You’d think after attending a 10 day long convention about boardgaming I’d have lots to talk about, wouldn’t you?
Well, the truth is, I spent a lot of time talking about game design, and terminology, and related issues while there quite a lot. While I have yet to become sick of talking about games and game design, I’m having trouble focusing on a specific topic so as to enlighten you this week. (I also have a couple designs buzzing in my head that I’m more eager to work on than write this column!)
I didn’t want to leave you high and dry this week without my font of game design knowledge, so I thought I’d briefly touch on a point that was raised in the comments of a post while I was gone: about winning and losing.
There are usually two viewpoints about games: one is that the point of games is to have fun. The other is that the point of games is to win. Usually, people in the latter camp are derided as being overly competitive, and taking things “too seriously.”
I agree with that to an extent, however, when designing a game, you must always assume that your players want to win. A player who does not care at all about winning isn’t really playing a game: instead, they’re participating in an activity.
Someone who is just engaged in an activity doesn’t care about the consequences of his actions, and as a result, doesn’t care about the decisions he’s making. Thus, someone who is not playing to win is not making interesting decisions. As soon as you start caring about what will happen next, you are playing a game again, and care about winning.
This can lead to a weird area: someone who has set their own goal in the game. This is what happens when someone knows they cannot win the rules as written, and so decides to make their own goal: either play for second place, or cause someone to lose. Yep, both of those in a way are Kingmaker, which can be very frustrating for everyone else playing.
So it’s not simply enough to say that you’re having fun while playing. As long as anyone in the group cares about winning, someone is playing a game and someone is going to care about what you’re doing. If no one in the game cares about winning at all, you’re not playing a game… you’re actually enjoying an activity, which really doesn’t need rules.
However, as a designer, you have to assume that your players are playing to win. Otherwise, you’ll be content to brush design problems under the rug, in which case you should go design toys or bicycles or something.
This all leads me to my initial point that one of the reasons I prefer shorter games is that no one is losing for a long time, so their impact on the game will be minimal. In a longer game, it’s both excruciating for the player losing and more likely that person will start coming up with their own goal (and in some way Kingmaking) and have an impact of the game that’s separate from strategy. And that’s no fun for anyone.