Board Game Mechanics: Asymmetry

Asymmetry, by definition, is a lack of equality between at least two sides. Turns out, this concept has created some pretty remarkable changes to the way board games are played. Asymmetry in a game is when each player has a different set of rules, abilities, and/or mechanics to play with. These differences can vary from each player being exempt from a single rule, all the way to each player having a completely different set of rules. A lot of older games use asymmetrical systems because it is the easiest to balance; you design a game, compile some rules and component, and make sure that every player has all of the exact same everything. Instant balance. Recently, games have incorporated more asymmetric aspects, trying to create more variances and replayability.


Different, but equal – Courtesy of KHEPRW

Player Specific Asymmetry

I’ll start with examples of games in which everybody is working toward the same goal and follow the same basic set of rules, but each player is given a unique ability or special power. The first is a particular racing game that I just recently learned about called Crazy Karts. In this game, you and a friend play as a team to copilot a single kart, meaning you need at least 3 players to play; it can’t be a race if there is only one kart after all. The “crazy” part of the game comes from the fact that you and your partner do not get to communicate with each other to maneuver your kart. One player controls things like acceleration and repairs while the other player controls other things like turning and braking. This part is perfectly symmetrical as all teams have the exact same setup and options (minus the “Lone Wolf” character that is there for the odd numbered player, and the optional randomized bonus tile that each kart can have). The main difference comes in based on which team you and your partner choose. If you choose the Mummy team, they have a special power that allows you to lasso and pull an enemy kart one space closer to you (GET OVER HERE!), or if you choose the Dwarves, they have the ability to smash through one obstacle without having to deal with its negative effects. There are two other teams that each have different powers, and even though everybody is playing toward the exact same goal, each team gets a single special ability that makes you play the game in a completely different way.


Here’s the box cover of Crazy Karts – Courtesy of Board Game Geek


Another example is a fairly complex game by the name of Terra Mystica, by Helge Ostertag. In this game, you select the race of people that you want to control and expand your territory over as much of the map as you can. The difficulty in this seemingly simple goal is that your chosen race has very high preferences in terrain (of which there are seven), and the more you dislike a particular terrain, the more difficult it is for you to spread into those areas. It’s free for you to expand into your favorite terrain, but it’s super expensive to advance into your least favorites. The asymmetric part is completely dependent on the race you choose to play as because each one of them is so different than the next. Depending on who you talk to, certain races are considered to be significantly weaker than others while others should be classified as the “go-to” races. Realistically, it is dependent on the bonuses that you can acquire throughout the game, all of which are randomized and revealed at the very beginning of the game. Seeing what bonuses will be coming up as you advance will give you a better sense of which race would best suit your strategy. Some races are better suited for doing specific things such as founding towns; so if there are bonuses for founding towns, you might have better odds of winning if you pick the Witches, because they get an additional five victory points every time they find a town anyway.

I don’t believe that any race is inherently better than another. Instead, I believe that certain races have a more specific purpose, and straying away from that purpose leads to frustration. This makes those focused races extremely desirable for people who like that play style, but it does wedge them out for people who like to play more diversely, but that’s the price you pay when you incorporate asymmetry into your game.


A nice mid game representation of Terra Mystica – Courtesy of Decadebrothers

Complete Game Asymmetry

On the other hand, there are games that take the concept to a grand scale. Take a game like Small World by Philippe Keyaerts. In this game, players chose randomly assembled fantasy races with the goal of expanding and taking over their “small world”. They are randomly assembled by pairing Race tiles with Characteristic tiles, creating dynamic races such as “Hill Ratmen” and “Fortified Giants”. When you consider that each of the 14 Races has a unique bonus to play with, and each of the 20 Characteristics adds an extra unique bonus on top of that, you can easily see how different every game of Small World will turn out. I think that the best part of the asymmetry in Small World is that it’s not a simple character trait difference. You could play this game a billion times (math is not my thing… but you see my point), and you will never play the same game twice.

Let’s say, in your first game ever, that “Diplomatic Trolls” show up, and you chose them. When you inevitably see “Diplomatic Trolls” again in a future game, you will end up pitting them against a completely different set of races, which will change your strategy when playing them again. That is what replayability is all about.

The one thing a system like this also brings is a high probability of severe imbalance. By design, some of the races will naturally be more symbiotic with specific characteristics. If the two would happen to randomly be matched in a game, it will dominate the game, especially when going against the exact opposite scenario (a pairing of race and characteristics that do not mesh well). However, I feel like this doubles at its own self-balancing mechanism, as well as its excitement factor. The odds of those particular pairs showing up are so rare that when they finally do, it becomes a key point of competition to get to them first, which leaves the “weaker” pairs cheaper to come by. Funny, it’s almost like the designer thought of that.


