Design Rule: Deliberate Asymmetry

Welcome back! Still not much new to report on my personal projects, other than I’m now 50,000 words into my next book instead of 25,000. I feel like it should be going faster, but that darned day job has to take priority!

Anyway, this post’s design rule is an odd one: Every game should have some deliberate asymmetry.

Deliberate asymmetry is my lingo for a rule or design artifact that could work like everything else in the game, but deliberately doesn’t. Some games have no asymmetry at all: checkers, for example. But chess is a game made of asymmetries. Every piece moves differently, and then you get even stranger asymmetries with rules like castling or promotion.

Resource harvesting or management games often begin as very symmetrical games. For example, Settlers of Catan harvests resources in a very symmetrical fashion. But then Settlers becomes asymmetrical because the things you need to build with those resources are very different from each other. Why do villages require 1 of everything (almost), but cities require Stone and Grain? Shouldn’t cities just take 2 of everything? That would be symmetrical design. But it wouldn’t be a better game.

I’ve been noodling about why asymmetry is good for a game, and I think I’ve got four reasons.

  1. Asymmetry adds complexity. It gives the Player something to learn and master, and people feel rewarded when they figure out how something works (in reasonable doses).
  2. Asymmetry can add “sim value” by making something work differently than other parts of the game, but doing so in a way that reinforces what a Player expects from real-life experience.
  3. Asymmetry adds uncertainty. A Player whose position is strong or weak in the asymmetric resource (whatever it might be) is stronger or weaker than the board seems to show. It invites “offset” strategies for Players who are falling behind in the race for conventional resources.
  4. Asymmetry can be whimsical and unexpected. Games that are too simple or abstract might need a little dash of whimsy to really land.

Asymmetry in Action: Ultimate Scheme

Here’s an example of how I used deliberate asymmetry in a design: my boardgame Ultimate Scheme. The core resources all work the same: Finance, Occult, Science. You move your minions around the board to sites where you can gather them, add the markers to your stash, and “pay” that currency to execute your schemes. But some of the schemes you’re trying to pull off also require additional resources—for example, Ninjas.

The fun part about the Ninjas in Ultimate Scheme is that there’s only one Ninja marker on the board. If you have it, you can do Ninja schemes. If you don’t, you can’t. You’ll have to figure out a way to take it away from the Player who currently has the Ninja marker. My wife, who is otherwise a very mild-mannered and gentle soul, gets so frustrated by overlooking the Ninja requirement that she once told me I should call the game, “#%&ing Ninjas!”

Ultimate Scheme has several other asymmetries too—unobtainium, anarchy, and other such things—but that’s because I wanted more whimsy and more uncertainty. Maybe it’s got more asymmetry than it really needs. But it does make for a fun story at the table.

What I’m Reading

I just finished The Howling Dark, by Christopher Ruocchio. It’s the second book in his Sun Eater series (the first was Empire of Silence). It’s an amazing piece of worldbuilding, just a fascinating dive into a distant future that reminds me quite a bit of Frank Herbert’s Dune books. But it’s definitely a dense read. Next up for me is a bit of history: Sword and Scimitar, by Raymond Ibrahim and Victor Davis Hanson. I’m just a couple of chapters in.

What I’m Watching

Keeping up on The Mandalorian, like everyone else. There are several series I’ve been meaning to pick up, but starting a new series always feels like such an … obligation. Looking forward to the next MCU movies, as always. I know some folks weren’t thrilled by Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, but me, I loved it. Much better than Thor: Love and Thunder, in my opinion. And I think I liked it better than Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. YMMV, of course.

What I’m Playing

I’m late to the party, but over the last month or so I’ve started playing Elden Ring. (I’m a Strength-Faith confessor build with the Golden Halberd and Carian Knight Armor, if you’re curious.) I’m not sure I have the fortitude to try to really solve the game—dealing with scary, horrible bosses and getting murdered over and over again isn’t for the faint of heart. But it is certainly a pretty game, you can go find things to do in almost any direction, and there are a zillion ways to build your character. I think I’ll be ready for Assassin’s Creed Mirage when it arrives, though. I much prefer being the thing the NPCs are scared of, not the other way around!

2 thoughts on “Design Rule: Deliberate Asymmetry

  1. Shawn

    i’m reading The last Mythal again (I’ve read it more times then I’d like to admit). Any possible chance you’ll revisit Faerun ?


    1. richardbakerauthor

      Sorry to say it, but I’ve got no plans to do so. It’s really up to Wizards of the Coast. They just aren’t publishing Realms novels anymore (except the occasional Bob Salvatore book, or their recent movie tie-ins). They’re pretty much done with most of us authors who were writing those Realms books in the 90s and 2000s. I suppose if WotC reached out to me and asked me to knock out another FR book I’d certainly consider it, but . . . I’m not waiting for the phone to ring.


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