the case for rampant asymmetry

#1
Hiya, this is a copy of a response to an old article I found by Keith just recently. (debunking asymmetry) that topic kind of hits me where I live at the moment, and provoked a response! lets generate more chatter.

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http://keithburgun.net/asymmetry-in-games/

As the designer of an asymmetric board game, Ive made a hard job for myself by forcing players to pick 1 of 5 different factions. I have to make sure that each faction gives its player an equal chance of winning. This is time consuming. If instead I give each player the same starting point, and the tools to differentiate their faction over time, then I dont have to do any balancing - in a way the point of the game for the player is to unbalance the game in their favour.

However, Im not sure that my work would be complete. What if such a game has a dominant, or 'meta' strategy that means the optimum faction composition is X and therefore the game devolves into a 5 on 5 between identical factions? this makes a mockery of the games promise of letting the player customize their faction - You might as well just give them identical factions and thats that. So damn, back to balancing again, to ensure that the game offers a variety of paths to victory. This now seems like an even more involved task -- to balance a potentially open-ended number of 'faction options', to ensure there is no dominant strategy, rather than a specific set of 5. What are the chances that a large number of players manage to find a dominant strategy over time where the designer did not? quite high.

Another factor here is that by forcing the player to pick 1 of 5 factions, I am enforcing a certain consistency on the game. Each of the factions is some end of a spectrum and brings something consistently unique to the mix, whereas player-lead divergence is unlikely to lead to 5 extreme factions every time - more likely a muddy, less divergent mix. Thats not a bad thing per se. But it means that as a designer, I am not really in control of the experience. If I say here are the 5 factions you must play, then I know that players will experience something specific that only by combining those 5 factions can be achieved.

I guess what Im saying is that emergent asymmetry, as opposed to enforced asymmetry, has its own issues. Im not counting changing of the game state - of players positions as the game progresses - as emergent asymmetry. Something like chess has no asymmetry. Each side starts with the same capabilities and has no chance to modify them (OK, I can upgrade my pawn to queen, but thats it!)

I figure what Keith is mainly talking about is rampant asymmetry. 20 or 50 or 1000 characters/faction/cards, or whatever.

Taking a step back, its clear that people love these types of games, and a game designers job is to produce games that people love, so a part of Keith's article that I find missing is a sincere attempt to define what it is people love about these types of games.

A minor point is that by having ludicrous numbers of customisation options, the designer is taking a carpet bombing approach to the balance issues inherent with asymmetric games. The chances of finding a single dominant strategy diminish rapidly with the number of options available - the space becomes very large, very quickly.

This is where I think rampant asymmetry might generate its appeal.

When we play a game, we arent only playing the game when it starts and ends at the table. Games are a process that evolves over a number of plays. Perhaps a very large number of plays if the games are good enough to warrant it. Lets take MTG as an example. Fans talk about it together FOR EVA. How useful is this card? under what circumstances is this combination valid? Is a green-blue deck inherently better against a milling strategy than one based on life stealing or token generation? etc..etc...etc...etc...etc...

The 'game' of MTG is mostly played away from the table. It is researching obscure combos, theorizing, strategising, discussing...DESIGNING??? decks of cards to play with. In some ways, an actual table match of Magic is just playtesting...
 
#2
Whether the player is developing a strategy for their predetermined faction, or if they’re developing a strategy to develop their faction, there are ways of putting you down a more balanced track. Make sure each faction, or each development strategy, has different points in time when they are vulnerable and when their investment is paying off. That way all the players are forced to constantly adapt their strategies to take advantage of their opponent’s vulnerabilities and protect themselves from their own vulnerabilities, while also building towards their investment payoff as soon as possible and hindering their opponents from having their investments pay off.

I personally would be cautious of developing games with the intention of focusing on a meta-game. Such games tend to be more inaccessible, more demanding of a long-term commitment and open the question of, if the meta-game is the interesting part anyway, what place is there left for the game itself? There may be good ways to have a significant meta-game, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
 
#3
Whether the player is developing a strategy for their predetermined faction, or if they’re developing a strategy to develop their faction, there are ways of putting you down a more balanced track. Make sure each faction, or each development strategy, has different points in time when they are vulnerable and when their investment is paying off. That way all the players are forced to constantly adapt their strategies to take advantage of their opponent’s vulnerabilities and protect themselves from their own vulnerabilities, while also building towards their investment payoff as soon as possible and hindering their opponents from having their investments pay off.

