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    Board Game Mechanics – Asymmetric Games

    Asymmetric games banner
    Asymmetric games banner

    Part of the fun of blogging for Zatu is being able to look back at the games collection and marvel at the variety of different styles and genres of game on the shelves. Gone are the days of a one-dimensional challenge, shared by all with the outcome being determined by the last roll of the dice. Now, gamers expect more, and with that deserve far more player involvement. In this regard, games have developed in complexity. New ideas seem to spawn new terms as rapidly as aliens invading a beleaguered spaceship.

    In the next feature we will blast away some of the mystery that surrounds the phrase “Asymmetric Games” and then jet off in search of some gems that are orbiting in the games universe.

    Asymmetric literally means one side being different to another. This does not mean unbalanced, but it does show that the view and outlook will vary depending on the position that is taken. In the gaming world this could be associated with each gamer having a different set of goals to achieve. An alternative might be a different starting position and even a different set of rules to obey. Within this genre is a group of games where players have alternative strengths or abilities (variable player powers), but these will form another feature.

    Within the broadest definition of game asymmetry this means that one player we’ll be playing with a specific set of rules or plans that differ from the others. There will be some commonality in the same way that a one-pound coin is still worth the same value, but will look differently, depending on whether viewed from the head, tails or even the edge.

    The key to asymmetric games is not just knowing about your role, but having an appreciation of the actions and functions of the others around you – understanding the motives and objectives of the enemy if you will. If you realise their game plan and permitted moves, then you stand a greater chance of limiting their options. Similarly, if the game has a co-operative element, their character may have a more suitable action enabling them to work more efficiently than you. In games with a hidden role, this knowledge will not be available immediately. As the game progresses you might be able to infer a player’s role, goal and power through the actions that are taken. For asymmetric games with hidden roles part of the fun is bluffing and trying to conceal your objectives and role in the game.

    But What are Asymmetric Games?

    For asymmetric games, there are two broad categories; complete asymmetry, or semi co-operative. In the former every player has a unique ability and unique goal to achieve at the end of the game (this may or may not be hidden). In semi co-operative games these may take the form of an “all against one” game. Here, depending on player count, a number of players may have a shared aim but be competing against one or more other players.

    Asymmetric games will provide a depth often not found in older games. With each new role, a gamer can enjoy plenty of replayability. It is almost as though as one facet of the game becomes clearer and understood a player may choose to observe the gaming gem from another angle and take on another role.

    Our personalities are all different. Similarly, the decision’s we make will vary according to how we see the world. The beauty of asymmetric games means that there are often specific roles or goals that are more aligned to an individual’s temperament. These games that bring flexibility, can enable a player to personalise their play according to their style. Some prefer to lurk in the shadows, working alone against the rest of the world – perhaps ready to seize the unwary at the drop of a hat. Others prefer a more open approach with an element of co-operation. Asymmetric games with different roles can allow all gaming types to enjoy the same game together.

    With new roles and challenges these games retain a freshness and a new perspective. This will bring more fun and increase a games longevity. Much has been made about value for money and the ability to enjoy games for many years. With asymmetric games the added depth and complexity brought with each new role ensures many years of fun. The investment of time in learning each new role will be rewarded.

    With these thoughts in mind we will consider a few asymmetric games currently available at Zatu.

    Jaws

    This is a fairly faithful representation of this classic film. As an asymmetric game this also contains variable player powers with a semi co-operative element. As in the film it is “all against the shark”. The three main characters are Brody, Hooper and the Chief. Each of them will need to work together but they have specific abilities to assist each other. The shark on the other hand needs only to eat swimmers, or the other players and avoid getting caught. This is really a “three versus one battle”. However despite having more humans this game is still finely balanced and Jaws will often win.

    Jaws plays out over two acts, represented on each side of the player board. How a team performs in the first act will carry through certain advantages and bonuses to the second phase. Initially, the shark is terrorising Amity Island. With hidden movement, it will try to attack as many swimmers on the four beaches. The island is divided into a series of zones. It is up to Brodie and Hooper to take to the water to deter the shark. The Chief closes the beaches, stays on the lookout, and supplies the boat with barrels and supplies to try to catch the shark.

    Act two sees Jaws attack the Orca. With each successful lunge this little boat is slowly destroyed, possibly throwing the three crew into the water. If they stay too long they will become shark bait. Jaws doesn’t have it all his own way. The men are armed with rudimentary weapons and will try to inflict a mortal blow before the boat sinks.

    It is a tense, fun, and entertaining game from Ravensburger and one that the family will certainly enjoy, but it may put off younger children from dipping a toe in the water at the beach this summer.

    Room 25

    This is in my top five, possibly top three games list. Although there are many lovely mechanics at play (pre-programmed moves, bluffing, variable player-powers etc) it is the asymmetry that is fun.

