Variable Player Powers: Are They a Good or Bad Thing?

In my review of Terra Mystica on my latest podcast, one thing that I talked quite a bit about was the major influence that the different fantasy races had over play.  Players choose one of the races at the start of the game, and the powers, opportunities, and limitations of that race will (sometimes drastically) guide and change the way that they play.
On one hand, it’s the coolest part of the game, because the racial powers are very thematic and unique, it adds a ton of replayability to the game because you have 14 different races to try out and explore, and it can be sort of a puzzle to figure out the “best” way to play with a new race.  But on the other hand, having such strong, predetermined powers can also lock you into a spoon-fed strategy, reduce variability in the game (since any player using a particular race will probably using a similar approach), and if they’re not perfectly balanced, sometimes give a definite advantage to a particular player.

This, of course, is not a new conundrum.  Individualized player powers have been around in modern boardgames since at least Cosmic Encounter.  Some people absolutely love them, while other players chafe at the limitations they impose.  To me, I’m pretty ambivalent.  Or more accurately, I have a love/hate relationship with them depending on the game and the strength of the influence they have.  So I’m going to go through a few case studies to look at the impact that player powers have on games, and hopefully shed some more light on the issues here.
In Pandemic, of course, each player has a particular role that gives them a special power, and to me, this is incredibly important to the game.  In addition to giving the team a few extra resources that they need to defeat a difficult situation, they can help differentiate players in the context of a cooperative game where individual identity could potentially be threatened.  Knowing that one particular player has the thing we need to handle a crisis in the game makes them feel special and important.  And I think it’s also important that these powers don’t make any player less useful in other situations, they just make them extra useful in one or two cases.  So especially depending on the card draw, players can still be flexible to do what ever makes sense.  The powers are, for the most part, well balanced (even if some are “easier” to understand and use), and seeing what combinations of roles you have in a game is an added wrinkle that you have to consider when formulating strategy.

In Shadows Over Camelot, however, I think that the roles can go a little too far to lock players into certain activities.  The prime example of this is Sir Kay, who gets to play an additional card after the results of a quest are determined.  This is nice for a lot of the quests, but is absolutely incredible when fighting the Siege Engines outside of Camelot.  So what tend to happen is that near the end of the game when Siege Engines are popping up all over the place, Sir Kay gets permanently stationed in Camelot doing the same thing over and over, which can quickly become no fun at all.  King Arthur is almost as bad, because his power lets him pass cards to other players, thus encouraging him to sit around the Round Table drawing cards and passing them to other people a lot of the time.  

Going back to the example I gave earlier, Cosmic Encounter, many would probably say that the player powers are the defining characteristic of that game.  But it only takes one play to realize that many of those powers are wildly unbalanced and exceedingly limiting, so how does the game work at all?  As a negotiation-heavy, direct-conflict game, the players themselves balance play through how they attack, offer alliances, and make deals.

In Eclipse, it’s more just about giving more variations for play.  Once you’ve played the humans a few times and sort of have it figured out, the alien races mostly just tweak the variables a little here and there to give you a new starting point from which to work.

In all sorts of adventure games (Descent, Catacombs, Mice and Mystics, the D&D boardgames, etc.), as in the roleplaying games they echo, having specific player powers helps to protect the importance of each player’s role and position in the group.  It’s vital to building interdependence and teamwork.

In 1812: The Invasion of Canada, there are 5 different factions divided into 2 sides.  In addition to there being a decided advantage for the Canadian/British side, some of the factions are just simply more interesting to play than the others.  The Native Americans, for instance, have a cool ability to retreat into any unoccupied area, while the American Militia just tend to flee off the board a lot.

In Chaos in the Old World (which I have, admittedly, not played), the four different chaos gods play so differently that each player’s approach needs to be very different.  And since almost immediately after its release, cries of imbalance have been raised against it.  And whether the accusations are actually true or not, the reality is that until players fully understand how to use and exploit the strengths of their role/power, the easier/more obvious roles will often be seen as dominant.

In the original design of Cutthroat Caverns, I’ve heard the designer say that they specifically did not give the players any unique powers or variable abilities because they wanted to avoid any actual or perceived imbalance, and instead wanted players to focus on the core element of the game (the uneasy cooperation and eventual backstabbing) rather than on how to best use their powers. 

