In my previous game balancing article, I talked about what different kinds of thought go into balancing a game. In this article, I’ll talk about symmetry and asymmetry–the similarity of the different sides of a game.


Symmetric vs. Asymmetric

In a symmetric game, options are the same for each side. Symmetry in a game begins to break down very rapidly in longer games, where players have different strategic options, so most symmetric games are short, or rely more heavily on tactics than long-term strategy.

Asymmetric games are those games where the players do not stand on equal ground. Different options provide different advantages and disadvantages to each player. Because a head on attack is more advantages for one player does not mean it is as advantageous for another player. Rock is no longer on the same level with Paper or Scissors.

Symmetry implies balance. If both players have an equal set of options (or equal odds) then only their individual skill levels or decisions will determine their success. On the other hand, Asymmetry does not preclude balance–an asymmetric game can still have statistical balance, even if the individual options are not balanced against one another.

Very few games are wholly symmetric or wholly asymmetric. They overlap and diverge in many different places.

Nearly Symmetric

“If there are no specializations, the game is balanced.”

Every game involves some degree of symmetry. In most board games, the players must take turns. Going first or last almost always carries some kind of advantage, and so the game loses symmetry almost immediately. Even in Chess, white goes first, giving them an uneven playing field against black. When the asymmetry in a game is so small as to be almost negligible, however, the game is generally regarded as symmetric.

If a game is supposed to be symmetric, but the inherent bonuses granted by turn order are too great to ignore, the game may mitigate this by handing some bonus or penalty to the players going later on.

Developmental Asymmetry

“If everyone has the same specialization options, the game is balanced.”

Just because we start on even ground doesn’t mean that we’re going to stay there. Even if all players have equal starting positions doesn’t mean that they will for the duration of the game. In a game like Chess, there are no new units, no new powers—symmetry is unbroken. In a game like Civilization, however, after the first few tech tree decisions or culture merits, the game is no longer symmetric. It has crossed into the realm where players are now on different footing than one another, based upon their strategic decisions.

Such a system is inherently balanced in the statistical sense—everyone has the same choices available, thus they all can follow the same path to victory. For a game with developmental asymmetry to be interesting, the developmental options must also be balanced against one another, so they are all valid choices.

Specialized Asymmetry

“If every specialization is balanced against the others, the game is balanced.”

A ‘true’ asymmetric game gives the players a specialized role to play. This may be in the form of a character class, a different deck of cards, or a different set of units and tactics. If the players don’t start the game with these asymmetries, they gain them soon after by choosing specializations. The specialists are designed to have specific strengths and weaknesses, but all are generally on the same level, and are equally effective at winning the game in their own way, without sacrificing the ability to interfere with and defend themselves against others.

Runaway Specialization

“If every specialization is balanced against the game, the game is balanced.”

In games that allow players to customize and specialize to a great degree (or in boxed games that encourage extreme specialization), you can find runaway specialization. In this case, the specialist has a very definite plan to win, and everything falls in line with that plan. The player excels amazingly at one aspect of the game, and plans to capitalize purely on that to win, perhaps with a few defensive measures in place as an afterthought. It is impossible to beat the specialist at his aspect of the game, and it is similarly impossible to win against him by playing the general game. The only option is to find another specialty that works better than the existing specialist’s one. Thus, specialization begins to feed into itself, leading to a runaway where every specialist almost seems to be playing a different game within the same context, and the one who can play their game most effectively while disrupting the others will be the winner.

In this case, the specialists are not balanced against one another, but purely on their effectiveness at winning the game. In short, statistical balance taken to the extreme. There is little or no overlap between the capabilities of each player, making small-scale balance impossible.

Conclusions & Discussion

The scale of symmetry is not an absolute one, and can be subdivided down to as many different levels as you want.

  • Do you see yourself designing games that lean more towards the symmetric or asymmetric?
  • Which level of specialization/generalization appeals to you the most?
  • What categories of symmetry would you sort your favorite games into?
  • Can you think of any games that don’t fit into these categories, or might fall into several different categories?