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In this blog post, I plan to share my observations of games such as Dinsey/Marvel Villainous, The Binding of Isaac: Four Souls, Ticket to Ride and more. I will also be talking about my experience creating one of my games Food Time Battle in Space. This blog post is in no way a marketing post, it is just I have experience designing an asymmetric game, and it is vital to this post that FTB in Space is part of the discussion.
Why did I want to write about asymmetric game design?
In short, asymmetric games are a real pain to design, but secondly, and more long-windedly, to balance. Often this is because what allows you as the designer to create asymmetry in your game is the varied amount of mechanisms and win conditions in your game. Some are easier to use, some are harder to obtain, which brings me to one of the first tough decisions when making an asymmetric game.
What is asymmetrical about your game?
There are two ways a game can be asymmetrical. A game could have an asymmetrical win condition for each player (or teams of players), or the asymmetry could come in the form of tools the players possess to achieve a common win condition. Of course, you could have a mixture of both, or neither and you can find a unique way to make your game asymmetrical; and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on that, but for now, these are the two types I will be talking about.
Design Danger Example: Disney and Marvel Villainous
An excellent example of a game in which the goal is unique for each player is Disney or Marvel Villainous. Every single player has a wildly unique objective.
What was complicated about this character's design was similar to Jafar's but different. With Jafar, it was a chance whether you would be waiting a while or whether you would get lucky with your drawing and you could progress with your goal early on. With Thanos, on the other hand, it was a deliberate design to make the infinity stones rare and almost like an event when they decided to appear. So the danger of Thanos was balancing him to make sure the player wasn't bored or felt hard done by playing him. When you are playing Thanos, almost every game, it can feel like you are just watching other players get close to their goal when you haven't had the chance to start yours yet.
Designing around the Danger: Disney and Marvel Villainous
Firstly, regarding Jafar, a character from Disney Villainous, it is difficult to say with certainty that they hit the nail firmly on the head with the solution with this one. But, I feel like it is interesting to point out the observations I made regarding what the designers did to help with the randomness and the asymmetry of the game's goals.
I pointed out again that Jafar is from Disney Villainous and not Marvel Villainous because there is one key difference between the two games. In Disney Villainous, each character has their individual fate decks, whilst in Marvel Villainous, there is one communal one. I think this works great for both games, but it works especially great for Disney Villainous because of how utterly unique each goal is for each character and the steps they need to take to progress. By this, some players can assure progress early on, whilst others must wait to draw the right cards. It's essential to have these individual fate decks to design ways to combat specific characters' progress. Do you have a character like Cruella De Vil who can get out ahead relatively easy? Well, you can put cards into her fate deck that knock her down a peg or two if the other players deem it necessary.
On top of that, each player board (which has worker placement style abilities) is unique to each character, has different abilities, and changes where these abilities are placed. This is important because when another player chooses to draw from your fate pile, they can put that fate card on top of two of these abilities. This design decision is a great way to introduce additional balancing to slow down players based on their individual goal. Characters who need to use the relocate option will have more relocate actions that can be covered up. Characters who need to discard cards more to burn through their deck will have more discard abilities covered up. I specifically like this solution to the asymmetric issue because it is entirely down to the player and whether they can take advantage of this subtle design decision.
Regarding Thanos, a great way that they balanced the overall experience with him is by really doubling down on the planning and opportunistic character that he is. Whilst you wait for your moment, you can, of course, use the fate deck to look for the infinity stones and put pressure on your opponents, but you can also start planning and looking through your deck and seeing what tools you have to use. Thanos has cards that can call cards from the discard pile back into his hand; this mechanism is more than enough to occupy players and get them thinking about their future turns. On top of that, there is a rapid, almost vertical power creep that Thanos obtains once he starts to progress to achieving his goal. When you capture infinity stones, you gain extra abilities, making it easier for you to capture more infinity stones or make it harder for your opponents to progress. It goes from a slow jog to an all-out sprint when playing Thanos, and I love it.
Design Danger Example: Ticket to Ride
Ticket to Ride is yet another game that revolves around goal-orientated asymmetry.
The problem is a massive part of the strategy for Ticket to Ride is getting the most out of your train carts. The points system in Ticket to Ride Europe works as such.
When placing down a complete track from one city to another:
1 cart = 1pt
2 carts = 2pts
3 carts = 4pts
4 carts = 7pts
6 carts = 15 pts
8 carts = 21 pts
As you can see, the more carts you place down at once, the more each cart is worth. (It so happens to go from a value of 1 for each cart up to a value of almost 3 for each cart). What if a route is to be predominantly completed on the east of Europe, say Madrid to Angora? The player has a better chance to place down 4 to 6 carts more often than if someone had a route primarily based on the west side of Europe.
