Late Game Structures – Objectives & Victory Conditions

Written by Alex Harkey

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.

The focus we’re going to have for this article is on competitive games with a uniform set of victory conditions. As you might expect, cooperative games often use all-or-nothing goals that players collectively need to achieve before time runs out, but there are plenty of design differences that make cooperative games a worthwhile topic for another time.

Games with significant asymmetry like Root, Chaos in the Old World and the COIN series, also fit this structure and almost always assign players a unique “Run the Fastest” objective; challenging players to race each other to victory with exclusive victory conditions or unique scoring rubrics. There are enough interesting design observations in these games that I want to give them their own time in the spotlight, so we’ll also leave that topic for another day.

Run the Fastest

Many classic games feature a tried and true formula of “First across the finish line wins the race”. It is a simple task that embodies the entire spirit of an individual game of Backgammon or Chinese Checkers; you want to move all your pieces from their starting positions to the opposite end of the board.

Modern games have continued the trend of racing games as it is a natural means of generating tension and excitement between players. Formula Dé, RoboRally, Powerboats and Mississippi Queen are all thematic racing games and players strive to cross the finish line first (while fulfilling any intermediary checkpoints) in order to win the game. This style of game may include supporting mechanics to allow trailing players to catch up or slow down the leader, but the outcome is largely based on positioning yourself well and keeping a foot on the accelerator wherever possible.

While the games we’ve mentioned so far are all based on racing in a thematic sense, not every race begins with a starter pistol and a sprint, as racing objectives work just as well in a purely mechanical function. The goal of becoming the first player to 10 victory points in Catan or first player to have 5 colonies in Cosmic Encounter help to set the tone for these games and encourages players to team up against someone approaching victory by bashing-the-leader. The game of Splendor pairs an engine building system with a heated race to 15 VP, which helps to restrict its estimated playing time to a fairly tight range of game rounds and time.

There are plenty of reasons to like a racing style of victory objective in game design. As players, we’re already primed to think about objectives as check boxes that only need to be checked off once. For better or worse, it is a gold medal mentality and we’re generally not concerned with who the second player was to solve the murder in Clue.

Ending the game of Clue makes sense as soon as someone makes a successful accusation for an obvious reason; once the mystery is solved there isn’t anything else left for players to do. A natural endpoint is a fantastic trait to have in a game and a racing style objective is about as intuitive as it gets. All the games in the “Run the Fastest” category end as soon as the objective has been achieved, and someone who achieves that objective is the winner. It is a format that asks players to finish the task at hand on their own terms and gives players direct control over the end of the game.

An exciting ending is a wonderful trait to have, but the final chapter of a good book can go to waste if there isn’t any foreshadowing. In game design we want players to have a sense of timing of when the game is possibly going to end. The urgency of the end of the game can provide a great source of excitement and tension and an anticlimactic finish can murder an otherwise great experience.

In Uno, players have the goal to empty their hand of cards, but someone down to their last card and a threat to win must alert everyone else to their status by announcing “Uno”. It is a creative rule for a simple card game; one that brings everyone back in to focus on the player who is standing on the doorstep of victory. I’m not lobbying for more vocalization rules in game design, but many of us have probably had that game experience where the game ended and only one person at the table noticed.

When we’re thinking about new players, we also don’t want anyone to trip over the details right out of the starting gate. Objectives like “Be the first to build all of your landmarks” in Machi Koro or “You win the game by collecting 5 rubies” in Istanbul are easy-to-follow goals that allow anyone teaching the rules to jump right into the details in each game of how the various locations might help a player to achieve the goal. A racing style objective is can inherently remove some of the hurdles that might exist on the track of learning a new game and replace a few of those hurdles with a distinct finish line. We see this even in classic games like Connect Four and Guess Who? which have starting objectives so straightforward they can be explained by the title.

