Kind Fortress: Design Patterns - Asymmetry and Player Interaction
We’ve spent the last few weeks talking about various ways in which games start with asymmetry, or introduce it along the way, in order to reach the ultimate asymmetric outcome of winning and losing. Today, we’ll close our series on asymmetry by talking about player interaction.
Broadly speaking, nearly every competitive game can be reduced to ‘allocating resources and converting those resources in service of the victory condition.’ This is a very simple frame but it let’s us say some pretty big things. For example, players will choose which resources to collect by trying to value resources relative to the victory points, or progress towards the end-goal, that they produce.
When the resource-to-victory equation is solved, the game ceases being a game. There’s always a right answer, a dominant strategy by which you can maximize your efficient conversion of resources to victory. Many games seek to create uncertainty and opacity around that equation so that the game remains fun, as we’ve covered before.
Player interaction creates asymmetry by introducing another source of uncertainty to that core equation. Some routes you might take in a game are highly contingent. Science cards in 7 Wonders only produce efficient returns when you can collect many of them, in the right types. Your first science card is typically less valuable than other cards you might select, but if you never take the first card, you can’t take the 5th, and the 5th is typically quite valuable relative to your other options.
Choosing to go down the science road is a highly contingent strategy though, because other players can act to stop you. When deciding to embark on this path, you need to evaluate the probability that you’ll succeed. However, since you can’t read other players’ minds, or even see the cards they are considering and will consider in the future, it can be hard to know what the chances are that they won’t get in your way too badly.
Another way player interaction impacts asymmetry is that players have the power to change the stakes of various encounters and choices. In Smallworld, a player adds a VP to any race they bypass when choosing a new race. Those additional VP sweeteners increase the value of that race. Your evaluation of which race to choose has now been impacted by this change in stakes. Unlocking a Milestone in Terraforming Mars similarly adds value to certain types of actions, cards, or tiles that players must respond to.
These are clear examples of changing the valuation of certain actions and resources, but there are other more subtle examples too. Consider Alhambra, or really any majority competition in which players receive 2nd-place points. If a player dominates a particular color in Alhambra and builds a big lead, other players are deterred from competing for that color. But when there is a tight 2-horse race for 1st place, the player who snags 2nd place points often gets quite a bargain, and gets points for only having two or three buildings of the color in question. This, in turn, means that the player who won first-place points may have ultimately acquired those points inefficiently relative to the resources invested.
I believe that looking at player interaction through this lens of what do you make cheaper or more expensive for other players, and where do you give players the ability to change the stakes of different kinds of interactions is really important, because it maps onto the issue of the experience of a game. There are games whose actions suggest that they will be very powerful because of their thematic coloration, but when you consider their actual impacts on the economic structure of the game, they may not be so impressive. Conversely, actions that seem flat or uninteresting may in fact be quite powerful.
Games that feature the ability to acquire cards that unlock final scoring conditions can fall into this trap. Because there’s no immediate mechanical impact, it can be tough to thematically dress these properly. Common approaches include things like prestige buildings, or claiming the favor or a noble, etc. I think the best approach to these have one or more of the following features:
- Must be claimed/completed/activated over a period of time (eg Wonders in Through the Ages)
- Impact the mechanisms of the game in an ongoing fashion, eg a buff or debuff (eg Race for the Galaxy family, where many big VP cards pair with a related ability)
- Tie into a core dynamic of the game (eg Deus, where temples go out on the map and count as buildings for various other card effects)
All these approaches help raise the visibility of these cards in the eyes of all the players and improve player interaction and responsiveness to the substantial changes in incentives and outcomes that this type of mechanism introduces.
In summary, player interaction is a great source of asymmetry because it allows players to change the underlying value of different decisions. This is a second level of analysis, that can only be engaged with well once a player understands how they value various actions before any changes occur. And it opens up a third layer of analysis, in which players seek to understand how their opponents are likely to respond to changes in the incentive structure of the game. Thus, player interaction is one avenue that designers can use to strategically deepen their games. Even very low interaction games often find their most strategic layers in the subtleties of the limited interaction that is allowed.
That will do it on asymmetry. More Patterns posts will continue to explore other ideas, including a guest post next time from JR Honeycutt, so stay tuned! As always, your feedback and conversation are welcome and I hope you’ll use the comments section to share your ideas and reactions.