Win, Lose, or Drawn & Quartered

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.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. Someone get Dave a synonym or two for the word design, and all extrapolations of the word (such as designer).


  2. Game-Makey Guy or Beret Wearing Blob

  3. I don’t necessarily agree that the types of players are so black and white. There has to be some middle ground; i.e. someone whose goal is to have fun, but would strive to win. On the other hand, I do agree about the late game kingmaker situation and it immediately reminded me of the game where it most commonly happened: Warhammer. The game takes numerous hours and, after a point, a player can easily see and should admit defeat. It is at that point, many players will stop caring and make rash decisions about their soldiers’ directions, sometimes just to spite the winning player.

  4. O, I think you’re right, and I should have said that: people play to win and have fun. But Beret Wearing Blobs should make the assumption when they create a game that the players will want to win. (And should make the game fun too.)

  5. Do you see this as primarily a multiplayer issue? For example, kingmaking is a non-issue for two-player games?

    Do you think designers should still try to safeguard the design against players who are not trying to win? For example, what if someone is just an excruciatingly bad player… could the effects be similar to a player deliberately trying to throw the game?

  6. An excellent question. It’s certainly most problematic in multiplayer, since in two player you’re probably not hurting anyone except yourself. (It’s sort of how I play Chess- to survive for as long as possible, but I’m no good at going for the win.)
    Safeguarding is tricky. You want players to feel that their actions matter, so you can’t have too many mechanisms that compensate for poor play. I think luck is a great equalizer here, providing it’s not too overwhelming. That’s why I enjoy San Juan and not Puerto Rico anymore- one player can “mess up” a game of PR, while San Juan is more forgiving to all.
    It’s a tricky issue all around, the simplest absolute I can give is that you should never assume that “players will find a way to make their own fun.”

  7. Original Sultan says:

    I agree with your ‘simplest absolute’; you should never assume that the players will find a way to make the game fun. A well designed game should generate ‘fun’ for all players who are striving to win, even if they are losing.

  8. “The goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important – not the winning” -Reiner Knizia


  1. […] have to assume that your players are going to want to win, or else there’s nothing that drives the […]