Sunday, June 01, 2014

Random Thoughts: End Game Triggers

I'll freely admit that endgame triggers are not my strong suit. I've historically had lots of trouble with figuring out when a game should end, what should trigger that, and how should the final turns play out. I wrestled with that quite a bit for Terra Prime.

Luckily, Eminent Domain had a natural trigger (stack depletion), but it still wasn't trivial to get the end game right. In fact, I don't think I got it right in the base game, so in Escalation I actually changed it - rather than simply finishing out the round, the new game end rule is that once the game end is triggered, you finish out the round and then play 1 full round.  I MUCH prefer this rule for Eminent Domain, especially as the player count increases.

I have noticed a few games lately have a game end trigger and a last round dynamic that I find really disappointing, and it's the same thing I had done in Eminent Domain. I'm sure there are more, but specifically I'm talking about Splendor and The Builders: Middle Ages here.

Splendor is up for the prestigious Spiel Des Jahres - the German Game Of The Year award. I heard that it was all the rage at The Gathering Of Friends, so that it was nominated didn't surprise me terribly.I got a chance to play a few games of Splendor, and it's a solid game - elegant, streamlined, simple yet interesting... all around a fine nominee for the SdJ as far as I'm concerned. But every time I played the game, one thing in particular really bothered me. It was the end game. The game end triggers when 1 player reaches 15 points. When that happens you finish out the round so that all players have the same number of turns, and that's it. While I think that's completely fair, the problem is that during the normal course of play, it's unintuitive and annoying to keep track of how many points each player has, and therefore how close they are to triggering the end of the game. As a result, you can be surprised by the end - just when you think you're about to make some big play in a couple of turns, another player will build a 2 point card and say "That's 15!" - immediately putting an end to your plans.

The Builders has that exact same mechanism - as soon as a player hits 17 building points in that game, you finish out the round and then see who has the most total points (building points plus money). For some reason it didn't bother me as much the one time I played The Builders - possibly because I was the one to trigger it, so I didn't get surprised by it. But it definitely bothers me just about every game of Splendor I play!

My thought at the moment is that like Eminent Domain, both of those games (and possibly many other games that use the same end game dynamic) could benefit from playing one full round after the game would normally be over.

Have you ever felt this way about a game? Which one? Does this dynamic of a surprise game end bother you in Eminent Domain? In Splendor? In The Builders? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this! Maybe it'll help me make better end game rules in the future :)


baudot said...

A role-playing friend of mine (who has yet to try his hand at boardgame design) put it something like this: conflict should end the round before it becomes obvious who's won.

That is: It should be exciting, the entire time you play. Once you KNOW who's won, it's just an exercise in playing it out, and that's only fun for the winner.

Like a good French meal, you should end a little hungry, wanting more. The plate should run out before your appetite does. This way, every bite is a pleasure.

I've been rolling this idea around in my designs in combination with hidden player goals: You don't know who's going to trigger game end, or exactly when. And when you trigger game end, you're a little on edge because you're not sure what the other player's goals were, and how well they've scored them. The intent is, there's dramatic tension even during final scoring, as you find out (or confirm) what each player was working towards all along.

Rob Harper said...

Endings are certainly tricky. When we play Splendor, we tend to have a running discussion, pointing out everyone's current scores as we go, which means that everyone is fully aware of how close the game is to an end, and tension builds nicely.

This sort of end game mechanic can be nice in that, knowing where you are in the turn order, you have to prepare yourself for a big last-turn push that you judge should put you ahead of anyone coming after you. That said, there's a limit to how big a last-turn push can be in Splendor.

Casey Harmon said...

I completely agree. We played EmDo over the weekend for the first time in a couple months. I triggered the end game and wish I had one more round.

While I haven't played Splendor or The Builders, I can say that following others' roles in EmDo still feels like you get more plays, but we will have to try it with an extra full round.

Jamey Stegmaier said...

I'm glad you wrote about this today, as I've been thinking about end-game triggers a lot lately. Something that I've been a bit slow to realize is that you want the game to end with a bang, not a whimper, because it's often the end of the game that makes it memorable or not. Also, in general I'm really hesitant to determine the length of a game by a set number of rounds. There are plenty of Euro games I love that do this, but it feels like a game mechanic instead of a thematic element. Here's a list of a few end-game triggers I've considered or seen in games:

1. a public resource runs out (i.e., a deck of cards, like in Eminent Domain or many deckbuilding games)
2. a private resource runs out (i.e., your train tokens in Ticket to Ride or your authority stars in Euphoria)
3. a point threshold is reached (i.e., in Splendor, as you mentioned, or Viticulture, or many racing games)
4. a certain number of rounds have been completed (e.g., Terra Mystica, Lords of Waterdeep, Belfort, etc)
5. a secret goal is accomplished (e.g., Archipelago)
6. all other players are eliminated (i.e., King of Tokyo or Risk. I think this is rarely a good choice, but it kind of works in King of Tokyo because there's another end-game condition triggered by points)
7. a group goal is met or the group fails (i.e., pretty much every cooperative game)
8. when a random thing happens enough times (i.e., in Ra, when a certain number of time tokens have been revealed, the round ends, but there's a lot of uncertainty and risk/reward involved)

I struggle to say which one is best. Despite my distaste for the set number of rounds, it does seem like a large number of great Euro games use that method.

My question for you is: Of these methods, which one leads to the most epic, memorable endings?

Anonymous said...

