Tie Breakers

Thurn and TaxisLast week, when playing Thurn & Taxis, we momentarily thought we had a tie. (Momentarily, I say, because I added up my 21 points of chips and got 19, but that’s neither here nor there.) This inevitably led us back to the rulebook for the perennial question, “What breaks ties?”

In Thurn & Taxis the first answer was, “the player who earned the ‘game end’ bonus tile'”, which makes a lot of sense, because that’s a distinct goal that players should usually be going for. However, the second tie-breaker didn’t make sense, because it was, “if [the person with the tile] was not among those tied, the player closest clockwise from this player who was tied with the most is the winner!”

To offer a reminder, Thurn & Taxis works like this: when a player goes out, play continues until all players have had an equal number of turns, and thus ends to the right of the start player. This means that unless the last player is the one who went out, the winner is a player who was advantaged because he had more of an opportunity to react to the game ending, which seemed to me to be the opposite of what the tie-breaker should have been. I suggested that going counter-clockwise from the ending player would have worked better, because that would have been a player more likely to be disadvantaged, which led me to a general pondering about how tie breakers should be written.

A Philosophy of Tie Breaking

So what makes a good tie-breaker? I have three criteria: it should be obvious, it should be fair, and it should be ideally unique.

Having a tie-breaker that is obvious is the most important criteria. Inevitably, if a part of the rules doesn’t get explained when you’re learning a new game, it’s how ties are broken. So, you want a tie-breaker that feels self-evident; in other words, even if you don’t know what the tie-breaker is, when you find it out you want to be able to say, “That makes sense” — because the opposite case, where you suddenly find after the fact that you should have been hoarding sheep (or whatever) for the tie-breaker can put a damper on a game.

Almost as importantly, a tie-breaker should be fair. My complaint about the secondary Thurn & Taxis tie-breaker is that it didn’t seem fair to me. It would have seemed fair if it in some way either rewarded a player who was truly disadvantaged or else rewarded a player who had extra resources (which, especially in a resource-to-victory-point game engine, are essentially fractional victory points).

Finally, if possible a tie-breaker should be unique, which is to say something that can’t result in yet another tie. Having the end-game marker in Thurn & Taxis is a pretty good example of this sort of thing, because it will usually be held by one of the winners; the designer just didn’t think beyond that for the rare cases in which it turns out to be held by a loser.

Looking at Some Examples

So how do different games deal with tie-breakers? I’ve decided to offer up a few examples, each of which I’ve looked at by my criteria.

Primordial Soup; Torres: First, we have the Holy Grail of tie-breakers: games where you can’t tie. This is a pretty rare game design element, but usually, I think, a good one. Torres and Primordial Soup are both good examples, because they’re games where you literally can’t have the same score as another player: instead, you skip over them.

This technique can be put to good use in any sort of game where you have some sort of absolute positioning. For example in Entdecker you place figures on jungle paths, and if there’s a tie, the person who placed first wins; conversely in Patrician you place floors in towers, and if there’s a tie, the person who placed last wins.

The Settlers of Catan: Settlers is a game that allows no ties, because you win by having the right number of points on your turn. This really shows the difference between games which go a set length of time (and thus allow ties) and games which just go until someone wins (and thus usually don’t).

Ingenious; Tigris & Euphrates: These two Reiner Knizia games offer the next best thing to no ties: a tie-breaker that is so entirely obvious (and fair) that trying to reach it is just a standard part of your gameplay. In each game, you win based upon your worst score in multiple colors, and in case of tie you drop down to your second worst or third or fourth. Thus the entire scoring mechanism — including the tie breaker — is an organic whole.

Havoc: The Hundred Years War: In this Poker-like game, the person who has won the more battles (hands) is the winner, and if there’s still a tie, it goes to order of placement in the final battle, making it fair and relatively obvious. In addition the second tie-breaker is entirely unique.

Ticket to Ride: This is a pretty standard game with a good, but not great, tie-breaker. The person with the most completed destination tickets wins ties. That strikes me as fair, but it’s neither obvious or unique. I’d guessed that the tie-breaker would be the person who has the longest-route bonus, since that’s usually unique, but I’m not unhappy with the actual rule.

Carcassonne; Caylus: These games have my least favorite tie-breaker. Either the game explicitly says there is no tie-breaker, or else just doesn’t mention one. Besides being anticlimatic, it feels lazy on the part of the designer. I think some game designers feel like they can get away with it because they’ve created games where you earn enough points that a tie is pretty unlikely … but they will still come up sometimes. For Carcassonne a potential tie-breaker is immediately obvious: a count of unused meeples. For Caylus figuring out a good tie-breaker is a bit more difficult because unused resources have already been valued with points. I’d be tempted to offer a tie-breaker based on total contributions to the castle, with earliest contribution being an additional tie-breaker, since building the castle is the theoretical purpose of the game. Alhambra and Coloretto were another few games that I found that had no tie breakers.