It would be a stretch to say that all these games in our “Run the Fastest” category avoid generating analysis paralysis in players. After all, a contributing factor of AP in gaming are the players themselves. But I do think that they generally do reduce AP for one simple reason; it is easier to decide how to progress toward the finish line when you know exactly where the finish line is located. Many a player have slammed on the brakes during a high-scoring Euro where the scoring trajectory of other players factors into their decision-making. The size and scope of 10 victory points becomes apparent as soon as the first few points are scored in a game, so a specific task like “Score 10 VP first” is a heck of a lot easier to game plan around than “Outscore everyone else at the table”. It is much easier to see where you stand when you can worry more about your proximity to the finish line than your scoring potential relative to your opponent’s scoring potential for the rest of the game.

The defining characteristic of the “Run the Fastest” category is that the endgame condition and victory condition are one and the same.

Racing games are one area where we’ve seen a gradual evolution of good game design without it being quite as noticeable. One limitation early racing games occasionally had was that they didn’t afford every player an equal number of turns. A good race should feel like it was won on merit, and its hard to feel good about standing on top of the podium simply because you were first in turn order and you won because you had one more turn than anyone else.

One common approach to address the inequality of turn order in games is to finish out the round after someone has crossed the finish line as we see in Automobiles or Lewis & Clark. Anyone who is later in turn order gets their final turn and whoever made the most progress beyond the finish line wins.

Providing an even number of turns is a natural solution to balance fairness of turn-based games, although it does diminish the finality of crossing the finish line first – you can cross the finish line before anyone else and still lose. Another approach is found in Flamme Rouge or Robo Rally, examples where simultaneous card play levels the playing field and feels a little bit more natural in determining the winner as everyone’s actions are resolved at the same time.

There are plenty of games with racing themes and even more with racing conditions, but “Run the Fastest” doesn’t include every game one might think at first glance. Games in this category have a very strong link between the endgame condition (someone completes the primary objective) and the victory condition (someone who completed the primary objective wins) and there are plenty of games where ringing the bell to signal the final lap doesn’t always lead to holding the trophy.

As an example, Around the World in 80 Days is a racing game both in theme and game play, but the player who circles the globe and gets back to London first doesn’t necessarily win the game; the goal of the game is to travel the globe in the fewest number of days. Players are moving from location to location at their own pace and on their own schedule, so when the first player reaches London everyone else still plays out the rest of the game. The goal is ultimately about circling the world efficiently, rather than a race to physically arrive in London first.

Other good examples might be placing your 12th card in Race for the Galaxy or placing your 6th star in Scythe. In either case, you triggered the end of the game, but everyone still totals up their scores and the most points wins. There is certainly a positive correlation for triggering the end of the game in both instances, not the least of which is that you ended the game on your terms and you called the clock on your opponents, but the act of ending the game is distinct from actually winning the game, and so all three of these games (AtWi80D, RftG & Scythe) are examples of “Go the Furthest” -style victory conditions.

Go the Furthest

If the goal of the game isn’t to outrun your opponents, it is probably to outperform them. “Go the Furthest” encompasses all of the victory conditions where the winner has accumulated or performed the most of something; scoring the most points in Terra Mystica, collecting the most coins in Bohnanza, having the most complete sets in Tigris & Euphrates, and my favorite gluttonous activity, eating the most marbles in Hungry Hungry Hippos.

But the task isn’t always about having the most, it is about doing the best. Several games follow the framework of the sport of golf in which the goal is, oddly, to play the least amount of golf possible en route to producing the lowest score. Striving for the lowest score is present in a wide range of games like No Thanks! and classic card games like Hearts where players actively try to avoid accumulating points by saddling other players with problematic situations. In several abstract games like Blokus, players start in a ”Maximum Resource State” and try to place or get rid of as many of of their pieces as possible during the game.

The common trait among games in the “Go the Furthest” category is that the victory condition is detached from the endgame condition. These games have some sort of predetermined timer that counts down to the end of the game, after which scores are compared and the winner is crowned. The style of timer can vary in format; as games like Castles of Burgundy end after five rounds, Time N’ Space ends after 30 minutes and Carcassonne ends when the stack of tiles run out.

The defining characteristics of the “Go the Furthest” category are that the endgame condition is separate from the victory condition, and after the game is complete players compare scores or performance variables.

