Design Patterns: Asymmetry (Part 1)

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Recently I’ve been frustrated by the term asymmetry in game design. What are asymmetric games? Common examples are Cosmic Encounter, Chaos in the Old World, Twilight Struggle, Android: Netrunner, or Fury of Dracula. Looking over that list, it’s clear that we mean lots of different things when we talk about asymmetry!

Twilight Struggle, for example, has players playing within the same general mechanical framework, and scoring exactly the same way, but with an entirely unique set of cards. Android: Netrunner has unique decks per player too, but players aren’t even playing the same game. Each side has unique mechanisms and scoring methods. Fury of Dracula features another kind of asymmetry, the one vs. many dynamic. Viewed through the lens of these examples, Cosmic Encounter, with its tame single unique power per player hardly seems to qualify for the club!

It got me thinking that even symmetrical games exhibit a lot of asymmetry. Chess is a perfectly symmetrical game, with only a single rule distinguishing the two players: white goes first. But Chess exhibits a  near-infinite variety of games in play. A few turns into a game of chess, the two players, with their exact same pieces and exact same rules, face different strategic positions. Does that make Chess an asymmetric game? By that definition, is there even such a thing as a symmetric game?

Clearly we don’t mean that a game is asymmetric solely because players wind up in different positions. But the chess example is really illuminating. White going first could be seen as a kind of special player power, or asymmetrical setup. It’s an incredibly strong asymmetry, too. In tournament play, white wins nearly 30% more frequently than black! Given that, Chess is a better example of how powerful first-mover advantage can be, and how it can unbalance a game dramatically.

There are lots of different kinds of asymmetry, and we’re not very good at talking about it. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing about asymmetry, trying to pin it down a bit better, and exploring different kinds of asymmetric design patterns. Stick around, and share some of your favorite asymmetric games in the comments.


  1. Jason Bice November 27, 2017 11:39 pm Reply

    I think of Vast when I hear the term asymmetric gaming. I believe it is one of the more successful and easily identifiable asymmetric games to be published recently. The tricky part is that each game is essentially five sets of rules to learn, so it feels like the entry into the game has a much higher learning curve. I would be interested in how to make that learning curve easier while still having an asymmetric game experience.

  2. alex November 28, 2017 7:39 am Reply

    Good point regarding chess. The advantage of first player impacts the game to such an extent that in competative play there are many opening plays that are completely different for black and white. The opening plays that works for white seldom works for black and vice versa.

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