Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Finishing Well

There is another thoughtful post on BoardgameGeek News by editor W. Eric Martin on why it may not be important to finish games or score them.  Inspired by an article from a novelist who speaks of readers who enjoy books even though they do not always finish them, he adds that the same can be true for someone who plays games. Sometimes, a player may care more about the experience of the game than the final score.
Chris Farrell then rightly steered the ensuing conversion in the direction of game design. He writes: "The reasons why a lot of games and books have unsatisfactory endings is, in my opinion, no more complicated than the fact that ending things is hard. Coming up with a beginning and a middle, a premise and a twist, is not the hardest thing in the world, but bringing them all to a satisfactory conclusion is very difficult, at least judged by the amount of failure by even very good artists. You see it all over the place: popular music that resorts to the ultimate cop-out, the fade-out; novels that end abruptly or unsatisfactorily; or even worse, series of books that just keep on going with no apparent intention of ever finishing at all."

Awhile back, I wrote about how game designs are sometimes better when they "begin in the middle" of a story, where there is already tension present, rather than starting with a clean slate. The initial tension is an important first impression of the game that sets the tone for the whole experience.  And, of course, it needs to keep building from there.

How a game ends, however, is just as important. The story of the game experience and all its possible endings needs to finish on a high note.  In a saturated boardgame market that encourages one-and-done cult-of-the-new, how a game ends could determine whether or not it will ever get played again.  It could be the difference between crossing the new release off a checklist and inspiring every player to seek the game out for their respective collections.

I think that the topic of game designs finishing well is possibly even more important today than it ever was. With all our focus on "original mechanisms"--or even finding an original theme--designers often forget the importance of carrying the tension in the game through to the very end. And yes, that might even include the scoring which is not usually thought of as "the game" and therefore not considered the climax to the story. The scoring experience often feels more like the closing credits to a film (of course, German moviegoers like to stay in their seats for the closing credits).

W. Eric Martin, in another post on BoardGameGeek News, wrote that game endings could be categorized in 3 ways:
• Whoever has the most victory points wins.
• Whoever is first to some goal wins.
• The last player standing wins.[/q]

This is a good summary of victory conditions, and each one has it's own advantages and disadvantages:

Most VPs: This is the easiest to balance, which is why it is used in so many German-style games, as the German publishers place a high priority on perfectly balanced games. It can also help players feel a sense of accomplishment, even if they are no longer in contention for the victory. But it can result in convoluted scoring systems, mathematical exercises or filling in spreadsheets at the end of the game (or worse, also during the game). In addition, unless the game's mechanisms embody some kind of story build-up, the end can seem very arbitrary, which I would liken to the pop song fade-out, or as Chris Farrell calls it, "the ultimate cop-out" ending.

First to a Goal: This is easier for the players to keep track of, if there is little or no hidden information, kingmaker problems could occur as some players may be required to stop the leader from winning, allowing a player in second place to pull out the victory. Conversely, if there is too much hidden information, the game may end too abruptly, giving opponents too little time to react to potential winning moves.

The last player standing: This has the most potential for interactivity and can be very lively in a short game like Liar's Dice.  However, if players are eliminated too early from a longer game, it's no fun for them to watch the rest of the game as spectators. There are also usually kingmaker problems with multiplayer games of this type, and they encourage players to turtle (avoid conflict) until those who are fighting it out are weakened.

Once one realizes the limited ways one can finish a game, and all the pitfalls associated with each category, it's no wonder that so many game endings are less than satisfying.

Looking back, I've probably been guilty of this. Just about everybody has been. In fact, when we test prototypes, if the thing works but still isn't great, it's usually the end of the game that needs work. It drags, it's the same-ole same-ole, or there's a convoluted scoring system created in the name of balance that makes the final math exercise anti-climactic. There have been times when we've intentionally tried to create a scoring system that avoids "adding up victory points."

Designing a satisfying end to one's game really is the hardest thing to get right.  If a designer is looking to separate his or her work from the increased competition, this seems like one of the best ways in which to do so. 

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