You'll be hard-pressed to find any coverage of hot new games in 2018 that isn't discussing Root. The cute-looking, forest-themed game from designer Cole Wehrle and publisher Leder Games has burst onto the scene in dramatic fashion since its unveiling at Origins earlier this year.
This post isn't a Root review. That will come later, after I've managed to get it to the table a couple of times. Instead, I want to take a deeper dive into one of the aspects of Root that makes it so compelling. Root is a completely asymmetrical game. There are four factions that players can choose from but each one has completely different rules and ways to gain points. While the goal of 30 points is the same for everyone, the Marquis de Cat, Eyrie, Woodland Alliance and Vagabond all have very different ways of getting there.
But, for all its attention, Root is by no means the first asymmetrical game to do well. Leder Games achieved a lot of success with a similar game, Vast, a couple of years ago, and many well-loved titles incorporate elements of asymmetry, even if they don't take it to the same extent as those from Leder Games. What is it about this type of game that can make it so appealing?
What is an Asymmetrical Game?
Let's start by taking a step back and defining our term. At its most basic, I think of an asymmetrical game as a game where players start with differences. For example, Catan is not asymmetrical, because, before a settlement is placed, every player has the same resources, rules and abilities. Scythe, on the other hand, is asymmetrical, because each player has a faction with unique abilities and a different starting position on the board.
Asymmetry in games is a scale. Scythe would fall somewhere on the lower end of the scale. While factions have different abilities, much of the game is the same, and the core actions are always the same (even if they can be combined differently). Root and Vast are at the far end of the scale, with each player playing with different objectives and rules, even if they share a play area.
An asymmetrical game is not inherently better than a symmetrical title, or vice versa. If anything, there's more risk involved, as it is much easier for designers to get the balance wrong in a game where players can do different things. That said, a couple of my favourite games - Scythe and Specter Ops - have elements of asymmetry and there are clearly some strengths to those kinds of games that others don't always have.
There is always more to discover with asymmetrical games. In Zatu's reviews, we incorporate a score for replay-ability because we believe that good games should give their buyers many fun experiences over time, rather than becoming boring after a couple of plays. I think asymmetrical designs naturally lend themselves to this quality.
Take Scythe. For those of you that haven't heard about it, Scythe is essentially an area control game with different factions competing for control on a large map made of hexes. The base game supports up to five players, who can choose between five unique factions. These factions are then combined with any one of five unique player mats to make a new, unique combination.
Each faction has five faction/mat combinations and when you consider that they could come up against dozens of different opponent combinations across a number of player counts, there are hundreds of possible match ups. In terms of discoverability, it's practically endless! Add to that the fact that I own the first two expansion (Invaders from Afar and The Wind Gambit) factions and the combinations just keep adding up.
I'm someone that enjoys discovering new things and I don't like feeling like there's nothing new to try. Many asymmetrical games offer you so many different experiences in one box that it always feels like there's something you haven't tried.
Tough to Master
Of course, not every asymmetrical game will have as many available combinations as Scythe. Root doesn't, for example. But even in Root, you still have four completely different factions available which will lead to multiple starting combinations. If you want to be able to master any one of them - let alone all of them - it'll take a fair few plays.
I enjoy games with depth. Along with discoverability, this is a quality that keeps me coming back to a game I own. A game doesn't have to be complicated to have strategic depth. In fact, many of the most successful games are 'easy to learn and hard to master,' to use a cliche. For me, good strategic depth means that you never feel like you've 'solved' a game; there's always something you could do to improve.
Asymmetric games offer a lot of this potential. How many times will I have to play the Crimean Khanate in Scythe before I've mastered their strategy against all opponents? A lot. How many times will I have to play as the Woodland Alliance in Root before I can say I have nothing left to improve? My guess is: a lot. And in both these games, even if I somehow did manage to master a faction, I then have more that I could turn my attention to. That's the beauty of asymmetry.
I'm also a sucker for a good theme and I love it when a game's mechanics tie into that theme. Asymmetrical games tend to be very good at getting that tie-in right. This is because the faction differences are normally thematic and the way they play is tied to those themes.
The game of Root is supported by a thematic context. The old masters of the wood, the Eyrie, have been pushed out by the new masters, the Marquis de Cat. The Woodland Alliance aren't overly thrilled about being ruled by anyone, whilst the opportunistic Vagabond is always present, looking to survive and thrive in this tense world. That's the backdrop and the mechanics reflect it beautifully.
The cats start with control of the board. They want to build up industry and squash any competition. The birds want their old territory back and will fight anyone who gets in their way, but follow a tyrannical leader and will crumble if their orders go awry. The Alliance looks to spread sympathy among forest creatures, eventually leading to revolt. The Vagabond simply wanders, trading with whoever they like for personal gain. I love games that can tie theme and mechanics as closely as this and come out with a good experience and asymmetrical games seem to do it better than most.
The Challenges of Learning an Asymmetrical Game
But I'd be lying if I said everything was rosy. To teach Vast, Root or even another of my favourite games, Specter Ops, you essentially need to teach multiple games. If you own the game and you want to teach it to others, prepare to do some explaining.
I would be hesitant to introduce a game like Root or Vast to someone who isn't used to playing strategic games. To do well, you not only need to know what you're good at you; you also need some sort of grasp on what the others are doing. That's a lot of information to take in.
Games at the lower end of the asymmetrical scale aren't so bad. Those that have variable player powers as the main source of asymmetry tend to only need a single overarching explanation, footnoted with the details changed by the powers. Scythe is a little like this. That said, those powers often involve breaking other rules, which still makes it harder to take those rules in.
This doesn't have to be a major drawback, but it's something to be aware of. I'll be honest, I'm a little nervous to teach a few friends Root later this week, even though I'm confident it'll be a great game!
Where Should you Start?
There's no one place to start with asymmetrical games. While they share some qualities, they're so different. Just because I love Scythe and Specter Ops, doesn't mean the next person is going to love both of them or either of them. Assess them as you would any other game, but bear in mind the advantages that they do tend to have.
For convenience, I've listed the ones I've highlighted in this article below as I do think they're all very well regarded and good places to start. But, if all I achieve is that you keep an eye out for more asymmetrical games, I'll be happy.
Root - 2-4 players, 60-90 minutes, complexity: 3.4/5 - Review coming soon(BoardGameGeek)
Vast - 1-5 players, 75 minutes, complexity: 3.5/5 - Review
Scythe - 1-5 players, 90-115 minutes, complexity: 3.4/5 - Review
Specter Ops - 2-5 players, 60-120 minutes, complexity: 2.4/5 - Review