Board games usually have highly artificial win conditions. But trying to escape that artificiality — for instance, by creating games with more nuanced outcomes — generates some interesting issues, both conceptual and practical.

Many games (maybe all games?) try to simulate the real world. The style of simulation and the degree of detail varies widely, and the definition of ‘real world’ covers real-life, historical, science fiction and wild fantasy. But even the most abstract games like chess are still a coarse-grained simulation, at least in theory.

Yet, no matter how intricate and nuanced games try to be in the way they play, one way in which most games are crudely unrealistic is in what happens at the end. When it comes to game end conditions, this unrealism is inescapable: unlike the actual universe, which has trundled from one moment to the next for billions of years and shows no immediate sign of halting, games have to end, components have to be packed back into the box and players have to go home once the evening is over. That means that every game must have game end conditions, as unrealistic as that no doubt is.

But, as I pointed out in a previous post, game end conditions are not the same as win conditions. Even though every game has to end in a way that intrinsically breaks the simulation, is it also true that that someone has to win in a way that also breaks the simulation?

Real life situations very rarely come to a neat end with a single permanent victor. The grand political history of the world is a story of the ongoing rise and fall of cultures and civilisations, a kind of endlessly fluctuating power imbalance. Yet games that model this usually finish with win conditions that seem crude in comparison. In Through The Ages, for instance, victory is achieved by “the player whose nation has the most culture at the end of the modern age”: culture, of course, is measured in culture points. In Imperial Settlers, victory points come from buildings (the size of one’s empire) as well as various prestige-generating actions players take during the game. And games like 7 Wonders and Concordia end with fearsome maths phases when everyone calculates their scores.

It’s not the notion of victory points itself that I’m complaining about. Modelling success arithmetically with victory points is no more egregious than modelling other abstract variables in the same way: wood counters for wood, energy counters for energy, prestige counters for prestige. Nor am I complaining about the pseudo-problem of point salad games, nor about games where the outcome is opaque until the final calculation delivers its verdict.

Rather, my complaint is that many otherwise sophisticated and intricate games — even those that strive for simulated realism and “drip theme”, as the saying goes — then introduce a striking element of unrealism at the end by providing artificially clear-cut win conditions. In ‘real life’, who won and who lost is rarely clear-cut.

This isn’t always a problem. Some themes lend themselves very well to clear-cut win conditions. In Pandemic, players battle to contain and ultimately cure four strains of a deadly worldwide disease before it becomes a threat to humanity’s survival, so it makes perfect sense for the game to say that either players save the world and win, or fail and lose. Clear-cut is appropriate here; there’s nothing artificial about it. The same goes for many games where the aim is to make the most money, conquer the most territory, or Kill Doctor Lucky. Either you kill him or you don’t.

Artificiality is also defensible sometimes. Compare: many romance movies end with the protagonists predictably realising their love for each other. Equally, many books end with the heroes predictably living happily ever after and the villains being defeated. This is artificiality, for sure. Real life is not so neat. But it’s part of what makes these movies and books tick — what makes them meaningful. So what’s wrong with the fact that many board games end with the competing players’ successes being compared according to set criteria, with victory going to the player who was most successful in meeting those criteria, or to everyone equally in the case of a cooperative game? Deciding who wins at the end of a game can be a big part of what makes the whole game experience meaningful.

All this is true. But many excellent movies and books manage to avoid formulaic endings. Why don’t more games do that?

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Consider, first, the recent advent of ‘semi-cooperative games’. The premise of these games is that players need to balance cooperation with competition in order to meet a more sophisticated set of win conditions. One recent example is Dead of Winter, whose description from publisher Plaid Hat includes the following protracted description of how victory is determined:

Dead of Winter is a meta-cooperative psychological survival game. This means players are working together toward one common victory condition — but for each individual player to achieve victory, he must also complete his personal secret objective. This secret objective could relate to a psychological tick that’s fairly harmless to most others in the colony, a dangerous obsession that could put the main objective at risk, a desire for sabotage of the main mission, or (worst of all) vengeance against the colony! Certain games could end with all players winning, some winning and some losing, or all players losing. Work toward the group’s goal, but don’t get walked all over by a loudmouth who’s looking out only for his own interests!

