Win conditions and game end conditions are often conflated. In this post, I provide separate definitions, and outline the various kinds of win conditions that apply in competitive and co-operative games.

The first rule of teaching a game to your friends, according to The Quinns Patent Method™, is to start by telling them what they have to do to win. “This is a game where you’ve got to destroy your enemy’s base“, you say, or “build the best village“, “lay the most miles of railroad“, “collect the most achingly picturesque memories of your jaunt through Japan“.

Whatever it may be, this basic framework, the overall winning condition, is the neat little bento box into which you then go on to plop each of the other delicious ingredients, one by one: here’s how you move, here’s how you build, here’s how you eat bamboo, here’s how you host extravagant parties to try and burn through all your uncle’s money. If you don’t give your friends those neat little compartments at the start, you end up throwing increasingly unwieldy handfuls of half-baked detail at them and expecting them to juggle.

Of course, nobody ever comes to a game with a completely blank slate. Even the world’s least experienced gamer already knows the basic aim of each new game he sits down to play, because it’s always the same: your aim is to win. That rule is so obvious that we don’t even have to bother mentioning it… right?

Wrong. Things are way more complicated than that. There’s a lot to say about the basic question of what ‘the aim of a game’ might be, but in this post, I just want to clarify the basic concepts of a ‘win condition’ in both competitive and non-competitive games.

Let’s start with chess. No matter how complicated the game of chess itself may be, its possible outcomes are simple. There are just three ways chess can end. Either black wins (thus white loses), or white wins (thus black loses), or it’s a draw.

We can lay out these three basic options without bothering with the actual mechanics of the game. That’s because win conditions (what counts as defeat or victory) are independent of game end conditions (how you know when to stop playing).

In chess, there are actually several different game end conditions. Checkmate is the classic one; stalemate is another. There’s also the possibility of one player giving in (which is formalised in the rules of chess, unlike most games, where the possibility of ‘giving up’ is undefined in the system). And there’s whatever it’s called when the players get stuck in an infinite loop of moves, or when the two kings are the only pieces left on the board.

But, for our purposes, the details of how a game of chess ends don’t matter. All that matters is that the rules tell us what kind of ending counts as a win condition for one side or the other, and which counts as a draw. So a ‘game end condition’ is a game state defined entirely within the boundaries of the game system itself, and when it occurs, the rules say that the game should end. A ‘win condition’ is a way to assign values in the minds of players to various game end conditions: which situations count as winning, which count as losing, and which count as a draw.

This trio of possible game outcomes – win, lose or draw – isn’t universal, of course. Some games, and some gamers, hate the idea of a score draw, preferring to invoke layers of increasingly arcane tiebreak criteria so that nobody has to go home with the distasteful sensation that everyone did well. If two players have the same number of points, then the one with the most coins wins; if two players have the same number of points and the same number of coins, then the one with the fewest cards wins; and so on.

Chess doesn’t have tiebreaks, but you could invent some, I suppose. You could say that victory in the case of a draw goes to the player who captured the most pieces, then whoever promoted the most pawns, then whoever got up earliest in the morning, then whoever has the most body hair. (It might be interesting to see how the character of the game would change if rules like these were introduced.)

Meanwhile, other games seem to positively thrive on draws. Test-match cricket is like this. It never ceases to amuse me that the English have invented a game, supposedly competitive, in which any one of many possible sequences of events will result in a draw. The two teams can tie after five days (five days!) even if one of them was obviously dominant the whole time. Hell, it even ends in a draw if it rains for a while – a rule that I thought was so absurd when my father first told me it that I was sure he must have been making it up. He wasn’t. Go figure.

It seems like the win conditions are even simpler in single-player games (solitaires): you either win or you lose. The same goes for pure co-operative games, where everyone plays as a team. Conceputally, solitaires and co-ops have basically the same win condition structure. If chess has two “sides”, black and white, then a solitaire or a co-op has just one, whether it’s a single player or a single team. Either The Side wins, or The Side loses. Game-end conditions that count as a draw are extremely rare in solitaires and co-ops — perhaps because of the asymmetry of design between the player(s) and the system.

Note that a cooperative game is different from a game that encourages or requires some basic cooperation in order to win. A classic example is Diplomacy: the system is designed such that players have to cooperate early on in order to make progress, but if you’re going to win in the end, you’re going to win alone and everyone knows that. This means that betrayal is inevitable, and the game becomes ‘who shall I cooperate with, and can I time my betrayal to put me ahead?’. Diplomacy is a great game, but it’s not a co-op.

One interesting question. If the players lose in a co-op, then does that mean the game wins? Maybe. A common way of talking about solitaire and co-op systems is to personify the system – to pretend that the game itself is an opponent. We boast about beating the game, or we lament being defeated by it. If that’s right, then even solitaires and co-ops are games with two sides.

But there are some important differences between real competitive games on the one hand, and solitaires or co-ops on the other. After all, ‘the game’ doesn’t play like people play. It’s not like the game ever really intends to beat us, or strives to win, or celebrates its victories. I don’t know about you, but after a particularly thorough drubbing at the hands of something like Ghost Stories, I don’t tend to shrug and say, “Oh well, at least the game had a good time”. So I guess it depends what you mean by “a side”. I prefer to reserve that term for the actual players.