External Balance

Written by Alex Harkey

This month we are examining types of game balance and how creators can implement balance into game design. This week we’ll look at External Balance; gameplay elements beyond the control of players, or more simply everything the designer is responsible for prior to the start of a game. External Balance has a strong relationship with the concepts of perceived balance and symmetrical gameplay. External Balance relates to gameplay mechanics such as randomly distributed player powers and starting resources and locations.

Symmetry holds a special role in nature. Bilateral and radial symmetry carry an important role in biology to ensure balance and efficiency in organisms. Facial symmetry has been shown to have a positive correlation with evaluating attractiveness of humans. In game design symmetry has played an important role in the longevity of games. Chess, Checkers and Backgammon are among the world’s oldest surviving games and are also several of the most popular games of today. Each one features the usage of symmetry.

The symmetry in a game such as chess is an appealing feature that serves several benefits:


Image courtesy of Digger Cook

  • Symmetry can create an attractive board set-up. Humans are wired to seek patterns as a form of comfort. Visual patterns draw interest to an object and help formulate reasoning for its purpose or occurrence.
  • Symmetry can be more intuitive for first time players. Even if someone is unfamiliar with Chess, the board symmetry can remove potential areas of confusion. Imagine the alternative of needing to explain why the two sides have a different quantity or different types of pieces. Symmetry removes distractions and can speed up the process of learning a game by reinforcing consistency.
  • Symmetry eases concerns over fairness. Visual symmetry removes any fears of a rigged game. New players are already at an experience disadvantage and subconsciously need to be alleviated of fears of an even more unfavorable match-up. Symmetry is an inherently egalitarian characteristic.
  • Symmetry is the easiest method to design and balance. Symmetry has a foundation in mathematics and science. It is synonymous with balance in nature. In modern engineering it is the simplest property to deal with in structures. Symmetry is one of the basic building blocks of order.

While symmetry has played a strong role in the longevity of games, there are several drawbacks:


Image courtesy of Jamie K.

  • Perfect symmetry usually isn’t very interesting. Symmetry can make it difficult to apply a supporting theme as it occurs so rarely in economics, conflict or geography. Games like Checkers can lack diversity in components or variety in gameplay. Even though Checkers has a significant number of permutations it can still elicit a repetitive feel.
  • Visual symmetry can overshadow subtle imbalances. The board setup for Chess has rotational symmetry and Backgammon uses reflective symmetry. While players start on a level playing field, one player gains the natural advantage of acting first.
  • Symmetry can restrict perspective. Abstract games such as Chess and Backgammon have been heavily studied and standard strategies have been documented from many positions. Symmetry puts every player into the same role and encourages players to follow the same thought process. One of the greatest benefits of asymmetry is that it encourages players to see the game from different angles. Asymmetry ensures players are not making the same decisions each game. This potentially improves gameplay variety and decreases the frequency of games ending in a draw.

It’s hard to imagine early game designers didn’t test the waters with asymmetrical game ideas. Asymmetry can often fail to visually reinforce an idea of equilibrium which is important in order for a game to pass from one generation to the next. Evidence would suggest asymmetrical ideas were surpassed by symmetrical games and frequently became lost mutations in the development of game design.

External Balance – Asymmetrical Gameplay

The emergence of a board game community that seeks variety has encouraged modern game design to further utilize asymmetry. Let’s look at some methods designers use to implement asymmetrical gameplay in games:


Wealth & Spatial Asymmetry: Variety through differences in starting attributes or proximity to objectives. Diplomacy, Antike, The End of the Triumvirate and The Game of Thrones Boardgame use this spatial asymmetry in the initial board layout as each player is distributed unevenly across geography. Wealth asymmetry is frequently paired with spatial asymmetry by using an uneven distribution of units or resources to help mitigate potential first turn weaknesses as seen in Axis & Allies. The differences in starting costs and resources between factions in Terra Mystica is an alternative way to provide asymmetrical assets to players.

  • Wealth & Spatial Asymmetry provides variety through which starting faction or country you wish to play each game. High levels of player conflict shift the outcome of these games and each decision a player makes will change variables for other players.


