Game Over

The game may be over…

…but do we know who won?

As the members of the excellent Newcastle Playtest group will know, my preference is for games that do not require a counting of things and adding up of points after it has ended. Adding up the Victory Points is a very well used mechanic in modern boardgames, but it always leaves me cold.

All of the games listed below are brilliant and games I really enjoy and would always play when offered the chance. The purpose of the rest of this post is not to consider why they’re so widely used, question my objections to them, think on alternatives, and/or to find ways to make them easier or more relatable.

I understand why they must be so: one of the principles of Euro Game design is that ‘no player elimination’ is a good thing – and it is – all players should be fully invested in the game till it’s over. One way to achieve this is to hide who is doing exactly how well, and the most frequently encountered way of doing this is to hide it all in a pile of maths functions.

Since these functions are at least partially intended not to be intuitive, they must, by their nature, give you a headache.

No-one needs that.

Tzol'kin: The gods of maths will let us know who won.
Tzolk’in: The gods of maths and geometry will let us know who won.

Agricola, for example, ends like this. It feels… arbitrary and to me quite horrific:

lookout wp content uploads agricola cards completelist v7.pdf

  • Ticket To Ride and Carcasonne should be more accessible family games but both feature a big pile of counting things up at the end, then subtracting penalties, then adding bonuses. Those latter two games are mostly tolerable because I play them on a console and the xbox is pretty good at counting things really fast and just sorts this out for us.
  • Small World and Libertalia are two of my favourite games – both better in that you only have to add up your pile of money which you’ve been hiding for the duration of the game.
  • Android: Netrunner is over when a player has seven points. No further adding up required. I suspect that this kind of thing is much, much easier to achieve in a two player game than a five player game, but note that the game allows for any player to get to seven in a single turn, so being on three while the other is on six is still not as obviously a lost cause as it might appear.

Can we eliminate any and all post game adding up without demoralising those who may have obviously lost early in the game but must keep on playing?

Android: Netrunner: ah, it's over.
Android: Netrunner: ah, my nets have been over ran.

Victory Points don’t exist

Victory Points are always unthematic: the game is over, and now the god of maths will tell you who won. Tzolk;in acknowledges that we’re appeasing the ineffable whims of the gods of cogwheels and maths so: fair enough. Not so Ticket To Ride, which alleges that it’s actually a race that takes place over 7 days… but… but…

If we’re designing a game  and find we’re adding up victory points, we could take a good look at our game and consider whether victory can be measured in something real and derived from the games theme so that the players understand who they are and what they’re competing for. If the victory points are more relatable, adding and removing them might be less of a chore.

Victory Points should to be replaced with some concrete thing that exists in the games theme

  • Can they be translated into some kind of market force or survival requirement? Can we hand out awards and trophies for having eight cows or five fields rather than move people a made up number along a score track? Ticket to Ride does this, but it could be a lot simpler.
  • Victory points are going to reflect the opinions of the game designer: It is Uwe Rosenberg who decided the relative values of carrots and sheep in Agricola, not any kind of in game or real market forces. If it must be this way, we could personify that and make the giver of victory points the opinion of a local lord, deity, AI (and if we do that, consider the possibility that we could all gang up on them and win a co-operative victory).
  • Consider the possibility that if no such thing exists in the games theme, the game shouldn’t be competitive?

Theory: Games with victory points are almost always games where there isn’t natural competition in the games theme anyway. Why are we even fighting?

Agricola: Um... ah... i'm enjoying my farm, but... winning?
Agricola: I’m enjoying my farm, but… I’m meant to be winning?

Less and Lower Numbers

The second thing we can consider is to minimise the things that need counting and adding up, lowering the numbers, lowering the amount of different numbers and making sure those that are left can be easily put into piles adding up to five or ten and easily divisible.

  • We remove trophies worth 4,18,27 and 11 and instead have trophies worth 1, 2 and 3. Blueprints has a really complex scoring system while you’re building, but a nice mechanic where your position on the score track is regularly exchanged for Prize cards, and it is these that are added up at the end. Most players will end up with only two to four of these.
Blueprints : A complex scoring system that gets paired down to a simpler one as you play.
Blueprints: A complex scoring system that gets paired down to a simpler one as you play.
  • We ensure that we provide tokens that can be put into piles and not added up in abstract. Small World and Libertalia do this well, they have coins in useful denominations that can be put into nice piles by each player.
  • Small Worlds’ combat mechanic is very interesting because it usually comes down to: whose pile of cardboard is the highest? This kind of idea could be nicely reused for scoring as it is immediate and visual.
Small World: That troll is on a bigger pile of cardboard than the skeletons. They should go home.
Small World: That troll is on a bigger pile of cardboard than the skeletons. They should go home.

The game is over when someone wins

I think that the ideal solution here is to figure out the goals from the theme, and the first player to achieve the goals indicated by the theme is the winner. It must be designed such that the goals are pretty obvious when achieved.

The downsides of this is are…

  • It’s likely to create games of unpredictable length (many modern boardgames are based on a fixed amount of turns, and most seem to aim for a game length that can reliably come in at 40 – 90 minutes).
  • If designed badly, we’ll end up with a kill the leader problem as seen regularly in Munchkin, Risk and race to the end games: the player in the lead gets his head kicked in, the players in second and third place then end up bargaining with the player in fourth place who acts as kingmaker while being unable to ever win themselves.

The upside is that it solves a lot of the other problems.

  • If we design the game so that the winner must take responsibility for hiding their potential to win or when this is likely to happen, all players would likely remain invested in the game throughout.
  • Other benefits are that since there is no longer a fixed turn limit, we’ll likely not get the ‘inevitable betrayal’ two turns before the end, or people stockpiling resources for the last half of the game for a final turn blowout: all players need to be always pushing for victory, and any pause to take stock is a risk.
Hellish complex, but it's over when you control 7 castles.
Game of Thrones: It’s over when that jerk controls 7 castles. I’m dead so I don’t need to do any more counting, which is a kind of moral victory.

Counting to none

One way to do that is to look at goals where the players are counting downwards rather than upwards: The first player to clear all of the pests from their garden, the first player to get all of their children to leave home, the first player to achieve a state of grace.

The games listed above: Agricola, Small World, Carcasonne are all about refining a position, and yet when it comes to the victory tracking, your purpose is to get more points until the game stops.

A game where the goal was to move towards none nicely lends itself to games whose themes are not so much about acquisition of lots of stuff, but refinement of a position, clearing out your karma, simplifying. The players resources move from a complex state to a simpler one as the player trades sets of cows for award cards, currency for favour cards, sets of favour cards for a few expensive ones, matches and discards all the sets of cards from their hands, finds ways to give them to other players, and ultimately, drops their last three Zen cards face up in a ‘tadaa’ moment.

Damnit I knew someone else had those Zen cards…

I think that’s probably quite a satisfying way to end a game.

Hypothesis: most games that currently have a quantitative, abstract victory point system could quite easily replace it with a qualitative one in a way that would simplify the end of the game, improve the experience of the players and will better support the games theme.