Asymmetrical Suits in Card Games, Part 3

Our last column looked at several hypothetical cases to illuminate the proper use of asymmetric card decks.  In this column, we look at four examples which are not at all hypothetical. These are published games which feature asymmetry.  I found that each one found an interesting way to make asymmetry serve its core engagement.

 

Rocket Jockey

James Spurny’s Rocket Journey casts players as tramp freighter captains delivering goods from world to world within our solar system. At its heart, Rocket Jockey is a rail game in the “elaborate = better” tradition. Players make these deliveries inefficient to earn more points.

Early in the game’s development, Spurny decided that the back story of the game should center space development around Earth. For this reason, he concentrated the game cards around Earth. Earth cards are the most common.  Venus and Mars are second-most common. They drop off steadily from there.

James Spurny used asymmetry to support his game’s setting and to concentrate player focus.

 

Piñata

Stephen Glenn’s Piñata–first released in 2003 as Balloon Cup–uses complementary asymmetry to balance player decisions. The rarest commodity has only 5 cards but only requires that you collect three of it to score a trophy.  The most common commodity has 13 cards but requires a comparatively massive 7 cubes to score a trophy.  Piñata pushes this asymmetry further with the inclusion of 10 wild cards.

Should you collect common goods, knowing that you’ll need many of them?  Or should you focus on the rare, hoping for a quick win? Stephen Glenn used asymmetry to put players in a quandary.

 

Lord of the Fries

From the 1996 through 2006, James Ernest helmed Cheapass Games. CAG released a number of excellent games. One of his best was Lord of the Fries. LotF is a hand management game. Players worked with hands of ingredient cards to supply customer demand at a Friedey’s, the fast food restaurant chain in hell. Like Glenn, Ernest uses rarity to imply value.  The common and lowly 14 buns score only 1 point each while the delicious but rare 4 Berry Pies clock in at 6 points each.  Of course, Earnest also made it pretty easy to score those buns and difficult to score the berry pies.  He’s sneaky like that.

James Ernest used asymmetry to keep players looking for the most valuable options.

As an aside, Cheapass Games began releasing new titles in 2011.  Like their classic counterparts, you will be happy you checked them out.

 

Magic: The Gathering

It’s been more than 20 years since Richard Garfield’s idea to meld trading cards with gameplay hit store shelves.  There are many reasons for its enduring popularity. Player-controlled asymmetry is one of the best.  By allowing each player to construct her own deck, Garfield empowered players to create their own asymmetry.  Players are limited to 4 of each card which is not a basic land but even within this restriction there is plenty of room for the active deck constructor’s play. Cards that formed the backbone of your deck appeared the full 4 times.  If you wanted a certain card for emergency assistance, you might choose to include only a single copy of it.

Richard Garfield used asymmetry to empower his players.

 

There are a great number of ways in which asymmetry can boost your designs.  Consider the achievements of Spurny, Glenn, Ernest, and Garfield.  Then add your name to that list.

 

What do you think of these examples?  Do you know another which should have made this list?  Share them with your fellow designers in the comments below.  And if you’re enjoying what you’re reading, subscribe.  It makes a big difference.

We will be together again in three days to take a look at game design conferences and how to get the most from them. See you Friday!

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Asymmetrical Suits in Card Games, Part 1

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!