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 they based on luck or skill, to determine the outcome of play.
The ultimate example of a perfectly symmetrical game based entirely upon skill is the class game of Chess (though, of course, there’s also Draughts and Go, which fall into a similar category). In this game, both players have pieces which function and are set up identically. The only thing truly setting each side apart is their colour, traditionally black against 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 equal.
Inherent and entirely made up racism aside, Chess is a game where there is no luck. Randomness 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 – at least for those of us who will never be that great at the game or enjoy a more varied, asymmetrical experience.
And that’s where we do have options. There are tons of Chess variants that, yes, destroy the fine balance of the original game, but introduce a number of new mechanisms that create different, often asymmetrical experiences. Recent examples include Loka, Turanga and Shuuro, all designed by Alessio Cavatore.
One of the key features of these variants is the ability to select your own Chess army, selecting pieces with set point values up to an agreed limit. This creates a game where each player will use a very different force, creating asymmetry and introducing the opportunity for exploration and experimentation.
This points-based force selection is also one key method used in pretty much every miniatures game, wherein asymmetry is secured in three major ways. The first is the differentiation of armies, where each faction has different rules and performs differently. The second is in the design of scenarios with different objectives for each side – Malifaux does this well by giving a shortlist of objectives for players to choose from during each game. The third method is the aforementioned points-based army selection, where players choose forces based on preferences, the needs of specific scenarios, what they have in their collections or, in the case of Warhammer 40,000, whatever is in the current netlist. ZING! Yeah, I went there!
This methods are used in a huge variety of miniatures games, which gives me a fantastic opportunity to paste in a gallery of pretty book and box covers. BEHOLD my examples!
A second variant of Chess, and my preferred one, is actually a game from Steve Jackson Games. Yeah, go figure, I wouldn’t have expected it either. Knightmare Chess consists of a deck of cards, from which players select their own decks to a point limit. These cards are then used in conjunction with a regular Chess set.
The cards might interfere with the other player’s moves, change the rules of a particular piece, or change the board itself in some way. Each player has their own, different deck which immediately creates an uneven, asymmetrical experience. My favourite card turned the board functionally into a sphere, where you can run a piece off one side and have it come back on the other. The art is also really cool and trippy. My one criticism would be that the price is rather steep for what is merely a single deck of cards.
So, yeah, 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 (see Ticket to Ride, Catan, Carcassonne et al), but asymmetrical games give you a more unique, interesting and varied experience.
One game in which each player has a fundamentally different experience is Android: Netrunner, 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.
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.
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.
Another example of an asymmetrical game is GMT’s Twilight Struggle, which plays through the events of the cold war. The two factions (USA and USSR) are fundamentally different, with different historical events helping or hindering them. The ebb and flow of the game also changes, with game balance evolving over the course of play. Generally speaking, the game favours the USSR in earlier turns, but begins to turn in favour of the USA in later ones. This means that the two players are often trying to achieve different things, with USA player attempting to survive the early game whilst the USSR pushes for an earlier, easier win.
This game is fundamentally asymmetrical and the two factions represent very different experiences. This is a common feature in many of GMT Games’ best titles, including Washington’s War, Sekigahara, 1960: The Making of the President and Labyrinth: The War on Terror, as well as the entire COIN series of games, including A Distant Plain, Cuba Libre and others.
So, Twilight Struggle is my second favourite game, as detailed in my top 50 games that I listed in December, but what about my absolute fave? Well, like Twilight Struggle, Star Wars: Rebellion is similarly asymmetrical. In fact, I’d say it’s even more so, providing an even more differentiated experience for each player.
The Rebel player establishes a base at the start of the game and attempts to keep it hidden from the Empire and score propaganda wins against them, swaying the galaxy to their cause and ending the game sooner, thereby giving the Imperial player less time to find them. The Imperial player is meanwhile rolling our their military might, sending fleets and armies across the galaxy in search of the hidden rebel base. Both players build fleets, move units around the map and recruit heroes to send out on missions and command their forces. These missions are, again, different for each side, with a huge range of logistical, espionage, combat and diplomatic missions. The Imperial player gets to be a lot more violent, abducting and torturing rebel heroes, whilst the rebels are a bit more subtle, sabotaging the Empire’s production facilities and undertaking diplomatic missions.
The rebel player will feel outnumbered for most of the game, and this is fine. The Empire should outnumber them. The Empire should be hounding the rebels across the galaxy. The rebels are meant to be the underdogs and you do feel this way when playing. You feel that you have to be sneaky, carrying out hit and runs, whereas the Empire would rather just enter a system with a large fleet and crush whatever they find. Of course, the rebels can build fleets and take the Empire on, toe to toe, but this won’t come as naturally and will need to be a conscious play decision. This is because the teams are fundamentally different.
There are countless games that have a slight amount of asymmetry (such as King of Tokyo with the Power Up expansion), but today I’ve just picked out a couple of my absolute favourites. I love a game where you can complete a play-through with your opponent and then, once done, switch sides and play again, getting a completely different play experience. In Android: Netrunner I love playing as the corporations – particularly NBN – but I like that I could also play as the runner. I like that there’s a whole other side to the game. Same goes for Star Wars: Rebellion, where I adore playing as the Empire, rooting out the rebels. I can play as the Rebellion as well, and there’s a value in getting one’s head around both sides, but I have my preference, and that’s great. As for Twilight Struggle, I don’t really have a preferred side, but I do love that I have come up with strategies for both.
Symmetrical games, particularly those of pure skill, will always have a place – one of my favourites is John Yianni’s Hive – but for me, they are often too predictable. The purity of the competition is admirable, but the ‘best’ player will win on almost every occasion. I like a bit of chance. I like a bit of variety. I like surprises, which you really get more of when you and your opponent and playing slightly different games. For me, asymmetry is a real pre-requisite of a fantastic game.