    This is a semi co-operative challenge for between two and six players (or eight with the Season 2 Expansion). As prisoners in a futuristic gaol, you need to escape to the exit (Room 25) within a defined number of terms. It is loosely based on the science fiction films, The Cube and The Running Man. Each room in the jail is laid out as a card as part of a 5 x 5 grid. Their contents are only revealed as players explore. Many of them contain traps and dangers and a few cause instant death! Each player has a standard set of abilities, explore, peep, push etc and these need to be “pre programmed” at the start of each turn.

    However, each has a specific ability to assist. For some it might be to carry one player to another tile. For another they could destroy a room [and the traps within it closed bracket. Others might be able to hide from the guards or open locked spaces. The team’s success in Room 25 is dependent on how players work together to use these specific abilities to overcome the dangers.

    The asymmetry comes in the form of the hidden roles and end game plans given at the beginning of play. The Season 2 expansion (that is now standard in Room 25 Ultimate) brings with it guards. Up to three players are secretly assigned this role. There are traitors in the midst of the other prisoners. Their goal is to ensure no-one escapes, or better still, make sure that the prisoners end up dying. However, if they were to reveal their true identity, then the too could suffer the same fate. So for the guards it is a case of “assisting” the escape plans in exploring the jail but not too much. For the “true prisoners” it is easier to trust no-one and hope the guards do not get to the exit before you do.

    This game is sure to remain one of my favourites for years to come.

    Root

    This is a cute game all about little animals living together in a “Wind in the Willows” utopian world, right? Nothing could be further from the truth!

    This is an all-out war for domination. Each player takes a species or faction and battles for control of the wilderness. The base game has four groups, the cats, the birds, the rabbits, and the wolves (vagabonds). To win a faction needs to have acquired 30 victory points. However, Root is truly asymmetric in that each player gains victory points in a unique way. Similarly, the actions that are available are quite varied with a limit on what is possible.

    The Root board is a depiction of a forest, cut by woodland paths with a series of clearings. These also separate the land into parcels of trees. It is at these different forest spaces that some factions will make their home. However, the peace is short lived as gaming dominance of a clearing will afford extra powers and points. With separate objectives, abilities and scoring opportunities the actions of one player may disproportionately affect others. The cats will aim to construct buildings in the woodland areas bounded by the paths. For this faction to do well requires a strong engine building element. To construct buildings they will need to develop, maintain and grow a strong interconnected economy based on would.

    The birds, in the Eyre Dynasty, aim to build and protect their roosts. The birds are more aggressive, aiming to take control of the forest clearings that are dotted across the board - the greater their presence the greater their reward.

    The rabbits who formed the “Woodland Alliance” are much more “peaceable”. They score by spreading sympathy for their cause. The alliance faction brings together the animals that are disaffected by the current situation. Alliances form and with this sympathy to a cause is generated. With time supporters might incite rebellion and from that base, a military pact can grow. This might then challenge the other factions.

    The Vagabond Wolves can have a more “Jekyll and Hyde” action, choosing either to aid or even harm the other factions. For some the chance to play on all sides of a conflict whilst increasing one zone influence is a fun challenge. Points might be scored by improving relations with one faction or weakening factions that are hostile towards the vagabond’s “friends”

    Victory point goals form one part of the final victory condition. However this can also be amended through the playing of faction-specific dominance cards. All of these subtleties make for a finely balanced game for up to four players. The rules might be challenging and faction specific, but with a little time, Root will be extremely rewarding.

    Risk

    The final game in our asymmetric series is Risk. This might be described as an old-fashioned area controlled war game where players aim for world domination and the complete annihilation of all others. Indeed, that was the only objective of the original 1959 version- La Conquete du Monde.

    Fast forward over 60 years and the games have evolved. With that so have the rules of engagement. In the latest version of Risk, instead of starting areas being determined randomly by cards, every player has assigned countries and areas that they initially control. These come with a capital city that must be preserved if possible. With these balanced starting positions it means that whereas one player might have the relative safety of defending Australasia, another might be able to control Africa more easily. Gamers familiar with Risk will understand that the larger the number of countries controlled, the greater the numbers of troops that might be drafted during a turn. The relative safety of Oceania is countered by another's steady acquisition of military might.

    The asymmetric element comes in its game plans and objectives. While the original goal to gain world domination is still present, there are now a series of smaller objectives. These, while still formidable, mean ever player’s aims could be wildly different. One player’s goal might be to completely destroy the green team. These objectives are best concealed as other players might inadvertently assist in that player’s plans. They may be aiming to expand into different territories already possessed by the green. The green team then maybe destroyed, allowing the first player to win.

    Risk is not for everyone. There are numerous additions and variations including a Risk Legacy game too. It is one of those games that shows how gamer’s tastes have allowed an old classic to be changed and reinvented and brought up to date.

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