Beyond Race for Points: Moving out of my Comfort Zones in Game Design


"Most significant work comes out of misunderstanding." — Milton Glaser

If there is a big ancient tree at the center of the lush rainforest of graphic design, Milton Glaser is probably it. He's been at the design profession for decades, so he speaks wisdom on the subject. He describes a professional getting good at drawing Cocker Spaniels, then getting hired to draw more Cocker Spaniels, and eventually just getting burned out. Then he switches to drawing goldfish. In the transition, he'll make mistakes and have misunderstandings. In those misunderstandings, great work can happen.

In my case, I've designed a lot of games that boil down to a race for points. The central victory condition is earning the most points, usually measured on an actual track. The means by which you earn points can be quite different, but it's still all about who has the most points. Then there is a conditional endgame, like a deck running out, a certain number of constructs being created, or a certain number of rounds. Then you and the other players compare your scores. Whoever is in the lead at this moment wins.

And that's okay! Points are an extremely useful tool for game design. Points are a commonly understood goal that eases the mental overhead. It allows players to focus on what makes your game different from all the other race-for-points games. Like a haiku, variation within constraint can still make a significant work of design.

But eventually you get burned out on that constraint. It becomes more of a crutch than a tool. So let's explore the alternative. Let's marry endgame conditions with victory conditions. This is pretty tough to do well! You must consider pacing and game balance in the same mechanic. Unlike race-for-points, you do not have the luxury of giving players options to slow or speed up the game. Whoever hits that endgame first wins. 

  • Checkmate: You win if your opponent has no legal actions available. This tends to be a longer game and very frustrating if you're in the losing position. [Chess, Go]
  • Partial Checkmate: You win if your opponent cannot take a particular legal action, like movement, even if he could still take other in-game actions. This is a somewhat unusual victory condition, but I'd be happy to hear some examples.
  • Total Elimination: You win if your opponent has run out of a particular asset, like chessmen, dice, or a particular resource. Again, can lead to a protracted endgame phase where a runaway winner is clear. [Risk, Checkers]
  • Partial Elimination: You can win if you eliminate just one key element of your opponent's assets, like capturing a flag or coercing a majority vote. [Any examples?]
  • Board State: Positioning assets in a particular state, such as building colonies on five planets or getting three-in-a-row. [Cosmic Encounter, Pente, Tic Tac Toe]
  • Asset State: Gather a particular number or combination of assets. [Examples?]
  • Asset State and Board State, aka "Pick-up and Deliver": Gather a particular number or combination of assets, then return the game to a particular board state. [Forbidden Island, Race to Adventure]
And there are many more, I'm sure. Combining endgame and victory conditions is an interesting game design challenge and one I ought to explore more thoroughly in the future.
Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.