Codenames (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.
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:
- Don’t have players win because they didn’t lose.
- Don’t grant victory for totally obvious play.
- Don’t reward a winner because he waited out the other players’ attacks.
- Don’t let another player choose who wins.
- Don’t allow players to negotiate victory in a non-negotiation game
- Don’t ensure that an early victor remains the victor.
- 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.