But timers that prompt the end of the game can be player-driven as well and, if we revisit our earlier examples, that is precisely the case when someone plays their 12th card in Race for the Galaxy or their 6th star in Scythe. These games, along with many others, have a “King of the Hill” element to them, as you can’t always control when the game ends, and you also don’t necessarily need to trigger the end of the game to win (as you would in a race). You just need to be the player on top of the hill when the game ends.

A similar example might be Power Grid, a game that ends when a specific number of cities (let’s say 17 cities) are built, the winner is the player who can power the most cities that round. Power Grid could have been about powering the most cities over the course of the game, but instead it is a game about being able to power the most cities at one very specific moment of the game (a very “king of the hill when time runs out” approach).

Survive the Longest

If you’re not trying to outrun or outperform your opponents, then you’re probably trying to outlast them. If history is written by the victors then the last player standing already has a head start in writing their legacy. Games in our “Survive the Longest” category continue until just one player remains, and that player is the winner.

Last player standing has its roots in many children’s games from musical chairs, which tests the reaction time of participants, to Simon Says, which assesses an individual’s capacity for brainwashing all the way down to the very best candidate among a group of friends. The general format of these games is to gradually narrow the field of competitors until just two remain, upon which everyone gathers around and chants 1980’s movie taglines like “There Can Only Be One”.

Classic gaming examples would be achieving global domination in Risk! or by being the last monstrous creature remaining in Titan, two feats in which one player’s triumph comes from everyone else’s demise. Holding the power of the world in your hands is an enticing premise for gamers motivated by personalized power, but it comes with its own consequences, most notably player elimination.

Player elimination has a troubling reputation in the minds of many gamers – it can be tough for the empathetic among us to enjoy an afternoon or evening social engagement when one or more players are knocked out early into a multi-hour game. Driving everyone else into bankruptcy in Monopoly may or may not be enjoyable for the rent collector, but it’s a downward spiral for anyone who can’t get a foothold on the board. The only situation that might be worse would be playing a game in which a player could be effectively eliminated from contention, relegating them to being a witness to someone else’s story.

Despite its practical limitations in games, player elimination has one incredibly strong element going for it in that the stakes are real – your life in the game might be on the line based on the decisions you make. Because the stakes are as high as the number of player casualties, player elimination is best suited for quick games; the type of game where a player who gets knocked out of the action can jump right back into the next game faster than you could write their eulogy.

We saw a flurry of microgames around 2012 to 2014 that took advantage of this natural pairing of high stakes gameplay and short playing time and Coup was one the best of the bunch. Coup is a wonderful example because a single wrong decision you can write the final chapter in your story, but the thrill of getting away with a high-risk bluff can be more memorable than the rest of the gaming session combined. Bluffing can be a powerful mechanism to pair with player elimination as it allows players to take their own risks in Poker tournaments or in a game like Liar’s Dice, two more games which award victory to the last player standing.

We’re talking a lot about player elimination because it is the inherently necessary characteristic in games that belong to our “Survive the Longest” category. It’s worth pausing our discussion to point out that the vast majority of games that use player elimination still don’t meet the criteria of this category. On the surface that might sound silly, but many games use player elimination as a feature to generate tension rather than a method to decide the winner. There are surprisingly few games that feature player elimination and play all the way down until just one player remains (last player standing) and in a few games (like Lifeboat and Gauntlet of Fools) your character can die and you could still win the game in final scoring anyway (both games are examples of Go the Furthest).

The defining characteristics of the “Survive the Longest” category are that player elimination is present, the game ends when only one player remains, and that survivor is the winner.

But player elimination can come across as an overly-aggressive pursuit. It’s hard not to feel targeted when you get attacked instead of someone else in a five player game and particularly frustrating if you’re the one being attacked for no particularly strong reason. In some last player standing games, the goal is simply to outlast your opponents rather than obliterate them.

Tsuro is an elegant abstract game that has had a lot of success in this design space. It’s easy to learn, fairly quick, and it spoon-feeds players a “brush it off” reasoning for why they were eliminated – they simply didn’t have the right tiles to get out of their situation. There is a lot of benefit from designing games that psychologically release a player from feeling like they lost because they made too many mistakes or they weren’t skilled enough to compete.

