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The Many Faces of Victory
Engaging with Amabel Holland
Recently designer Amabel Holland posted a video essay about whether board games need victory conditions or not. I wanted to take some time to add my thoughts to the ideas she presents. To spoil any lingering suspense - I agree with what she says, that there’s plenty of room to explore different approaches to victory conditions. I want to explore these ideas in more depth, and add some other examples of games that play with victory.
First, if you haven’t seen it, here is the video. Please check it out - it is sure to be more eloquent than what you read next:
If you don’t want to watch, here’s a quick (and less articulate) summary. Amabel’s main point is that victory conditions are malleable and exist on a spectrum. She primarily uses four games to illustrate her point:
This Guilty Land, which she designed, is a two-player game about the period leading up to the US Civil War. It is a two-player affair, pitting Justice against Oppression. There are sudden death victory conditions that represent the goal of the two sides - Justice wanting to abolish slavery, and Oppression wanting to permanently enshrine it.
If neither player achieves automatic victory, the Civil War breaks out, and players tally points to see who ‘won’. Although, in this case, as Amabel points out, the players don’t really win or lose. The war will figure out what happens, and the players have no role in that.
And the automatic conditions are impossible to achieve.
So what does ‘victory’ mean in this case? Nothing. It is hollow, which is an incisive representation of much of what Congress did during this time, and an indictment of the art of compromise.
The second game discussed is Brad Smith’s That Others May Live, which is about search and rescue operations during the Vietnam War. Like many solo/coop games, if any rescuer or the person you’re trying to rescue, dies or is captured, you lose. But the game doesn’t let you off the hook by ending. It instructs the player to:
“Continue to play the game, attempting to save remaining Survivors, and learn from your failures.”
This bold statement - almost punishing the players for losing - recontextualizes the entire experience and brings the player much deeper into the story the game tells. We often see, or even use the phrase “no one left behind”. But forcing the players to do it creates not levels of victory, but levels of defeat.
Her other two examples are Endurance, about the Shackleton expeditions attempt to survive in the Arctic, and Velocirapture, about dinosaurs having one final game night before the end of the world. Neither of these have victory conditions. They are simply experiences that you engage with.
You decide how well you did.
I am not engaging with the semantic argument some have made online that these aren’t games (particularly the last two), because the difference between a ‘game’ and an ‘activity’ is that an ‘activity’ has a ‘winner’. I’ve spent hours and hours discussing “What is a game” on Ludology. It was the starting topic for the very first episode, and then we revisited it when Mike Fitzgerald joined as a co-host, and then again when Gil Hova came aboard.
If you go back and listen to those episodes you’ll see that I gradually softened my stance as time went on. For the first show I maintained that Dungeons & Dragons wasn’t a game, since it didn’t have a goal or a defined end point.
I’ve now totally backpedaled from this position. I am much more open about what is a game. I’m someone that understands the value of naming things - I wrote a whole encyclopedia trying to name mechanisms - but the exercise of all that naming has made me realize just how slippery concepts truly are. These boxes are very, very useful, but you need to use them for their intended purpose - to give a a convenient grouping of similar items, while understanding that they are not and never will be iron-clad black and white categorizations, where something either is or is not a roll-and-move game, or a worker placement game.
So I refuse to engage with those who just want to sweep a discussion about not having “Victory” in the usual sense by saying they’re not games, so there’s no point in talking about it. It’s reductive and is trying to build a wall between game designers and some really interesting ideas.
Can You Win At Pinball?
I have other games I would like to contribute to the conversation. All of Amabel’s examples are serious topics. But I don’t think this needs to be limited to simulation or philosophical games.
I released a game with absolutely no victory condition - my Super Skill Pinball series.
While the game is touted as being from one to four players, there are only victory conditions in the multiplayer game. And it’s the obvious one - highest score wins.
However, the solo mode has no victory condition. It doesn’t even mention victory. We had discussions about whether to include “benchmark” target scores for players to reach to get a victory, or have different point values be different ‘levels’ of victory or defeat.
But in the end we did nothing. We say nothing about how to win or lose the solo mode. We did put a “high score” table on the back page of the rules that you could use to record your scores, along with a starting ‘high score’ by me. But they were all 100 points, which players should always beat. So I don’t think that counts.
And then we released the game. And I waited to see if anyone, in a review, or on the forum, or on social media, would ask how you ‘win’.
No one ever did. No one ever has.
People spontaneously organized ‘leader boards’ on BGG and other places (which is neat), but most players didn’t bother with them.
I think it’s fair to say that the metaphor underlying the game - of pinball - is strong enough that people instinctively know how to engage with it.
But also, I am pretty confident that most people who buy the game don’t play the tables over and over again trying to top that high score. I think they try each of the four tables a few times - certainly not enough to definitively know how ‘good’ they are at it, or what’s a good game or a bad game. They are engaging with the experience of the game, and not the winning or losing.
One point that is worth raising is that I think that these non-standard victory conditions work best in solo or coop games, like Endurance, That Others May Live, or Super Skill Pinball. Once players are competing against each other, you usually need to have some way to adjudicate who ‘wins’. Even This Guilty Land, Amabel’s first example, has a ‘winner’, even if what that means is murky.
