SteamWatchers: Designer Diary – Asymmetry

From the first cardboard prototype of Steamwatchers, I really thought about symmetry.

By Marc Lagroy

As a player, I have as much love for almost symmetrical games (such as chess, backgammon, or go) as for deeply asymmetric games such as Chaos in the Old World or Twilight Imperium IV. Asymmetry can bring a lot of depth and replay value to a game, but obviously, it has to be handled carefully because it can make the game chaotic. It may create a steep and potentially frightening learning curve.

I designed Steamwatchers to match my own requirements. I wanted the game, although a strategy game, as accessible as possible. I’ve always kept in check its playtime, its overall complexity, and the time needed to teach how to play it. These three criteria are really upset by an asymmetric system!

In Steamwatchers, you’ll play Clans, and an easy way of making them asymmetrical would have been to give them different actions and resources. During the 2 years of game development, I had to refrain from diving into that ocean of possibilities that asymmetry offers. Indeed, a strong asymmetry begets a huge balancing pass… that can reveal useless and counterproductive if the game’s core mechanics are not perfectly honed. You’ll see later. I’ve been surprised! I was aware that I would have to wait until the end of development to “have fun” with the clans, but I cheated and quickly designed elite soldiers’ abilities and customized the game board!

SteamWatchers: Designer Diary - Asymmetry

If I couldn’t help but cheat, it is because, as a designer, I’m unable to work with 100% abstract mechanics; also, as a human being, I really believe that life is movement, and movement spawns from imbalance. I needed to find universal and initial sources of imbalance to change the way movement works without slowing momentum. Designing this game started with clans having spatial asymmetry. Once balanced, it has been tweaked only marginally.

Let’s go back to factions. For most of the game development, they only had one asymmetrical trait (as said above), aka the elite soldier ability. Unsurprisingly, these powers changed over the course of the development of the rules and board. I should have set these powers aside… but I couldn’t resist giving a sprinkle of flavor to each faction from the start.

Asymmetry was light by then. Over the course of the second year of development, the game has benefited from the Mythic Games developers’ experience and talent… and wisdom. We’ve waited until the game was perfectly smooth to break down and dis-harmonize factions. We worked with the story that was written for each clan. Thanks to this heavy narrative work from the publisher’s teams, each clan had a distinct flavor. We just had to follow the story to adjust the variables for each clan (special actions, resistance to the Bane, access to contraband and algofuel, ice floe movement, and so on). We have created very different factions with a few thematic and arithmetic adjustments, with some harder to master. I thought adjusting this faction asymmetry would require dozens of tests, but it clicked by the first ones, to my surprise!

SteamWatchers: Designer Diary - Asymmetry

 

I’ve sometimes been asked what my favorite Clan is. Beforehand, my answer was clear: I loved the Rhône Conglomerate for their merciless behavior, which sticks very well to how I picture the game… But now that Clans are particular, I only want to change clans at each new game, and I want to adapt its abilities to the deployment area and game conditions I’m into!

That’s it for today! We’ll see you again next time in the Careener tavern, and we’ll have a glass of algaextract together. In the meantime, please avoid storming off into the deadly blizzards. Take care, Watchers.

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