Bittersweet, or Bitter Taste?: 5 ways to make winning (or losing) fun.
There is a fundamental oxymoronic dichotomy to all games. It nags at players minds, requiring them to exercise extreme Doublethink just to stave off the madness. It prevents players from having fun, while simultaneously providing some of the most fun elements of play. It is inescapable, unbeatable, and irremovable. And if not properly managed, it can take a perfectly great game and turn it into the monster at the back of the cupboard.
I am talking, of course, about winning.
All games have winners. Not just the ones that are famous for competitive wins like Magic: The Gathering or Chess. Not just the classic friendship destroyers like Uno, Monopoly, or Sorry!. Even classic cooperative games like Forbidden Desert or Pandemic have winners, even if not officially recognized by the rules. No matter what the game is or how it is played, every game has a winner.
This fact is a powerful one, to be ignored to one's own detriment. Not thinking about winning is how we get PvP games that are ultimately decided with a die roll. It's how we get cooperative games where most players feel useless in the shadow of the MVP. It results in 'Take That' games where we feel bad for attacking people, building games what make it impossible to catch up, and card games that leave everyone disappointed because the game was decided by who drew the game-ending cards.
Winning is supposed to be a good thing, but in many games, it almost feels worse than losing, which can often seem worse than not playing at all. Yet, without winning, or rather, without the ability to judge your performance against some standard, it just isn't a game anymore. So a balance must be struck, such that players feel like they are in control of their own performance, using a metric that doesn't boil down to "beat the other guys".
Whenever a game is designed, careful consideration must be given to how winning woks, how losing works, and how both of those things feel. In order to guide us our our journey toward a good game, I have composed this short list of things to keep in mind when thinking about winning:
Give winners treats. Too many games rely on mere competitive instinct to incentivise taking the lead. If the only awards that a player gets for winning are a big gun and the spite of the others around the table, they will be less inclined to give it their all come next game. To counteract this, make winning feel good by giving winners prizes. Physical victory point tokens, fancy placards, control of the throne, whatever - just give the current leader something that represents how great they are, instead of how hard they screwed the other players.
Keep winners mortal. To combat winners guilt and other unfun aspects of winning, be sure to keep leaders from becoming godlike. No matter how powerful a player becomes, they should still feel the pain of a well-timed blow, and they should never feel 100% secure in their victory. Don't let the game be over before the last play is made. This benefits everyone at thew table; as long as players have a chance to take or lose the lead, they will continue to be invested in the game. If your game has runaway leaders by design, be sure to keep rounds short and carryover bonuses minimal, so time spent getting destroyed by the leader is kept to a minimum.
Give players multiple paths to victory. If your game is for more than two players, make sure that there is more than one strategy for winning your game. Multiple players using different strategies makes is less clear who is winning at any given moment, and thus brings more tension to every play. Don't go too far, however; be sure that all the rules are clear and new players don't feel blindsided when veterans pull off a huge combo to suddenly sweep the game. Noob strategies should be just as effective as advanced ones- the deciding factor should be the skill used in applying strategy, not what strategy was chosen.
Make the middle game count. This is possibly the most nebulous of these tips, but still very important. There is no set way to make a game with good progression, but we can definitely tell if a game has bad progression. The early game should set the stage, the middle game fill it with actors, and the endgame be a giant, bloody battle. Be sure not to put too many tide-turning effects in the end game, or it will make the middle game feel like a waste of time. Likewise, allow for change of strategy after the early game, or players will feel like they are doomed for the entire round because of a decision made on turn 1. Don't let the midgame become a slog, or players will lose interest and the endgame will be simple walking-through-the-motions.
Give losers something to do. This applies especially to coop and team games-- if the best player is calling all the shots, the team may have better odds of success, but everyone but the leader feels slighted. To combat this, give everyone unique skills, abilities, or information that only they may use, and only on their turn. That way, even if one player takes a leader role, all players still feel like they are a necessary, valuable member of the team that can make their own decisions. In PvP games, give players multiple goals that are not necessarily 'winning', so even if a player loses, they can hold onto their "Longest Road" or "Highest Scoring Single Hand" or whatever they accomplished.
With Mort-A-Mania, we have re-evaluated how our winning mechanics work. At the moment, too much emphasis is placed on the Necromaster, who is decided randomly at the beginning of the game. This causes players to feel hopeless if everyone is nearly dead and they are not the Necromaster, and even leads to 'solved' games, where the winner can be determined without even playing out the round. With the excellent suggestions of our fans and playtesters, we have devised a new system that allows players to follow a complimentary strategy that focuses on building combos to break ties, and be more aggressive in controlling the cards on the table. By doing this, we have made the game faster, more brutal, and most importantly, more fun to win. Or lose.
--Dakota W Winslow
What are your favorite winning mechanics?
What games have you played that were always fun, win or lose?
What win mechanics have made you put down a game and not go back?