Saturday, September 22, 2012

Board Game Design: Identifying Multiple Paths to Victory (Part I)

In 1985 Paramount Pictures released a live action comedy based on the popular board game “Clue”. Featuring Tim Curry in one of his best performances, the movie “Clue” received mixed reviews and was considered commercially unsuccessful and thus like many others I first experienced it on video. I was enamored by the perfect casting and I’ve always loved mysteries but what made the movie memorable for me was that after the mystery was explained and I expected the credits to roll they hit me with two additional alternate endings.

The version of “Clue” feature film in theaters provided the audience with one of three endings, but the home video release ostensibly made more sense to the viewer as it helped establish that the actual turn of events was not as important as the journey made to get there. This was certainly not the first instance of multiple endings used in film and it didn’t fulfill its intended commercial goal of selling more tickets to the same audience for an alternate ending, but nevertheless it was my first memorable exposure to the idea and it made an impact.

A finely structured board game relies on a satisfying endgame even more than defining mechanics, integration of theme or player interaction. Its the aftertaste players will remember whether they won or lost that will bring the game out of the closet at the next opportunity. The final outcome should reward player(s) that performed the strongest, have a consolidated final scoring that is not entirely transparent and keep those who fall behind early engaged and hopeful.

One of the best ways to make the victory of a particular design distinguished from its bookshelf competitors is to allow multiple ways for players to find their own paths to victory. By providing several options, players maintain a tense struggle for resources while waging a war on multiple fronts.

For the purposes of this article I am particularly interested in games offering very divergent victory goals. This excludes games with pass-through conditions such as High Society in which currency is used to buy items worth VP but the player who spends the most during the game is eliminated prior to final scoring. I’m also excluding games for which multiple victory conditions are aligned in the game-play: in Mr. Jack the person playing as Jack can win by escaping the board, evading capture on the eighth turn or an incorrect accusation by the inspector, but in all cases Jack’s motivation is to conceal his/her identity effectively.

Some common trends in games that have multiple paths to victory:
  • Games offer low player counts (often just 2 players, while 4 players is less common and typically the upper limit of the player count)
    • Fewer players allow participants to monitor progress of opponents during the game while not overwhelming players with too many potential outcomes.
  • Victory Points are often not used and one player is the winner with few methods to measure parity of the game. If VP are used it is often as a tiebreaker.
  • Games often have an upper limit on the length of the game but surprise victories are not uncommon when a player is ignored by opponents and crafty with their decisions. 

Tactical Victory:

The tactical victory is often the bread and butter of the game; the portion of which the most action resides and in which meaningful decisions are made. In Risk, your tactical objective is global domination. By virtue of being the primary focus of all participants this is often the least likely victory condition. When a particularly dominant player is fortifying their position an attack-the-leader syndrome from other players offers further balancing to the game and often prevents a tactical victory.

Set Collection:

Set collection could be considered the secondary condition following the tactical path to victory. It is tremendously important that a player maintain an active role in the tactical gameplay (to prevent opponents from achieving the primary tactical victory) but set collection is an alternative path that keeps players engaged in monitoring the progress of their opponents and increasing tension while bringing players towards the endgame.

Hourglass Victory:

In a hard fought game amongst several worthy competitors it is essential to bring the game to a conclusion rather than drag out the climax of the conflict and remove the unique experience. The hourglass is the tertiary objective filling the role of closer. When a victory cannot or has not been achieved in the designed time table of the game, the hourglass objective is the final act in determining the victor. Ideally this utilizes a different criteria than the other victory conditions; something as simple as the player with the most currency at the end of the eighth and final turn is the winner. This condition ensures a timely endpoint even if all players are playing optimally and still allows for a satisfying and definitive result as it is foreseeable.

If victory points are used in the design of a game, they hold special value here as they can be collected on the side by players and only have value if the turn limit or stalemate condition is met.

In Part II we will look at some of these victory conditions in action and see how their relationship creates depth without added complexity in game design. Did I miss a fourth category of victory conditions? If I did I would love to find out your thoughts.