The Dissastisfaction of Victory

Codenames BoxCodenames (2015) by Vlaada Chvátil is a wonderful game. You work in teams, you come up with clever clues, you talk with your friends about possible solutions, you laugh at hilarious possibilities, and eventually someone wins. It often doesn’t even matter who wins because the gameplay is so much fun.

Except that a few months ago I played a game of Codenames that fell flat, and it was because of the victory. You see, my team won because our opponents guessed the assassin word (“mass”). Poof! Instant loss for them, instant victory for us. But it wasn’t because of our hard work covering codenames with red tiles. It wasn’t because of our cleverness. We won because our opponents screwed up.

And it felt empty.

Mind you, I think the assassin is a good deterrent for the game. It introduces tension. It sometimes creates obstacles when you’re trying to pick out a good clue. But when the assassin actually goes off and someone wins because of it, that can feel hollow.

When the Victor Isn’t Happy

My recent experience with Codenames got me thinking about unsatisfactory victory conditions: those times when your victory somehow manages to suck the fun out of the game that preceded them.

There are at least three situations where victory is a downer even for the victor.

De Facto Victory. This is the mechanic of the assassin in Codenames: you win not due to anything you did, but because of your opponent’s (poor) play.

But, it’s just the tip of the iceberg …

Obvious Victory. Sometimes a game can be too simple. Its gameplay is so obvious that even a new player can easily win, without feeling like he worked very much at it. And, there’s little joy in a victory that hasn’t been hard-won.

This also tends to be a sign that a game doesn’t have much depth to it. If even a new player can see that all he needs to do to win is turn the knob to get his gold piece, and the game revolves around who gets to the knob-turner first, then there just isn’t much opportunity for interesting or surprising gameplay.

Random Victory. In the past I’ve unflatteringly called this Steve Jackson Syndrome, but it’s really a flaw that turns up in most American take-that games, it just happens that Steve Jackson publishes some of the most high-profile examples of the category, such as Munchkin (2001) and Illuminati (1982). However, I just played Feed the Shoggoth! (2015), which fits into the same category.

The prime problem with Random Victory games is that they depend on players to hold back the victor from victing. This is usually done with a limited resource (typically a card). So someone gets ready to win, and a whole bunch of players smash him back with cards; then someone else does, and the same thing happens; and then someone else does … and he wins because everyone is out of cards.

I suppose you could claim that you won because you waited until the moment that you were sure everyone was out of cards, but it’s hard to really believe that, and so it’s hard to believe that your victory came about as anything but dumb luck. Yeah, there’s dumb luck in most good games, but it’d be nice if they didn’t determine the whole game.

When The Other Players Aren’t Happy

Even worse than victories that make the winners unhappy are those victories that leave everyone else unfulfilled — perhaps even angry. I’ve seen both Obvious Victories and Random Victories fit into this category, when the victor (wrongfully) thought that was actually the author of his own fate, but there are a lot more types of victory where the victor can claim (by some definitions) that he truly deserved to win … and everyone else can still feel really unhappy about the result.

Kingmaker Victory. This is a classic game design flaw, when one player gets to decide who wins among two other players. It can be a serious problem in any game where a player gets to choose to give points directly to other players or to take points directly from other players (usually with an attack), but it only becomes truly irksome when the players have near prefect information and when they have little incentive to do something for their own purposes … meaning that they’re genuinely deciding which of two leaders win.

Vinci (1999) always struck me as a brilliant game that was nearly destroyed by Kingmaking, but it was so easy to fix when the game got remade as Small World (2009). The points on the board got converted to hidden points, and suddenly information was imperfect and the world worked well again.

It’s of course the second-place player who feels most put out by Kingmaking, because he was doing exactly as well as the first-place player, but he got pushed aside by the vagaries of fate, relationship, who brought chips to the game, seating position, or something else that’s often largely beyond the bounds of the gameplay.

Negotiated Victory. “So how about I leave you alone in Australia, and you don’t backstab me when I stomp Clyde in North America.” Certainly negotiation can be a valid part of a game. If that’s the skill that’s being tested in a game, then it should be rewarded … and the reward in games is victory.