Information Asymmetry: Variety through differences in the initial distribution of information. Information Asymmetry entails distributing core information so that individual players begin with only a piece of the pie. Clue and Mystery of the Abbey circulate cards with descriptive information which players use to deduce the elements of a crime. Troyes distributes each player one of six character cards which provide various scoring benefits at the end of the game. Figuring out which character card a player is holding can be the difference between victory and defeat.

  • Information Asymmetry provides variety by distributing unique information or a hidden element to players in order to drive player actions. The type of information present in the game needs to be made aware to other players so they know what they are seeking. Often this is implemented by removing a one or a group of items from a complete set and deducing the missing pieces.

Cosmic Encounter

Action Asymmetry: Variety through differences in options available to players. Player actions may differ by role as seen in Panic on Wall Street in which players act as either investor or manager of properties in order to generate income. Special abilities unique to a player may also come from distributed player powers as seen in Cosmic Encounter.

  • Action Asymmetry provides variety by distinguishing players through special options abilities that present unique perspectives. Actions unique to players can form a considerable impact on the strategic path a player may pursue in a game and encourage players to take different paths.

Scotland Yard

Objective Asymmetry: Variety through differences in victory conditions between players. In Mr. Jack the inspector is attempting to identify the suspect while Mr. Jack is attempting to conceal this identity for eight turns or escape from the board. Similarly, in Scotland Yard, Mr. X must evade a number of detectives as they attempt to capture him.

  • Objective Asymmetry provides variety by giving individuals or groups of players different opportunities to win the game. These objectives may also force players to have increased awareness as not all players will be playing with the same priorities.

Implementing Asymmetrical Gameplay

Let’s examine some games that use several of the aforementioned types of asymmetry:


Stronghold uses action asymmetry to encompass the difference between sides. Players begin with wealth & spatial asymmetry and end the game with objective asymmetry. Players take the role of Invader or Defender in a castle siege. The objective of the game is to initiate or prevent a breach of the castle walls, depending on which side you’re playing.

  • Wealth & Spatial Asymmetry: The Invader and Defender take approximate but opposing sides of the the stronghold which functions as the central objective.
  • Action Asymmetry: The Invader moves through phases, making choices between a few options while setting up their forces for invasion. Defenders improve their fortress through many options while spending hours (currency) as they setup their defenses.
  • Objective Asymmetry: Both the Invader and Defender want to have the most points in a game, however the Invader scores these points directly by breaching the walls successfully while the Defender scores points by successfully defending for enough turns or can win entirely by preventing an invasion at all.

The Resistance

The Resistance uses information asymmetry as a means to support action asymmetry. Players attempt to function as a unified group to successfully complete missions, however spies exist to thwart this objective.

  • Information Asymmetry: Spy role cards are shuffled with Resistance role cards and one card is distributed to each player. Everyone is aware of the number of spies in the game which drives the narrative of the game play.
  • Action Asymmetry: While members of the Resistance attempt to gain credibility with one another, spies utilize deception and have the option either playing mission fail cards or disguise their intentions with mission success cards. Members of the Resistance will always play a mission success card.


Friedrich uses wealth & spatial asymmetry in a Euro-wargame hybrid which uses objective asymmetry to determine victory between players. One player takes the role of Friedrich the Great of Prussia, a powerful empire who faces an alliance of European nations attempting to conquer his territory.

  • Wealth & Spatial Asymmetry: Friedrich begins as a powerful central nation on a map surrounded by three weaker opponents.
  • Objective Asymmetry: Prussia faces a war on three fronts and can win the game simply by surviving. The three opponents coordinate in order to conquer specific areas of Prussia. Although these three players are allied, only one may win as soon as it takes control of its designated area.

Android: Netrunner

Android: Netrunner uses action asymmetry and information asymmetry as means to achieve objective asymmetry. A player known as the runner attempts to out think and outperform a player acting as the corporation.

