Earlier this year we launched our Mid-Game Structures series; a few perspectives of how games change their environments to keep the experience engaging. This article is part of our ongoing series titled Game Structures in which we continue to build on a foundation of game design concepts.
Building on Concepts: A Quick Review of Player Interaction
When we last left off, Matt looked at Player Interaction in games, which used a multi-category approach to help define the type and significance of interaction between players:
Degree of Interaction: This is an assessment of the degree of overlap or intensity players have with one another within the game environment. It creates spectrum ranging from No Interaction (which is akin to individual players quietly working on puzzles in opposite corners of a room) to Direction Interaction (which would be more like if the players needed to steal pieces from one another in order to finish their own puzzle).
Our topic today is Player Strategies and we’ll be pairing this axis with a second criteria to help us categorize how games influence the starting strategies of players. Let’s look at that second criteria:
What is a player’s time horizon to plan actions?
The next thing we want to examine is how short or long-term oriented player decisions tend to be in a given game, or what we call our Time Horizon. If you’re more comfortable with it, you can think of this as our comparison of Tactics vs Strategy; strategy being the large scale focus or objective(s) needed to achieve success, and tactics being the specific steps or tasks you need to perform to implement your strategy.
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.
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.
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.
We’ve been talking about qualifiers recently which are mechanisms and requirements in games that players must satisfy in order to have a chance to win. In part one of this series we covered the category of comparative qualifiers which included games like High Society, where the player who has spent the most money is eliminated just before final scoring, and Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, where the player who has the most corruption is thrown to the crocodiles.
In this article we’re going to talk about the other major category called “Absolute Qualifiers”. When we previously covered games that use comparative qualifiers, we looked at how players are actively compared on a criteria such as corruption or money spent and one or more players are guaranteed to be eliminated each game.
By comparison, absolute qualifiers don’t tether the players together and everyone gets to run their own race and succeed or fail the expectations set before them. As a result, in these games it is sometimes possible for any number of players to be eliminated for failing to achieve their individual goals. Because of their independent nature, absolute qualifiers may not come into effect every game, but they still carry the thrill and risk of being eliminated.
Absolute Qualifiers – The Ultimatum
Our first group of absolute qualifiers are those that tell players “you must do this to be eligible to win“.
We opened part one of this series with High Society. Not only is High Society probably a prototypical example of a game with a qualifier, but Reiner Knizia may be the original M. Night Shyamalan because as we’re going to find this series, Dr. Knizia uses qualifiers as rules twists in games more often than you’d think, and never in the same way twice. We started part one of qualifiers with a classic Knizia game with simple rules and a simple qualifier and it seems appropriate to do it again with Quo Vadis.
Quo Vadis? is a pure negotiation game set in Rome where each player takes control of eight senator pawns and spends most turns advancing them through committees while earning laurels at various progress points along the way. The qualifier is that only players who have at least one Senator in the Inner Sanctum by the end of the game may compare the number of laurels they have collected – anyone else is eliminated. The player who has collected the most laurels is declared the winner.