Games with "big plays" are the hardest to come up with a satisfying end game condition because of the point you raise. However, the solution of allowing a "last licks" turn does change the calculus for a player who is about to make a big play, because they likely need to defend their lead for one extra turn.

That isn't a bad thing, per se, but it does have a different feeling than "aha, I win".

As I'm a fan of empire builders, knowing the turn the game will end can be even more of a problem as a player will artificially go "all out" in a way that leaves the empire up incredibly weak for the non-existent turn after the end. A solution there that I have enjoyed is that there is a point where the game has a *chance* of ending that increases over time.

This creates a situation where people want to jockey for position, but they won't hyper extend because that would throw the game away if it isn't the last turn.

Since empire builders are a bit "simulation" in nature, I find that outcome more satisfying... the winner is usually the player who is in a sustainable position.

Seth Jaffee said...

@Godeke - In Captains of Industry (coming soon from TMG!) that very thing happens - if you KNOW it's the last round, then you play differently than if you don't know. So we have a system that makes it more and more likely (to a max of like 80%) that it'll be the last round, but never definite.

I think it matters most in games where things take 2 turns to do. If you know you have 1 turn, you won't start a 2-turn process, but if you didn't know, and you started that process, then that's very disappointing. Especially when there were other things you could do that would have made you progress immediately.

@Jamey - The rule that's "best" will depend on the game, I thin, No specific end game rule will work for every game. The trick is finding the one which works well for the game in question.

For a race game, putting your last piece on the board might well be the best option, as after that's happened, what else can you do? Whereas for a euro style engine builder, there may be no natural limiter, so often times you just play X rounds and see who's winning. That does tend to feel like a cop-out in some cases, but sometimes that's the right call.

I'm not very good with end game triggers, or I might have a better answer for you! :)

@Casey - I fully support the final round rule for EmDo, even if playing with the base game. The only time I'd consider not using it is in a 2 player game, but I recommend instead playing with the final round, and for 2 players you should remove 4 cards from each stack (like it says to do in the Escalation rulebook). Not removing those cards is fine, but the game drags on a bit. I didn't think it was worth the setup hassle in the base game, but now that the expansion exists, the setup rules (and the final round!) are backwards compatible.

Josh said...

Well now I just feel cheated. I played Splendor at my brother's last weekend and we ended the game immediately, not finishing the round...

Seth Jaffee said...

@Josh - I may have that wrong, but I'm pretty sure you finish out the round.

Luke Laurie said...

Interesting piece and good comments above. Personally, I like when players can see the end coming, but not to the point where they can map it out 100%. When it's too clear, the end game can grind to a halt as people try to squeeze every last VP/advantage out of the game. In a game in which the turns vary in utility -such as a worker placement like Dominion, Euphoria, Manhattan Project, and my current project Drill, Baby, Drill, you could give players one more turn after the ending condition has been achieved, but you may be robbing the player who ended the game of their awesome game ending move, as they have nothing left to follow it. Or players might actually stall the end, because being the player who actually triggers the end is often at a disadvantage. I like games to end with a bit of bang, if possible. True - for some players that bang may be really frustrating, like in some games of Dominion. But that same excitement can be addictive, and players will want to come back for more, wanting to be on the victory side of the sudden ending.

Seth Jaffee said...

@Luke - I also note that some games will allow each player 1 last turn once triggered, often including the player who triggered the game end. For example, Ticket to Ride's game end triggers when 1 player has only 2 cars remaining, then each player including that player get 1 last turn. There's incentive to trigger the game end because you get an extra turn out of the deal - guaranteeing you at least as many total turns as everybody else, and you get some agency on when the game ends (while others may get their plans screwed up).

Concordia does the same thing, but instead of giving you an extra turn for triggering game end, you simply get 7 points - which is a reasonable score for a turn. Then each other player gets 1 last turn.

For games that have many small turns, where it doesn't seem like a big deal if one player got one more turn than another in total, these game ends seem fine. But in many games, even if it's not really a big deal, people don't like the idea of getting fewer turns than another player.

And in games where the action takes 2-3 turns to manifest, it does kinda suck to be told "surprise, it's your last turn!" and you either have nothing to do that will make any difference, or you have started something last turn that you now won't finish.

To some extent that's just the way it is. It'll depend on the game.

Luke Laurie said...

Agreed - depends on the game. I'm giving the "one more round" a try this weekend with drill baby drill - including the player who triggers then end game. Not sure what fits best with my game yet.

Nushura said...

I agree with previous posts. Once you finished the game most players should have the feeling of "if only I had an extra turn, I could have done this and that".

In that sense, I like endgame conditions that can be somehow predicted but are not 100% accurate (Eminent Domain, but also other ones like Evo or Seasons). They add a nice tension to the game, and being able to somehow influence it is an added plus

Ben Vaterlaus said...

Sorry for coming late to the comment party...

I agree with Seth's ideas and love Jamey's adds. I wonder if the reason you like the extra turn after the endgame criteria is met is that it gets to that "pink noise" realm that Geoff Engelstein talked about in DT#301.

He said (essentially) that complete random (unknown end criteria met or met suddenly) leaves gamers feeling too much is left to chance. Completely known (locked-in end criteria, like a set number of turns, etc.) leaves a gamer sometimes feeling flat or wishing for more dynamic range.

Geoff's answer was "pink noise" or a random deviation from a normal/expected outcome or a random outcome added to a known element.

I think your (Seth's) feeling of adding the extra turn afterwards meets more in the realm of "pink" as it gives people a long-enough variance after the unknown.

Great, thought-provoking post, Seth - thanks!

-Ben (bgg:bivaterl)