The problem arises when players start negotiating in a game that clearly wasn’t intended for such. The thing is, it’s usually possible to negotiate in any game that has even a modicum of player interaction. (“Don’t buy that last Duchy, and I won’t cause you to drop down to three cards on my turn.”) However doing so can drag a game to a halt and disadvantage the people who are still playing in the spirit of the game. And if that unjust negotiator wins, it can throw the whole game into question …

Runaway Victory. Joe gets out to an early lead. Halfway through the game, Joe is leading by even more. Then at game end Joe wins. Unsurprisingly. Perhaps everyone else doesn’t begrudge Joe his victory, but they do begrudge having to play the whole darned game, knowing that Joe would win and they wouldn’t.

Having a winner win because he played well is of course a desirable goal. You don’t want to suddenly turn it into a Surprise Victory (c.f.). But there are ways to support both needs. Perhaps you give players increasingly costly or increasingly unlikely ways to catch up, or perhaps you offer really unlikely alternate-victory conditions, as Martin Wallace is somewhat famous for doing.

Or maybe you just stick with the axiom that what you don’t know can’t hurt you. In other words, the problem of having an uninspiring Runaway Victory is yet another reason to keep scores secret until the end.

Surprise Victory. Finally, we come to the sort of victory that might be hated most by players: the surprise victory. It occurs when a player who seems to be doing really badly, who might not even understand the game, suddenly wins.

Is the problem in the game or the players? Perhaps it’s that no one actually understood the game, perhaps it’s that the other players weren’t doing a good job of putting together the puzzle pieces required for victory. But if this sort of problem is endemic, when no one ever knows how to play the game well — as seemed to famously be the case with Alea’s Fifth Avenue (2004), which was just too opaque — then you can’t blame the players for the game’s failing.

Conclusion

In general, it’s a poor designer who blames his players for his game’s failure. These flawed victories could all be turned into game design lessons:

  1. Don’t have players win because they didn’t lose.
  2. Don’t grant victory for totally obvious play.
  3. Don’t reward a winner because he waited out the other players’ attacks.
  4. Don’t let another player choose who wins.
  5. Don’t allow players to negotiate victory in a non-negotiation game
  6. Don’t ensure that an early victor remains the victor.
  7. Don’t obfuscate the game enough that no one can play it well.

Good mechanics can often resolve these issues. Even when mechanics can’t control these elements (such as the problem with out-of-band negotiation), then guidelines often can.

Of course, these suggestions aren’t hard rules either. Sometimes you might violate them for the good of the game itself. I’m not convinced that the assassin is actually a problem in Codenames, because it introduces major advantages with its disadvantages. And, if you’re going to design a take-that game, it’s probably going to center on waiting out attacks … which might be OK if there’s some depth in the strategy, as is the case with Feed the Shoggoth!, which actually supports two different methods for victory. (Or if there’s a meaningful way to measure when attacks are going to run out.)

Nonetheless, if you’re going to break these rules, it needs to be done with care and in moderation, because there’s nothing worse than winning a game, and it not tasting like victory.

5 thoughts on “The Dissastisfaction of Victory

  1. The whole line of reasoning in the article rests on a few premises.

    First one is that players who play the game mostly invest into winning, and it’s the competing part which drives the game and it’s where the players expect to get something from the game.

    Second one is an idea that winner should be rewarded for their efforts – it’s a sort of Calvinistic/Protestant idea.

    As soon as a game doesn’t really care about being all about victory / competition / challenge these two premises fall apart. My reasoning is that the issue isn’t the game, it’s the players not adjusting their expectations of “what a game is” to what the game they’re playing is about. But what could a game be if not about winning? – it could be about playing. Kids freeplay has a goal, which is to keep on playing – with same people (which is why free play teaches negotiation and empathy). There are boardgames made where the main idea is playing for “the ride”, nor the result – either it’s theme/narrative which has the focus, or it’s engagement of players with one another which is central (the social element).

    But, if some games aren’t about winning, why do they have a victory condition? Ah, the problem with such a question is it prepossesses victory can have just one possible role in the organism of a boardgames (designating a victor). I often see it just as a dramaturgical tool – the game has to end at some point in time. And competition can create tension, but it’s the tension which matters for the game, not who wins it. Ameritrash games want to create a dramatic atmosphere and a shared memorable experience – that’s the goal of a session, somebody winning is just a tool to create needed atmosphere.

