The Beauty of Asymmetry

A lot of the board games that are considered mainstream family games (Monopoly, Cluedo, Uno et al) are what we might call symmetrical games. By this I mean that in these games all players begin on a level footing. Their playing pieces, starting hands or characters are fundamentally the same and it is then down to the events of the game, be that luck or skill, to determine the outcome of play.

chess

Chess is the classic example of a symmetrical game. You and your opponent have pieces which function and are set up in an identical way. The only thing that really sets your sides apart is their colour, traditionally black and white. Come to think of it, with colour being the only differentiating factor between the two sides, is Chess a finely balanced and strategic race war simulator? Probably not, but at least if it is, the two sides begin the game broadly equal.

Inherent and entirely made up racism aside, Chess is a game where there is no luck. The randomness discussed in my previous article simply does not factor in and the outcome of the game is based completely on the skill of those playing. This is admirable. This is interesting. This is challenging. This is a bit boring.

What I really love in board games is not a completely fair and balanced test of skill in a completely symmetrical situation (when, after all, do we encounter these in life?),  but rather a unique experience wherein each player works from their own unique situation towards distinct and individual victory conditions. Symmetrical games are probably easier to teach and so make better gateway game for new board gamers, but asymmetrical games give you a more unique, interesting experience.

netrunner

Android: Netrunner is a card game from Richard Garfield, designer of such classics are Magic: The Gathering and King of Tokyo. The publisher, my beloved Fantasy Flight Games, describes this as a ‘Living Card Game’, but this is a description of a business model rather than a reflection of any gameplay elements. This two player game sees one person take on the role of a sinister, omnipresent corporation bent on pushing their own agendas. The other player takes on the role of the Runner, an individual hacker looking to breach the corporation’s secure network and sabotage these agendas.

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What is particularly interesting about this setup is that each player is playing a very different game. The Corporation player spends her turns setting up remote servers where she can secretly (i.e. card is placed face down) deploy assets to help her economy, place and advance the agendas she needs to win the game, or set traps for the Runner searching for said agendas. She will also protect her server with Ice, which function as rather nasty firewall programs. Some Ice will merely end the run, whilst others will drain credits, trace and track Runners or, in extreme cases, cause brain damage to Runners who attempt to bypass them. Once the corporation has played, advanced and scored seven points of agendas, she wins.

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The Runner will spend his time gathering resources, computer hardware and programs to access the Corp player’s servers. In the early game, any run that the Runner makes is a big risk as the Corp player does not need to reveal any Ice cards until the runner encounters them. This means that the Runner does not always know what he is up against and could well be facing off against a piece of Ice that they are simply not equipped to beat. As the game progresses, the Runner adds more and more hardware, resources and programs, equipping them to deal with more and more of the dirty tricks that the Corp can play. Of particular importance are the Icebreaker program cards. Although they sound like a delightful social contrivance, these are actually powerful programs which are used by the Runner to defeat enemy firewalls and allow them through to the server beyond where they may trash any assets they find, spring any traps or steal any agendas. Once the Runner steals seven points of agendas, he wins.

Asymmetry is core to this game and the two players in this game have very different experiences depending on which side they represent. This keeps the game fresh and interesting, as one must develop strategies for both sides in order both to play your own cards effectively and counteract the strategies of your opponent.

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Cosmic Encounter is another game from Fantasy Flight Games, producers of amazing games and horrific rulebooks. This is a game I have only gotten into recently, but it is already becoming a firm favourite. It is a simple game of negotiation, bartering and aggression. The game begins with each player choosing a race at random from the race deck. The box comes with a whopping 50 races to choose from, and there are 4 expansions which each add a further 20 to the game.  Each race is very different, giving the players unique powers that can affect or, in some cases, fundamentally change the game. Click on the images to get a closer look at these examples:

After races are sorted, each player takes 5 planet tokens to be their home system and puts four of their ships on each planet to represent their starting colonies. Your goal in this game is to establish five colonies in foreign systems. This is done by attacking randomly selected players. You will be given the system you must attack, but can choose which planet within the system you want to invade. Do do this, you take ships off your current colonies to create your invasion force. The attacking and defending players can then ask for allies to either add ships to the attacking or defensive forces. Allies share both the risks and rewards of the battle. Whichever team loses has all of their ships banished to the warp. If the attackers win, the attacking allies can set up a colony on the planet alongside the main attacking player. If the defending team wins, the allies are rewarded with cards from the deck.

Players then play an encounter card face down. This will be either an attack card or a negotiation card. If both players place an attack card, the winner is the player who has the highest total of ships plus the number on their attack card. If both players use a negotiation card, they have 60 seconds to agree terms. This could include allowing players to set up colonies, trading specific cards or promises of military support. If one player puts down a negotiation card and the other has played an attack, the attacker automatically wins, but the defender will take cards from the attacker’s hand as compensation.

That’s pretty much it, to be honest. There’s a little more to it as players have extra cards in their hand with extra powers and one-off effects. The fun really comes from the negotiation and discussion as the game goes on. The asymmetry comes from the different races that players use and the fact that they are in no way balanced. The balances comes from the reactions of other players as they band together to stop the clearly superior races from winning. You might find that players try to focus on defeating foreign colonies controlled by the Parasite player, who can force himself into alliances to claim extra colonies. Only by whittling him down and stalling his advance can other players really hope to win. Other aliens might change the game by bringing lots of extra ships to the table or changing the victory conditions altogether. This is probably my favourite game right now.

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I’m not going to go into detail on any other games, but there are loads of great examples of games that use asymmetry to create a fundamentally different play experience for each player. As an example, Discworld: Ankh-Morpork gives each player different and hidden win conditions. This changes how players interact with each other and creates a meta-game of trying to guess what character each person has in order to identify and deny them their unique win conditions. This is more balanced than the races in Cosmic Encounter, and the designer, Martin Wallace, even points out that one character should not be used in smaller games as his conditions become easier to fulfil when there are only two players on the board.

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Twilight Struggle is a wargame that allows two players to play through the events of the cold war, taking on the roles of the USA and the USSR. The games takes around three hours to play and is quite dense. The two factions are quite different, having entirely different decks of cards and being affected by specific events (such as the Cuban Missile Crisis or the rise of Margaret Thatcher) in different ways. At the start of the game, the USSR has a slight advantage, but over the course of the game, the USA generally holds the overall edge. This is a game that has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of months as I have struggled to find a good opportunity to play this game, where I have enough time to complete a game, but only one other player. I’m looking forward to giving this a shot and am really interested to seeing how the two sides compare to one another.

If you have any suggestions of other good asymmetrical board game, or even asymmetrical videogames, let me know in the comments section below.

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