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Designing for Loss, Part One: Obscuring the Loss

Classic board games are all about competition: someone wins and (usually) several someones lose. But, those games aren’t just about instantaneous moments of victory. They’re about ever improving victory over time, which tends to appear in one of two ways.

  1. Linear Gain. Players gradually gain points over time. Though players may gain more or fewer points on any turn, a player who is ahead has more likelihood to stay ahead, and a player who is behind has more likelihood to stay behind. Candy Land (1949) offers an example (with the understanding that a race track is the same thing as a score track, except the winner is the one who gets to an arbitrary score, as opposed to the player who is ahead at an arbitrary time): players further ahead on the track are more likely to win the game than those behind. 
  2. Exponential Gain. Many more games instead support a system of exponential gain, where a player who is ahead gains lots more points than one who is behind. This tends to be because they’ve built an engine that is linearly better than those built by opponents, and that linear improvement tends to translate into an exponential point game in many designs. Take Catan (1995) as an example: with a simple linear expansion of cities and settlements, a player becomes much more able to build new cities and settlements, and perhaps more notably to take road spaces and build sites desired by opponents.

Whichever way that players improve their score, there’s a notable problem: it becomes quickly apparent that some players are winning and some are losing, and so are more likely to win or lose the whole game. So how do you keep “losers” interested in a game? There are a couple of game design solutions, of which I’m going to discuss the simplest in this first article: obscuring the score. Because when playing a competitive game, it’s quite often literally true that ignorance is bliss.

There are a number of different ways to obscure victory in this way.

Solution #1: Hide the Score

<img data-attachment-id="4521" data-permalink="http://www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/2019/11/12/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss/smallworld-2/" data-orig-file="https://i0.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/smallworld-1.jpg?fit=506%2C506" data-orig-size="506,506" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="small world" data-image-description="

Small World image courtesy garion on BGG.

” data-medium-file=”https://i0.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/smallworld-1.jpg?fit=300%2C300″ data-large-file=”https://i0.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/smallworld-1.jpg?fit=506%2C506″ class=”alignright wp-image-4521″ src=”http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss.jpg” alt width=”250″ height=”250″ srcset=”http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-5.jpg 300w, http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-6.jpg 150w, http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-7.jpg 506w” sizes=”(max-width: 250px) 100vw, 250px” data-recalc-dims=”1″>Simple, small, subtle designs can fix big problems in games. I think I saw this most clearly when I observed the design changes from VInci (1999) to Small World (2009).

In the original game, each player’s score was recorded on a score track, and as a result the player who got out ahead early in the game got stomped by his opponents later. It meant that the gameplay ended up focused on figuring out how to hang back just long enough that the assaults by your opponents couldn’t drag you back before the end of the game. As a result, each game was full of hesitant play and kingmaking. It made Vinci uncomfortable, despite its brilliant special power system.

In contrast, Small World gives players points as coins, which they can then turn upside down to hide, and that makes all the difference. Yes, players could count every coin that a player collects, but they don’t, and as a result players can suspect who is winning, but they never know for sure, and so there isn’t the same entirely obvious assault upon the winner.

More notably for the problem discussed here, there’s not an entirely obvious loser either. Which means that even if a player is behind, they can have fun, because they don’t know about their sad state.

Solution #2: Divide the Score

Catan CreativitySometimes, you can keep scores open, but make them complex enough to calculate that players can’t easily assess them over the course of the game.

Catan (1995) trends this way, but doesn’t go far enough because players can actually count the points from settlements, cities, and the majority awards pretty easily — though they’re still not constantly in players’ head.

Going further, consider a game like the recent Draftosaurus (2019), which has dinosaurs scoring in six or seven different ways. Players are not going to look at each others’ boards and calculate all of their points, and so even if a loser is doing badly in Draftosaurus, they’re not entirely sure how that interrelates with other players.

Solution #3: Hide & Divide the Score

ConcordiaFinally, it should be obvious that combining both dividing and hiding the score can do even more to preserve the innocence of losers.

