Today we’re going to turn an assumption about what makes a good design on its head and see what shakes out. The assumption is this: An asymmetric game should be balanced such that players of equal skill have a reasonable chance to win no matter which side (or position or whatever) they start with.
Players Have Unequal Skill
This seems obvious, but it’s worth saying out loud, since it’s the reason to do the thing. In most games if one player is better they will tend to win. Sometimes this is desirable, especially in something like a competition scenario, but I’m not sure it’s always desirable.
If a parent plays with their kid should they always beat them, or else decide not to and lose by deliberate poor play?
Should the outcome of a game between an experienced player and someone they’re introducing to games for the first time be a foregone conclusion?
If people like playing together socially but are at different levels of skill is the best possible design one where one constantly beats the other?
I don’t think the answer to any of these questions is “yes”. I feel that in a lot of situations players are best served by a design if they have an exciting close game that comes down to the wire and whichever one of them most surpasses their personal best comes out on top.
I think there’s a place for an unfair game, in which positions are intentionally unbalanced. With the goal of creating a tense close game between players of different levels of experience.
What Features Does It Need?
The gameplay on the “hard” side needs to have a high skill ceiling. In principle the game is allowing one player to make up for a gulf in raw power through good play, so there needs to be a lot of delineation in how well it can be played. There’s no sense playing snakes and ladders with one player starting 10 spaces ahead, the lack of options in the game gives the player who’s behind no means to catch up.
The gameplay on the “easy” side needs to have accessible play, FOO strategies and at least a moderate skill ceiling. Let’s break those down one by one:
Accessible play is necessary because the side is intended as a means to introduce new players to games, so it shouldn’t assume too much prior experience of familiarity with different mechanics. You’d want it to be as playable as any gateway game.
FOO strategies are a part of accessible play and it’d be helpful for developing the game. Some relatively obvious strong plays offer a new player somewhere to get started and provide a baseline for what the game might expect a player in that position to do.
However it’s important that there be better approaches available. If one side is more powerful but its gameplay is just “Flip a card, do what the card says” then you’ve essentially relegated one player to running part of a solo game for the experienced player. There needs to be the genuine opportunities for subtle and clever plays from both sides for everyone to be truely involved in the game.
In discussing mechanical issues it’s easy to nudge theme over to one side and forget about it, but the funny thing is that there are loads of games that use themes more suited to this sort of situation than the games they’re actually in.
I think it’s to do with the nature of stories that people like:
A plucky group of heroes entering a dungeon filled with monsters and traps.
A single ninja infiltrating a castle packed with guards.
A small rebel group taking on the might of an Empire!
We like underdog stories. So why not make a game in which the underdogs really are underdogs? Making major mechanical decisions just to deliver on a theme can often generate a fairly flawed game, but if we’re looking at an unbalanced game anyway why not really nail a theme that’s been attempted a bunch of times but never in any fidelity?
Pulling it Together
I’ve started trying a few prototypes for this sort of game this week. My first attempt was one called HappyLand in which a director of an amusement park was trying to get his guests to have enough fun while his guests were desperately trying to leave and get on with their lives.
The visitors started with a deck allowing some short moves and obtained resources to add cards to their deck by moving through certain spaces, permitting them to work up to longer moves or to overcome obstacles that blocked movement such as walls and mascots.
The director draw two cards and played one each turn. This let her move visitors or mascots around or set them objectives (Like “ride the waterslide”) such that failing to do so added 0-value (“smile”) cards to their deck.
The visitors won by escaping the park, the director won by emptying the smile pile.
Having worked on it for a week and taking the time to write a short article about it today I’m not sure that HappyLand is the game I’m looking for, so I’m likely to dissect it for parts. Some thoughts on this prototype:
Deckbuilding is a strong mechanic for the “underdog” side. It requires a degree of planning ahead and creates a lot of tension between “needed now” and “needed ever”. It’s also somewhat subject to disruption and can help create the skill ceiling for the other side, especially if they’re adding cards do the deck that are anything other than unalloyed evil.
I’m not sure HappyLand was the right theme, but something that’s at least child friendly seems important, given age is going to be one of the main reasons for disparity of experience. It’s important the game not come across as “for kids” though, that’s going to be a fine line to walk.
The many against one aspect needs some consideration. The one vs one situation is easy enough and many vs many is going to be much harder to work with – but which way around should it be? Is a hypothetical group more likely to be a bunch of experienced players and one new player or the other way around? Is it better for several players to gang up on the strongest player or the weakest player to be thrown into a position of power over everyone else? Those seem appealing in different ways.
There’s still plenty to do with this, but it’s an idea I’d like to explore some more.