It’s Game Night and you know what that means: booze, board games, and belligerency (in that order). What better way to bond with your friends than by spending two hours in heated arguments, combing through rulebooks and forum posts to prove your points?

Modern tabletop gaming has reached a level of complexity that rivals video games. What that means, however, is that tabletop designers have had to adapt numerous mechanics and systems in order to support increasingly dense rule-sets. Due to its physical, player-driven nature, tabletop games have an inherently high learning curve.

Balance is already a messy can of worms. Throwing in asymmetric gameplay turns that can into a bucket. Balancing asymmetric tabletop gameplay turns the worms into rabid wolverines. That is to say, shit’s hard yo.

Fig. 1 – The proper reaction to a competitive asymmetric tabletop game.

Symmetry is for Chumps

Everyone knows the game “Tag”. One person is “It” and everyone else needs to avoid them. Whenever someone gets tagged, they become “It”. Simple, right? This is asymmetric gameplay in its most basic form: different mechanics for different players.

Asymmetric gameplay is typically any sort of multiplayer game where opposing sides use different mechanics and playstyles within the same rules and boundaries. One of the best examples is the Left 4 Dead series. On one side you have the humans: they have guns, can revive each other, and use a number of different items. On the other side you have the infected: they possess unique abilities, choose where to spawn, and have a comparatively shorter respawn timer. 

While both sides have the ultimate goal of “winning”, those conditions are different for each side. The humans win by reaching the end of the level, while the infected must prevent the humans from doing so and win when they all die. The different playstyles and mechanics reflect these opposing objectives.

If Left 4 Dead has received popular and critical acclaim, why haven’t more people tackled asymmetric gameplay? The answer: it’s freaking hard to balance. Power imbalance is already a large enough issue in normal competitive games. Effectively balancing completely different mechanics and playstyles requires massive amounts of work on the developer’s part.

Left 4 Dead’s well-balanced design resulted in a robust competitive scene that’s still active to this day.

“It’s a game that needs to be balanced, but fundamentals of the game are imbalanced,” said Adam Sessler in regards to Evolve, a game where four hunters  must chase down one super-powered beast. “You’re looking at a lot of variables. I think asymmetry at that point is doing a disservice, because it’s almost a cacophony of options of how this whole thing can play out!”

Developers for other games have expressed similar concerns. Crawl is a more recent asymmetric game that has one player dungeon-diving while the other three try to kill him and take his place. Powerhoof Games has said that “balance really is the hardest part of development on Crawl.” “We have a lot of tweaking to do!  … to make sure it isn’t frustrating for the hero or the monsters. There are a lot of possible ways to even the playing field a little.”

What’s nice about balancing for a digital medium is the ability to push updates and hotfixes with relative ease. The same can’t be said for tabletop games.

To the Table With You!

As a huge fan of tactics games and Star WarsImperial Assault seemed like a must-buy. Not only is it a classic Star Wars premise of daring rebels fighting the Imperial juggernaut, it also features Fire Emblem-like gameplay and progression. The novel idea of pitting four Rebel players against one person controlling the Imperial Army promised interesting and exciting combat. On paper, Imperial Assault was everything I ever wanted in a board game.

When ‘Star Wars’ meets ‘Fire Emblem’

In practice, however, Imperial Assault made it easy for me and my friends to get pissed off. The game tries to replicate the Fire Emblem and XCOM experience of objective-based missions by implementing scripted events. If a certain number of turns has passed or certain conditions are met within a mission, specific events will trigger.

While an interesting premise, scripted events and strategic asymmetric gameplay don’t exactly mix. There are three big reasons for this:

1) Perceived Player Agency
(or: “Well, what the hell do we do now?”)

Throwing curve balls at your players and keeping them surprised should be one of the goals of good game design. Players shouldn’t feel limited in their choices when they run into these obstacles. Tactics games like Fire Emblem use scripted events well because the AI will usually play at a set difficulty. You as the player have an idea of what to expect.

In the case of Imperial Assault, however, scripted events will usually give options and resources to the Imperial player. This presents a huge problem when the single Imperial player is more skilled and can leverage the most out of those events.