[…] The survivors are all dealing with their own psychological imperatives, but must still find a way to work together to fight off outside threats, resolve crises, find food and supplies, and keep the colony’s morale up.

Dead of Winter has players making frequent, difficult, heavily-thematic, wildly-varying decisions that often have them deciding between what is best for the colony and what is best for themselves.

Underneath this hyperbolic marketing copy is a straightforward, but still interesting, win condition structure. Each player in the game has an objective and will win if he or she achieves it. So far, so humdrum. But then, on top of that, that there are also group objectives, the most important of which is not starving to death en masse or being killed by zombies. If the group fails one of those objectives, then the game ends abruptly and everyone loses, regardless of how well they were doing otherwise.

Notice that this isn’t really very complicated, at least in principle (and no, I have no idea what “meta-cooperative” is supposed to mean). It just layers a regular competitive objective (achieve your objective) on top of a regular cooperative objective (don’t let the game kill everyone), and requires you to do both in order to win. In practice, because of some intelligent design decisions in Dead of Winter, these can play out in various interesting ways, leading to some difficult choices as players have to balance their desire to achieve their own objectives with the need to take time out to stop the game defeating everyone. Another example of the same structure is the excellent if thematically distasteful Archipelago, in which players compete to be the best at exploiting the natural resources of a newly-discovered 19th-century colony while simultaneously cooperating to make sure the locals don’t manage to mount a successful rebellion.

This is all good stuff. Both these games could have been simple cooperative affairs, in which the players all win equally if the colony survives, or a simple competitive affairs, in which the player who best meets his own objective wins. Instead, the designers chose more involved win condition structures — simple as they are — that break the mould and hug closely to the theme at the same time.

But there’s a subtle problem with these structures. To see what I mean, first consider that, in a conventional competitive game, there are two possible outcomes from the point of view of each player:

  1. I win
  2. I lose (and someone else wins)

In Dead of Winter and Archipelago, however, there are three possible outcomes from the point of view of each player:

  1. I win (and the colony succeeds)
  2. I lose (and someone else wins; the colony succeeds without me, as it were)
  3. Everyone loses (because the colony fails)

But here’s a question. How do I rank these three possibilities? It seems clear that I win should come top of the list, but what about the other two? Is an individual loss less bad than a group loss, on the basis that at least someone won (ranking 1, 2, 3)? Or should I prefer nobody to win if I can’t (ranking 1, 3, 2)? If I’m going down, should I take everyone else down with me? After all, ‘everyone loses’ sounds like a draw to me, and surely that’s better than defeat!

It turns out that players don’t agree on this. In an illuminating thread on BoardGameGeek, one user, Xuzu Horror, listed possible justifications for several different responses to the realisation that one is certain to fail one’s primary objective:

Make colony fail: The rules only state winning if you get both secret and group goal. Since you will lose no matter what, to place best among remaining players, it is best for you to make as many lose as possible. The colony failing is typically the option that will make the most lose (unless there would turn out to be tons of hidden traitors which is unlikely)

Advance your secret objective as much as possible: The rules state to role play your character so advancing towards your secret objective seems appropriate especially since your character probably desperately wants to advance towards that objective after being so grossly far away from it. (it is implied if nothing can be done to advance the secret objective further, then the character would help with the group goal)

Make colony succeed: You have played to work with and help your team this entire time and at least helping in their win would make you feel like you partially won. It is also one of the two objectives you needed to complete to win so you may as well go for the one you can still complete.

Do nothing/little as possible: to avoid king making on either traitor or colony side doing as little as possible is best

Any option: Consider role playing element a weak reason for dictating actions and placing does not matter in this game since we are mostly fighting against the game (maybe a traitor) – so you lost, period. Now it’s up to you to decide what motivates you to act

The fundamental design problem is this. The designers want players to prefer outcome 2 to outcome 3, but many players instinctively prefer outcome 3 to outcome 2. How can game designers solve this problem?

I’ll look at several possible answers to that question in my next post.

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