There is a group of abstracts that fall under “Survive the Longest” in which the victory condition is to “make the last legal move” or “prevent your opponent from being able to make a legal move”. Checkers is won by preventing the opponent from making a legal move, which may be a situation enforced by removing all of their pieces from the board, but this situation could also be induced by blocking all of the spaces they can move into.

Superlative Modeling

We’ve finally reached the inspiration for this article and now we can start putting these superlatives to work for us. All of the games I’ve included so far have had one thing in common; there is only one possible way to win the game. Under our superlative model we call these simple superlatives (abbreviated “(S1)”), and whether you outrun, outperform or outlast your way to victory, the game finishes the same way every time.

Now we’re going to look at games with multiple independent victory conditions; games like King of Tokyo, where a player can win either by accumulating 20 VP or by eliminating all of their opponents. King of Tokyo is classified as an “(S2)”, or a game that features two superlatives, and in writing this article we looked at games with as many as five or (arguably) six superlatives present. We’re going to talk about a lot games with two or more superlatives, but it is important to note that almost every example falls into one of three models: The Signpost, The Deathrace or The Knockout.

The Signpost – Run the Fastest (…to the closest finish line)

First up is a devilishly simple combination of goals: two (or more) race objectives side-by-side. Gamers are accustomed to running toward one finish line, but The Signpost adds a second finish line to the race.

Our prototypical example of The Signpost is Attika, a brilliant little game soon to be republished as US Telegraph, in which players win the game either by being the first player to build all 30 of their buildings onto the board or by connecting two of the shrines on the board with a line of their buildings. Attika ends as soon as a player has finished either condition, although the game almost always will end with a player putting down their 30th building.

The Signpost as a categorical title suggests that the two race objectives form a sort of fork in the road, but generally one of those options is usually the road less traveled. The task of connecting two shrines is a tough path to take because it is a lot like trying to connect a very long high-scoring route in Ticket to Ride like Seattle-to-New York, except its even more blatantly obvious what you’re trying to accomplish. Players are already blocking one another as they place buildings onto the board and it doesn’t take much to cut someone off from connecting to a second shrine once they are most of the way there.

But the important reason for having a second objective in Attika (and the rest of these games) is because the threat of winning via connecting two shrines opens up some interesting game play. Some areas on the board are far more attractive than others in Attika and while those areas are getting gobbled up quickly, an experienced player knows not to leave a path open for an opponent who has the ability to build multiple buildings in a row. As a result, the two connected shrines victory condition occasionally happens in games with newer players and is otherwise very uncommon.

2-Superlative (S2) Examples of The Signpost

Zombies!!!
  • Be the first player to kill 25 zombies or
  • Be the first player to reach the helipad and kill the zombie located there

 

Battle Line
  • Win 3 adjacent flags or
  • Win any 5 of the 9 flags (majority)

 

Cape Horn
  • Be the first boat to visit all 3 race waypoints or
  • Be the first boat to visit 2 of the 3 waypoints and reach the finish line

In a lot of ways The Signpost offers the simplest approach multiple victory conditions; you either take the high road or the low road, and either path can lead to victory. In some of these games, one victory path is frequently a slight variant of the other in order to give players more options as in Cape Horn, where the finish line is a fourth checkpoint that can be an alternative if your ship is too far off course to get the third waypoint. The same concept applies to Battle Line; it’s a game where you want to win many flags, some flags just become more important than others.

The End of the Triumvirate (S3)
  • Be elected Consul twice (political victory) or
  • Conquer a 9th province (military victory) or
  • Reach the end of both competence tracks (competence victory)

 

Aton (S4)
  • Having the highest score after a player surpasses 40 points or
  • Own all 12 squares in a single temple or
  • Own all of the green squares on the board or
  • Own all of the yellow squares on the board

These two games above stand out as good examples when we look at games with three or more victory conditions, which is already relatively rare. Longtime readers of Games Precipice know my fondness for the three-player experience that is The End of the Triumvirate and it is a fantastic example of a game with three diverse victory conditions. I’ve seen all three victory conditions win the game multiple times and usually someone wins the game immediately before one or both of their opponents were just about to win using the other two victory conditions.

