Sunday, October 7, 2012

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


In Part I we reviewed some multifarious victory conditions in board games, specifically victory conditions that complemented one another and allowed for a deeper strategy as players attempt to achieve victory.

As a quick summary, we assessed three primary conditions often used in board game design that allow for overlap and multiple paths to victory:
  • Tactical Victory - The Tactical Victory path often utilizes a map and offers an opportunity to win in a war of attrition (Having the last pieces on the board in checkers) or by achieving a high standard control over the board (Running your opponents out of business in Monopoly or capturing your opponent’s flag in Stratego).
  • Set Collection - The set collection mechanic can consist of either a carefully orchestrated set of requirements (Completion of each category in Trivial Pursuit and collecting all the different colored wedges) or an agglomeration of sorts (The frantic collection and redistribution of the right cards to teammates in Pandemic)
  • Hourglass Victory - In Part I we identified the Hourglass victory as a means to bring a tightly contested game to conclusion, often consisting of a turn limit or an inevitable achievement that a player will make within a designed duration the game is intended to last.
In Part II we will take a look at the first of two games that utilize all three conditions and examine the differences in the application of each victory condition.

Rarely  have the opportunity to enjoy a game as finely crafted for a specific player count as End of the Triumvirate. Designed and balanced ideally for three players, it has often been described as “A knife fight in a phone booth” and its description does not disappoint. End of the Triumvirate is always fiercely contested until the end and by structural design does not suffer from runaway leader syndrome or the complementary apathetic loser syndrome.

End of the Triumvirate consists of each of our predefined victory conditions: a militaristic dissection of a map of the Roman Empire, a scale of military & political prowess and an annual Roman Senate election of which a player attempts to win twice over the course of the game.

In every design I've ever worked on I've found that it takes more than to develop great mechanics, adding an interesting theme or making players feel empowered. A game needs tension. The easiest way to do that always seems to be "add a map".

The End of the Triumvirate has a very well defined map that as one my expect takes up the majority of the game board as well as the majority of the game play. Consisting of 15 provinces, the Roman Empire is separated during set-up and each player begins with 5 provinces. Players lead large armies around the board gathering additional provinces and gold using a limited quantity of action points each turn.

Over the coarse of the game, provinces change hands many times and empires rise and fall. In order to achieve the tactical victory, a player must control 9 of the 15 territories during their turn. I have rarely seen this achieved and although it is certainly possible, it requires one of the three players to nearly bow out of the tactical victory condition entirely. When I have seen it achieved, often one or both of the other players are about to win using another victory condition in their very next turn; a wonderful sign of an intensely competitive game.

Our second victory condition for examination is the Senate election. Depending on how players plan out their turns, they may use their gold in order to persuade influence in the Senate. This can involve moving (yellow) unaligned citizens into their section of the forum or out of an opponents forum and back into the unaligned section. After each player has made two or three turns, the player with the most influence wins the election and their citizens are "reset" for the next election.

After winning one Senate election, a player can win the game by either winning another election or by positioning six citizens in their forum. This is the hourglass victory condition of The End of the Triumvirate. No matter how the game has played out, the game will not last more than four elections, and would only reach that point if all three players are active in the Senate. The majority of games I have participated in have ended with the third or fourth election delivering victory for a particularly politically active player, and it is a neat method to ensure a timely finish without a confusing turn limit (I'm occasionally left underwhelmed when a game ends after X number of turns without any really thematic reason).

The End of the Triumvirate offers two competence tracks in the subjects of military and political mastery. These function surprisingly well as mechanics to demonstrate the power advantage of someone who chooses to specialize and the competence tracks also allow for deeper player interaction.

Players have the ability to advance their abilities at their discretion which strengthens their actions and more importantly increases the costs of their opponents. For instance if I advance my position to "III" on the political competence my opponents behind me at "II"  or "I" must pay two extra gold in order to move citizens around in the Senate. Alternatively they can match my level or exceed it in order to remove this additional cost. The competence track adds an interesting additional element in order to assist players who are really pushing for a tactical victory or political victory in order to "protect their lead" by essentially placing bananas behind them on the final lap of a race in Mario Kart. Naturally as players attempt to outperform one another in competence, they spur this set collection victory condition to completion by reaching level "VII" in both competences.

The End of the Triumvirate offers three very diverse ways to seek victory but all three intertwined with the actions a player makes. In Part III we'll take a look at an old favorite that is entirely overlooked for its design brilliance and we'll see very quickly how it fits into our design analysis of diverse paths to victory.