Really, of course, the core issue here is asymmetry.  Player powers introduce asymmetrical conditions to a game.  And here are some thoughts on what makes asymmetry good or bad:

The Good  
– It’s more interesting
– Increased variability (from different combinations of powers in the game, and more chance to “learn” how to play with different powers)
– it’s often more thematic
– can breed teamwork from role specialization

The Bad
– Difficult to balance
– Can lock you into an “ideal” strategy or role
– may distract you from the core mechanic of the game
– some roles/powers may be more interesting to play than others

The Indifferent
– Different powers have different learning curves (leading to perceived imbalance)     

And finally, the end decision on whether variable player powers is a good thing or not comes down to 2 things: how well it’s implemented in a game, and what your personal taste is. 

So… what is your personal taste?  Do you like having asymmetric sides, or would you prefer to start from an equal footing?  Maybe there’s even some  arguments for either side (or great examples of either) that I haven’t even mentioned. 

Give me some feedback, and let’s explore this topic a little further together.


  1. I personally like asymmetry.

    Two games that address 3 of your 4 on “The Bad” list are Small World and Smash Up. Balance can still be problematic, but by randomly pairing two different forms of asymmetry there’s not always an ideal strategy, it enhances theme, and it’s always interesting!

    I recommend the new Vampire Empire for a 2-player only asymmetrical title (probably Netrunner, too). Both sides play very differently – although some might have issue with replayability in the long run?

  2. Chris Norwood

    Yeah, I almost mentioned Smash Up as being unbalanced as well.  Some of the individual factions and combinations are definitely better than others. 

    For Small World, though, the biggest difference is that you’re not assigned one race/power at the beginning of the game and then have to deal with it for the whole game.  And if a particular combo seems weaker, it will probably build up VP on it until someone thinks that the power level + the extra VP is finally worth it (or it will sit there and never be taken).  So it sort of have a self-balancing mechanic built into play.

    I actually like asymmetry a lot, too.  But again, it needs to “fit” the game, and it needs to be done well.  I’ll have to look into Vampire Empire…

  3. Great topic, Chris. Like Small World, another game in which player powers are temporary is Munchkin, in which you adopt the special powers of race and/or class until you decide to change your powers (or “bad stuff” or a curse takes them away). Of course, Munchkin‘s balance problem is card luck, but it’s such a lighthearted game that it doesn’t matter, really.

    In my current work-in-progress “East India Company,” one of my playtesters asked if I considered giving faction powers to the different mercantile companies that the players represent. I balked at that idea at first because of the play balance implications. I already made adjustments to offset a runaway leader problem that emerged in early playtests; I’d hate to create a new set of dominant player problems.

    On the other hand, judicious use of player powers might put some spice in the game (no pun intended) as long as they aren’t heavy-handed. I’m thinking I’ll draw up some optional rules and start playtesting them to see how well they work and whether they enhance or disrupt the game.

  4. I’ve grappled with this in a couple game designs now. I think there are certain situations where the asymmetry makes sense, either for theme (Sid Meier’s Civilization) or mechanics (Summoner Wars).

    One time I think it works really well is in shorter games where you want a player to feel like they have possession of something unique, but they don’t have 2 hours to build that unique thing.

    For example, I have a racing game where players are heroes in a dungeon. I wanted the characters to have their own abilities, but didn’t want them to have to spend the time seeking out items to make them special. Variable starting powers was an easy solution.

  5. Chris Norwood

    Yeah, I think that the scope/impact of the powers have a lot to do with it.  If it’s a relatively minor power that just adds a little flavor, then it’s probably going to get the game into less trouble than something more powerful/broad that scripts a particular strategy or style of play.

  6. Chris Norwood

    That’s a really great point!  I can definitely see that having some sort of power like that could make you feel more investment and ownership earlier in the game.  It’s along the lines of the role protection I mentioned for RPG’s/adventure games, or the roles in Pandemic. 

    It also follows the principle that you need to skip the boring stuff and get right to the good part.  If there’s a game where the first 2 or 3 turns always look the same as everyone tries to build up essentially the same infrastructure, and it doesn’t get interesting until turn 4, then why the heck wouldn’t you just skip those first 3 turns and give players at the start what they would have been building? 

    Thanks for the thoughts! 

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