RogerBW's Blog

Roger's Paradox of Game Design 15 November 2020

I have noticed a paradox in the design of competitive games.

  • Can a player come from behind to win on the last turn of the game?
  • If they can’t, what is the point of playing the last turn?
  • But if they can, what was the point of playing all the previous turns?

There are, of course, plenty of answers. But I think that examining those answers can be a useful tool, and a game which has no answers at all is unlikely to be a good one.

A pathological case is Monopoly, in which – by design – the first player to gain an advantage is very often, some time later, the winner. I find it very tedious to be in a game where I'm clearly not going to win, but I can't simply go and do something else because that'll spoil the game for the other players. I realise I'm arguing for player elimination here, which is its own problem… (Though let us never forget that Monopoly was designed not to be enjoyable but to make a Point.)

In general, I think that the less player interaction there is, the more enjoyment one can get from a losing position; there's no fun in being picked to death in Chess, and its answer is to encourage resignation when one feels one's position is hopeless (and many two-player abstract games share this idea). But in many eurogames where interaction may be limited to drafting from a common pool of cards one can accept that one has lost and simply play one's own game, testing tactics or just exploring the mechanisms.

Similarly to the resignation approach, Baseball Highlights: 2045 is usually played as an N-game season (where N is 3-7): when one side has won enough games to win overall, that's the end. And some games have a score, or score margin over the next player, at which one can declare a win even though there might still be turns left.

Another answer is exemplified for me by Onitama. While one side or the other may have an advantage, generally one feels until the last moment that one might pull out a win, so the span of time during which one's thinking "I've lost but I have to play this out anyway" is minimised. (Even for this quite short game.) That may well be why it's the Chess-like game I enjoy most.

Or one can simply make the game enjoyable in its own right. To my mind Firefly does this; there are certain traps for the novice player (particularly taking on Misbehave cards without sufficient resources) which can lead to major setbacks, such that one is very clearly not going to win, and when I've found myself in that state I've just set my own goals.

Kingmaking is another consideration, though that's not ideal; if finisher #3 can choose which of #1 and #2 is the winner, that's interesting for them but it can feel awkward overall.

Rallyman: GT can suffer from a runaway leader (they have a harder job because they have to set the pace, but it's often difficult to catch up unless they make a mistake). Its usual solution is to give points for places, and I think the game is its best in a racing season where lower places are still worth competing for. (I'm looking forward to Rallyman Dirt next year which promises a racing format in which the same set of cars competes over a series of quite different courses, encouraging all-rounders but testing them in different ways each time.)

Or of course one could play cooperative games…


  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 09:13pm on 15 November 2020

    Or one could accept that if playing a game is all about the winning then perhaps the problem is not the game, but how it makes you feel when you lose.

    My tendency is to enjoy the game regardless of whether I win or lose, but I don't like competitive games that are all about the winning. Or for that matter, playing people who play games for the sole enjoyment that winning brings them.

    Just my taste...

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:08am on 16 November 2020

    Yes, and I think that's a different paradox - one has to play with at least some attempt to win, but the more a player is focused on winning the less fun it is for players who are less focused on it.

    I think a rating system of some sort is needed in Chess because beyond a certain difference in competence there's just no doubt about the outcome, and beyond a larger difference the poorer player may not even learn anything. But sites like yucata.de and BoardGameArena apply a rating system to every game, and that causes people to become competitive about getting their rating up because "number go up" is apparently an easy emotional handle to pull. (Of course one can simply ignore the numbers.)

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 09:44pm on 16 November 2020

    I tend to disagree. To play to win, is akin to turning play into a competitive sport. A game is about playing, and playing is just done for fun.

    So therefore I think that a player can have lots of good reasons to want to play a game, of which winning is only one of the outcomes among others like draw, lose, or just for fun.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:47pm on 16 November 2020

    Well, I think it would be frustrating if one sat down to play Chess (or indeed Battletech) and one's opponent was just interested in making pretty patterns with the pieces (even if this were done strictly according to the rules).

  5. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 03:19pm on 17 November 2020

    That's not what I said or argued for. The focus of winning is everything is the problem here.

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