We have played lots of games with asymmetrical elements to them. Some of our collective favourites as a group include this as their focal point. How To Rob a Bank, The Final Flicktier, Lucidity (once someone becomes a nightmare)... Our shelves are stacked with asymmetry! And asymmetry has one of two effects on a person: they either get curious or get a nervous twitch. The issue is that it hints at imbalance, difference, and inequality. Things that aren't the same on both sides often aren't always welcomed to the table.
That is not the case for us and we think it shouldn't be the case, period. Knowing that it's different on both sides of the board keeps things interesting. Below is a countdown of our top five games with asymmetry in them. They're varied and different, but our top picks nonetheless!
5. Scotland Yard
Scotland Yard is easily the most accessible game with asymmetry threaded throughout it. One player is Mr X, public enemy number one and all round wrong'un. No one likes Mr X, and everyone wants to catch him. All other players play as the law, MI5, or whomever you wish to who is on the right side of the law. They need to work together to locate, trap and catch Mr X. This might result in a Many Vs One situation, but never doubt Mr X's hiding capabilities. All of Mr X's movements are hidden until particular checkpoints in game where his location is revealed for a short period of time.
The game runs on an element of balance. One side has more numbers, the other has stealth. Mr X can see everyone on the board and tracks their own movements. Everyone else can see how Mr X is choosing to move and can deduce where he might be based on that. London's most wanted can also hide his movements with some special movement rules, but inevitably it's going to be tense for them. I am terrible when playing as Mr X. You get a hat that covers your eyes to use, but it adds more tension and makes me crack. Panic is the enemy of Mr X, and weakness will show where you are faster than any deductions!
This is a game that blew up in popularity on Kickstarter, and for good reason. Root is an area control, asymmetrical game where you play as woodland critters fighting for domination of the woodland. It sounds lovely in its concept, but there's a lots of depth and dark happenings within it. Each faction of animals has a different objective and different play - in fact, we'd argue there's a faction for every player's comfortable play-style. I myself prefer the Vagabond: playing all sides for the sly win. My partner prefers the Woodland Alliance, partly for the base building, mostly because you play as lots of critters. Couple that with the many expansion factions and you've got a party!
Root is a game that will force you to know what everyone's main goal is. It's a free for all inevitably, and everyone is the enemy. Every move you make is visible to everyone else and they'll react accordingly. Your progress is their regression, and they won't tolerate it! We found Root to be a game that hit the right note with us when playing the eighth factions. When I was forced to play something less familiar, it was a steeper learning curve but was more rewarding too. There's no end of combinations for combat, and the fighting amongst the factions changes the dynamics for those not in control. That asymmetry forces you to utilise your abilities, and that might mean playing awfully sneakily!
This game hits our top five leaves a great impression on the players. It's all out war with no one focussing on the same thing! Were the core game to incorporate all four other factions, it would easily top our list! However, the originals leave enough of an impression to make the list. It's tactical, heavily asymmetrical, and requires a solid plan. Great for the thinker!
U-Boot is the only purely cooperative game in this list. You run a submarine and need to complete objectives. Everyone has their own role and controls the respective people associated to that role. The Chief Engineer controls the engineers, for example, and does engineering oriented things. U-Boot is app driven and relies on lots of communication. You have your Captain, the First-Officer, the Navigator, and the Chief Engineer. The Captain makes sure the mission is complete and records important information associated to it.
The First Officer runs the app and makes sure everyone is in the know of the situation. The Chief Engineer ensures the U-Boot is operational and surfaces as necessary. The Navigator charts voyages, decides where to go and chooses the depth of the U-Boot. Four distinct roles that come together to operate the ship together.
U-Boot is hard to master, and tricky to get right. It's incredibly rewarding when you do get it right, and sinking a ship is an incredible feeling... But it is incredibly difficult too! I play as The Captain generally, mainly so I can make constant reference to the film Captain Phillips, but also as it felt the most natural role to play in. Our more meticulous player chose The Navigator role and he smashed it. Our First Officer was our most cautious player and she ensured we knew everything superbly, and our most level headed was the Chief Engineer. We managed to take on our roles excellently and, with lots of arguing, completed our objectives. When we were given other roles, we panicked and sank.