I personally would be cautious of developing games with the intention of focusing on a meta-game. Such games tend to be more inaccessible, more demanding of a long-term commitment and open the question of, if the meta-game is the interesting part anyway, what place is there left for the game itself? There may be good ways to have a significant meta-game, but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.
Id like to hear more of your thoughts abut balancing games in detail, but maybe in another thread?

"if the meta-game is the interesting part anyway, what place is there left for the game itself?"

About as essential as the egg is to the chicken, I guess? :p
 
#4
Don’t ask me for practical advice on balancing - I’m a philosopher, not a professional game designer!

"if the meta-game is the interesting part anyway, what place is there left for the game itself?"

About as essential as the egg is to the chicken, I guess? :p
What I’m referring to is an argument I think Keith himself made a while ago, maybe in Clockwork Game Design, that I was pretty convinced by: that when you have decisions within decisions, or systems within systems, feedback becomes corrupted and thereby learning is disrupted. Strategy games with an “overmap” and a “battle map”, such as the Total War games, are a great example - did you win that battle because of your battle strategy or because of the way you set the battle up with your “overmap” strategy? Likewise, having both an interesting meta-game and an interesting game game clouds feedback, making it hard to tell (especially in highly random games like CCGs where feedback is clouded enough) to what extent your meta-strategy, and separately your actual play strategy, contributed to the outcome.

The overall conclusion I’m making isn’t that meta-games are necessarily bad (though maybe they are for other reasons), but that having an interesting meta-game implies making the actual matches as rapid and simplistic as possible.
 
#5
I agree with your statements, but not the conclusion. I feel like its somewhat of a theoretical issue rather than one grounded in the actual dissatisfaction of players playing such games. I mean, its a pretty hard ask to tell the designer(s) of MTG who have squillions of players over a 20 year period that they are doing it wrong. total war is also another extremely popular franchise for that matter. sure theres a spectrum and there will be games maybe where the issue you raise might dominate the experience ?
 
#6
The fact that a game is popular is a very bad reason for assuming it's well-designed. It might be attractive because it's tactile, or addictive, or otherwise psychologically exploitative... I argue that some of the most popular games ever designed have major flaws, not because I'm ignorant of other people's opinions or because I'm snobbish but because I want a world in which games can be better. Of course I'm saying this from, as I say, a non-professional standpoint - as an actual designer popularity is very much a real consideration to you, otherwise you can't afford to make games. Any good design principle which is unpopular must in practice be compromised, and then you need to investigate how best to compromise those principles to meet your economic requirements while also furthering your design aims as much as possible. I've got to run so can't think about it myself rn, but maybe I'll be back in a few hours
 
#7
ok, so flappy bird. monopoly, etc...

However, games that are popular for a long time are wroth looking closely at. No game is without flaws, but can you design a great game merely by a process of eliminating ideas/mechanics that are theoretically flawed?

Using TW as an example, I love the way the strategic part of the game using maps and resources gives each tactical battle a unique and meaningful context. Theres so many reason why this is a good and appealing idea.
 
#8
Right, so popularity is a reason to look at a game and try to explain why it might be successful, in the hope that it contains some good design. That's very sound advice; we can't start from scratch just with abstract theory all the time! But let's not get into an in-depth discussion specifically about TW here (unless you want to start a new thread...)
 

keithburgun

Administrator
Staff member
#9
Good chats y'all!

I agree that games that are popular clearly "work" in some way. I think that it's important to remember that my theory, while I do think it's true, it's true within a certain, somewhat limited range of aesthetic values. So, my point about Total War is totally true, I think. There is some value taken away, along a certain axis of value, from having those two screens. However, there's also other axes of value, one of which might be "fantasy simulation", which might be really helped by the two-screens thing. So you gotta just know what you're going for, and whether the trade-offs are worth it. One big issue that I've always had is that we are quite unaware of many of the trade-offs, since we're so new to game design(as a species, I mean).
 
#10
FWIW, my own experience of TW having a campaign game (thats what we are talking about right?) is because it adds a layer of context to each battle that is otherwise going to be arbitrary or an 'even' matchup without that context. Because the campaign game strongly influences what troops you have available and their numbers etc... it changes win/lose conditions which become personal and situational rather than just 'you claim the battlefield'. Maybe you conceded the battlefield but inflicted 3 times as many losses as you receieved, and given the context of the battle within the overall strategic situation, this counts as a big win.? Of course you could have a game just chuck random 'scenarios' at you, possibly with an increasing level of difficulty, but thats far inferior to the extra layer of decision making the campaign offers.