Saturday, March 17, 2018

The End Is Nigh! Game End Dynamics and how to use them

The Beginning of the End

Historically, I've felt like I'm bad with game end dynamics. I remember playtesting several different variations for Terra Prime, and not liking any of them. The game ends when all the Yellow space hexes are explored. Blah! The game ends when ALL the space hexes are explored. Double blah!

A similar thing happened with Crusaders, which initially had a whole end game phase. Knights ran for safety while a wave of destruction, emanating from Paris, destroyed (and scored) the buildings in play. Fortunately, in both cases I found more appropriate game end triggers, even if I worried for a long time if the one for Crusaders was really the best I could do.

You should have seen the effort I put into the round end trigger for Captains of Industry, trying to make sure players would play as if the game would continue, but still guaranteeing an acceptable number of turns per round!

I got a little lucky with Eminent Domain in that stack/Influence depletion felt like a natural game end condition, and I was able to achieve an acceptable game length range with reasonably sized decks and Influence supply. Even still, some players (especially new players who stay in the early game longer than is good for them) complain that the game is too short. I even included a "3 player extended game" variant, which I don't recommend using, because I knew that some players would prefer it.

In the Escalation expansion, I changed up the game end dynamic of Eminent Domain: instead of simply finishing out the round in which the game end triggers, now you finish that round and play one more full round. I made this change mostly because the original rule worked less and less well the more players in the game, and Escalation added 5th player support. But I consider that new game end dynamic to be better at all player counts, and I encourage players to use it no matter what format of Eminent Domain they play.

What is it about game end dynamics that give me such a hang up? Let's take a look at the different possibilities, and see if we can identify situations where each one would be a good choice or a bad choice:

Game End Dynamics

There are a few different ways that the end of a game can trigger. Some games end immediately when one player achieves a particular goal. Other games give players a set number of turns to accomplish their goals. Some games ensure players get an equal number of turns, other games do not.

Which of these combinations is best will depend a lot on many factors. As a designer, it is very important to choose a game end dynamic that's right for your game, or else you may end up with players feeling underwhelmed at the end of an otherwise great experience!

For this discussion, I'm going to break down different game end triggers and look at them with two major factors in mind:

  1. Do all players get an equal number of turns?
  2. Do players have certainty whether any given turn will be their last?

To be clear, not every game must ensure an equal number of turns. And it's not always important whether or not you know it's your last turn, and in some games it may be important that you don't know.  Part of the reason for this discussion is to determine what types of games best benefit from those factors, in which cases they don't matter as much, and ways to compensate players for turn order if appropriate.

Here are all the game end dynamics I can think of:


Immediate End
  • unequal turns
  • uncertainty
Finish Current Turn 
  • unequal turns
  • uncertainty
Finish Current Round 
  • equal turns
  • uncertainty
Final Lap 
  • equal turns
  • certainty
Set Number Of Turns 
  • equal turns
  • certainty
One More Turn For Other Players 
  • unequal turns
  • certainty
One More Turn For All Players 
  • unequal turns
  • certainty
  • incentive to end

Let's look at each of these in a little more detail:

Immediate End

Race games are the most common type of game that end as soon as a player reaches the end condition. This includes race themed games, where the goal is to cross a geographical finish line, but it can also include games that are a race to get a certain number of points, like Catan.

These types of games end abruptly, the moment the end condition is met. Sometimes this means a player doesn't even finish their turn. Hansa Teutonica is interesting in that respect -- it's a euro-style game where you do a number of actions on your turn. If you trigger the end game with your 1st action, you're not even allowed to take your 2nd, 3rd, etc. Obviously this means you will use all the actions possible to get points before triggering the end of the game, but if you have two point-scoring actions, and both of them will end the game immediately, then you can only do one of them, and that can feel like you got cheated out of the other action's points.

Sometimes, ending the game immediately when an objective is reached makes a lot of sense thematically, and continuing to play once the winner has been determined could be considered a waste of time. However, this does mean players are not guaranteed an equal number of turns in the game. Depending on the situation, it may also mean that as the end approaches, player's can't be sure whether any given turn will be their last.

In a game where players make about the same amount of progress each turn, being denied a turn due to turn order can be a real bummer. It feels bad to lose a race when you would have crossed the finish this round as well. But short of simultaneous play, what can you do?

One possibility is to use one of the other end game dynamics. Steampunk Rally is a race themed game that does not end immediately as soon as one player crosses the finish line. Instead, you finish out that round of play, and the winner is the player who not only crossed the finish line, but who moved the farthest beyond it.

