Asymmetric Starting Conditions

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That players do not begin their game sessions with the same possibilities.

Even if many games strive to provide players with equal chances, few actually provide the exact same conditions in the start of the game. This may be because one player begins before another, because they are given different resources due to randomness, or because they have themselves created their own setups. In all cases this leads to them having Asymmetric Starting Conditions.


Classical Board Games have Asymmetric Starting Conditions simply because they are turn-based and being the starting player is usually advantageous. Chess solves this in tournaments by letting players play several times and take turns which side they play. Go usually does this as well but can make use of compensation stones, called Komidashi in Japanese, for the white player that plays second; Based upon statistics this handicap has been set at 6.5 stones when using Japanese rules (the half point is to avoid ties). It has been proven for the more modern Hex that the first player has a winning strategy (the short proof is part of its Wikipedia entry[1]); it is however non-trivial determining what it is.

Since historical battles in practice never have had identical conditions for all involved sides, it is not to surprising that practically all Wargames, e.g. Advanced Squad Leader and Rommel in the Desert, have Asymmetric Starting Conditions for their various scenarios. The futuristic game Ogre takes player asymmetry to an extreme - one player typically only has one unit while the other player has several dozen. Not all these are intended to be balance and for these one may need to play multiple times with changed sides to determined the most skilled players; Memoir '44 is an example of a game that explicitly suggests this.

Games where players put together their own set of components to use, e.g. armies in Warhammer Fantasy Battle or decks in Magic: The Gathering, have Asymmetric Starting Conditions in all but the most implausible case (that of the players independently having selected the exact same set up).

Although there exists a standard setup for playing Settlers of Catan, experienced players often randomize the hex tiles of the game to provide variation. Regardless, the bidding system to place starting settlements and roads cause the players to have Asymmetric Starting Conditions since these settlements will be producing different resources (the main point with the standard setup is to guarantee that more or less balanced setups between the players are possible). Puerto Rico balances the Asymmetric Starting Condition of having a turn order with another Asymmetric Starting Condition: players start with different types of plantations.

Players of Roleplaying Games such as Dungeons & Dragons or the Storytelling System have characters with varying abilities, skills, and personalities that they play. That these may be more or less powerful in any given situation is typically not a problem since the gameplay is cooperative most of the time and roleplaying the struggle against great challenges can be more important than actually succeeding.

Using the pattern

The prime reason to have Asymmetric Starting Conditions is typically to provide Asymmetric Gameplay. However, Asymmetric Starting Conditions only make sense in Multiplayer Games since in Single-Player Games there can be not asymmetry between players. In some cases it may be more or less impossible to avoid them, the pattern exists for example in any game allowing Late Arriving Players and in any game with Turn Taking where First Player Advantages are not balanced by giving other players other advantages.

When intentionally designed into games, they can be achieved in three main ways: they can be designed and fixed by the game designers before gameplay begins, they can be created during setup through Randomness, or they can be the effect of Player-Decided Results. These ways can be used independently or together to reach various levels of asymmetry, and do not so much differ in which others patterns they make use of as what effects is wanted on an overarching level for the game.

Designing asymmetry is typically used to set up specific Alternate Realities, e.g. the historical battles portrayed in Advanced Squad Leader or Memoir '44, but this can make it difficult to guarantee Player Balance. This can still be possible since imbalances due to the asymmetries can be fixed through play-testing games sufficiently many times so that one can be statistically sure no imbalances exist. Using Randomness during setup is done to provide Replayability through having Varied Gameplay between game instances. Letting player create the asymmetry is most often done to let them have Creative Control in addition to Replayability through having Varied Gameplay, and one way to achieve this is to use Heterogeneous Game Element Ownership. That players can randomize the tiles in Settlers of Catan can be seen as an example of how player control can be mixed with Randomness. Privileged Abilities is a general tool for the purposes of creating asymmetries - all approaches mentioned can make use of it.

Abstract Player Constructs and Characters can be used both for letting game designers or players creating asymmetry; for the latter game designers need to have included rules for the construction of Player-Created Characters. Pre-Customized Decks works for letting players create different Abstract Player Constructs using Cards.

Common ways to vary starting conditions between players include giving them Asymmetric Goals or Information, making Game Worlds have Asymmetric Resource Distribution, and giving Asymmetric Abilities to the players Units, Characters, or Avatars. These in many cases introduce asymmetry to Scenarios or Game Worlds, and for this reason Asymmetric Starting Conditions can be said to modulate them. Reconfigurable Game Worlds can one a more general level support all of these asymmetries, either by player actions or by Randomness.

Asymmetric Starting Conditions easily ruin the possibility of Player Balance unless additional adjustments are made to the game design, and there exist some options. The most obvious one is Balancing Effects but another is to use either Back-to-Back Game Sessions or Varying Turn Orders since they remove imbalances by ensuring that all players have had all starting conditions. Note that Player Balance may not be a problem in games based upon Cooperation - here it may be more important that all players feel that they can contribute and that they have individual areas in which they have chances to excel.

That Player Balance does not exist between Abstract Player Constructs and Characters created by game designers does not need to be a problem - it can be seen as a way of providing Difficulty Levels (the choice of country in the Europa Universalis, Victora, and Hearts of Iron series can be seen as examples of this).

Diegetic Aspects

Since few events that occur in the real world where several agents are interacting are done with completely equal conditions, having Asymmetric Starting Conditions is actually a way to make Alternate Reality more plausible. This can be seen as a basic requirement for being able to have Thematic Consistency, since having symmetry is thematically difficult to explain.

Narrative Aspects

As for the diegetic aspects, Asymmetric Starting Conditions may be vital to create Alternate Reality. This is especially true for those games wishing to base their Game Worlds or Scenarios on historical events and situations.


Asymmetric Starting Conditions is likely to make Player Balance difficult to achieve in games, unless modulated by Balancing Effects or having extensive play testing to ensure that no imbalance actually exists. However, this imbalance may be desired as part of a Handicap System. In games with Cooperation or Teams, Asymmetric Starting Conditions is likely to give Asymmetric Roles to the players. Quite obviously, it affects the Startgame of a game.

Since the pattern can give players different starting conditions for each time they play a game, Asymmetric Starting Conditions offers Replayability to experience the Varied Gameplay these starting conditions provides.


Can Instantiate

Alternate Reality, Asymmetric Gameplay, Thematic Consistency, Handicap Systems, Replayability, Varied Gameplay

with Cooperation or Teams

Asymmetric Roles

with Abstract Player Constructs or Characters

Difficulty Levels

Can Modulate

Game Worlds, Multiplayer Games, Scenarios, Startgame

Can Be Instantiated By

Abstract Player Constructs, Asymmetric Abilities, Asymmetric Goals, Asymmetric Information, Asymmetric Resource Distribution, Asymmetric Roles, Characters, First Player Advantages, Late Arriving Players, Player-Created Characters, Player-Decided Results, Pre-Customized Decks, Privileged Abilities, Randomness, Reconfigurable Game Worlds, Turn Taking

Can Be Modulated By

Back-to-Back Game Sessions, Balancing Effects, Varying Turn Orders

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Player Balance


New pattern created for this wiki by Staffan Björk.


  1. Wikipeidia entry for the board game Hex.