Not long ago, in the days of board game conventions and shaking hands, I would seek out new friends and old and attempt to play literally as many board games as possible over the course of a weekend. For all the incredible games that have come out in recent years, I often find myself finishing a board game full of fascinating mechanics that ultimately told a dazzling story of tallying points on a scoring track and quickly cleaning up the components so we could move on to something else.
Storytelling is a challenging art form in any medium, and board games have made strides in a lot of areas from legacy games to escape room series to choose your own adventure games. But I still find many new games that fill shelves every year tell a story that players will be quick to forget. Today I want to look at a particular mechanism in games that can lead to dramatic outcomes and memorable moments for just about everyone, not just the winner of the game. It is ultimately the story of Icarus, but we’ll circle back to that in a moment. For now, let’s talk about qualifiers.
A classic example of using a qualifier in game design is Reiner Knizia’s High Society, a game where players begin with equal starting amounts of cash and through a series of auctions, bid on a series of lavish showings of wealth. It’s a game about “Keeping’ up with the Joneses” but one in which material wealth is actually worth something at the end of the game – victory points, and the player with the most victory points wins.
Oh yes, that’s right. There is one more rule – the player who spent the most money is eliminated before final scoring and never gets a chance to win the game.
This last rule is our qualifier and the topic of qualifiers deserves its own article in this modern era of game design because it’s one of the most fascinating psychological tools available to designers and we’re seeing it in games now more than ever before. Over the rest of this article, we’re going to identify where qualifiers can add value to games, observe what they don’t do well and look at a lot of interesting examples along the way.
A Mechanical Exploration of Qualifiers in Games
Over the years I’ve encountered several published games and more than a few prototypes that have re-imagined the magical formula of High Society. One of the recently published titles is Q.E., a game which adds the freedom of fiscal irresponsibility by letting players secretly bid any amount they wish during the auction.
All good things must come to an end and today we’re talking about the most triumphant of endings; victory conditions. As part of our ongoing series titled Game Structures, this article is going to build on some of the principles from our last segment where Matt wrote about endgame conditions and methods game designers can use to conclude games. In the first half of this article we’re going to break down the most common objective types, while in the second half we’re going to look at games that allow players to win the game by achieving one of several different objectives.
As we look at objectives in games, we’re usually talking about the victory conditions. The winning objective in games is often framed as a superlative; goals where the player wins by having the “Highest Score” or by being the “First to construct all their buildings”. There are a countless number of victory conditions that may appear new and unique, but the vast majority of games have a superlative goal that can be broken down into one of three popular flavors:
Run the Fastest: The goal is to be the first to cross the finish line.
Go the Furthest:The goal is to accomplish the most before time runs out.
Survive the Longest:The goal is to be the last player standing.
There is a lot we’re about to unwrap here and there are certainly games that don’t fall neatly into one of these three categories. For instance, 2-player abstracts can often blur the lines between categories, since being the first player to checkmate your opponent (a race to “Kill the King”) in Chess also leaves you as the last player standing.
We’re excited to return to our ongoing series titled “Game Structures”, a series of topics we’ve organized to help understand the foundations of successful game design. Our initial run of articles covered “Early Game Structures”;aspects of games such as initial starting positions and resources, the value of turn order and key decision points that help to generate replay value and keep players coming back time and time again.
Our follow-up titled “Mid Game Structures” focused on prolonging player engagement the core of the game experience. We covered topics like player ecology to help drive player motivations and player interaction and player strategy which allow player choices to pivot and create new and interesting decisions during games.
During the next few months we’ll be tackling “End Game Structures” which help to drive player satisfaction and help to bring players back to the table again and again. As part of the series we’ll be looking at end game conditions, scoring methodologies and otherwise satisfying elements of game design we’ve encountered in games. To help guide us, we’re going to look at two key questions, how do players factor into the end of the game, and how do the ending conditions of the game factor into the game’s design? Let’s get started.
Question #1: How do player’s factor into the end of the game?
Longtime readers of Games Precipice might have noticed my enthusiasm for mapping design problems to a couple of orthogonal dimensions, and I think the same sort of analysis is useful here. The first axis might be the more obvious: to what extent can the players control when the game ends?
