Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Ties and Tiebreak Rules

There has been some discussion lately at BGG and in the chat room about ties and tiebreaking rules. Jim Cote referenced an old blog post he'd made on the subject. I guess the big divide is that some players would like designers to include tiebreak rules, so there can be a definitive winner of the game even in the case of a tie. Other players prefer to treat the tie as a shared victory - or no victory.

JC Lawrence asserts that there should be no tiebreaks:

The goal of the game is to win. It provides a measurement of winning or not winning. You either did it or you didn't do it. Binary. There is one winner (or more in ties) and some number of losers.

That was part of the following conversation:
‹sedjtroll› If you and I run a race, and we get the exact same time, but I ran up hill the whole way, and you ran downhill the whole way, which one of us should win that tie?
‹clearclaw› Both of us. We were both competing for the same measurement. The terrain is beside the point.
‹sedjtroll› It's obvious running uphill the whole way is a bigger accomplishment than running downhill.
‹clearclaw› But the accomplishment isn't being measured, only the win.

I on the other hand am of the opinion, as I often am, that it depends. In this case, it depends on the game whether a tiebreak rule to determine a winner in the case of a tie score is appropriate.

A "win" is a measure of accomplishment, it has no other meaning. The game system defines the things to be accomplished. "I won, therefore I accomplished winning," while a valid statement, is not what I'm talking about - that's a different instance/use of the word "accomplishment." Having won a game, by definition, means having accomplished something else - as defined by the game system. Saying that that something else is "having collected the most VPs" in most games is meaningless - just restating the words "the winner has accomplished winning." The game system rewards certain accomplishments (often with VPs), and by winning you have accomplished whatever goals were defined by the game. In some games at least, there are multiple ways defined by the game system to "accumulate the most points;" multiple things that can be accomplished in order to win... and some of those accomplishments are bigger than others.

Therefore I think in many cases a tiebreak is perfectly reasonable. Like in my footrace example above, given the same time on the stopwatch, the winner of the race should be the runner who had the more difficult terrain (where difficulty of terrain is defined by the game system - in the runner example it would be defined by the physics of running).

Situations wherein a tiebreak rule is appropriate and justified:
* One strategic path is "harder" than another, or is otherwise encouraged by the designer
* Scoring is not fine grained enough to distinguish a winner when the delta is very small (the scores come out the same, even if one's theoretically incrementally higher than another)
* The game is intended for a competitive or tournament environment
* Games in which the goal can be reached more/less efficiently

Some people complain about arbitrary tiebreaks. I sympathize with those people to an extent, but I also wonder if their idea of "arbitrary" really applies.

A tiebreak rule can be used to subtly counterbalance a favorable (or unfavorable) starting position, much the same way that the first player in some games starts with fewer actions in the first round, fewer points, or less money than the later players. Nobody complains about those rules being arbitrary.

Tiebreak rules can be used to reward a player for accomplishing the game's goals more efficiently than another player - to finish with the same score, but with resources to spare.

Tiebreak rules can also be used by a designer to show a preference for a particular strategic path - be that for thematic reasons, or because that path was the one the designer thought most interesting.

It's important to note that a tiebreak rule is more/less important depending on how likely ties are to occur in the game. If ties occur frequently, then omitting a tiebreak rule would be unsatisfactory for the players. Also in that case, since it's likely to happen, playing such that you can win the tiebreak is a valid and important strategy. If ties are unlikely, then it may not seem worth your while to secure a decent tiebreak condition. However if you then lose on tiebreaks, you ought not feel slighted by such an "arbitrary tiebreak rule!"

I have little sympathy for the "arbitrary tiebreak" detractors because arbitrary or not (and it's not clear the rule is actually arbitrary to begin with), the rule is there from the outset and everybody knows it. The only case in which I'd agree with these detractors is in a game where the tiebreak is based on a random event, outside the control of the player - where a player could win on tiebreaks sort of on accident, through no fault of their own. I prefer a tiebreak rule which takes into account the actual play of the game, and rewards a player for playing accordingly - whatever that might mean for the particular game.


Dan said...

My opinion is that tiebreakers should be relevant to something the players were already trying to do.

Example: Money isn't used in scoring, except for breaking ties. Getting more money is probably a strategy that all players were already employing, so when the game ends in a tie, no one should feel shafted since they were all knowingly or unknowingly preparing for a tiebreaker run-off.

I dislike arbitrary tiebreakers, but what I really despise is multiple-tiered arbitrary tiebreakers, or "tiebreaker tiebreakers". A lot of the time these situations could have been prevented on the designer's table.

J C Lawrence said...


For my larger response on this area.

-- JCL