Welcome back! This is the third part of the asymmetry series. You can catch up here, or just keep reading. No prior knowledge required!
Well… except this bit. Last week I said:
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.
But what if we ARE talking about that kind of asymmetry, the asymmetry of players starting identically but making different moves and growing apart? It may even be the most important asymmetry of all!
Game designers are faced with a paradox. Games need to have winners and losers – a binary, highly asymmetric outcome – but they need to promise a fair opportunity for each player to succeed and be the winner. My theory is that every game using some kind of asymmetric prod to set up this asymmetry.
Mirror abstracts like chess and checkers use an obvious method: an unmitigated first-player advantage. The player who goes first forces the action, and given equal skills, the first player will win substantially more than 50% of the time. Betting games, from poker to backgammon, use hidden information, coupled with the ability of players to control their exposure to loss. You might be dealt a bad poker hand, but you can fold without further betting. American-style games typically use randomizers like dice and cards to create this productive asymmetry that pushes the game along. Some players are more tolerant of the inevitable imbalance in outcomes, while others avoid the genre entirely because of how much they perceive luck to play a role.
European-style games tend to eschew dice and to seek to mitigate first-player advantage. Even hidden information is usually minimized. So how do Euro games create the necessary asymmetry to generate interesting play? Mostly, they do it through opacity.
Consider the genre of games sometimes called ‘Point-Salad Euros’ because of the many opportunities they offer for scoring points. Stefan Feld’s designs are leading examples in the field, and consistently, what these designs do is offer players many routes by which they can convert actions and resources into points. The challenge for players is to determine which routes are most efficient, and which combination of resources and actions will yield the highest overall total in victory points. Valuation is the key skill these games test, and they test it by making it difficult to compare various point-scoring engines one to the other.
My claim then, is that most Euros are solvable efficiency puzzles that create asymmetry by the choices of players to test one solution versus another. The advent of mobile versions of board games demonstrates this point. AIs for games like Race for the Galaxy or Alhambra are very strong because computers are readily able to calculate odds and efficiencies, and to quickly model large decision trees to find the best answers.
This claim that opacity is the key driver of asymmetry in Euros can be supported from a design perspective too. Early testing of a design will confirm that the game is fun, but repeated testing is usually focused on ‘breaking’ a game – trying to expose and eliminate all dominant strategies. Some games, like A Few Acres of Snow, get released with a dominant strategy not yet discovered. When it is discovered, the game loses a lot of its appeal, so designers work very hard to ensure that dominant strategies are not present in the game.
Yet, over time, strong strategies can emerge. The photon torpedoes of Eclipse, the Halifax Hammer of A Few Acres of Snow, and the infinite loop of the roofing company in Glass Road are all examples of dominant strategies that were found in games, even from experienced and award-winning designers. You might even characterize every game as one more iteration in the search for the optimal way to play – the dominant strategy, or at least, the Nash equilibrium.
So is that everything? Are all Euro games just Tic Tac Toe, or Connect Four, or even Chess – puzzles solved, or waiting to be solved? Perhaps not. Because there’s another source of asymmetry we’ve really barely touched on, which is player interaction. But we’ll have to wait until next week to discuss it. See you then!