Variant: Asymmetery in Game Design
Recently, as I perused the interwebs, I came upon an article about asymmetry in games, specifically related to how that impacts alliances and negotiation. In it, the author says that “imbalance in itself is neither desirable nor undesirable.” Pondering that statement, I think I will disagree. I think most games (though certainly not all) are improved with asymmetrical gameplay.
Now, asymmetry can be as simple as different starting jobs or random unique powers. For example, in Bang! each player receives a character that has a unique power. That provides a lot of situational strategy that would be absent if all characters performed exactly equally. For example, I can tell you that I concentrate a bit more on defense, and hold back some cards, if I’m within range of Willie the Kid (who can shoot multiple times each turn).
Taken to the next logical step, you have Small World. There, the players select from an assortment of races and special power combinations that create completely unique strategies in each game. The goal is always the same (conquer and hold territory), but the individual races bring new considerations. What’s more, it becomes much easier to identify with your faction. “Bwa ha ha! You cannot kill the elves!” might be shouted across the table. Or “I crush you from the mountain!” by a race of Giants.
In a sense, then, asymmetry allows for players to “buy in” to the experience. Players can see themselves as part of a faction, and it becomes easier to visualize the game and bring the theme to life. Asymmetry also aides the “epic” feel of games. Of course, not every asymmetrical game is epic, but most epic games have asymmetrical elements.
Asymmetry is often prevalent in team games, or can be used to create an “us vs. them” mentality. A great example is Letters from Whitechapel, where the police team and Jack have very different goals and advantages. One of my favorite area control/majority games is Chaos in the Old World – where each faction plays completely differently. The asymmetrical nature of the game brings them to life – and helps make them more memorable.