The videogame industry, like other computer and tech industries, tends to have a very buzzword-heavy culture. Certain phrases just seem to resonate with game makers, who latch on to them, often overusing or even misusing them. As some people have already pointed out, the new videogame buzzword seems to be “Asymmetrical Gameplay,” or designing games where players don’t all start out on equal footing. Most of this sudden interest is due to the Wii U and its inherently asymmetrical design, with one player operating the gamepad and the other three using the usual Wii remotes. However, other developers are jumping on the asymmetry wagon as well, with games like The Flock, which seems a bit like an online version of capture the flag (or maybe more like “Flag Tag” from GoldenEye).
Players having asymmetrical roles is certainly not a new idea. During the middle ages, Hnefatafl, a board game in which the king and his guards are besieged by a much larger force of invaders, was popular in much of Scandinavia. Though it’s not entirely clear how far back the game dates, the Poetic Edda notes that one of the first things the gods did after creating the world was to relax and play some Hnefatafl (which would make it a very old game indeed). Other traditional games like Fox and Geese share this asymmetrical style, with one player controlling a small, but powerful force, while the other player attempts to win with superior numbers.
Examples of asymmetrical boardgames are not limited to folk games. Modern authored games take this approach as well. Back in high school, my friends and I played a lot of wargames, from Risk to Mordheim to Kingmaker, though our favorite game by far was Axis & Allies. Unlike games like Risk, players in Axis & Allies don’t start with equal resources. Rather, they each take command of one of the major combatants in World War II at approximately the point in history when the United States entered the war. This means that the Russian player begins in a tight spot, while the German player seems almost poised to win the game single-handedly.
Although Axis & Allies has some similarities to games like Hnefatafl, it’s not simply another example of the strong vs the many. In fact, despite the Axis players being outnumbered three to two, the most powerful player in the game isn’t Germany, but the United States. While the numbers seem to favor the Allies, in practice, we saw the Axis win just as many games over the years. So how did the designers achieve this balance? Much of it has to do with geography and distribution of forces. The British start with a huge empire, but have few troops to defend it and no way to quickly reinforce them. Germany has a lot of troops and a lot of room to expand, but is wedged between London and Moscow. The US is both wealthy and easily defended, but is so far removed from the fighting that support to its allies often arrives too late to save them. Each faction requires a dramatically different approach to be played effectively.
What made this asymmetrical style of play really fun, however, was the dynamic that it created between players. While each team shared a common goal, the best way of achieving it was often a contentious issue. The tension between what was best for an individual player and what was best for the team led to lots of discussions and debates. This tension could also be exploited by crafty players, such as Japan intimidating the US into building a huge stack of infantry to defend California while the rest of the Allies were overrun (although California was certainly safe for the rest of the game). It was this social dynamic that made Axis & Allies so compelling. It was also something that very few other wargames were able to do well.
So why don’t we see see this kind of asymmetrical gameplay in digital wargames as well? The short answer is simply that balancing that kind of game is difficult, whether as a tabletop game or a videogame. Most historical strategy games like Civilization or Age of Empires have nearly (if not completely) identical factions, differing only in a few unique units and some special bonuses. An ambitious game might take a more Starcraft-like approach, having fundamental differences between players, but still starting everyone out on equal footing. I’ve yet to find a strategy game that utilizes the extreme player inequalities that you find in Axis & Allies (unless you count the digital version of the boardgame, which was a bit glitchy). This is not to say such a game would be impossible to make, but it does pose a number of problems. For example, our biggest obstacle to playing was that you needed to find five players who were willing and able to play a game that could sometimes last seven or eight hours. Although the game has rules for two, three and four players as well, you lose a lot of the excitement when one player controls multiple countries. For this reason, we almost always played with the full five. As our friends started going to college and moving away, we started recruiting their younger siblings to take their spots. Videogames can address this problem somewhat by allowing for computer controlled players, though computer players usually face the same issue of not being able to reproduce the same social dynamic as a human player.
If trying to design an asymmetrical strategy game is so difficult, why should anyone even bother? I would argue that it’s important today for the same reason it was important when Hnefatafl was first emerging – because war is generally asymmetrical. Although the idea of two identical chess-like armies marching to battle makes for an interesting competition, it results in a more abstract, rather than historical, kind of game. It’s probably safe to say that Hnefatafl was at least partially inspired by an actual battle between the Swedes and the Muscovites (since that’s how the different pieces are referred to in some versions of the game). The Swedes have no hope of defeating the invaders. Protecting their king long enough for him to escape is as much as they can hope. Although we don’t really know the outcome of this hypothetical battle, it was significant enough that the Vikings didn’t want to make stories and songs about the event, they wanted to replay it, experiment with it, and speculate as to how it could have gone differently if they had been there. For me, this is the essence of what makes a historical wargame.
Let’s look back at Axis & Allies. At the start of the game, forces and territory are distributed in a way that is, for the most part, historically accurate. Both sides could certainly try to reenact the second half of the war by following the same strategies that were used historically, or the players could engage in a little playful historical thinking, trying to figure out in what other ways the war could have gone. Is a D-Day invasion of France the best path to victory, or could the Allies have simply reinforced Russia and plowed through the Germans lines from the East? What would have happened if the Allies had focused on Japan first, and Germany second? Over years of playing, I’ve seen many scenarios like these, as well as some much more unlikely ones, such as the German Navy sneaking through the Suez Canal and conquering the South Pacific, a massive land war in Asia completely overshadowing the European theatre, and a lone German infantry unit launching a surprise attack on an unsuspecting China. Though it probably did nothing to help any of us remember significant dates or events, it certainly prompted a lot of discussion about how tactics, diplomacy and geography related to those events.
Could the same lessons be learned from a symmetrical Risk-like game? Probably not. Although such games surely inspire their own discussions about history and warfare, they are unlikely to reproduce situations like D-Day or the Battle of Stalingrad. In Axis & Allies, these are situations that the players have to think about right from the start. The players’ knowledge of these events helps to inform their choices and the outcome of these choices gives new perspective on the historical events themselves. I like these kinds of games, and I’d like to see more of them, especially on digital platforms.
I’m certainly in no danger of growing bored with balanced Civilization-style games. In fact, I think there’s still plenty of untapped potential in them. However, I’m looking forward to someone tackling the challenge of making the next great Hnefatafl or Axis & Allies on a digital platform.