Last 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.