Asymmetrical Games: A Contest with Uneven Forces
by Bruce Whitehill
Think of the last board game you played. And the many before that. You and the other players were probably provided with your own playing pieces or all the components were divided evenly among you. Have you ever played a game where it’s your single piece against your opponent’s five? Or where it’s two against 12? How about a game in which you have 24 pieces but the other player has only two? Most games are contests in which all players are given the same materials and have access to the same resources but sometimes the competing forces are uneven – yet not necessarily unequal. These games, which we call asymmetrical games, have existed for centuries and come in a number of forms, mostly two-player, from the worldwide Fox and Geese to the international games of Siege, under their many names. Add to this some very new multi-player games such as Not Alone (for up to seven people) and the recent murder and zombie-themed social pastimes for as many as 68 players such as Ted Alspach’s Ultimate Werewolf (a considerable advancement of his 2012 Bezier Games original that was for up to only 30 players). For the purpose of this brief overview, I’ve broken asymmetrical games down into two primary categories:
- Two-player games, in which each player has a different number of playing pieces and/or a different objective;
- Multi-player games in which at least one player has different objectives than the others.
Most two-player asymmetrical games have a similar mode of play. The player with the most pieces tries to completely surround his opponent’s pieces or trap them so they cannot move. The pieces belonging to the player with fewer are allowed to jump over the opponent’s pieces and kill or capture them – in any case, remove them from the board. The object is to either eliminate enough of them so that they cannot surround the disadvantaged player or escape through the opposing forces to reach freedom at the edge of the gameboard. The chased, or defenders, can move in all directions, but the hunter(s) or attacker(s) are often unable to move in certain directions.
These games seem to have predominantly four themes: the hunt (also called the chase) in which one animal is pitted against another; the human hunter and his prey; cops and robbers (police and thief) in which the forces of law and order try to capture the (usually) one or two thieves; and the siege of the fortress, in which the (usually) two defenders are trying to hold the castle against the many attackers. The term “usually” becomes paramount in this discussion since there are so many variations to the various themes.
The games with the fewest pieces are often the least complex and use the animal-versus-animal theme. Fox and Hounds, Wolf and Sheep and Hounds and Hare (all pretty much the same game) are played on a checkerboard of 8×8 squares. Four hounds start on the four black spaces at one edge of the board while the fox begins on a black square at the opposite edge. The fox needs to reach one of the squares from which the hounds start without getting trapped. In the Fox and Hounds version, there is no jumping allowed – which is probably why it’s themed with foxes and not hares. While the lone fox and the single hare are trying to escape the hounds in two of the titles, the wolf is the hunter in that scenario, trying to outfox the sheep.
Other games of this sort (chosen here to give a range of dates andnumber of pieces) where pieces are moved from square to square checkerboard style include Stop Thief (1934, Einson Freeman, USA) – 1 vs. 4; The Wolf Pack (Pak De Wolf, 1960, Gruyter, the Netherlands) – 1 vs. 5; Shepherd and His Dog (1983, Spear, UK) – 2 vs. 5; Cat and Mouse game (Poes en Muis Spel, 1922, printed in De Amsterdammer) – 1 vs. 12; The Sheep Thief (De Schapendief Nieuw Kinderspel, 1896, Jacobs, the Netherlands) – 1 vs. 16; Alex Randolph’s Prärie (1975, Pelikan, Germany), republished as Buffalo (1999, Piatnik, Austria) – 5 vs. 11; and another Alex Randolph classic, Breakthru (1965, 3M) – 13 vs 20 – which, it has been suggested, was the game that led to Prärie ten years later.
In Breakthru, the thirteen defending pieces consist of a flagship and 12 destroyer escorts, fending off 20 opposing destroyers. In the ancient game of Hnefatafl, there are 24 warriors who are trying to capture the king protected by twelve soldiers. In this Icelandic game of the Vikings that dates back to as early as the 5th century, the defenders, guarding their king, start in the center of the board; to succeed, they not only have to prevent the king from being captured, but move him safely to one of the squares in the four corners of the board.
The Tafl games, as they are called overall, date back to even earlier than 400 B.C., having traveled from Germanic and Celtic areas with the Vikings. Supposedly, the game lost favor when it was superseded by the growing interest in chess.
Tablut, a type of Tafl game, has configurations that are sometimes the same as in Hnefatafl but also uses a board of 9×9 spaces for a battle in which eight guards and a king defend against 16 attackers. According to Google Books’ “Ngram” viewer that records word usage in books, Tablut was first written about in 1808, but usage died off after 1814, not reappearing significantly until after 1956; there has been minor use from then to the present.
A more modern commercial example of a Tablut game is Scape – The Strategic Face to Face, from 1986 published by Acacia games, Belgium. Like Hnefatafl, it offers a competition of nine defenders against 16 attackers. The game aims pretty well at central Europe, having rules in English, Dutch, French, German and Italian.
