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Accepting Asymmetric Difficulty

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Original Post

Last week I talked about games which were biased to produce a win for one side and why that might be desirable. In a nutshell the answer is because your friends probably aren't all at the same skill level and it'd be cool to be able to play against them and have a tense gaming experience.

The main obstacle to this is not a thematic or mechanical problem. There are plenty of themes appropriate to one sided games, as a culture we enjoy stories in which an underdog faces insurmountable odds. Mechanically it's no harder to make a one sided game than a balanced one, though it is necessary to make it consistently one sided by the same amount. It would probably be desirable for players to be able to modulate the degree of bias, but I don't think it's necessary.

The main obstacle is the social one, balance issues are a hot button topic, so how do you get gamers to agree to sit down and play a flagrantly unbalanced game? I had a few ideas and three paragraphs in, that's what today's blog post is about.

Hide It

One option is to make the game sufficiently complex that the imbalance isn't immediately clear. I own a number of games that feature asymmetric play that seems to favour one side and derive a fair amount of enjoyment from them. The Descent: Road to Legend campaign favours the overlord enough that it's fun to try playing as the heroes against a weaker player, but it's a fine balance - the Descent Sea of Blood campaign is sufficiently broken that it's just not been fun with any group that I've encountered.

The social problem is sidestepped as players don't notice the issues and attribute their successes to solid play rather than to the games mechanics. However it's far from an ideal solution, I suspect that in most cases it occurs as an accident and it loses out on many of the advantages of a deliberately unbalanced game by robbing most players of the opportunity to make an informed decision about them. In general I wouldn't recommend it as a solution.

Own It

This is the exact opposite of the previous approach and I can't think of a single game that does it, but I'd be interested to see how it goes. The logic goes that a lot of games produce miniature cultures that apply just to that game, screwing someone up just to see the look on their face might be accepted in Munchkin but the same behaviour would seem antisocial and game ruining in Eclipse. In principle a game could deliberately look to produce a local norm favouring imbalanced play.

I'd go further and suggest that this norm needs to sound favourable to the weaker player. It's already fairly satisfying to be acknowledged as the stronger player and to get to attempt a play from a difficult position (and the bragging rights if you manage it). It's somewhat less satisfying to be identified as the weaker player and to be put into a position where winning the game can be attributed to the favourable position rather than the ability of the player. I reckon there are a few ways to make it feel better:

1 Use the language in the game to suggest the weaker player is being awesome, write as if they are throwing down the gauntlet and issuing a challenge to a friend who's maybe not all that.

2 Make the game asymmetric, especially in ways that make it seem like the weaker side requires more intelligent play. A lot of games provide one side with an information advantage (consider Dracula in Fury of Dracula) if this is provided to the stronger side and made more useful than a raw power advantage offered to the weaker side I predict the stronger side would feel more awesome to win with despite the advantage.

3 Skew the advantages of the stronger side to the start or middle of the game. Awarding a player bonus points at the end of the game makes it trivial for them to feel like the game just gave them a win. Giving them an extra resource at the start or some situational advantage so that the player needs to apply some skill to leverage them into a win will make it feel better to play as that side.

Disadvantage in Play

Players are generally reluctant to use optional rules that give one side or the other an advantage, but some games produce the disadvantage to the stronger player in game. [url]Risk Legacy[/url] initially achieves this by awarding a bonus to any player who's never won a game before. The bonus is significant; essentially allowing a new player to start the game halfway to victory, developing this line further could help. Sadly the game soon collapses back to offering increasing benefits for winning more consecutive games.

I think a more interesting implementation of this might be the self selecting handicaps that occur in the Space Alert expansion. Players get a character sheet on which they can score points to get (very) minor bonuses, some points are awarded every mission but big boosts can be obtained by managing achievements. Each achievement can only be earned once, as players advance further they find themselves going for harder and more obscure options - and it definitely makes the game harder to have one player who's doing their level best to finish a mission without playing more than a handful of actions.

That idea could be bent to competitive games, with achievements offering a self selected way to accept a handicap. The stronger player has something awesome to go for and the game offers some sort of inherent recognition if they manage it, but it doesn't patronise the weaker player at all, who objectively was the better player by right of making a better decision about which achievements to pursue and how. I'd be really interested to play a competitive game that had been designed in this fashion.


I don't really have one, but it felt like the end of the article should have a heading. There are a few cool things people could try, I suspect that many of them will have already been tried and I simply didn't hear of them So I guess, in conclusion I want some of the theoretical games that I speculate about but don't have time to make them all!
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