In looking through games, they generally did better than I expected … other than those which didn’t include a tie-breaker at all.

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3 thoughts on “Tie Breakers

  1. I don’t think I agree with your commentary that not providing a tiebreaker is somehow lazy. The truth is that if you have a game that has a finite end due to some milestone being reached, and you get there with two players that have the exact same score, then what that is saying is that you have two very evenly-matched players who played almost identical games as far as successful strategy goes. To inflict some tiebreaker just for the purposes of declaring a winner is almost a meaningless action. It would be almost as artificial as just having a coin flip break ties.

    • My experience is usually that tie-breakers aren’t meaningless. Most games have some sort of unused resource or board position that allow you to say, “If this game went on, the person with that extra resource had the most potential to score another point.” So I typically consider tie breakers to really be fractional points.

      However, I think that it’s also possible to have a tiebreaker be meaningful by the mere fact that it’s there and people know about it. Even if a specific resource, card, or board element didn’t give a player the most ability to gain another point, the fact that it is the tiebreaker can give players something to contend for, which just makes it another part of the game.

      However, I’d also agree that there can be games where a tie breaker would be totally meaningless, and in those positions I’d agree you shouldn’t have one. There’s nothing wrong with tying if the alternative isn’t fun, interesting, or a valid reflection of play.

      • The other part I didn’t tackle in my reply is the notion that games are about beating all of the other players (which sort of seems to go with a perception of a need for a tie-breaker). There are games out there where 1 player can win or all players can win or all players can lose (Republic of Rome comes to mind). There are games where everyone wins or loses (Pandemic, Flash Point Fire & Rescue, Arkham Horror, etc).

        I mean, on one level, you can argue that in seemingly competitive games, the player with a fractional point more at the end would (in theory) be able to use that to eventually dominate if the game continued or that they were slightly the better player.

        But here’s where we run afoul of the notion of significance vs. noise. If we’ve both scored 109 points in a 3 hour game, and you have some McGuffin we call the Tie-Breaker in your possession, does that really make you a better player? I’d say anything within (for instance) 2-3% in score in a longer game is well within the category of ‘noise’ rather than significant data. Really, you both played about the same level.

        In games that are more swingy (many dice or card based games can exhibit this tendency), I’d say the margin is even bigger. Heavily swingy games with significant random factors say a very limited bit about your gaming skill (there is some merit in being able to set yourself up to succeed in any situation but many games make that not practical). In high swing games, I’d say anything within 10% scorewise is close to being equivalent in terms of evaluating relative skill.

        Then again there’s the fact that most variable games (Marco Polo is one instance where they’ve made that a feature to ensure replayability), being able to win in one game configuration (including cards, tiles, other assets and the order they appear, etc) tells us little about how good one is overall at the game.

        In most cases, the best way to see who truly understands and has mastered a game (or is at least substantively better than those around them at it) is to play it a number of times and keep some form of scoring across the ‘campaign’. Then in that sense, you can see who can handle a diverse set of luck factors or setups and still generally perform better than the others.

        In most board games, you couldn’t use the approach duplicate Bridge does, but that’s another way to try to figure out who truly is the better – by making both sides play the same hands exactly in the same order and see who can make the most out of what they have.

        If all you want to do is establish some relatively inaccurate and uninformative gloating rights for a given game session, tie-breakers and even the whole ‘I beat you by a point’ aspect are useful. Some people find a close game a great joy and some people find getting just narrowly being beaten a motivation to try again (and again, and again in some cases…). I mean, that’s the overall basis of scoring systems essentially – to feel pretty good if you win and generally have some fun lording it about (in good nature).

        I’ve always thought the important part was if you all had fun playing and socializing or not. Winning or losing is so often a factor of luck, mood, fatigue, other people’s choices that some games don’t let you insulate yourself against, mechanics that have deus ex machina game changing powers, etc that winning or losing should be treated largely as being of small significance – the fun is in the playing.

        For me, I game about 4-6 times a month for 3-6 hours. I usually get in 4-10 games in that period (depending if we are playing short ones or longer ones). I win often enough at most games to not feel outclassed, but I play with smart people so everyone will have their day. Once in a while, someone finds a game they particularly really grok and they may win a lot more often than one would expect. Then again, for another player, another game may yield that result.

        So, I’m not against tie-breaking mechanics, but I think if your game is not chess-like (in that there are no random factors), then there’s always a possibility you can play a great game and some weird bit of luck can do you in. It’s best not to be too hung up on winning or losing, focusing more on having fun (at least that’s my experience).

        Thanks for a thought provoking article.

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