I love U-Boot, but you've got to know your job. There is no point in having a Captain if you've got a megalomaniacal Navigator. Your team is glued together with communication, and a lack of communication will make the submarine fall apart! This game is for a team who can run their own role whilst knowing others' jobs. You manage your own responsibilities and your own workload. It's impossible for anyone to do two roles efficiently in the heat of the moment, as the app moves to its own schedule.
U-Boot is intense and hits hard with its gameplay and ramping up difficulty. It's a challenge. But oh my days is it incredibly fun! Despite clearly being sat around a table, you lose yourself and could just as easily be convinced you were in a submarine. If you go for the cooperative asymmetrical play style, we recommend you use lots of time preparing. Know your role, read the rules, watch tutorials. And definitely play the training missions before going for the whole campaign!
Cosmic Encounter was the game that got me gaming. My first experience of take that, diplomacy, area control, asymmetrical play, and solid theme. As someone coming into gaming very green I should have been terrified (especially considering it was Cosmic with an expansion or two!). Luckily I wasn't, and it made me crave more. It's in my top 5 for more it's asymmetry than my nostalgia of it though, as it was the difference that made me love it.
In a nutshell of the core game, you play as an alien race trying to colonise other alien worlds. You can keep your alien face a secret until you activate their ability. Five foreign colonies nets you the win. You can negotiate or attack to gain these settlements, and attack power is determined by card values and ships sent to attack. Each player plays as a unique alien with a unique ability. Nothing about any of the aliens from the core game is similar. Some change how your attack cards work, some impact on your actions, some change ship values, and some change your victory conditions! Some are optional and some are mandatory too, changing how you'll play each time further. Take the Masochist race for example: victory is achieved when you've lost all your ships. They can still win through the normal means, but where the fun there?
Even without a victory condition changing alien, the game plays differently for you. I particularly enjoy playing as the Gambler and Loser races. The Losers make the loser of an encounter win. The Gambler however can edge their bets and bluff what card they have laid down. What makes this a top asymmetrical game for us is the level of asymmetry. It's there, point blank in your face, but it's never overwhelming. It's not over the top but is clearly visible, which is probably why it's so accessible despite its many mechanics.
Vast is pure asymmetry. Unlike some others in this list, this game has different play for every player. Everyone has a unique goal, unique mechanics, unique components. Asymmetrical through and through. The premise is that a Knight is off to slay a Dragon. The Dragon wants to escape the Cave and eat Goblins. The Goblins want to kill the Knight. The Cave wants to trap everyone, and the Thief needs to get treasure. Five players, five possibilities of unique play. What's more is that each character interacts with the others differently, their interactions mean variation based on player numbers.
Vast is a brilliant game to play, regardless of player count. It's worth the time to play and demonstrates its asymmetry throughout play. However, it is not one you can pick up and play every time. Every player is unique, has unique actions and plays differently. You need to spend a little bit of time reading your own character's actions and board to understand how to play. Luckily, you don't need to know the intricacies of every character... a brief outline will do generally, as everyone had their own board to manage.
It sounds like homework, but the fruits of your efforts and so worth it! The game is crazy fun and no one ever feels at a loss as their progress towards their objective is measured by their own actions.
Vast is our number 1 for a reason. The thing we love the most about Vast is how it can be played differently dependent on player count. Maybe the thief didn't arrive in the cave? Perhaps the goblins missed the memo? Suppose the dragon was never there at all!?
Who knows, all you need to know is that play can happen, and can be different, regardless of who turns up! What changes is people's objectives. It might not be a slight change either, but they can always achieve their objective. What's more is how thematic the game is. You begin to feel you are the character and risk getting tunnel vision for your objective. All eyes on the prize! It'll mean you'll go all aggression but still be at risk from your pursuer!
Asymmetry is a quality aspect of any game, and these five in particular made an impression on us. Identical play games can always leave a good impression, but the unique attributes an asymmetrical game provides make it that little more and enhances replay-ability. Different every time! That's not to say we won't acknowledge the issue some see or have with asymmetry. Tapestry, for example, is receiving balancing tweaks still. Credit to Stonemaier games for refining the play based on feedback, but it's definitely something that could put casual players off.
These five won't require tweaks or adjustments to play well, but the asymmetry will force you to play differently every time. If you're looking for your next gaming venture, go asymmetrical. You're more likely than not to enjoy one of the play-styles!