Keith Burgun is a game designer, and like most game designers, he has some very strong opinions. One of his most famous articles discusses asymmetric gameplay, especially gameplay where the asymmetric powers are chosen before the beginning of the game (like choosing a character in Street Fighter). More specifically, he intensely dislikes these systems, claiming that an asymmetric game can never be truly balanced and that it limits strategic options on the part of the players.
I read this article a couple of years ago and I tried extremely hard to disagree with it. If you’re reading this, you most likely know me from my work on Magic: The Gathering (or you’re a personal friend who saw me share this on Facebook, thank you!), and Cosmic Encounter is my favorite game, so obviously I’m fond of asymmetry. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was right to an extent. Asymmetry, and the concept of a “metagame” where you pick a character or build a deck before beginning your games, bring very little to the table strategically and can often make games that are supposed to have high stakes feel flat.
But that doesn’t mean that asymmetry is useless – in fact, outside of the realm of strategy it serves many valuable purposes.
A common response to Burgun’s article is that using asymmetric player powers makes an easier learning experience because it sections off game elements so new players only have to master part of it to play competently; for example, in fighting games, a player can choose to practice a single character over and over again instead of learning the ins and outs of the whole roster. Burgun’s response to this argument is that achieving true understanding of the game system requires players to know what all the characters can do in detail anyway. Though this counterargument is sound, it doesn’t take into account the amount of information a player needs to retain at the same time, which asymmetry can significantly alleviate.
Even in games with low asymmetry like Chess, the sheer number of possible moves is so high that players beyond absolute beginners parcel them into typical opening, midgame, and endgame tactics. High-level gameplay becomes less about making the right decision at the right time and more about memorizing as many possible “decisions” as you can, upon which the “right decision” will frequently be obvious depending on player skill.
What asymmetry provides in games is the ability to only have to concentrate on a tenth or a twentieth of all of the possible moves, which, in a system with an already large enough degree of complexity, could already pose a substantial cognitive load to the average player. We’ve seen that games where all moves are available to players in every game have a high skill ceiling, but they also have a high skill floor. Not every game is going to want that, whether for commercial viability or for the sake of a more casual play community.
People wear shirts with their favorite Magic color, favorite Street Fighter character, or favorite Pokémon…uh, pokémon. Despite Go being a game with more strategic depth than any of the three, nobody wears shirts with their favorite Go opening move.
This is because of a combination of two things: First, separating game elements into discrete packages, especially ones represented by a character or faction, allows players to pick a side they like. Second, people LOVE picking sides. I don’t know whether tribalism is something baked into human psychology or if it’s the product of a competitive society, but if you give players the option to decide between multiple distinct factions, they eat it up. I’m pretty sure a huge part of the appeal of the Harry Potter franchise is the Sorting Hat.
Games are frequently more appealing, more impactful, and better able to retain players for longer when the player can fold an element of the game into their identity. Discrete asymmetric elements, either in the form of a defined style of play or in a character or faction with a personality and visual aesthetic, go a long way into a game appealing to the heart as much as it appeals to the head.
A while ago I wrote a post separating games into “strategic” games and “experiential” games. Strategic games are evaluated among the lines that you most commonly hear from reviewers: Is this challenging? Does it offer a lot of different lines of strategy? Can you play it repeatedly without finding a “best” strategy that makes it boring?
Experiential games, on the other hand, are judged based on whether they produced an experience. Betrayal at House on the Hillis the game I most frequently use as an example of a successful experiential game that’s fairly poor on a strategic axis: It doesn’t matter if the game is mostly about luck if it creates an engaging story about a motley crew trying to uncover the terrible secret about the house on the hill. Asymmetric character stats help with this, making the elderly professor feel like an elderly professor and the dimwitted track star feel like a dimwitted track star.
Asymmetry is very useful for experiential games because it defines a “side” or “character” in a clean way that prevents confusion. If you have every option in the game available to you at all times, it’s more likely you’ll make inconsistent choices in the name of strategy that muddy the narrative. That said, there are ways that a “side” can be developed by choices supporting like choices – for example, in Terraforming Mars, if you build projects that give you titanium, you’ll probably want to spend it on more projects that want titanium, cementing you as the “titanium strategy” for the rest of the game. But start-of-game asymmetry is a seamless way to make the player feel like they had a real identity for the entire play experience.
If super-deep gameplay with a huge number of options was all it took to make a successful game, we’d all be in a room playing Tigris & Euphratesover and over again until the end of time. Games have more to offer than being able to scratch your chin and go “ah, good move,” and asymmetry is a very useful way for your game to reach these alternate goals. But be careful that you don’t create a system that’s so hard to balance, the whole thing falls flat, and consider other options than just “deal each player a power at the start of the game.” Don’t take anything for granted and discover what works best for your game!