Most deckbuilders do this, such as Ascension (2010), which gives players honor points for the monsters that they kill, but which grants most of their points for the cards in their decks (which yes, are bought in the open, and are even played in the open, but there’s no way to track them rationally, other than the big picture stuff like, “She’s got a lot of valuable Mechana Constructs”.)

A stronger example appears in Concordia (2013), which offers an entirely clever correlation of divided and (somewhat) hidden information: the cards that a player collects in his deck are multipliers for victory points earned from things on the board like money, cities, provinces, and colonists.

Solution #4: Focus on Engine Building

Roll for the Galaxy Trays ThumbnailAlternatively, games can hide how well players are doing by focusing on the heart of their exponential scoring: engine building. Maybe players will see that one of their opponents is building a better tableau in Race for the Galaxy (2007), a better dice collection in Roll for the Galaxy (2014), or a better deck in Ascension (2009), but that’s not numerically measurable in quite the same way that a score is; even moreso, it’s not immediately obvious how a good engine turns into a good score: I’ver certainly seen enlightened Ascension decks that were great at playing through their whole deck … without actually generating much in the way of Runes or Power.

In any case, whether players are building up board positions, card decks, or economic engines, it’s often less obvious when players are far ahead. This is particularly true when games are built on a popular design pattern where players create their engine early in the game, then only make the rush for points late in the game.

Solution #5: Omit the Score

<img data-attachment-id="3468" data-permalink="http://www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/2018/03/05/the-anatomy-of-racing-games-close-cousins/streetcar/" data-orig-file="https://i1.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/streetcar.jpg?fit=600%2C600" data-orig-size="600,600" data-comments-opened="1" data-image-meta="{"aperture":"0","credit":"","camera":"","caption":"","created_timestamp":"0","copyright":"","focal_length":"0","iso":"0","shutter_speed":"0","title":"","orientation":"0"}" data-image-title="Streetcar" data-image-description="

The Streetcar picture (actually of the Linie 1 edition) is courtesy ikajaste on BGG.

” data-medium-file=”https://i1.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/streetcar.jpg?fit=300%2C300″ data-large-file=”https://i1.wp.com/www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/streetcar.jpg?fit=584%2C584″ class=”wp-image-3468 alignright” src=”http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-4.jpg” alt width=”250″ height=”250″ srcset=”http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-15.jpg 300w, http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-16.jpg 150w, http://middleirth.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/designing-for-loss-part-one-obscuring-the-loss-17.jpg 600w” sizes=”(max-width: 250px) 100vw, 250px” data-recalc-dims=”1″>There’s one last way to hide a score, which is to omit it entirely. Instead, give players some goal that they’re trying to accomplish to win the game, one that is not entirely based on just earning numerical points.

Blue Moon City (2006) trends in this direction: players collect crystals to be the first to make four contributions to the central Crystal of the Obelisk. So, it’s sort of a game with a four-point score, but there’s so little granularity that players can’t always see who’s ahead or behind: instead a game is often won by the minor efficiency of who saves a turn or two, and is thus able to make a final contribution first.

Streetcar (1995) trends even further in this direction, because the most crucial goal is completing a network of connections. Perhaps we could say that someone’s score is equal to how few tiles he needs to lay to finish his connection, but that feels like sophistry. Unless you’re talking about the racing end to the game (which usually doesn’t change the order of completion), then Streetcar is scoreless.

Clue (1949), Mystery of the Abbey (1995), and other deduction games offer even more clear examples of scoreless games. They’re usually entirely binary: either someone wins because they get the answer right, or they don’t.

Conclusion

It is about whether you win or lose, and although good sports will take their loss graciously, no one has much fun playing an extended game, knowing that they’re going to lose the whole time. The first, and most obvious solution is to hide that fact from players, and there are a number of ways to do so.

But there’s another option: giving players the ability to catch up. More on that later this month.


Most of my game collection has been boxed up for a move, and so I couldn’t get new pictures of stuff I own! Alas! The Small World image is courtesy garion on BGG. The Streetcar picture (actually of the Linie 1 edition) is courtesy ikajaste on BGG. Both games are strong games that are still in my collection!

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples