Beauty in asymmetry

Humans are naturally drawn to symmetry—we find it beautiful. Not only in design, but in nature and the human form, as well. There’s something innately appealing about things that possess two identical, matching halves.


Symmetry of experience is something we don’t talk about much, but it’s a big thing in game design, especially for eurogames. Stone AgeViticultureThe Castles of BurgundyKeyflower . . . they all give players pretty much exactly the same options throughout the game. This allows the game to be a battle of wits, with the best strategies coming out on top and no room for complaint that one player started with an advantage.

Asymmetrical games do the opposite—players usually start with different resources (in-game currency, position, abilities, &c.) and attempt to meet a goal. Sometimes it’s the same goal, sometimes it’s a different one. Sometimes they’ll need to go about it in the same manner, sometimes in a different one. This mechanic is most commonly seen in thematic, conflict-driven games, but there are some euro-style games that have adopted it as well.

It might seem like asymmetrical games have arisen recently, but that’s far from the truth (though they certainly have come into fashion). Hnefatafl, an ancient Scandinavian game that’s somewhat similar to chess, was played as early as the fourth century, long before the current popularity of thematic, asymmetric games. In Hnefatafl (and other Tafl games), one player begins with his pawns and king in the center of the board, surrounded by his opponent’s pawns. His objective is to get his king to the edge of the board, while the opponent seeks to capture the king by surrounding him.


Jumping forward a few centuries, we come to H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, one of the first (if not the first) hobby wargames. While some scenarios were simple battles to the death, the game also allowed for more asymmetric play wherein one player would be the attacker and the other the defender. This was likely also present in Kriegspiel, a military wargame exercise, before it came to hobby games. Many wargames—especially historical ones—follow this lead in altering starting positions, resources, abilities, and victory conditions.

Today, asymmetrical games can take on many forms; so many that it’s often difficult to actually define what “asymmetrical” means. On one hand, you have games like the COIN Series from GMT, in which there are at least two factions, all of which start with different setups and have different goals. In Liberty or Death, for example, the British begin in a very strong position while the Patriots begin in a very weak one. Different tactics are needed to stay in—or pull into—the lead. (And that’s not even starting to consider the French and Native American players.)

On the other hand, there are games like Small World, in which both players always have different abilities—but that doesn’t make the game feel asymmetrical. You could argue that it is, but even though both players will be using different strategies best suited to their factions, you might have a tough time. Some define “asymmetrical” in gaming to mean that both players have different experiences as the game progresses . . . but that could be said of almost any game. Which games fall under the umbrella of asymmetry is a matter of contention.

Star Wars: RebellionMare NostrumVast: The Crystal Caverns, and Three Kingdoms Redux (which has a fascinating form of “delayed” symmetry) were all mentioned when I asked about asymmetrical games on Twitter, and there are lots of other great options out there (though, interestingly, BoardGameGeek doesn’t have an Asymmetrical category; the closest is Variable Player Powers).

Last week, I got to play a much-hyped new game that promises asymmetrical, “deadly intense,” strategic warfare: Cry Havoc.

Asymmetrical alien conquest

Let me start by saying I was super pumped to play this—asymmetry, intense battles, a science-fiction theme . . . all things that I absolutely love. It’s card-driven, includes some really interesting factions, and has a two-player-specific board. It’s pretty much perfect on paper. I had to try it out.


When it comes to asymmetry, Cry Havoc is what I’d call moderately asymmetrical. The different factions have different structures and abilities, but generally go about winning in similar ways. For example, both Machines and Humans seem to be best served by taking as much ground as possible very quickly and using their structures to get rid of more units than their own forces could alone. The Pilgrims are a bit different—they’re less focused on combat, and have more opportunities to score outside of round scoring (whereas the other factions benefit from triggering scoring, the Pilgrims may want to discourage it so they can rack up extra points).

Mark played the Pilgrims in both of our match-ups, and got trounced pretty well . . . there’s definitely a winning strategy out there somewhere, but neither of us could figure out what it was. We’re both really looking forward to giving them another shot.

The Trogs play quite differently from the other factions, but because they only get played in a four-player game, we didn’t get to see how they work. Their rapid recruitment and tunneling look really cool, though!


One of the things that was most notable to me about Cry Havoc is that it’s fast. With only three actions per round over five rounds of play, a two-player game goes really quickly. With more players, it would take longer, but there’s definitely a sense of time running out right from the beginning, which adds a nice sense of tension. The fact that activating scoring takes up an entire action means that the stakes are always high.

Interestingly, the innovative and very cool battle system doesn’t add much tension. Distributing your units over Region Control, Capture Prisoners, and Attrition objectives is a nice abstraction of tactical warfare, but it doesn’t make for very exciting battles. I feel like assigning one unit at a time would have been a more thematic and fun option. But, having limited plays of the game, I might be missing out on something. We’ll just have to see.


Overall, it’s a fun game—fast, entertainingly thematic, easy to learn, and not heavily strategic because of the relatively limited options you have at any given time (at least in a two-player game; more players will significantly increase the decision space). The asymmetrical nature of the game adds an interesting factor, and I suspect that with more players, its effect on the game would be more pronounced.

(Also, you should grab a copy. It’s only $53 on Amazon, so get to it!)

The draw of violating symmetry

It’s that asymmetric play that really intrigues me. We’ve been playing asymmetric games for a very long time, so there’s obviously something appealing about it. But what? Why aren’t we primarily drawn to evenly matched games that are straightforward battles of wits?

I think it has a lot to do with believability. Most conflicts that have played out throughout our history have been asymmetrical in one way or the other, be it the Gallic Wars or the US’s economic competition with China. There just aren’t that many situations—other than highly abstract strategy games—where two parties are evenly and perfectly matched. This realism makes it easier to accept the game. (Don’t get this sort of believability mixed up with realism; Cry Havoc‘s theme is pretty far-fetched—which is one of the reasons I love it—but if it were to take place, you can believe that the factions would be as they’re portrayed).


Even games in which both players have an identical starting position, like Through the Ages and other civilization games, become believable by giving players different development pathways—they’re forced to build different wonders, elect different leaders, develop different technologies, and so on, making the game essentially more asymmetric as it progresses.

The enjoyment we get out of games that require us to think differently—instead of simply the same way, but better—than our opponent to reach the same goal seems to be linked to our grasp on what is realistic and what isn’t. Of course it makes sense that the four different races battling over a planet use different strategies: they have different backgrounds, different strengths, even different physiologies that affect how they go about trying to rule this planet.

On a more mechanical level, having a particular advantage or special ability does a number of things that are attractive to game players. First, it actually serves to attenuate the influence of luck in some games. For example, take Imperial Settlers, a lightly asymmetric game. Each faction is slightly better at one thing—the Romans can save raze tokens to go after their opponents, the Japanese are good at defending their buildings, and so on.


If all of the factions had the same abilities, much of the game would be dependent on the cards drawn and drafted, which puts players in the rather unenviable position of basically rolling for the win. However, by giving each faction different specialties, the designers have made the game more competitive—each player can take advantage of cards in different and specific ways that make the most sense with their faction. This means that any given card may have a different value to all of the players, making the ability to recognize and plan for these situations crucial for winning.

(This is another game that should be in your collection. If it’s not, remedy the situation immediately for a mere $38.)

Another great thing about asymmetry is that it makes everyone feel like they can leverage their ability to create an advantage to win (thanks to my wife for pointing this out). If the game is truly balanced, no ability or power is more useful than any other . . . but that doesn’t mean players don’t think that they’re well-equipped to defeat their opponents, whether because they got a power that works well with their play style or they just got one that they know how to take advantage of. The asymmetry allows novice players to feel like they can take on a veteran and have a better chance of winning than if they had simply faced off in a battle of simple strategy.

And, of course, asymmetry adds to the replay value of any game, which is important when it’s not hard to drop $100 on a board game.

By combining all of these things into a single trait, asymmetry allows a game to give gamers so much more value in play experience than it would have been able to by putting them on equal footing. If it’s done well, that is, which certainly isn’t easy from a design perspective.

As always, these ramblings are early reflections on the topic, and I plan on giving it more thought in the future. Until then, though, I’d love to hear what you think about asymmetric games, what makes them appealing, and why they do or don’t work well in specific cases. Leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter!

Image credit: duncan c via Flickr.


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