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Untold Play

How victory conditions frame play: learning from games that go beyond races and points

How victory conditions frame play: learning from games that go beyond races and points

by Terry Pearce

4 months ago


There are two ways to win most games. Either reach a certain goal first (get a number of points, reach the last square, checkmate your opponent) or have the most ‘points’ of one kind or another when the end of the game is declared (e.g. the deck runs out of cardsor time runs out).

There’s nothing wrong with either of these set-ups. But they tend to promote a certain play dynamic among the players: straightforward competition. Resource acquisition. Racing. Slanting every situation for your own or your team’s advantage. Also, they don’t easily promote complex or nuanced decision-making: you should always make the choice that gives you the most points or moves you furthest forward in the race.

For learning games, this can be a problem. Is this the approach you want to encourage? Is your learning experience about these approaches and skills? Do you need to develop players’ handling of complexity, or simulate the complexity of real-life decisions and goals? It’s easy to sleepwalk into one of these approaches by default when it’s not the best framing for your game’s learning objectives.

So before you settle on one of these, consider what other set-ups might do for your game, and the way players approach things. I’ve divided other approaches to victory into six broad sections. A detailed analysis of how each game works is beyond the scope of this article, but I hope to provide inspiration and expand your horizons around alternatives. To understand each game’s approach better, I encourage you to look at the games themselves, or better yet, play them.

Ask your players to co-operate

In the most obvious alternative, the players succeed or fail together. The board game Pandemic has become a well-known example of this. Players have individual turns and autonomy, but common goals. The result feels very different to more competitive games and promotes joint problem-solving and co-operation.

A learning game that leverages this dynamic is Colourblind, a communication game originally developed to train Air Traffic Controllers in precise communication. Blindfolded players must communicate information about physical game pieces that they hold, and players succeed when their communication is good enough to correctly match pieces.

The online learning game Evivve does something similar but emphasises strategizing how each player will contribute their effort towards the common goal. This promotes group discussion and inclusion.

Even if co-operation is not total, allowing for the option of joint wins can create a dynamic where competition can be put aside. The board game Cosmic Encounters allows for two or more players to achieve the win condition in the same action, and with it a joint victory. Between Two Cities is another board game that makes every action contribute to either a joint effort between the player and their left-hand neighbour, or one with their right-hand neighbour. Any pair can win, but individuals cannot.

Don’t have a set goal at all

Some games have no goals: the goal is to play. Or you can set your own goals. Minecraft is a great example of this. There is no ultimate goal or victory condition. Many people set themselves a goal, to create something, or create their own games within the system. Role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons are also a kind of sandbox limited only by your desires and imagination, as are open-ended computer games like Crusader Kings 3.

The ‘life game’ SuperBetter, by Jane McGonigal, asks players to nominate things in their real-life as ‘allies’, ‘quests’ and ‘power-ups’; goals are set entirely by the player. SuperBetter has been immensely successful in helping people around the world build their personal resilience. Players can set goals that are appropriate to their personal journey and challenges.

Make victory conditions secret or individual

There are many Asymmetric board games, such as War of the Ring, based on The Lord of the Rings, where, much like the book and films, one side has to destroy the ring, the other to use it. Their options and resources are built to help them achieve their goal. In the card game Android: Netrunner, one side has to defend a computer system and the other side has to hack it. Each side has cards designed to help them achieve that goal.

The board game Argent: The Consortium has ten hidden cards that determine how points are earned at the end. Players must deduce or discover what’s on the cards as part of gameplay. And in the board game Ankh-Morpork, players each have a secret victory condition, and other players must figure it out to stop them. The board game Dune has a very interesting mechanic, where one player (playing the mystical Bene Gesserit faction) writes down a player and a turn at the start. If that player wins on that turn, the Bene Gesserit player wins instead, which can lead to all kinds of strategic manoeuvring and thoughtful play.

Such arrangements make for more strategic games, with players spending time working out what they should prioritise. This can reflect some real-life situations and skills development, where working out which ladder to climb can be more important than efficient ladder-climbing.

Use more innovative victory conditions

Sometimes changing the dynamic can be as simple as changing the idea of ‘most’ or ‘first’. In the board games Ingenious and Tigris & Euphrates, there are a number of different ‘tracks’ that players chart scores on. The winner is the player who, at the end, can say that their lowest-scoring track is higher than anyone else’s lowest-scoring. This promotes broad play that covers many bases, rather than optimising for one thing.

Some games (e.g. the card game Black Maria) just ask you not to lose. Others give two options for a win, such as the card game Seven Wonders: Duel, which allows you to go for a victory based on scientific achievement or one based on military might. Others (e.g. the card game Fluxx, the computer game Baba is You) allow gameplay to change the victory conditions so that players can’t ever be sure that the route they’re taking will lead to victory, or can change the goalposts partway through.

The exact effects of these options can vary depending on the setup, but they all introduce new factors that complicate player decisions and make them think carefully.

Focus on the margin of victory

In the American Football board game, Paydirt, players each select a real-life team, each of which has a rating to reflect their strength. When two teams are mismatched, the player with the stronger team must win by at least the difference in the teams’ ratings to claim a victory.

In Bridge, players in pairs must bid based on their hand strength, predicting how many tricks they will take. The pair with the highest bid has the opportunity to earn points for following through, but bid too high and fail to make the predicted number of tricks, and you end up losing points.

Some board games, like Churchill and The Fox in the Forest, award victory for whoever has the most points, unless they have more than a certain amount, in which case they lose. The in-game reason for this is around not rubbing your victory in the faces of those you need to live alongside.

All of these tricks encourage players to assess their strengths and make a plan based on that or aim more precisely at a goal instead of just trying to earn as many points as possible.

The stated goal is not the real goal

Finally, some games pretend that the goal is to win via points while having a separate, more important, hidden goal. This is quite common in learning games, particularly when you want the players to exhibit and potentially improve on problem behaviours.

A famous example is the Red/Blue Game, a variation on the Prisoner’s Dilemma, where two teams could each maximise their points by cooperating, but often compete by default, with both losing out. Similarly, in Culturallye, players are focused on winning chips, but the real point of the game is to show what happens when new people come into a group or culture, who don’t know all the rules of behaviour.

The original point of Monopoly was to highlight the dangers of unfettered capitalism. The hope of the author was that players would play and realise, to use a quote from the 1980s movie, WarGames, ‘the only winning move is not to play’. A lesson that the computer in that movie applies to Tic Tac Toe, as well eventually learning about the more serious ‘game’ of global thermonuclear war.