Design Patterns: Asymmetry (Part 2)

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Last week I introduced the topic of asymmetry, and wondered out loud about all the different ways we use the term. Is there any hope of putting some order to all the chaos we uncovered? Probably not. But we’ll try anyway!

It might help to identify different categories of asymmetry. I’m going to try out four different types or dimensions of symmetry, which I’ll call

Victory Condition SimilarityMechanical OverlapAvatar Interchangeability, and Start Symmetry.

While I doubt this list is comprehensive, and I’m certain it can be improved upon, it will have to do as a starting point. For each dimension I’ll describe what it would mean to have a high, medium or low score in that dimension. I’ve decide to name these categories in positive terms, such that high scores mean more symmetry and low scores mean less symmetry. This is an arbitrary decision that is intended to keep us from talking in double-negatives.

Victory Condition Similarity 

  • High: Players have the exact same goal, like in a race, or mirror image goals, like a game of checkers, where each player seeks to capture all the other player’s checkers.
  • Medium: Players may share victory conditions, but they are strongly tracked to pursue different victory conditions or are incentivized/handicapped in pursuing a victory point win condition. War of the Ring is an example of both – the Free People are strongly tracked to pursue a Ring victory, but also need only 4VP, rather than 10VP, to achieve a military victory.
  • Low: Players win by achieving different victory conditions, like in Stronghold or Fury of Dracula.

Mechanical Overlap

  • High: All the mechanisms and rules apply to all the players, and players largely engage in all the mechanisms of the game, no matter their strategy. Puerto Rico, Lords of Waterdeep, and Risk all have high mechanical overlap.
  • Medium: Players operate in the same mechanical framework, and have both some shared and some non-shared mechanisms. Typically the game’s outcome is greatly influenced by the non-shared mechanisms or their emergent properties. Players may, by choice or chance, not engage in some of the game’s mechanisms directly at all. Examples include engine builders and ‘point salad’ Euros like Terraforming Mars, and Bora Bora.
  • Low: Players use very different mechanisms and largely exist outside of a modest shared mechanical framework. For example, in Android: Netrunner players do share some core concepts of decks, credits, and clicks, but each faction works differently, according to a unique set of rules and mechanisms.

Avatar Interchangeablity

  • High: The sides, factions, and/or personal representations of the players in the game are different only cosmetically, with little to no gameplay impact, like in Catan and King of Tokyo.
  • Medium: Players or factions may have unique abilities but they have minor impacts; special abilities provide incremental buffs, debuffs and special abilities rather than disruptive mechanical changes. 7 Wonders and Colt Express are good examples.
  • Low: Players have very different abilities and the experience of playing as one player/character/faction or another is sharply different in gameplay terms. Voyages of Marco Polo has very strong player powers, including one player who doesn’t even roll the dice, but simply sets them to her desired faces! In Imperial Settlers players have entirely different decks that feature different mechanisms too. However, low interchangeability exists in games like Twilight Struggle or 1960: The Making of the President, in which each faction has a separate deck, but in which there isn’t much by way of unique mechanisms.

Start Symmetry

  • High: Players start in near-identical board positions, with near-identical starting resources and no substantial turn-order advantage, like Dimension or Spot It!
  • Medium: Players start in different positions and turn order may be valuable but mechanisms or other design tools attempt to account for those differences. Players may start with different resources but they are of roughly equal value. Games like Catan and Codenames feature medium start symmetry.
  • Low: Factions have substantially different starting positions and/or resources, and their strategic choices are immediately and strongly impacted by this. Game of Thrones: The Board Game forces players to immediately ally to counteract the Baratheon player’s taking of King’s Landing on turn 1, for example.

What’s great about viewing these as different dimensions is how we can account for complex examples, like King of Tokyo. The game has high avatar interchangeability – all the monsters are mechanically identical – and it has high start symmetry. But special ability cards might turn any specific play of the game into a highly asymmetric experience. We’d say King of Tokyo has only medium or even low mechanical overlap, because players will have access to different mechanisms and abilities as the game goes on.

A final point about this system of classification: I am not addressing the asymmetry that arises based on the natural outcome of non-mirrored gameplay. Players take turns and make decisions and quickly find themselves in asymmetrical postures. But this isn’t what we mean when we say a game is asymmetrical. Just the opposite. If a game doesn’t routinely feature this dynamic, we might say it’s a failed design, or perhaps even question as to whether the game in question is a game at all.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at how to use asymmetry in design, so stick around! And please share your thoughts on these categories! Are they helpful? Do they ring true? Are there examples that don’t fit neatly into them, or perhaps dimensions that are entirely missing from this scheme? Let’s talk about it!

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