  • Action Asymmetry: The Runner takes actions in order to break into servers and steal resources from the Corporation. The Corporation uses defensive cards known as “ice” to protect their servers. Each side has a different set of actions available during their turn.
  • Information Asymmetry: The Corporation uses the benefit of hidden information to hide its most vulnerable areas while also laying traps for the Runner. The Runner is aware of potential threats and adjusts gameplay to constantly adapt to the situation created by the Corporation.
  • Objective Asymmetry: Each can win by collecting seven agenda cards. The Corporation can also win by inflicting damage on the Runner in excess of the Runner’s hand of cards. The Runner can win by causing their opponent to run out of cards in the Corporation’s draw deck.

Further Exploration:


8 comments on “External Balance

  1. Mirko Bernardelli

    I’m curious how you will classify the asymmetries of “vast the crystal caverns”, a game that despite total asymmetry of action and objectives still usually end with most player quite near victory

    1. Alex Harkey

      I’m glad you mentioned it Mirko – I was at a convention this past weekend where Vast: The Crystal Caverns was on the play-to-win table and a friend was describing the game to me. I didn’t get a chance to play it (as I was already rules-crawling several other games that day) but it sounded like it might encompass each of these varieties of asymmetry.

      I haven’t read through the rules but if I do in the near future I’ll come back and add my thoughts. In the meantime, if you had any thoughts on the game, I’d love to hear them.

      1. Mirko Bernardelli

        many thought, hard to organize them butt I’ll try:

        – the game is totally asymmetric every player has a role, and each role has different rules and different objectives, this doesn’t help at all to introduce new players, but playing a new role is practically playing a different game so it help the replayability :-)

        – every one of the primary 3 roles hunt one another circularly, the knight must kill the dragon -> the dragon eat goblin as part of his awakening process -> the goblins must kill the knight.
        each role have limited ways to directly hinder his hunter, they should pump-up and achieve their objective quicker.

        – the 5th role (introduced last) hunt treasures and pass the time trying not to attract the hate of the other players while subtracting them important resources :)

        – finally the Cave, is a manipulative role, it has power to hinder or help each other role, and try to stall the others so no one win before she could.

        – a well played cave is obviously the main mechanism that keep the equilibrium between the players, but there is only one winner and each role has minor/indirect ways to hinder each other role during the game stalling runaways.

        – there are a ton of interlocking mechanics that subtly keep some balance, for example on a game I had with only the 3 main roles and no cave, a runaway dragon barely avoided losing because all the illumination he used to awake quicker:
        — help the knight avoid random encounter
        — hindered the goblin movement, allowing the knight to hunt him more freely
        — quickened the automatic mechanism that make the cave collapse on the head of all the player making all lose.
        so one way to a quick win could bring doom on you.

        – maybe it was thanks to the players keeping equilibrium, but in each of the 4 games I had had, most of the players were practically at one move/turn from victory when the game ended.

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  3. David

    Thanks again. You say “Games like Checkers can lack diversity in components or variety in gameplay. Even though Checkers has a significant number of permutations it can still elicit a repetitive feel.” I agree. My game Phoenix, currently before a publisher, is a variant of checkers that aims to create diversity and asymetry, and more depth, without adding any new types of pieces or imballance. The game does not at all appear repetitive and yet, in perfect play it probably is.

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  5. Patrick

    A great set of examples there. Two interesting tests of the symmetry theory Ralf, the Norse asymmetric chess that became thudd, and classic xianqi sets use the same pieces, but with different Chinese characters for the two sides.

    1. Alex Harkey

      Thank you Patrick. I’m glad you mentioned it as I didn’t even think about the traditional Xiangqi sets which use alternative symbols to distinguish between the opposing sides. Modern sets commonly use black and red to help opponents visually assess the board. Without having a deeper knowledge of history of the game, perhaps early sets of components had to be cost effective and restrained to one type of material with a single color of paint or ink. The distinction between pieces would then need to be made through alternative Chinese characters. I’m unable to explain why other games from the region seem to be absent of similar historical developments with component limitations, but you’ve made a a very thought-provoking point.

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