You must walk–or so they say–before you can run. You must similarly design from the familiar before you can find your own voice. Freshman designers tend to begin by working with familiar things. This means reaching for games and components already lying around. The consequence of this is that most of us have written several card games using a regular deck of cards. I certainly have. In the 1990s, living the life of the cash-poor graduate student, I frequently gave these games away as birthday presents, frequently naming them after their intended recipient.
Starting with a regular deck is great. The components are well known, readily available, and cheap.
There is a pitfall to using a standard deck, however. This issue is subtle but important. Mainstream card decks are completely symmetric. Each suit is identical to every other suit, having the same number of cards and the same card ranks. This is also true of the Scopa, Tarot, and Uno decks. These were the decks I’d grown up with. They were all symmetrical give or take a few special cards. It did not occur to me that decks should be any other way.
It was the flood of European games card game designs in the 1990s which revealed the power of asymmetry.
Asymmetry Serves Player Engagement
Asymmetric decks are not automatically well-known to the players. They offer your players a puzzle. How do these suits interact? Which cards are now better or worse by suit? In his book A Theory of Fun for Game Designers (http://www.theoryoffun.com/), Ralph Koster notes how much our brains love to search for patterns. Asymmetry challenges our brains to discover new patterns.
Asymmetry Serves Game Balance
Asymmetric decks allow the designer to balance rarity against utility. Richard Garfield’s climbing game Dilbert: Corporate Shuffle, has one 1, two 2s, three 3s and so on up to ten 10s and a few special cards. Low numbers beat high numbers so the most powerful cards in the game are extremely rare. You must play the same quantity to follow another player’s lead so weak cards can defeat strong cards by outnumbering them.
Many designers prefer to make powerful cards rare. I often find the opposite works better. By inserting several copies of high-utility cards, you give each player a better chance of getting it. Weaker cards and situational cards then add texture and encourage players to think laterally rather than being the majority of the hand while one lucky player draws the best card and runs away with the win.
Asymmetry Serves Story
Asymmetric decks are give you as the designer another tool for representing how one group is stronger, weaker, or simply different than another.
Doris and Frank’s wonderful card game Frank’s Zoo has circular card ranking. Every card can defeat at least one other card and is in turn defeated by at least one other card. No one card is the best. No one card is the worst. No player can put a card forward with impunity. There is always a risk of it being defeated. Add that one suit contains only 4 cards while the other suits contain 11 and we see how asymmetry reinforces the game’s story.
Asymmetry Serves Sales
Game reviewers and the gameratti are quick to identify a game which can be played with a standard deck of cards. Once the word spreads–and be certain that word will spread with the internet being what the internet is–many of them will throw together a set from a deck they have lying around and go straight to it rather than purchasing your game.
If you simply wish to create games for the enjoyment of others and have no interest in monetization then this is perfect. This was certainly my intent when I created games as gifts.
You need to offer players more if you wish to sell your game. You are asking gamers for their money. They want to see that you earned it. Offering an asymmetrical card deck shows them that you put some of yourself into your game. Making it a little bit more difficult to make that home set gives them another reason to pay for your effort.
The best card game in the world–Tichu–uses nothing more than a standard deck of cards with 4 differentiated jokers (I games of Tichu being played in just this way at a few conventions). That Tichu can be so excellent with a symmetric deck shows that symmetric decks still have plenty of value. I’ve come to feel however that asymmetry should be the assumed condition over symmetry rather than the other way around.
What are your favorite asymmetric card games? Share them with your fellow designers in the comments below. And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, subscribe to this blog. It makes a big difference.
Our Friday installment will examine specific examples of asymmetry. I will attempt to pick apart compare designs with a symmetric deck against identical rule sets with asymmetrical decks. Come back Friday and see how I do!