Behold, the not so small setup of Small World – Courtesy of Days of Wonder


Another fantastic and completely different form of asymmetry is Vast: The Crystal Caverns. This game, created by Patrick Leder, is technically one game, but realistically it’s five games in one. What’s more is that it goes as far as to make every portion of the game a playable “character”. You can play as the brave knight who’s trying to kill the dragon; the dragon who’s trying to wake up and escape the cave; the horde of goblins who are trying to kill the knight and not get eaten by the dragon; the thief who’s trying to steal everything that the cave has to offer; or finally… you can play as the FREAKING CAVE ITSELF!!! The best part is that every character comes with their own player sheet, components, and rule book. Yes, they are all that different. I bet you can guess how difficult this game is to teach. In this case, it’s not as easy as “teach as you go” because everybody is literally playing a different game with different tasks and end goals. It’s possible, but it will be a slower take because you can’t learn it by watching everybody else take their turn; that alone is the biggest learning drawback by far.

Obviously with such drastic differences at play here there are bound to be some significant balance issues, and regardless of how much playtesting is done there is no way to work out every single kink. That is unless you are Patrick Leder who thought to add separate difficulty levels for each character. You discover that you are a savant at playing the dragon and you never lose? You could blame the game’s “imbalance” and give up the game, or you can up your difficulty by one to give your friends a chance and yourself a challenge.

I personally have never heard of another game that takes the concept of asymmetry to this kind of level, and I have not had the privilege of playing it yet, but you can bet that it’s on my short list!


And these are just the character sheets – Courtesy of DDO Players


My Feelings As a Gamer

I find it fascinating to jump into a game and get to do my own thing. In a hypothetical game, even if all I get to do is move one space farther than anybody else, that makes enough of a difference to set my playstyle apart from the guy who gets an additional defense against attacks. I’m still worried about taking damage, but I’m better at avoiding it while my enemy can walk closer to danger without even worrying about it. Everything else we do is 100% the same, but that single change has drastically changed how we think about the goal, and I love it!

On a grander scale, if I’m doing something totally different than everybody else, I get a little more weary about it because I don’t get the benefit of learning from everybody else’s turns. I’m left to my own devices to figure it out. This is only a huge problem if I am new to the game, though, meaning that it is possible for me to work through the learning process so that I no longer struggle. But if I get too overwhelmed in the process, I‘m less likely to come back for more. Most of the weight of learning a game pivots on how good the person teaching you is at explaining the game, which isn’t the game’s fault in the least, but it will always reflect on your experience anyway. As unfair as that may be, it’s true for most people, and asymmetry in large proportions potentially makes this a bigger issue for both learning and teaching a new game.

My Feelings as a Developer

It excites me to no end! It takes my creation and gives it personality. One of the games I’ve been working on for a while used to be symmetrical to each player, and to be honest, it worked perfectly fine. Though, the more games I played, the more I realized that the simple addition of player abilities created a more enjoyable experience. It took my original idea and brought it to life. The additions weren’t even complicated ones. One character has an improved enemy encounter, while another can reroll a bad die roll. The other four are no more complicated, but it makes you feel more involved, knowing that you have a distinct advantage against all of your opponents in at least one regard.

The number one benefit to having even the slightest bit of asymmetry is that people jumping into future games will get new challenges, and new experiences. It’s one thing to get hooked by a game’s gameplay, it’s another when you also get to do things in a different way the next time you play it. The game hooks you, but the asymmetry is the reel that brings you back. How will that other character, ability, faction, or whatever change the way the game feels? Will it be better? Will it be more difficult? Only one way to find out!

On the other hand, putting any kind of asymmetry into a game increases the probability of creating severe imbalances in your game. Even with the smallest of asymmetric additions, the amount of playtesting required has increased astronomically, and for multiple different reasons. Is one side significantly more powerful than the other? Are they even slightly more powerful? Are they more fun to play? Are they super boring comparatively?  Are they different enough? Do they functionally belong in the same game together? If you have doubts about any of these, then there is a potential problem, and you’ve got a lot more work ahead of you.


Final Thoughts

Not all games need asymmetry to be fun. I personally don’t care either way when jumping into a game. If everyone plays exactly the same way, I know for a fact that I either won or lost due to my own devices. That being said, the same statement is still true even if everyone has different powers and abilities, but I will be left to think that maybe I could have done better if I had only used that other character instead. But you know what, that’s my favorite part of it; next time I will get to find out if I was right. I think that asymmetric mechanics in games make for a richer experience as a whole, but it can still be implemented in troublesome ways. I racked my brain to think of games that use asymmetric mechanic unnecessarily, but none come to mind. What do you think? Do you have any that pop into your mind? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear about them.

Kcody Dansereau
Kcody has been making board games since he was in his single digits. Thankfully, he’s entered the modern era where he discovered his design gateway, “Little Big Planet”. While he still makes board games, his talents now include video game design.

Kcody Dansereau
Kcody has been making board games since he was in his single digits. Thankfully, he’s entered the modern era where he discovered his design gateway, “Little Big Planet”. While he still makes board games, his talents now include video game design.

Play Defend Your Dojo for free!

Play now button

Video of the day

Follow us on Twitter!