Hare and Hounds, played from the 5th through the 18th centuries, has three dogs trying to surround one hare which, in turn, is trying to escape. Like most of these games, and unlike Fox and Hounds and its variations, these games are usually played not on squares but on the intersections of lines; the lines indicate the various directions of travel from any point, but in some games, the attackers may be restricted from moving along the diagonals. Bear games offer a similar configuration, with three hunters and one bear. These games were played during the period of the Roman Empire as far away from Rome as France and Turkey and are supposedly still played in Italy today. The idea lives on, as in the 2011 game called Drako (Adam Kaluza, Rebel Games, Poland), in which three dwarves try to stop the ravages of one dragon.
The primary game of this sort known in many parts of the world is Fox and Geese, as it is called mainly in the U.S. and UK; it goes under the name of Tiger and Goat in Nepal, an assortment of names in many other countries, and is linked to such variations as Cat and Mice. There are various board configurations used, and play is always along lines from one intersection to another. The traditional number in, say, Fox and Geese, is one fox and 13 geese, though this is said to give an advantage to the geese. Versions that are reported to be more balanced have two foxes and either 15, 17 or 18 geese. Fox and Geese seems to have originated during the 15th century, and references to it appear in the records of Edward IV. But the game may date as far back as before the 10th century, developing from the Icelandic game of Hala-tafl, which, in fact, translates as “fox game.” At one time, it was considered a traditional English pub game.
Tablut, as mentioned above, is played within the squares of a slightly smaller square checkerboard. Asalto is a very similar game except that play is on the intersections, and there is at least one diagonal line through almost every square. (It is nearly impossible to research the word usage in books for the game name Asalto because the word also is the generic Spanish word for “assault.”) In some sources (including BGG), Milton Bradley’s 1970 game Swords & Shields is listed as a Tablut variation, but this is not exactly the case. Though the gameboard is like a checkerboard of 64 squares, the pieces stand on the intersections and move along the sides of each square. There are no diagonals, however, setting it apart from other Asalto games.
Vultures and Crows pits one vulture against seven crows. This game from India is also known as Kaooa and is played upon a five-pointed star or pentagram. In Cows and Leopards, two leopards take on 24 cows. Players alternate turns, as in all these games, but this one begins with the placement of the pieces, one at a time; that means that after the first four animals are placed, the placement of the cows continues while the leopards move one space per turn.
Though this is still a game with animals – hunter and prey – its increased number of pieces serves as a transition to games of conflict, war and military. The principle category for these games is Siege, and the number of pieces ranges generally from two against 12, to seven versus 24. Very popular in Germany around the 1880s, they are also known as Belagerungsspiel (siege game), as well as Festungsspiel (Fortress game), and the theme of military conflict appears to stem from the Franco-Prussian War between 1870 and 1871 that marked the end of the Second Empire of France and the unification of Germany under Bismarck. One of the generic names for these military-themed games, played usually on gameboards with the design of a cross, is Asalto, but is also used as actually the name of the game itself. One source uses the term to refer to a game of unequal forces in which one party wants to capture all his opponent’s pieces while the other is looking to reach particular spaces on the board.
The name “asalto,” however, comes directly from the Spanish, so there may be a link to the war between Spain and France (the Peninsular War, 1808–1813) when the French occupied part of Spain until the expulsion of Napoleon’s troops. In France, the game is well known as Jeu d’ Assaut.
Though Asalto has also been known in English as the Assault Game, the British surprisingly gave such games of Siege the title of German Tactics or Officers and Sepoys, the term “sepoy” referring to an Indian soldier enlisted under British forces. While the movement of the rebels was restricted in the game of German Tactics, in Officers & Sepoys the board was increased to hold three officers opposed by 50 rebels; the game is themed around the Indian mutiny of 1857.
Siege is a board game for two players in which one player, playing as the officers, attempts to defend a fortress from his opponent’s invading rebels. It is commonly played in Germany, France, and England. Though some sources describe the game as a variant of Fox and Geese, it is considerably more complex, primarily because of its increased number of pieces but also for its more stringent movement regulations. The few defenders can move in all directions and can jump over opposing pieces, whereas the attackers must always move toward the castle or fortress, never backwards or away from the center.
