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