Game Theory: Victory Points

I recently saw a thread on Board Game Designers Forum (BGDF) about Victory Points, tweeted by @AerjenGames, and @CardboardEdison. The term Victory Points tends to be associated with euro-style games, where winning is abstracted from the game, but as I began to think about it, I realized that this was just one way of looking at them. Most of the games I like use victory points, so I began thinking about the different ways victory points can be used. I started to group games into classes of victory points.

Now, what counts as a victory point, or VP? It can be called just a point, or a score, or it can be something else entirely. Chess can be considered a game of 1 VP, obtained by capturing an opponent’s king. This can be extended to any game, by representing any win condition as a single goal that earns a single available point. This is often a gross over simplification. Chess can also be scored in terms of points for captured pieces, which abstracts away from the long term goal of winning the game. This abstraction is considered one of the negative aspects of VPs, especially in an otherwise thematic game. Euro-style games draw special ire for this abstraction. Victory turns into something to be counted, not simply achieved.

So why are victory points used? Not all games have simple victory conditions. Generally, the more conditions involved with determining victory, the more useful VPs become, especially when the conditions are not mutually exclusive. VPs are really a way of answering the question of “who did the best?” by making “best” measurable. This appeals to my scientific side, where something is only useful if it can be measured.

I used the ideas of measurement and goals to identify four major categories into which VPs fall. The first category is a single easily measured goal, and points are not needed. The second category is goals that are easy to measure but must be measured many times, in which points act as a score. The third category is goals that are difficult to measure, in which points act as a progress tracker. The final category has multiple different measurements of multiple goals, in which points are an evaluation tool. Understanding these cases can help a designer choose appropriate goals for a game.

A single winning condition is a trivial case, typically depending on a single event. This could be moving things to a certain arrangement, or being the person to cause an event. Importantly, this event also signifies the end of the game, so no more conditions need to be checked. Although the winning condition itself may be simple, achieving it can still be incredibly deep and strategic.

Most games without explicit “points” fit into this category. Monopoly is here because the winning condition is to be the last one playing the game. (Though some would wryly reply that having to play Monopoly all the way through to the end is, in fact, a loss.) There may also be multiple conditions, as in Pandemic, where players can win by curing all 4 diseases, but the game can “win” in a number of different ways. But each condition is obvious and immediately ends the game.

Points as a score is a simple extension of the first category, with a simple goal (or several simple goals) being repeated. In many sports the points are explicit from making “goals” literally. Points are used to easily track the number of goals completed. The end of the game may or may not be triggered by reaching a specific score. The end may also be a time limit, or limit on the number of attempts. Notably, scoring need not be homogeneous. This introduces the concept of victory points as representative of the difficulty of achieving simply evaluated conditions.

Dominion is a great example of this, because the overall goal is having the highest score, with Estates, Duchies, and Provinces giving increasingly more points based on how difficult each is to obtain. Once earned, the points are completely abstracted away from the goals achieved to earn them. This makes the points interchangeable, so the victory conditions for the game are naturally abstracted from the short-term goals.

The abstracted score is a good place for designers to think about incorporating theme. Because it is abstracted, it can be given almost any name. A designer should think about how the overall goal of the game fits into the theme. “Prestige”, “favor”, and “power” indicate accomplishment in an abstract sense, but the points can be more concrete. The size of an empire might be measured in gold, population, or some other rare resource. In fact, money is used in many economic games as the sole measure of victory. And even though “money” is often used as a non-abstract resource in the same games, victory points can also be used as a currency. (Why one is usually considered more “thematic” is a topic for another post.)

Considered another way, progress along a path can be considered a score. Players do not need to know the exact number of spaces they have moved, but it could be measured and represented as points. In fact, many games that use abstract points include them on a “scoring track” with spaces numbered, showing that the two concepts are closely related.

The third category adds complexity by being harder to evaluate objectively. Here, victory points measure progress even more abstractly. In Settlers of Catan, VPs are earned for building settlements, building cities, having a large army, and having a long road, as well as specific developments (from development cards). The goal of Catan is to expand your territories in to the largest and greatest. Largest could mean having big cities with a lot of population or a wide expanse of settled land. Greatness can lie in military might or infrastructure and internal development. Victory points are a way of including all of those as options, without exhaustively stating every set of victory condition.

One important difference from the second category is that while games in the second category can have different goals to earn points, the goals are all measurable. A path can be shorter, more valuable, or less expensive. In the third category, the different goals cannot be directly compared, so victory points provide a means of comparison. Puerto Rico falls into this category. The goal is to develop the island through shipping and building, which is not just a question of which action is performed more, but how efficiently each is done. Victory points are used to help relate these goals.

The final category is the most complex concept, points as an evaluation tool. What this means is that the numbers are only needed to at the end to compare players. This category is different from a score because the evaluation can change as the game progresses, so the goals are shifting and difficult to evaluate. This could potentially be considered a sub-case of the third category. But I see it as distinct from a measure of progress because you only know what goals have been completed after the game ends, which means you cannot measure how different paths contribute to the victory condition. This is also the most mathematical case, because it usually provides a way to evaluate a number of different goals that cannot be directly compared.

These factors put Agricola into this category. Raising animals, planting fields and building improvements all help you grow your farm better, which is the main goal of the game. Due to the level of feedback, some VPs are earned immediately, but most VPs can only be determined based in the context of the final state of each player’s farm. So a single sheep, a field of grain, or a single room may have no inherent point value during the game, even though they have a value toward the goal of building a great farm.

Power Grid also falls into the fourth category. Although the victory condition can be simply stated as the number of buildings powered at the end of the game, the route to this goal is not straightforward. When the end of the game is triggered, victory depends on balancing capacity, demand, and availability, which is a very complex goal masked by the simplicity of computing that number at the end. You know demand and capacity, but timing defines the availability. In effect, each powered city is a victory point, which is only calculable at the end.

My own game, New Bedford, probably fits best in this category. While whales and buildings have some inherent point values, feedback and interaction play an important role, because progress in several categories toward the end goal cannot be be fully evaluated or compared until the end of the game.

Games like New Bedford and Agricola also highlight the mathematical nature of victory points in this category, because everything has an “exchange rate” into points. This can help a game’s theme by keeping points out of it until near the end, but it can also hurt the theme. When the number of ways to convert into points becomes large, the fourth category can veer into what some call “point soup”. If nearly everything generates points, players may be forced to do the point conversions during play, which adds the level of abstraction back in.

What does this mean for players? Well, that is difficult to generalize. Some players love the mathematical nature of games, and will enjoy complex scoring that focuses on the numbers. Others find points a tedious chore in bookkeeping, or feel that abstraction takes focus away from the important part of the game. For me, VPs should fit in with the level of abstraction of the game. If the game has an otherwise strong theme but adds abstract points, that can take away from the identity of the game. While a lighter game that goes out of its way to avoid points can make it more difficult for the player.

As a designer, the same things apply. Generally, VPs should contribute to making it easier to play. A heavy economic game may depend on being able to evaluate players’ “scores” of cash. I personally find that games are easier to design by taking advantage of the mathematical aspects. Converting everything into points helps determine balance during the design stage (a topic that I will return to in a different post), and can help guide players strategies. Victory points can even be hidden from players once the balance is achieved.

In the end, it depends on the goals in the game. A good use of victory points in a game draws the focus of players in the right direction, whether it is making sense of an abstract goal, or hiding a careful mathematical balance inside a well-developed theme.

Think I’m wrong? Missed something? Let me know in the comments, or call us out on Twitter!

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