Some of the newer asymmetrical games offer varying conditions for the win. Two such games are the two-player Raptor (Bruno Cathala and Bruno Faidutti, 2015, Matagot, France) and the highly acclaimed A Few Acres of Snow (2011, Martin Wallace, Treefrog Games, U.K.), which simulates historic battles. In Raptor, ten scientists are in pursuit of a female velociraptor and her five babies. The scientist player wins if three baby raptors are captured or put to sleep, or if the scientists neutralize the mother; if the raptors kill all the scientists or if three babies escape from the board, the raptor player wins. In A Few Acres of Snow (Fal 2011 Gamers Alliance Report), players engage in the struggle for control of North America in the mid-1700s during the French and Indian Wars. (Let me remind readers that the war was not between the French and the Indians but between France and Britain, with Indians fighting for both sides, though mostly for the French.) There are disks for 12 British towns but only for nine French ones, but the major difference is in the assortment of playing cards that make up a predominant part of the game.
Most asymmetrical games are two-player games, and, as stated above, almost all two-player asymmetrical games assign a different number of pieces to each player. There is the odd – I would say rare – two-player game in which players do have identical pieces but the pieces of one player move differently from those of the other player, and the objective of each player is different. An example – which would be a prize find for any collector – is the British version of a cops-‘n-robbers game, Bobbies and Thieves, from the late 1800s (maker not known), in which three bobbies are after three thieves who are trying to escape. The winner is determined by whether two thieves escape into the woods before two are captured. Starting location and movement rules are different for the two players; a die determines the number of spaces a piece can move. In a more recent game, Mr. Jack (2007, Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc, Hurrican, Switzerland), there are eight characters, all detectives, but one of them is Jack the Ripper. One player is the Ripper, the other the Detective, but both move the character tokens on the board, and then it is revealed whether the Ripper is seen or unseen. Naturally, the Detective player wants to identify which character is the Ripper – he has eight rounds to do so and loses the game if he makes a false accusation – whereas the Ripper tries to escape. The opposing goals in this unusual award-winning international game classify it as asymmetrical.
Multiplayer asymmetrical games appear to be a relatively new phenomenon, popularized in the mid-1980s by the mystery party game genre that helped propel the later mystery and vampire card games. An early one is La Chasse au Vampire (1982, uncredited, Miro, France). Games released in the past few years include Ultimate Werewolf (2015 Pegasus Spiele), mentioned above, and Murder! (2004, Lost Games, UK). Unlike the mystery party games in which everyone is trying to solve the crime or unmask the storybook killer, here one player is the killer – or the vampire – and the others in the group are trying to find out which player it is before they get done in.
Even more recent is Mysterium (2015, Oleksandr Nevskiy and Oleg Sidorenko, Libellud), a game with a ghost narrator who uses cards, each with a unique illustration comprised of multiple images, to try to enable the other players to figure out who the culprit is. The game is one of those semi-cooperative (cooperative-competitive) endeavors that is asymmetrical only in that one player takes on something of a hosting role.
Not Alone (Ghislain Masson, 2016, Geek Attitude Games, Belgium) is a fantasy sci-fi-themed card game for two to seven players. The Creature is hunting a number of up to six shipwrecked survivors; according to one description, it requires “hand management, and a pinch of deck-building.”
By way of name-dropping, I give you Wizard Kings (2000, Tom and Grant Dalgliesh, Columbia Games – suggested playing time 150 minutes) and War of the Ring (2004, Ares Games – suggested playing time 180 minutes), two long asymmetrical fantasy war games (not my thing) I know little about.
But I’ll leave you with a classic that I do know about: Scotland Yard (Ravensburger 1983; Milton Bradley, 1985): This 1983 Spiel des Jahres Winner (Game of the Year) is for three to six players, with one player acting as Mr. X and the others as detectives. All receive tickets to move around London in taxis, buses or subways (the tube). The location of Mr. X is revealed only momentarily throughout the game. The detectives need to move onto the same space as Mr. X in order to win, whereas Mr. X succeeds if the detectives can no longer move because they have run out of transportation tickets. After Mr. X moves, each detective individually takes a turn before Mr. X moves again. In some seemingly multiplayer asymmetrical games, by the way, the prey moves, then a hunter, then the prey, then another hunter, and so on, in such a way that all the hunters could, in effect, be played by the same player, therefore making the game really a two-player game.
And it’s the two-player game that is really the essence of asymmetrical games. The hunter and the hunted, or two combatants, face to face, each with a different number of forces, each with a different allowance for movement, and, usually, each with a completely different goal – often the task of one being to capture and the other to escape.
[Bruce Whitehill, “The Big Game Hunter,” is an author (American Games & Their Makers and Americanopoly: A View of America Through Its Games), game inventor (“Talat,” “Fuse,” “In or Out”) and columnist for the English edition of spielbox, a games magazine headquartered in Germany. He is also a member of the European Game Collectors Organization (ESG) and the founder of the Assoc. for Games & Puzzles International. He will be speaking about “Uneven Forces – Asymmetrical Games” at the Board Game Studies international conference in Denmark at the University of Copenhagen, May 17-20, 2017. For information, go to http://bgs20.tors.ku.dk/.]
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