As a Rebel player, it’s frustrating to hear the Imperial player say that he suddenly gets to deploy five Stormtroopers and close off doors around you. Because the Imperial player is operating with hidden information, the Rebels have to take him at his word that he’s playing by the rules. Naturally, when shenanigans like that happen time and time again you’re bound to feel like everything you do is useless.

2) Balance
(or: “THAT’S HORSESHIT”)

Imperial assault is brutal. A lot of the missions feel imbalanced because they actually are. After the end of a mission, we tended to look up what people were saying about them online. Most of the time we found people agreeing that certain missions heavily favored one side over the other.

The hard part of competitive asymmetric gameplay is that there are so many systems and mechanics to balance. Both sides need to have a unique feel to their gameplay while still being balanced enough to provide a fair challenge.

Oftentimes, the side with fewer players will have so much more to work with by virtue of playing against a team of unique characters with powerful abilities. The big AT-ST or the beefy bounty-hunter droid are powerful adversaries that give notable advantages to the Imperial player. 

3) Competition
(or: “y u heff to b mad?”)

For a game that’s so rich in flavor and lore, Imperial Assault misses the mark by being a competitive game. While it’s a neat idea to have a 1v4 scenario, it simply creates too many opportunities for negativity and bickering. The imbalance and lack of player agency work directly against a game that’s supposed to be competitive. Rarely does it feel like both sides are on a level playing field.

Asymmetric gameplay in tabletop gaming requires a massive amount of balancing and fine-tuning in order to not feel frustrating. The sheer amount of mechanics and rules in Imperial Assault took weeks to get down; even at our quickest games we were still referring to the rulebook. While the physical, tactile medium of a board game helps with the learning process, Imperial Assault reached a certain point where it was more frustrating than fun to manage. We spent more time arguing about the game than we did playing it.

‘Imperial Assault’ suffers from a hefty amount of rule-dependent scenarios that make a slow, tactical game even slower.

Leniency and You: How to Not Be an Asshole

Asymmetric gameplay has vast amounts of potential as a game design framework because it offers unique systems and mechanics not seen in traditional multiplayer games. However, it requires one of two things: finely tuned balance or some degree of leniency. As Imperial Assault proved, the former is hard to achieve (at least for a tabletop game).

Leniency is key to making asymmetric gameplay work. Competition between two sides is only fun when it’s on a level playing field. You can’t exactly have leniency when only one side can win. It’s for that reason that tabletop RPGs create the best asymmetric tabletop gameplay experience possible.

In tabletop RPGs like Shadowrun or Dungeons and Dragons, you have two groups of people: the players and the DM/GM. In Imperial Assault, these were the Rebels and Imperials, respectively. However, the big difference with TRPGs is that they’re collaborative, not competitive. The ultimate goal isn’t for one side to emerge as the victor: it’s to create a story together.

‘The Adventure Zone’ is a highly popular ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ podcast because of the stories that the players and their DM have crafted. The flexibility and leniency in using the rules have created a host of memorable and entertaining encounters. (Art by Carey Pietsch)

Hand-waving certain rules for not being conducive to fun is one of the best parts of playing a TRPG. The DM is there to create challenges for the players to overcome, but if every encounter were a life-or-death scenario gameplay would quickly get tiring. It’s easy to manipulate these challenges as the DM in order to create an experience that’s difficult but not punishing. The orc barbarian can “conveniently” roll a critical miss or the players can happen upon a helpful item when they’re bruised and battered. It’s up to the DM to decide.

Games Should Be Fun?!

The problem that Imperial Assault has is that the scripted events and pre-planned scenarios mean that the players are operating with the developers’ intended design. You can’t easily be lenient with the rules because everything is designed without much wiggle-room.

TRPGs allow for a healthy amount of freedom and collaboration that still brings out the best of asymmetric gameplay. Both sides play with unique and varied mechanics, so when they meet in the middle the result is fun and memorable gameplay. It might not necessarily be the most balanced, but that’s not important.