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Asymetric Roles and Complexity

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Joined: 12/01/2008

I've been dealing with the design of a somewhat asymmetric game, with a retro space opera theme.
It's asymmetric not in an overly broad scene, but rather, there are a number of characters one can pick, and that choice gives each player some special abilities and different ways to achieve victory.

I'm trying to keep the complexity of the game down, but making sure there is content to suit the various character roles keeps pushing the complexity up.

Without getting into the specifics of the game, my question is this: Is added complexity mitigated by the fact that each player only has to deal with a subset of the entire game? To be fair, a good player will likely want to know what another player can and can't do, but it isn't strictly necessary to dive right in.

Briefly, there are 6 classes of character to play, and each has a different way to gain victory points. Additionally, each has a couple of unique abilities that will help get those points. These differences mean that even though there are a large variety of missions, items, and planetary systems, only some are directly useful to you.

Let me give you an example.
You decide to play a pirate. You will attain victory points by attacking other player's (and NPCs) ships, and taking their items will get you money. So you are looking to get a tough, fast ship, by obtaining weapons, engines, and defensive items. While your challenges, aside from your targets, will be to keep your crime points low, as the higher they get, the fewer planets will let you land. Also, those crime points turn into bounty if another player catches you.

Each character class has a similar but different set of parameters. So multiply that by six. (If necessary, I can outline the other roles.)

Now the catch is that while you can simply go around attacking other ships obvious to the other mechanics of the game, you actions can still have a large positive effect on other players.
For instance, you attack the NPC ships guarding a system, and take some loot. However, now that the NPC ships are gone, the explorer player can go and get victory points by exploring the once guarded planets.
Or, say you attack a player, steal some cargo, leaving his ship disabled. Now the missionary player can lend assistance, getting victory points by giving repairs.

So, do things just get too complex even if you can focus on a specific area?
Can anyone comment on their experiences playing asymmetric games that have a similar complexity challenge?

Lucas.Castro's picture
Joined: 10/22/2008
A Couple of Comments on Asymmetry

Hi Desprez,

I have a couple of comments based on my experiences designing two games: one is a futuristic, board-based wargame (with 4 asymmetric factions); the other is an economic building game (also with 4 asymmetric factions).

First of all, on the subject of complexity, I would say that this is a subjective issue. However, my view is that if you can play the game right away without having to know all unique components, then complexity should cause no trouble for rookies to your game. In fact, if these are details that could be learnt over time to improve one's grasp of the game, then this complexity actually adds depth to your game, in my opinion.

My first game listed above has this sort of complexity as well: each faction has 12 units to choose from, and units may have 0, 1, or 2 special abilities (out of a pool of 30+ abilities). But to start playing, you only need to know the units you are using, and what their abilities are. You keep a copy of the special abilities nearby for reference, and you learn about them as they show up.

Naturally, this setup lends itself to having rookies playing rookies, at least from a competitive point of view. A newcomer simply will not know enough to challenge a player who knows all factions, all units, and all special abilities. Of course, a veteran can always teach a rookie the game, without playing in an overly competitive game (the game is not about killing each other anyhow).

As for asymmetry, I have a couple of comments, mostly based on the second of my games listed above.

Asymmetry was not overly troublesome during the design of my first game, mainly because it is a wargame. The trick here is to balance the power of each faction, and each unit. Which is harder than it sounds, but at least the goal is clear. I do not need to make sure that one player in a 3 or 4 player game is not getting picked on, or that the gameplay is not destructive toward a single player at any given time.

With my second game, however, I ran into some asymmetry issues. To give you some background on the factions, they are as follows:
A: Passive builders who focus on having a large population and a large number of actions.
B: Aggressive fighters, who would rather take from others rather than build it themselves.
C: Passive builders who focus on efficiency and improvement through construction of buildings.
D: Scavengers who salvage what they can from abandoned cities, and consume few resources.

One of the first trouble areas I ran into was proving faction B with their character, without wrecking the game for a specific player. Originally, I had an attack mechanic in the game, but I quickly realised that the following could happen:
- B attacks A to get some resources.
- B gains his advantage (which is as good as anyone else's).
- A is weakened more than C or D (who were not attacked).
- B repeats this process.

In this example, A is taking a beating which cannot be compensated by their advantage, because any other faction could have been attacked instead of A. The issue here is that, for B to get its advantage, one other faction has to incur a penalty. I eventually did away with the attack mechanic, and went with an advantage for B that would affect all other factions evenly.

Now, for how this applies to your game:

Say that there is a 4 player game taking place, and no one has chosen the Missionary character. Now, the Pirate attacks another player, and is simply getting the advantage that goes with his/her character. However, the target of the attack (let us say, a Merchant) has incurred a serious penalty. This Merchant has lost his/her cargo, and has a damaged ship to pay for (an no real revenue to do it with).

Similarly, if the Pirate attacked some NPCs and a single other player benefited from it (say, the Explorer from your example), then the Explorer gained a bonus that is not exactly associated with his advantage. If these happened in the same game, the Merchant may be out of contention, while the Explorer may be in the best position to win. Essentially, the Pirate has an involuntary King-Making ability.

Keep in mind that, while the game may have been fine as a 6 player game (because of the Missionary), that other issues may pop-up in different size games.

Of course, you may be able to balance these issues in your game. For instance, there may be some sort of Interstellar Government financial aid program, which could help out the poor Merchant. Also, the Explorer may have to pay high taxes based on his great earning from his explorations.

Due to a lack of government in my game, I would have had trouble coming up with a mechanic of this sort, but it may work quite well in your game.

What I am trying to say is not "Don't do it," but rather "Keep in mind the complexity that asymmetry adds for you as a designer, and modify the game accordingly."

I apologise for the long response, but I hope it helped!

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