Maintaining the immediate end condition though, it may be wise to compensate later turn order players with some kind of boost during setup. In a way, this looks like the staggered starting blocks for a foot race. The runners in the outer lanes look like they get a head start. Is that fair? Well, if you look at the oval-shaped track and straight finish line, you may realize that the outer lanes are longer than the inner ones. That "head start" simply ensures that all racers have the same distance to run.

You have to be a little careful though, turn order advantage can be a tricky thing to balance. If you dole out too much compensation, you just end up unbalancing the game in favor of the last player!

I'd venture a guess that the reason behind using an immediate game end is most often thematic, and as such, it probably doesn't matter whether players know it's their last turn. However, since players won't be assured an equal number of turns, some kind of turn order compensation is probably in order.

Scythe, by Jamey Stegmaier, is a very popular, highly thematic game with Euro-style mechanisms. Scythe uses this Immediate End dynamic, and it does not offer any turn order compensation. Jamey says the idea is to give a player a strong incentive to end the game without threat that the other players will be able to make their big move as their final turn.

In a game like Scythe, scoring opportunities take several turns to develop, and in some cases you can score a fair number of points in one multi-turn play. So I personally feel that equal turns, or some kind of compensation, would be in order.

Furthermore, when game action takes multiple turns to develop, I have come to prefer some certainty as to whether I'll have another turn or not at the end of the game. If I know that this is my last turn, I'll do what I can to get a few final victory points, or shore up my position. I won't invest in a course of action that won't pay off for a turn or two. On the other hand, if I'm sure I'll get at least 1 more turn, I can consider starting such a multi-turn plan. If I don't have any certainty either way, then things get a little foggy. Is it the type of game where I can reasonably tell that another player is likely to end the game after my turn? Or will I be completely surprised by the game end? Is it the type of game where a player should be expected to watch opponents' positions closely enough to make that judgement?

Finish Current Turn 

Many games allow a player to finish their turn after they've triggered the game end. Other than timing (or thematic) oddities, these games are very similar to Immediate End games when it comes to game end dynamics, and they suffer from the same down sides: unequal turns, and uncertainty as to whether it's your last turn or not.

My first game, Terra Prime, uses this dynamic because in that game, players get a large number of micro-turns to sort of simulate simultaneous action. Because the number of turns is high, and the amount of stuff you get done in any given turn is small, I did not feel it necessary to ensure players got an equal number of turns. I did give a bit of compensation for turn order in the form of starting money, but not because of the unequal turns! The compensation in Terra Prime is because the early turns of the game favor the first couple of players in turn order.

For players who felt cheated out of finishing their multi-turn plan, I awarded points for resources and colony markers on your ship at the end of the game. This was a compromise that I feel worked well. It allows partial credit for a big score you might have been about to make, and at the same time it gives you a way to grab a couple of points if you don't think you'll get another turn: just pick up some resources or a colony marker.

Finish Current Round 

My preferred genre is the European style strategy games. Many of those ensure that players get the same number of turns, which only seems fair because those types of games often have a strong aspect of each player doing their own thing, and then comparing their performance against the other players. That doesn't mean there's not interaction in the game, but it does mean that an equal number of turns is appropriate for a fair comparison -- of COURSE I can do more than you if you give me more time to do it in!

Since all players get the same number of turns, turn order compensation is not needed, unless (like in Terra Prime above), seat order favors turn order at the beginning of the game.

Splendor and Century: Spice Road are good examples of the Finish Current Round game end, and both are well regarded as entry level "gateway" games. In Century: Spice Road, the game ends when one player has bought a certain number of scoring cards (like 5 or 6). It's fairly easy to see how many scoring cards each player has bought, and since resources are open information, you can see if a player is able to trigger the end of the game on their next turn or not. So you can tell pretty well if another player COULD end the game before you go again, but you don't know for sure if they WILL end it or not. So there's uncertainty in the game end.

Splendor is the same way, but in my opinion it feels worse. Splendor ends once a player has scored 15 points, and while you collect cards in front of you, many of them are not worth points, and the ones that are generally score only a few points at a time. Like Century: Spice Road, you can look at each player's tableau and add up their score to see if they're able to end the game on their next turn, but that takes significantly more work. Also, since players can have hidden cards in hand that they can build, you might not know for sure whether they can afford a card that could end the game or not. Since Splendor is such a light, quick game, that kind of record keeping does not feel appropriate, and so many players simply don't do it. Therefore, more often than not, I see games of Splendor end abruptly, surprising several players at the table. I find this dynamic to be a real turn off.