Aton is a two-player rumble for area control in four temples on the board, each with 12 spaces players can occupy. Just like our earlier example of Attika, Aton almost always ends the exact same way; a player scores 40 or more points after which the scoring round finishes out and the player with the most points wins.

Also similar to Attika, the remaining victory conditions in Aton can inspire some interesting decisions merely by their existence, even if they rarely get accomplished. A win by owning all 12 squares in a single temple is a challenge and a viable alternative to win the game outright, but winning by owning all of the green or yellow squares on the board is such a long shot in the game, it can really only happen because it would be so easy to forget about. Against an aware opponent, it would be hard to imagine an all-yellow or all-green victory unless you backed into a very unusual opportunity.

The DeathraceRun the Fastest or Survive the Longest

Another suitable format for interesting outcomes is pairing a race with a last player standing victory condition. The Deathrace model allows players to win by reaching a certain scoring threshold first or simply by eliminating your other competition.

Our prototypical example of The Deathrace is a familiar one in King of Tokyo, but it is a formula that is virtually identical across a lot of games; a primary objective players can actively work toward, and a supporting objective that suggests a winner if all but one person died from working too hard.

A key component to these games is that players can reasonably achieve the primary objective in a few very bold moments. In King of Tokyo players want to score 20 victory points as fast as possible, but each step of progress carries with it an appropriate level of risk.

The stakes in these games need to be high enough that a player can knock themselves out of the race if they push the tempo slightly too fast. In that way, players are constantly progressing the game; either by moving closer to winning the race, drifting closer to being eliminated, or both. It’s a wonderful situation when games ask players to pace themselves: go too slow and you’ll fall out of the race, go too fast and now you’re desperately trying to outrun the grim reaper.

The Deathrace works so well as a model because the risk of player elimination is self-inflicted. These games blend risk and reward by allowing players to make a mad dash for victory through a minefield if they want to. Or if a player has just the right amount of patience and timing, they can carefully tiptoe to victory if no one else has claimed victory yet.

2-Superlative (S2) Examples of The Deathrace

Skull & Roses
  • First player to win two rounds or
  • Last player remaining

 

Wiz-war
  • First wizard to 2 VP or
  • Last wizard remaining

 

Welcome to the Dungeon
  • First player to win two rounds or
  • Last player remaining

 

Blood Feud in New York
  • First player to earn $6,000 or more at the end of a turn or
  • Last boss remaining

 

Onitama
  • Way of the Stream or
  • Way of the Stone

Sometimes you either win or you die trying. It’s important that these games balance the primary objective; the vast majority of games should end on a player achieving the race condition, but enough risk should exist to let players drive right off a cliff if they refuse to use the brake pedal.

What I found interesting in researching this category is that we see a lot of similarities across vastly different games; Skull & Roses and Welcome to the Dungeon are modeled almost like a bar bet as everyone keeps raising the difficulty of a challenge until only one contender remains and that player keeps going until either they succeed or they bust. Two successes wins the game and it makes for a very successful filler game to observe even after you’ve been eliminated from the fight.

The KnockoutGo the Furthest or Run the Fastest

Our final model follows the format of a boxing match; players attempt to outmaneuver their opponents and go the distance and just like a boxing match, after 12 rounds the outcome is decided by the judges; the scoring track. However, a particularly dominant performance can cut the match short, knocking out the competition by fulfilling a hard-to-achieve feat.

Our prototypical example of the Knockout is the Game of Thrones board game which is won either by having the most strongholds and castles at the end of 10 rounds or win immediately by capturing a combination of 7 castles or strongholds.

Players in Game of Thrones always need to be on the lookout for the suckerpunch and just like the inhabitants of King’s Landing, players are bobbing and weaving through the social and political moves in the game to throw the right punches at the right time. In Game of Thrones (and our other examples), the Go the Furthest” victory condition of scoring at the end of 10 rounds assigns a maximum playing time to the game and that is an important boundary to combo with a challenging “Run the Fastest” victory condition that will often be used to end the game early.