Design Danger: The Binding of Isaac Four Souls
The Binding of Isaac Four Souls is an exciting game to discuss when talking about balancing. This is because it tries its hardest and succeeds in a lot of ways to capture the experience that you get when you play its video game predecessor. Which is to say, it's not about a balanced experience, and it comes out the gate and screams that with its choice of asymmetry, which is tool orientated. Each player starts with an identical character, but they all have a unique item that cannot be lost through death or theft, which they will use almost every turn. Nearly every starting card has a unique ability that involves a different game mechanism, some of which are passive, but most are active, meaning the player must use it to gain anything from it.
To be brutally honest, I play this game on average, at least once a week with a group of friends. We love the overpowered cards that are drawn through luck, and we love those moments where those dice rolls are just perfect, and you defy the odds to beat a monster; that is one of the reasons we have been playing the game weekly for almost a year now. However, we have now banned a character from the game and nerfed one of them due to just how unbalanced those characters are. Namely, we banned Lazarus, and we nerfed Dark Judas.
If these abilities were cards that you had to draw or buy, we wouldn't be bothered, not in the slightest. But that fact that nothing can take them away, the fact that not even death can cause you to lose the item, makes them just unfun to play with because it is just an unfair advantage.
Designing around the Danger: The Binding of Isaac Four Souls
I want to iterate, I love the game, but as you can probably tell from how I sounded in the last paragraph, there was no design solution around these cards. There are solutions for similar cards, for example, Mom's Knife or Brimstone, as you can have them stolen from you, destroyed, or you can lose them through death, but these solutions do not exist for your character's starting items. The game could have done with a little bit of extra playtesting regarding the starting items specifically. The game was said to be created in a month, and with a game with so many cards and mechanisms, I would have expected it to take much longer. This leads me to my next point.
Design Danger: Food Time Battle in Space
Food Time Battle in Space is an asymmetric engine-building game with push your luck and risk-taking mechanics. The asymmetry in this game is similar to The Binding of Isaac Four Souls in that it is tool based. However, there is a core difference. That difference is that every player has the same starting tool, their chef. Each chef has the same abilities, giving every player the same chance of succeeding right off the bat. The asymmetrical aspect, however, comes in the form of the engines that each player can build.
Each player is running a restaurant on the moon, and the aim is to be the first to five stars. You do this by completing critic orders, gaining the stars they offer, as well as the abilities they have. These critics are unique to every player, and each ability is designed to be apart of the engine that the player grows over time. On top of that, each engine focuses on an entirely different mechanism, discarding cards, drawing cards, playing cards, and your hand size limit.
This, of course, is a massive design danger as there are so many aspects to consider when balancing. Not only do you have each card to consider, but you also have the mechanic itself that they are utilizing. For example, drawing cards could just be outright better than increasing your hand size limit.
Designing around the Danger: Food Time Battle in Space
The very first thing I did when designing Food Time Battle in Space, is playtest. I knew that I needed data and lots of it to determine how the decks were balanced. On top of that, to make it easy on myself, I limited each deck to just 12 cards. Unlike other studios, I only had around eight playtesters and only three regular ones, so I needed to scale down the operations as best as possible to create a balanced experience.
As I mentioned, I needed data, so after every game, I recorded which restaurant won and with how many stars. I tracked the stars, which is essentially the score, because I would, of course, be more concerned with a restaurant that had a 20% win rate with an average star count of 1 than a 20% win rate with an average star count of 4.5. Most games were three players, so I was looking for a 33% win rate on average.
This is a screenshot taken from the spreadsheet just before it was sent off to manufacturing for the prototype versions of the game. This doesn't include date from all playtests, just the previous month. This is because the data was reset after a large amount of changes to the cards were made, as the data became redundant.
After every session of about 3-4 games, I went back to each deck that was doing too well or too bad, and I gave some cards a minor buff or a slight nerf. I played in these games as well, rather than just relying on data to be fed back to me like bigger studios, so I could also see which cards were too powerful and which cards players were just not interested in using. It was great to see that what I was doing was working and that restaurants were starting to increase their win rate over time.
What I wish I did differently with Food Time Battle in Space.
I briefly mentioned earlier about The Binding of Isaac Four Souls that I was surprised at the rapid turn around with that game. That is because it took me about five months of playtesting to balance Food Time Battle in Space. Although I enjoyed the experience and I am glad about the game I ended up with, I know that there are a few things that I could have done to make the experience quicker but also more valuable.
It would have been better if I:
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Niall from Crab Studios.
Hello, my name is Niall Crabtree, and this is my comprehensive blog showcasing all of my game development endeavors and successes, as well as essays on game design.
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