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How much asymmetry is too much?

7 replies [Last post]
dnddmdb's picture
Joined: 01/06/2009

Hey, everyone,

I've realized lately that I'm a big fan of games in which the players have variable powers or the players have asymmetric win conditions/action decisions.

Because of this, a lot of the games that crop up in my brainstorming sessions are asymmetric in nature. But I was wondering, how much asymmetry is too much?

Recently I thought of a board game idea in which one players manages a village (worker placement, resource management) and the other plays as monsters attacking, pillaging, and terrorizing them (action point allowance, hand management) and I was wondering is this too much? Is it a bad thing if the players are playing almost completely different games, making different kinds of decisions with different levels of complexity?

Some popular games with relatively asymmetric playing experiences, such as Android: Netrunner still have the players using similar mechanics: managing your hands, managing actions, but have to make different sorts of decisions within those mechanics. Is having different mechanics for the two players going too far? What do you think?


X3M's picture
Joined: 10/28/2013
Having the mechanics

Having the mechanics completely different is a nice challenge to get a game working like that. It will be tough though.

I think you are in need to some rules or mechanics. That have some sort of backlash. Meaning that if a player does something successful, there is going to be some sort of pause or light downside to it. The other player can catch up with its own rules or mechanics.

Corsaire's picture
Joined: 06/27/2013
Totally doable. Mansions of

Totally doable. Mansions of Madness 1st edition, Fury of Dracula, Spectre Ops, and even RPGs all do it. There is also a newer game with players on an alien planet against the alien player memory failing on the name.)

I love the scenario you described, if that's literally what you're thinking of doing. I think the challenge is to keep the depth of decision making and engagement similar.

lewpuls's picture
Joined: 04/04/2009
The more symmetrical a game

The more symmetrical a game is, the less it's likely to be a good model. And vice versa. (Or "symmetry and models of actual life are antithetical"). Lots of exceptions, though, some situations are naturally symmetric.

"Too much" is a value judgement that I don't think comes into game design. Example: RPGs and computer action games are highly asymmetrical, one individual (in many cases) against the world.

Symmetry that isn't immediately broken can be quite sterile.

You can think of game design as introducing asymmetry into a symmetrical situation. Thought I'd made a screencast about that, but I can't find it. Maybe on my blog?

Gabe's picture
Joined: 09/11/2014
The incredible success of

The incredible success of Vast and its followup, Root, suggests there's very much a market for highly asymmetric games. In both of those games, each player has a very different experience and works with completely different mechanisms based on the character/faction chosen.

They're crazy difficult to design and develop and require WAY more playtesting than a typical game, but if it's done well, you can have something really special on your hands.

Don't worry about "how much is too much," just make a great game that people enjoy.

questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
What I think is it depends on how the game is put together

Take for example "Magic: the Gathering". Each color has a widely different way of playing the game. Intertwined together makes for a more "complete" game experience even knowing that one color may be more dominant and therefore have a more specific way of playing with that deck.

Same for the "type" of cards: lands, creatures, artifacts, enchantments, planeswalkers, instant and sorcery.

With this much "variety" it spikes the construction mechanic and it gives the game a "spark". If you try to design a "duel" game, you'll find that all these types of cards and the colors, makes a huge difference in the resulting whole that can be produced.

So I think Asymmetry is really good for replayability and "variety" which translates into more depth and strategic choices.

The only possible problem is "cohesion": making it all work together. That's the real challenge and depending how asymmetrical the cards are, this can be more or less difficult to do.

In hindsight Magic is a cohesive whole which comes together as a simple game (in design not gameplay). Fundamentally it's just cards... and the various types of cards are designed to be used together all under various conditions. So from a high-level Magic "seems" to be simple. But when you get to each and every card, the choices available to build a deck, etc. The game is masterfully complex.

Finding the right balance is the key - I guess.

dnddmdb's picture
Joined: 01/06/2009
Asymmetry in Ability vs. Asymmetry in Action

Thanks to everyone for the responses! I think everyone gave good feedback.

Sorry to be vague about what I'm actually doing with this idea. But it does consist of the premise I mentioned, and as X3M says I actually do have an idea for a backlash sort of mechanic. :) I have rules written up for this game idea, but just need to make a prototype and playtest. I'm sure there are plenty of kinks to work out.

I think Mansions of Madness and Vast are more along the lines of the extent of asymmetry I'm using. Thanks for the examples! At least I know there's precedent now. Of course RPGs are the extreme of what I'm talking about, but they're also a good example.

I think there's a distinct difference between games where players do the same things but have different strengths and weaknesses (I think MTG fits this) and games where the players are actually doing different things (Mansions, and RPGs with a Game Master are an extreme of this).

I was mostly interested to see if people thought a game with players taking different sorts of turns and actions would be off-putting. Sounds like if you make a good game, they will come. And as mentioned, balance will be key moving forwards. Thanks again!


questccg's picture
Joined: 04/16/2011
One last comment...

Having different "in-game" strategies or unique asymmetric abilities usually adds a lot of replayability.

And this is because even if it's just a simple "ability" which is different, the results during a game may alter the outcome of a game. (Ok, so the ability may not be that powerful - but the context it is used in may have a large impact on that game.)

There is a variant to what you propose: having different choices in-game such that you can focus on one aspect.

What I mean by this is your more vanilla Economics, Conquering, Diplomacy, etc. Meaning if on your turn you choose to focus on making more "resources" and gathering more income (Economics) that is one "set of actions". Alternatively you can focus on conquering and gaining more territory. This also would have a different "set of actions", etc.

This is about half-way between MTG (everyone doing the same thing - with different abilities) and your other games mentioned (everyone is doing completely different things)...

It might be a good median to explore in offering "sets of actions" according to how a player feels like playing his turn.

I just thought I'd put that "out-there" ... because you seemed to only concern yourself with the extremes (both poles). But there are games in the middle ground too...


Note: That I believe (I'm not 100% sure) that Scythe is an example of choosing variable actions (according to your personal plans) and you can't use the same action twice (well that's not 100% accurate either - there is one Faction Leader which can allow that)... I'm not an expert on Scythe, just from what I have seen, to me it seems to be an "in-between" type of game.

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