Recently, I’ve been looking at some of the things that make my games stand out [a subject I’ll return to shortly]. And one of the places I noticed that I wasn’t seeing much variety is the end conditions. So many of my game designs in process seem to be a pure contest of victory points. I wanted to start differentiating them to make sure I was doing different things, but I realized I didn’t know what my options were. So I wrote down a few I could think of and put out a call on Twitter for some more suggestions.
But I didn’t get a big list of winning conditions. In fact, I got a very small list. Win conditions only seem to come in a few types: Most, Least, First, and Last (with Least really just being a negative variation of Most). Put another way, it makes sense that it must be a superlative of some sort, and it must be either a quantity (most, least) or it’s a quality achieved at some point in time.
But I didn’t think that was very useful to group everything into just those few categories. Agricola and Survive are both “most”, but the winning conditions don’t feel very similar to me. But rather than trying to create strict categories with arbitrary names, I’m just looking to identify the similarities and differences. So I want to dig a little deeper by identifying qualities that are most important to me in differentiating end conditions. I came up with three main aspects. What measure, how to measure it, and when to measure it.
What to measure
What to measure is the easiest to examine. But I’ve tried to avoid all theme, and instead examined things to measure as they fit into different levels of abstraction.
Victory Points are basically the ur-condition. If you have the most victory points, you have victory. But it really means any abstract quantity for measuring the winner.
Space is somewhere between abstract and concrete. It might be locations controlled in an area control game, or a position on a map. Go is purely a measure of area controlled. El Grande is largely area control but with varying values. Even Tic Tac Toe is a measurement of how pieces are arranged in space.
Money is similar to victory points, and, in fact, I’ve stated previously that in many games victory points are a form of currency and money can simply be another form of victory point. But in this case, I’m differentiating it as something that is more concrete in the game, and is used during play as some kind of currency.
Resources or objects collected. This might be rolled into a single category with Money, but I think there are enough cases where it differs. Chess can be looked at as collecting a single piece, the opponent’s King. Trying to collect a set, or the most of a set also fits in.
More abstractly, progress can be measured. While similar to victory points in level of abstraction, it is different in that progress is all or nothing. Candyland could be considered space (as in the discrete space of the end of the track) but I think it’s more akin to progress. It doesn’t matter where you are until you reach a certain point.
Finally, status (like in/out) is a simple meta-game concept. In Clue, it is being correct or wrong about a final guess. Probably every game won by elimination.
Most of these concepts could be abstracted into one category or another, but that doesn’t give me insight into how winning differs. Similarly, many games and winning conditions surely bridge more than one category. That’s fine, because the goal is not to rigidly divide games up, but merely to have better language to explain the win conditions.
How to measure
How to measure can really be broken down into two categories. Absolute and relative.
Reaching a fixed value or condition is the most basic form of absolute. Some value of whatever is being measured needs to be reached. Sometimes that number is simply 1, or 0.
Completion is the more flexible version of a fixed value. The concept of All acts as a hard limit, even when the number represented can change during play. This shares an inverse relationship with fixed value, since you can start with the total number available and simply subtract to reach 0.
A specific size or shape is really the addition of a second (or third) dimension. Tic Tac Toe is just reaching two fixed values of area. 3 in one direction and 1 in another.
Relative comparison between players is the other basic form. Simply take the values being measured and apply whatever criteria you want. Most, least, equal. the important difference is that it doesn’t matter what the absolute quantity is, simply how you compare them.
Race conditions are a sort of hybrid. Being the first is relative to the other players, but the value achieved is frequently an absolute. It is important to note that it need not be an absolute. In a game where you must be the first to be two points ahead, it doesn’t always matter how many total points, as long as you have the required relative number.
Similarly, last to have is the inverse of a race. It is simple to say that you are the player who reached the specified value. But yet, it matters whether other players also reached the value.
Yet again, winning conditions can share several of these. Have the most of a fixed number of things. Have a majority in at least 3 categories. It is not strictly a fixed value or a relative value, but the combination of both. Both First and Last inherently imply “relative to other players” because there can be no “first” or “last” when playing alone. But the question first or last “of what” or “to do what” requires something to be measured.
When to measure
Finally, perhaps the most confusing part of the measurement is when. Note that I’m not just looking at game ending conditions. I think that’s a separate discussion but there is some crossover that deserves consideration. Winning conditions all happen at the end of the game, but the way the game ends makes a big difference to winning.
Immediate when achieved is probably the largest category. When a specific measurement is achieved, you win. This is the obvious form of most races, by definition.
After a specified time, for example a number of turns or rounds, is the other big group. A lot of games follow the pattern of “achieve the measurement of most points after the final round.” This lends an inherent balance relative to number of turns taken, but does not offer flexibility.
After a flexible time, using some independent trigger. Power Grid is a terrific example. You still want the most points (i.e. houses that you provide power to) but it needs to be at the right time. You can’t simply wait for the end, you have to plan for it and time it. I think of this as a “right time, right place”
And finally, a trigger plus time span. In many games, this takes the form of other players each getting one more turn. You need to still achieve the measurement after that time passes, or possibly during it. Bidding frequently takes this form when time is extended from each bid. Each other player has a chance to take victory away. On a game level, this can take the form of King-of-the-Mountain, where you simply need to hold a condition for long enough time. The delay after triggering isn’t just a game end condition, it is part of the winning itself.
Putting it together
With these in place, I feel like I can really understand winning conditions in my games better. There is enough detail to be able to differentiate how players are acting to achieve the final measurement. But these categories aren’t fully independent. I can’t just pick one line from each and create a new win condition. But I can observe the patterns and make sure I’m not falling into the same ones over and over again.
As a bonus, I can use these to create tie breakers. Once I identify elements of the win condition, I know that if I want to break ties, I can’t just measure the same thing again. But I can measure it in a different way, or I can find something else to measure. By mixing and matching, I can bring in an additional dimension to measure victory.
Next time, I’ll discuss how I’m using this new information to help organize my games. If you feel I missed something important, let me know in the comments! Thanks to everyone who helped with suggestions and discussion on Twitter.