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.

19 comments:

  1. An example of relative asset state: poker. You try to arrange your hand to be the best hand, while gauging what arrangements other people have.

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  2. I picture "Board State" (at least the "5 colonies") as a sort of VP game, though? "First player to 5 VP (1 colony on a planet = 1 vp) wins..."

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  3. That's quite true! And even suggests opportunities for further design. Say you need five to win, but you can also score VP based on a hidden role.

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  4. Asset state: Fluxx and Chrononauts have a number of victory conditions like this.

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  5. Close! If the endgame was actually triggered by a certain hand, that would be closer though.

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  6. Partial Elimination Example: Stratego
    Asset State Example: Diplomacy

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  7. Ah! Thank you. Good examples, both.

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  8. James GabrielsenJune 28, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    In fact, Chrononauts has both asset state and board state conditions. Any player can win by either collecting artifacts (asset state) or changing the timeline to his or her individual future (board state).

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  9. Baga Chal has an assymmetric endgame condition: Tigers wins if they capture five goats; goats win if the tigers can't move anymore. Checkmate and partial elimination?

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  10. Ooh. I haven't heard of this game! Interesting...

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  11. What about the victory/endgame condition of running yourself out of a particular asset, as in Uno?

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  12. Oh yes! What should we call that? Attrition? And you can even make that a partial attrition. "Run out of one type of card." And as you play, it becomes easier to discard different types of cards.

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  13. This is similar to the Chess family games Maharajah and the Sepoys ? Basically, the Queen vs. a bunch of Pawns. The Queen wins, if there are no pawns left, the pawns win if the queen can't move without being captured.

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  14. The problem with some of these forms of victory in a lot of modern, social oriented games is that the game turns into a grind for players who are too far behind... and it is easier to keep players close with point games.

    Exceptional States - unique named, victory conditions.

    Unique Victory States - the group specific victory conditions in Illuminati.

    Hidden Victory States - a couple of games that elude me where players are dealt a unique victory state to aspire to.

    Time Dependent / Cyclic Victory States - victory conditions that are only available at certain times.

    Randomized Victory States - I think the newer version of Ascension has a bit of this.

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  15. Ticket to Ride has a kind of Hidden Victory State i.e. the Destination tickets. If it was just "First person to complete a route" then it would be that. Risk also has a version of the rules where you draw cards with territories on them, and you get some kind of bonus if you hold that territory. I can't remember what that bonus is.

    Both of those are about aiding the race to more points though, rather than a different type of victory state.

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  16. I hate victory points. Non-points victory conditions usually make a game more "narrative" or "scenarized" (I'm not sure of the right term ni english) => you totally stay in the theme, victory really takes place on the same board as the game is played, not on a score track outside or around the board. Victory is then a real part of the story told by the game, 'cause it uses the same components.

    Something that I want to explore one day : dynamic victory conditions. They could be changed during the game, depending on the actions of the players (for a strategic taste), or randomized to force players to adapt their gameplay during the game (for a more tactic taste). There is a bit of that last possibility in The Dwarf King, a trick-taking game wich is an adaptation of a well known game from public domain in france (and maybe elsewhere).

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  17. The original version of Wiz-War had a two-fold victory condition. It's a maze-based magic deathmatch with a card and board component. You win if you're the last man standing, OR you capture two of your opponents' treasures. You can reclaim one of your treasures to stay in the game -- but if you run out of life, or both your treasures are captured, you're out.

    I think it's an elegant victory condition, since by the time you've figured out you're certainly going to lose, you've already been eliminated. There's no drudgery where you just play out your last turns and your days are numbered.

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Daniel Solis
Art Director by Day. Game Designer by Night.