But games can be lightly competitive, and no one cares who wins. I frequently run a party/trivia game for large gatherings, and at the beginning of the game I explain how points will be awarded. However, people always have such a good time playing, that when it ends I have never, ever announced who won. In fact I usually don’t know. I tell the teams to keep track of their own score, and most do it for a round, and then just get too into the game to bother.
And nobody cares.
Similarly, our family adores the game Telestrations. It has some type of scoring system - I’ve seen it in the box - but we’ve never looked at. We just have a great time playing. And has anyone ever really kept score and tried to ‘win’ Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples? No. You’re just in it for the social experience.
So designers - please push the boundaries of what it means for your game to have a ‘victory condition’. Victory conditions are incredibly important and need to be designed with great care, even in their absence. Games are about incentivizing your players. Your win condition sets the tone for the entire game, and even can be a moral judgement about what is ‘worthwhile’ to pursue versus a waste of time.
Cole Wehrle (Root, Oath) recently posted very insightful commentary about Amabel’s video that dove into this idea. He focuses particular attention on this idea of how the victory conditions set the stage for the entire experience of the game.
I am a big fan of the solo deck building video game Slay The Spire. A frequently asked question on Reddit and other forums about the game is some variant of “Am I cheating if I Save Scum?” Examples are here or here.
“Save Scumming” in video games means reloading a save game file to replay part of a game when something bad happens. Slay The Spire saves the game at the start and end of each battle, but not during a battle. So if you close in the middle of a fight where things are going south, you can just restart and try again.
This is a solo game, so I don’t think this is cheating in any way. Particularly in a solo game, you should play in a way that works for you. The only exception (in my book) is if you are competing against other players for a particular record, or similar. If you’re just on your own, knock yourself out.
I bring this up in this discussion because this clearly is a form of flexible victory conditions. The players decide what their goals are. The game gives the players the opportunity to make that choice, and that lends both replayability and generally being able to fit with a variety of play styles.
Board games can do the same thing. Give your players flexibility to decide on their goals (or, in extreme cases, whether to have a goal at all). Careers is one of the earliest to allow players to tune their win condition, but it is still within a framework. Ironically this idea from Careers - allowing players to modify their goal - is one that is rarely used today, to our detriment in my opinion.
When she was younger, my daughter always did this type of personal goal setting when we were playing a game, particularly if she felt that she was out of contention for the win. Then she would set up some other goal that was of interest to her and plays towards that. A very healthy approach in my opinion, and one that we always supported!
A Thought Experiment
I’ve had an idea for a Legacy game for years that I think is probably unworkable, but would be intriguing to try. I’m spoiling it here, so I guess that I’m officially declaring that I won’t actually make it.
The idea is this: The game is a competitive legacy-style game. Like all Legacy games, there are a series of ‘unlockable’ boxes and envelopes when certain goals are met. However there will be one - and it will be one of the larger ones - that has basically an impossible goal under normal play - I was thinking that the total score of all the players needed to exceed a certain value, for example.
The twist is that in order to achieve that high a total the players would have to not compete but decide to work together and cooperate in order to allow them to score that highly.
And inside that box is a whole new cooperative mode to play the game. It transitions from a competitive game to purely coop.
I always thought that, handled properly, that could be an amazing ‘aha’ reveal moment for the players. And it would require that the players set aside the game’s seeming victory condition - one player trying to outscore their opponents - to subverting the victory by working together. I think this another intriguing way to allow - and reward - the players to basically bend the game to their desires.
A Game That Kinda Sorta Never Ends
I would like to conclude by talking about a game that sort of never ends - Schrodinger’s Cat, by Jessica Creane. All of her games are amazing bite-size morsels of philosophy, but this game has a particular way to get under your skin.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. The absolute best way to experience this game is to play it yourself. If you’re going to do that, please, please, don’t read the rest of this post. Just skip down to Tabletop Network below.
This is strictly a two-player game. It starts with the players receiving a small piece of paper with a cute cat drawn on it. They are encouraged to first name and play with their cat.
When they are done playing with their cat, one player receives two slips of paper showing a tank of poison gas on one and a tank of oxygen on the other. The other player receives a two other slips, showing a cat with scuba gear or without.
Each player secretly selects one of their pieces of paper and puts it into a tin, along with the picture of the (named) cat. They then seal the tin and put a sticker on it with the legend “Do Not Open - Ever”.
The players are finally instructed to secretly destroy the slip they did not choose. You can dunk it in water (they dissolve quickly in water), light them on fire, swallow them, whatever you want.
You are prohibited from ever talking to the other player about what choice you made, or from opening the tin.
Your cat has survived if the players chose Oxygen Tank / Scuba Gear or Poison tank / no Scuba Gear. Otherwise it is dead.
Is your cat alive or dead? You never know. Does the game ever end? Theoretically the ‘game’ can live in your head forever.
The game is listed as lasting from five minutes to infinity.
Think differently about victory. You never know where you might end up.
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