects?

    • Isaac Shalev August 2, 2017 2:38 pm Reply

      Thanks for the constructive feedback. I think that for the most part, we design games as symmetric by default, and then introduce asymmetric elements. But I think the chess example is really notable here: what seems symmetric may be highly asymmetric because of the impacts of initial moves.

      As a designer, if you want to have a symmetric game in terms of setup and player powers that still has richness and variety in gameplay, one lesson is to make early moves have a large impact on future gameplay. Many engine-builders have this feature. Games with limited mobility for player pieces – ie, games that are heavily structural – also feature this approach. On the other hand, the more flexibility you grant to players, the less you can create interesting asymmetry out of symmetrical starts, because it’s too easy for players to revert back to a stalemate position. (It’s also why stalemates become more common in Chess as the board empties of pieces). Games with high mobility, like Kemet, usually feature radical asymmetry in other areas, like the powers that players draft for themselves.

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