Puerto Rico is a classic euro-style game (one of my favorites) that uses the Finish Current Round game end dynamic. In that game there are three different end game triggers, and while you can make a pretty good guess as to whether the game will end this round or not, it's not always clear. However, in my experience that does not detract from the experience very often, perhaps because you get a large number of turns in the game, and because you get to participate in the roles chosen by each player. I have seen instances of the Mayor role occurring before Builder in what turns out to be the last round of the game, so players cannot man a big building bought at the last minute. Maybe because the phase order is in the players' control that has become a feature more than a bug.

My own Crusaders also uses the Finish Current Round game end, and I struggled with whether that was the best format or not. Crusaders ends when the victory point ("Influence") pool has run out, representing that the Templar factions have become so powerful (as a group) that King Philip freaks out and has them disbanded. This seemed like a good thematic way to end the game, and a good mechanical one as well, I was able to tune the vp pool to allow the game to last about the right number of turns. However, I worried that players would not pay enough attention to the dwindling pool of Influence tokens, and therefore not recognize whether they would have another turn or not. Especially as player 1 in a 4 player game, you can be left to choose a course of action without any real certainty whether or not you'll have another turn. That's my least favorite part of that game.

And as I mentioned above, Eminent Domain's original game end rule used this dynamic. There was some uncertainty as to whether you'd get another turn or not, but the fewer players in the game, the less likely it would really surprise you. I was ok with this dynamic originally, but by the time Escalation came around I had soured on the uncertain aspect of the game end, so I changed it to the next category, the Final Lap

Final Lap 

Railroad Tycoon is one of my favorite games for a number of reasons. That game is divided into game turns, each consisting of 3 rounds of player turns. The game is about delivering cubes on the board to the cities that want them, and the game end triggers when a certain number of cities are empty of cubes. When I first played the game, I wondered why the rules indicated that after triggering the end of the game, you don't just finish out the game turn, but you play one more entire game turn (3 more rounds of player turns) before stopping play. It seemed extraneous to me.

Now I understand that there's a real strategic benefit to knowing exactly when the game will end, and exactly how many actions you have left. Once the game end triggers, you can plan out your remaining actions to maximize your points, which is fun, especially after spending 2+ hours building up your position.

As I described above, I adopted this end game dynamic for Eminent Domain, and I'm very happy with the results.

While the previous category (Finish Current Round) may be appropriate for lighter, shorter games where you can fairly easily see if the game will end before you get another turn, the Final Lap game end seems more appropriate for longer, heavier, or more strategic games, or games where plans take a few turns to develop and resolve.

Set Number Of Turns 

Many games, especially euro-style games, do away with thematic or variable game ends and simply let you play for a specific number of turns. This has the benefits of both an equal turns for each player (so likely fair), and certainty as to when the game will end (good if you like to plan). But on the down side, it can feel arbitrary and un-thematic.

Shipyard is one of my favorite games where you build ships, collect stuff to load them up with, and then take them on shakedown cruises in canals that you've built. The game uses a rondel mechanism for its action selection, and many of the actions resolve using other rondels. Just like that main mechanism itself, the game is all about planning ahead, therefore knowing exactly how many turns you have left is welcome.

One More Turn For Other Players 

Concordia is a euro-style game, but it eschews the Set Number Of Turns and even the equal turns for all players dynamics. Instead, the game offers a 7 point incentive (a decent turns score) to end the game, and then gives each other player one last turn. This incentive is meant to encourage players to actually trigger the game end rather than let the game draw out too long.

In Concordia players get a large number of turns to play cards, and once in a while you basically skip your turn to get your cards back. Over the course of the game, players end up with different numbers of cards in hand, and therefore skip a different number of turns. So equal turns does not seem to be important in this game. But as a forward planning game, Concordia's game end does offer the certainty of knowing whether it's your last turn or not.

This game end dynamic could be good for any game where an equal number of turns is not necessary, either because individual turns are low impact, or because players get so many that being short one doesn't have a big impact on the outcome, but is strategic enough that it's worth knowing whether you have another turn coming or not.

Often, an incentive to trigger the game end (like Concordia's scoring bonus) is necessary in this type of game, otherwise it could lead to a game of chicken, with no player wanting to trigger the game end.

One More Turn For All Players 

Ticket to Ride is a well known, excellent, gateway game that ends when any player gets down to 2 train pieces left. In that game, ALL players get one last turn, even the player who triggered the game end (incidentally, that's why it triggers with 2 pieces left instead of 0, so you can lay track on your last turn).

This is similar to the previous case (One More Turn For Other Players), except your incentive to trigger the game end is that you get the last turn. This dynamic also has unequal turns, and certainty in the game end, but with the built in incentive to end the game, additional incentives (like Concordia's scoring bonus) are usually not necessary. Like the previous entry, this dynamic could be good if strategic planning is possible, but it's not important to have equal turns.

No comments: