Thursday, May 21, 2015

Moral Compass: The Last Turn

Something that has always perplexed me about game design is how to assess a board game where the outcome of the game consistently comes down to the last turn.  Does this signify the game is well designed or poorly designed?

Game is Well Designed

Who wants to play a game turn after turn once the outcome has been decided?  It leaves a bad taste in the losing players mouth because he has to spend the rest of his time playing the game with his defeat being rubbed into his face.  For the winner, it can become tedious executing the last series of moves that everyone knows will award you the game.

The solution - make sure the game ends when this moment occurs.  This is easier said than done, but this is the primary reason why it's generally considered a well designed game when the outcome of who will win the game also marks the end of the game.

Game is Poorly Designed

On the other hand if the outcome of the game always hangs in the balance until the last turn, why am I wasting all this time playing the game up to this point.  I could save myself and everyone else a ton of time by jumping to the last turn and completing the few actions it takes to see who wins the game.

I assume the purpose of playing the game is to maneuver myself to have the best chance to win. Meanwhile my opponents are attempting to do the same thing, and if we are trading barbs along the way, having a climatic conclusion is welcome.

But, if everything I do has minimal effect on changing the situation that resolves who is the victor of the game, then it might as well not be part of the game.  Everyone would be better served by a redesign that quickly recreates the end game and start the game from there.  Hopefully, the new truncated version of the game has some set of meaningful decision, otherwise the game is just rolling a dice to see who wins and not a competition of skill with our opponents.  In which case, we can play an equivalent game where we take bets on penny flips since this is heck of alot  cheaper than the current price of board games.


  1. My own feeling is that for many of the best games, the outcome of the last turn can't be separated from the process of getting to that turn. Dominion is a great example because many games come down to every player ready to end the game on his turn. But the fun is in all of the deckbuilding decisions, not a single hand. And when you have distinct strategies that have different timing for winning, the game naturally tends towards the point that all players have the best chance. (i.e. equal in a well balanced game.)
    I'd even go further that if the outcome of ANY turn (and particularly the last) doesn't depend much on what happened earlier or later in the game, that makes it a bad game, because you've taken the Meaningful part away from the decisions. If players are forced to remain close (e.g. rubber banding) each turn is effectively random.
    But randomness isn't to blame. Viva Java Dice is frequently neck and neck on the last, but it doesn't feel disconnected from the game because the situation is strongly dependent on every other choice in the game.
    I have a tiny game that more or less compels players towards a final roll to determine the winner after several rounds of jockeying. It works because the game is short and already somewhat random, but there's still enough player control that it's a fun climax when you hit that final die roll.
    So it's not a question of whether it comes down to the final turn of the game, as much as whether the end condition has any connection to the choices that came before it. Good article to spur discussion.

    1. "My own feeling is that for many of the best games, the outcome of the last turn can't be separated from the process of getting to that turn. "

      I couldn't agree more

  2. I think perhaps we're really discussing is the method of keeping score, in Monopoly you kinda know if you're out early because of a bad decision, usually you end up paying too much for your buildings.

    In Skip-Bo you know because in a larger player game say 6, someone gets a run and keeps going, which in turn is the same thing that happens in Phase 10 albeit P10 has a break mechanism which allows other players to catch up.

    There is strategy in all of the above games but that can be mitigated if just one person is really paying attention.

    Many card games require you to play several times scoring after each round and you soon realize that loosing isn't all that bad; but in Monopoly you'll either be in or out.

    Another game by the Weekend Farmer titled The Farming Game (1979), handles the back and forth aspect very well, it allows someone who knows what they are doing to go way in debt, (talking six digits) and come roaring back to win in just a couple of trips around the board. The one problem with this game is it takes so long to get your engine running, a three player game can run 4-5 hours, a two player game will last at least 3 hours all because the game makes you pay fees every time you turn around.

    The scoring mechanic is important to how players feel at the end of a game.

    In Orleans players know the game has a definitive end in 15 rounds and just like in The Farming Game, in Orleans you have upkeep to pay along the way but unlike the Farming Game, you know ahead of time what that upkeep is and thus the game is shortened.

    Orleans' solution to this was to provide more resources so players could work faster. A gravitas solution.

    Orleans also offers end game scoring, you kind of get a sense who's gonna win but it can be close sometimes.

    Players are getting smarter about how the games we play work and therefore it's getting more and more difficult to hide that scoring mechanism.

    In Viticulture Players have real-time scoring and end game scoring. Watch a group of players play that game and it'll appear they are all even then at the end someone often wins outright although there are tie-breakers.

    So is a last turn victory really a last turn victory, no its often not unless a considerable amount of luck is involved. Last turn victory is not realizing you've won, the winner often won't know, rather its about the other players realizing they just don't have what it takes to win coming down the home stretch,which is suspected before they ever picked up the first token to play the game.

    Suspense in a game is keeping players egos in check until it's the last turn. That's why we play seven games, when necessary in the world series. Or why the triple crown is so difficult to win, it happens but those moments when they do are epic, not every NBA final is epic, not even every Superbowl is epic but when they are we remember them for many many years.