In Game of Thrones that race condition is capturing a seventh castle or stronghold and it is a hard to achieve feat simply because it requires turns of preparation to set up for it. Players need to dodge punches in battle and throw the right counters to position themselves within range of several key locations so that they may rush for seven castles/strongholds in a devastating combo of moves. The greatest benefit of The Knockout model is that a runaway leader isn’t a game-long issue as a particularly dominant performance can end the game outright rather than have players go through the motions of playing out the rest of the game despite being effectively eliminated.

2-Superlative (S2) Examples of The Knockout

Taluva
  • Most temples built at game end or
  • Build all of your buildings in 2 of the 3 types

 

Condottiere
  • Most provinces controlled at game end or
  • Control 3 adjacent provinces

It is interesting to note that the third edition of Condottiere added a third victory possibility by allowing players to also win if they control five provinces at any time. Threads on BGG suggest that this was a step backward from what originally made Condottiere successful and it is a cautionary reminder that more victory conditions isn’t always an improvement.

7 Wonders Duel (S3)
  • Most VP at game end (civilian victory) or
  • Move conflict pawn into your opponent’s capital (military supremacy) or
  • Collect 6 of the 7 different scientific symbols (scientific supremacy)

7 Wonders Duel uses an interesting tug-of-war mechanism that leads to military supremacy and a method of set collection which leads to scientific supremacy. It’s a refreshing two player take on 7 Wonders that feels a bit like the players are taking on several mini-games at once and its a design format that doesn’t feel like something that could work at higher player counts.

Conclusion

One thought you may have had is; are there games that that feature all three: Run the Fastest, Go the Furthest and Survive the Longest victory conditions? Its possible for all three to coexist under the right circumstances, you just need a game that often reaches final scoring that features player elimination and a hard to achieve instant win condition.

  • Outscore your opponent by 20 VP on the Victory Points track
  • Control Europe when the Europe scoring card is played
  • Play the Wargames card while having 7 VP more than your opponent
  • Most Victory Points after final scoring
  • Force your opponent into DEFCON 1

Twilight Struggle is probably the best example, although player elimination in a two-player game isn’t as strong of an example as I would have hoped to find. It offers two prominent ways to win outright, either by massively outscoring your opponent or by taking control of Europe. The DEFCON status victory condition could be a point of debate, but because it causes a forfeit it is best classified as “Survive the Longest”. Finally, if the Cold War lasts a full ten rounds it goes to final scoring where most points wins.

So where do we go from here? As the lead-in suggested, all good things eventually come to an end and we’re rapidly approaching the final articles in our Game Structures series. Our next article is a continuation of our superlative modeling where we are going to look at the topic of Qualifiers. These are the prerequisites to winning that exist in games like High Society or Lords of Xidit, where a player who is ranked highest or lowest under a specific criteria is eliminated just before final scoring. It is one of my favorite ideas in tabletop games and it should be a lot of fun.

After that we’re going to wrap up the Game Structures series with our final article on the topic where we look at the very best endgame attributes we’ve found in games and bring it all together looking at the entire player experience. If you’ve made it this far and you enjoy long-form game design articles than we’re excited that you’re in the right place. There has never been a better time to catch up on our completely free and massive collection of content just like this which is supported by our incredible patrons. As always, thank you for reading.

A huge thank you to my co-author Matt and friends of the blog David Satterfield, Will Raiman & Travis Jones for their discussions and feedback on this topic.
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2 comments on “Late Game Structures – Objectives & Victory Conditions

  1. otterlabsllc

    This is so helpful, thank you for taking the time to break this topic down so thoroughly!

    1. Alex Harkey

      We’re always happy to be of service to other game designers. Thank you for reading!

      Our articles can be a lot to read and every once in a while we receive valuable feedback and concerns that they may be too long. We do often trim them down in editing but our hope is that they are thorough, informative and entertaining. Your comment is very much appreciated.

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