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Symmetry in Board Game Design

My recent design, Conclave, initially suffered from a lack of symmetry. After a great playtest session with Jeremy Van Maanen, Adam Buckingham, Corey Young, and Brett Myers I received some great feedback that pointed out how the initial round could greatly influence the game due to the asymmetry. So I balanced the player decks to eliminate that asymmetry. What followed was a nice conversation on Twitter about symmetry versus asymmetry. So I though I’d write a brief guide about putting symmetry into your game design, and where it might be appropriate.

My Definition of Symmetry:

Before discussing where symmetry or asymmetry is important it is necessary for me to define the terms so that you understand what I mean throughout the rest of this article.

SYMMETRY: when conditions within a game are equal for all players.

This could be that all players have the same options on a turn or that they all start with the same cards or they all have the same opportunity to progress. Symmetry is typically only present at the beginning of a game. Once one player has taken a turn, then the game is different for the next player. So games where all players have an equal opportunity to be the first player inherently are symmetric at the start. Games where a random player goes first are not inherently symmetric since by the time the second player goes, the game conditions for that player are different than they were for the first player.

An example of a symmetric game starting condition is one where players simultaneously bid for turn order. Another example is when all players simultaneously make their first move in a game.

ASYMMETRY: when conditions within a game are unequal for all players.

I think of asymmetry as the situations where players have differing decks of cards, or different options on their turn, or different opportunities in the game. But asymmetry also applies to when games change from turn to turn and thus no two players ever face identical game conditions. There are many examples of asymmetry within games. And to provide examples could take a long time. Instead, check out Lewis Pulsipher‘s thread on BoardGameGeek: Looking at Game Design as Ways of Introducing Asymmetry.

Where to design for Symmetry:

There are definitely places within game designs for symmetry. If conditions within a game ever put a game out of balance, where one player has a distinct advantage toward victory through no means of their own, then the design calls for symmetry to remove that lack of balance.

My example, from Conclave, fits perfectly here. The original design provided each player with a 30 card deck. However, during the game not all of the cards were used. This caused a problem with probability. There was a chance that one player may end up only getting cards of their own color to place on the table while another player would only end up getting cards of the other player’s colors. This would then cause the game to be very much in favor of that first player despite them not earning that opportunity. This lack of balance called for adding symmetry to the game.

In this case symmetry refers to all players having the same amount of opportunity on the table. With balanced decks where all players play all of their cards it means all players will have the same opportunity within the remainder of the game.

This is my recommendation:

Apply symmetry where a game could otherwise randomly favor any single player.

This will not only make sure the game is fair, but it will also make sure that players can enjoy the game without feeling like they never had a chance.

Where to design for Asymmetry:

I would recommend designing for asymmetry anywhere and everywhere, as long as it does not conflict with my recommendation above.

Asymmetry for Conclave would mean adding different abilities based on the person you are representing.

Asymmetry can refer to players having unique abilities or different ways to move forward in the game or different cards and thus different opportunities. Examples of asymmetry in games are plentiful. The Settlers of Catan has a beautiful level of asymmetry that depends where players place their initial settlements. Ticket to Ride has asymmetry with the destination tickets, which determine each players individual path to victory.

Asymmetry in a game can add to the variability and replayability of games. And often it can add to the tension of a game as well. One example that comes to mind is Shipyard. In that game there is a great asymmetry in players options on their turn. This is simply due to limiting the options that a player can take on their turn. No two players turns in a row are the same. Yet the asymmetry in player options add a lot of tension and strategy.

I am definitely an advocate for asymmetry in game design.

My Bottom Line:

Now that we’ve briefly discussed symmetry versus asymmetry in game design I want to make my point one more time. When a game design creates an unfair advantage for a player that is not based on the choices of any player, the game requires symmetry and balance. Apply symmetry to a game to balance the game and make it fair. In all other circumstances, feel free to apply asymmetry to your design. It will be harder to design and require more playtesting to balance, but it adds so much to the game.

What are your thoughts about symmetry versus asymmetry in game design? Do you prefer one over the other? How would you define the two? I would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks.

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