    Munchkin – is exactly such a game. The idea isn’t to reward somebody according to their merit of best munchkin player (this would go against the satire against munchkins, players who just want to win). The idea is to create a hopefully funny collective experience which is more about John playing card against Mary and Mary then responding and so on. The issue with Munchkin isn’t that it doesn’t reward victory based on a merit, but that the nature of its end condition might drag the session too long, so it’s no longer amusing (a dramaturgical problem). Betrayal at House on the Hill is a similar idea – not all scenarios are balanced (if any), but it’s creating a shared story that matters, not rewarding competence in boardgame mastery.

    other cases in the article:

    Kingmaking / bashing the leader
    Here’s the thing – kingmaking does reward skill, just a different type of skill (negotiation, always negotiation – you have to ask yourself “why aren’t they kingmaking you”). There is a saying in playing Diplomacy – “if you lost, it’s because your diplomacy failed”.
    Bashing the leader is a dynamic of a game, that’s a bit different to kingmaking – i.e. it’s about the entire play of the game, not just the end (so all bashing the leader games are also kingmaker games). The main idea is that players are actively balancing the game, instead of this being done by the designer – and I do appreciate this, but all players need to wrap their mind around this being the idea. Maybe the merit of Smallworld is that now bashing on a leader also involves “negotiations” of who actually is the leader. 😉

    The issue with negotiation, I think, is that it’s just that it takes a different set of skills than “winning on the merit of internalising the structure of the game and plotting an optimal course”. The question is – which skills should be rewarded?
    Hobby boardgamers for tend to for instance avoid speed games and dexterity games – and these do take a skill, just of the other kind. Social skills, psychological skill are also in this gray area.

    Opaque games
    This is tricky – opaqueness is in games to prevent them being trivial (if burdersome) calculation which would just reward the player with best calculation skills. From games I’ve played I didn’t feel any of them rewarded a win “on a whim”, but it for sure tried to hide the logic of action and consequence – not that it’s not there, but takes a bit of time to be figured out. Imperial is a game with relatively simple rules, but is highly opaque and this tends to turn off new players not used to this kind of thing (but in Imperial, the better player will win, just takes some 10 plays to have the basic grasp on what’s going on).
    I would say this one is more about players expectations not matching the nature of the game.

    Codenames.
    I don’t know, played it a few times, but this end result didn’t happen. I would guess the function of the assassin it to keep players cautious and not just trying some things (so it’s there to keep the tension and focus). But, yeah, no idea what the beef is here as I see the game more about the social effort of communication (the play) than the end result mattering as much. It’s a light game, playable in social situations, using skills of listening and understanding one another, so I think promoting these skills is good enough. Focusing on winning seems like an odd investment into a game of this type. So, yeah, I’d blame the players.
    There is also Kakerlakenpoker (Cockroach poker) – a game of lying through your teeth, which doesn’t have a winner. It only has 1 loser. And it’s not an issue – the tension is created and the excitement is there.

    Bottom line – I think the ideas in this article matter only if you’re designing a game of a specific type, but doesn’t matter for other types. And most of examples were about games where rewarding a victory for their merit in boardgaming expertise isn’t what these games are about. Especially when we go into the idea of boardgaming as a shared social experience – it’s not about “me, me, me” (and rewarding an individual effort), it’s about us (the group dynamics). It’s about being together (and sometimes laughing). Now, given, there are games of both types (those that go for the experience of playing, and those that go for the result) and that’s all fine. There’s no need for all games to be measured with the same criteria. 🙂

  2. I think your points in general are well taken. For the particular case of the assassin in Codenames, I do think it’s a good feature of the game, because it complicates the job of the spymaster. I remember one game where hilarity ensued when a spymaster didn’t think of skyscrapers as being luxurious — a lost game to the assassin doesn’t always ring hollow.

    • I’ve had great fun losing to the assassin because the spy master was trying to be too clever. Not sure if the others enjoyed winning…

      The basic premises are sound though. So is the next big post going top be about good ways of winning? 😊

      • I don’t mind losing to the assassin either, because you have agency there. It’s the winning because of it that’s troublesome. (And that’s an interesting topic for the future; I’ll have to muddle it over!)

  3. Pingback: The Village Square: March 24, 2016

Leave a Reply