Players have No Control
No Control: Players take the backseat while the game grabs the wheel and drives to the final destination. The “Uber” of end game conditions.
Games at this end of the axis end when they end, and the players can’t do anything about it. The most common way to implement this condition is to have the game last a fixed number of rounds or turns, then the game ends, and a winner is crowned. Terra Mystica lasts six rounds, period. Small World lasts between 8 and 10 rounds, depending on the number of players. Of course, this doesn’t mean that players have no control over the flow or pacing of the game: each player may accomplish a different amount of stuff each turn, and each turn may last a different amount of time. But each player gets only a certain allotment of turns to accomplish their strategy.
“No control” may sound like a bad thing given how much we’ve focused on player control as a per se good in game design, but there are a lot of advantages to having a mechanically enforced end point over one that the players can control. First, it’s completely objective and happens the same way every time, so it will not come as a surprise to any players (assuming you remember to slide the round marker down the track). This means there are no “mah jong” moments where one of your opponents suddenly fulfills a victory condition that you thought was at least three turns away, abruptly ending the game for everyone and creating a lot of satisfaction for one player but confusion for the rest.
We’re diving into one of our recent favorites this week as Orléans was our top “new to us” game on the site for 2015. Since then, our opinions have drifted in different directions and we thought it would be fun to look at how the game has aged for us only a few years later.
If this is your first time visiting Games Precipice, our focus is on game design theory and ideas that can make games great. In writing about Orléans, the large majority of our conversation is a deep dive into this brilliant game applying the game design frameworks we’ve been writing about recently. To help frame the discussion, this is more than just a write-up about Orléans; this is an article about Orléans in the greater conversation of pool building games. So let’s jump right in.
Orléans is best classified as a bag building game and it shares a number of familiar concepts with a deck building game like Dominion or a dice building game like Quarriors. We recently covered these various mechanics collectively in a series on pool building games.
Despite the similarities on the surface, these games can be tricky to break down as a group. One approach we’ve taken to look in-depth at these mechanics has been to identify the common skills and tasks players are carefully considering while building their deck in Ascension or filling their bag in Orléans.
In Pool Builders… players manage long-term efficiency
A common bond among pool building games is that these mechanics relay a marathon mentality to players. Orléans is a game of putting one foot ahead of the other in order to string together a strategy over the long-term. By the end of the game, a player will rarely be able to pinpoint the exact moment or turn that pushed them toward victory, since each turn the player moves the needle forward just enough to see observable progress in a race of efficiency.
Since our last batch of Design Analysis articles, we’ve started two ambitious, multi-month article series. Our Game Structures articles are meant to explore the design decisions that matter most at the beginning, middle, and end of games and to answer questions like “who goes first, and does it matter?” and “what time horizons do players plan their actions across?” Our Mechanic Archetypes series takes deep dives into some of the most popular and prevalent game mechanics, beginning with worker placement and pool builders. Both of these series are ongoing; look for late-game structures soon and more mechanic archetypes for as long as we keep having interesting things to say about them.
Once we’ve covered a wide range of game design topics, we really like to take what we’ve written and apply our own analytical frameworks to recent successful games with the goal of trying to determine what a game does well, how it implements these concepts in a creative and novel way, and ultimately what makes it great. Keeping in the theme of our Mechanic Archetypes, I’ll be taking a closer look at Keyflower, a worker placement game (and then some), and Alex will follow up with a pool builder.
Keyflower is a few years old now, and it isn’t particularly difficult to get ahold of, so it might be familiar to many of our readers. For a quick introduction in case it’s not: Keyflower is a tile game that takes players through a year of growing and managing a fledgling village, with the game playing out over four seasons and having the in-universe goal of building up enough resources to survive through the winter. Its most notable feature is its clever approach to worker placement, where workers can be used either to perform actions or as currency to bid on improvements to the village. It won or was nominated for a handful of awards from 2012-2014 and maintains a strong presence as a top-20 strategy game at BoardGameGeek since its release in 2012.