Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Winning with Your Game’s Victory Conditions
By Alan Emrich
Copyright (C) 2019 Alan Emrich; all rights reserved
Alan Emrich has been a feature of the game industry since the mid-1970s and has worn more hats in it than a haberdasher’s apprentice. Go ahead, Google him, but his corpus of works extends well before the internet so much of it is not available electronically!
The title of this article, Vom Sieg (On Victory), is based on the opus of the great military thinker Carl von Clausewitz whose book, Vom Kriege (On War) has been a must-read since his wife published it after his death in 1831.
Just as the old Americanism tell us that there is more than one way to skin a cat, so too there is more than one way to win games. After boiling them down, however, I have found that there are exactly four ways to win games. This article will reveal each of those four ways so that, as you think about your game and steal… excuse me, I mean “adapt…” ideas from other games (no doubt the subject of a future article: What is the Second Rule of Game Design?), you will seek out those you have enjoyed with similar Win Criteria. Before you go shopping, however, it helps to know the product.
The Shortcut to Victory in Game Design
If you really want build the skeleton of your game design quickly, conjure up these parts of it in order:
The game’s goal / object / victory conditions. That is, what the player is directing their energy toward and what state or condition is required to win – this is, by definition, the game’s ending point. In other words, just as an excellent teacher should always write the test first and then design the lessons so that the students are best able to pass that test, so too should a game designer know how a player “passes their test” and wins the game. Doing this the other way around invites failure and frustration; students will drop out and players will quit.
The game’s setup. What are the player’s starting resources (including and especially time), their spatial position in the world, circumstances, and conditions affecting them? This is, by definition, the game’s starting point. Your task, as the game’s designer, is to make sure that the player can get from the game’s now-defined starting point to its also-now-defined ending point, devising their own path between them with fun in-between (there’s another future article: Defining “Fun” in Games).
Finally, you need to know how activities will be sequenced in your game. That is, the order in which this will occur and players will experience them called the game’s Sequence of Play or Sequence of Events (and there’s a third article I will need to compose, explaining how to think about time and timing in game design; today, however, we are just focusing on Victory Conditions).
Why Players Need to Win
This is so simple that they used to teach it in school (back when this was demonstrably true on the playground): games have winners and losers. In the days before adults stopped keeping score at their kid’s sporting events and instead awarding everyone a “participation prize,” there were competitions, winners, earned victories, and status. Coaches where there to help craft participants into more just and competitive players and, ultimately, winners (if not in that game, certainly in life, as a coach’s job is also to inspire personal development and senses of honor, integrity, and fair play).
Games are not toys. Toys, by definition, have no object or goal; you just play with them.
Games are not puzzles. After solving a puzzle, it’s done. Unlike a puzzle, that game will be different the next time it comes out of the box as it allows for dynamic changes with repeated use.
Games are not simulations. A simulation models something and allows you to experiment with its different inputs to see changes over time. You don’t need to “win it,” as the reward from a simulation is derived from merely experimenting with it and discovering what lessons it reveals based upon the input changes you make over time.
Games can have these elements; many do. But what makes a game a game is that the object is to win it – not merely play it, noodle around with it, study it, or even “crack” it – but to compete in playing it and win. That is what makes a game a game.
Why You Have to Help Them
Little brothers; you have to love them. Even if you do not have a little brother, imagine with me for a moment that you do. As their older sibling, you run with them (and always get there first), you teach them things (and always do them better), you wrestle with them (and always come out on top), and you play games with them (that you always win). Despite your indifference to their plight of always losing to you, they still love you and want to learn from you; you are a role model in their life.
Then, one day, you ease up on your little brother, just a bit, but enough so that with his supreme effort he beats you. You feel good clandestinely helping your little brother but he feels on top of the world having finally bested you (“fair and square,” he thinks, but you will never tell him the truth). That will be a glorious, most-memorable day in your little brother’s life (and that memory will always include you in a very special and wonderful way).
Reflect on that moment of your little brother’s life; that is exactly the same relationship that a game designer has with their game’s players. Always challenged, constantly thwarted, but learning from your game with each moment playing it, you could design its systems to frustrate and clobber that player every time… but you don’t. You want that player to feel exactly like your little brother did on that special day when they finally beat you. So, you similarly hedge a few things and go a little easy on them in your game design so that, with real effort on their part, they will finally enjoy that little brother moment of triumph (with a wink and a smile from you).
If you design your game in the sequence outline proffered above, you are in an excellent position to help your player get from setup to the goal, shepherding them along the way, helping them learn, and ultimately with their supreme effort, allowing them to bask in their victory.
To the Bitter End or the Better End?
I want you to estimate a ratio about yourself. How many times have you started playing a game (“X”) versus how many times you played it to its absolute conclusion, win or lose, and the matter was fully decided before you ceased playing (“Y”)? No doubt the X:Y ratio is much, much larger for X than it is Y. Relax; that’s normal.
And that’s what players will do with your game. Many of the times it is commenced, it will be abandoned before it is finished. There could be a lot of reasons, good (you have no more time left to play; the kid’s need your attention; etc.) and bad (a participant was frustrated and wanted to quit or do something else). Either way, if it was more compelling your game would have a better start-to-completion ratio.
So, win or lose, what makes a game compelling to play to its completion?
1. The goals were clearly defined, communicated, and understood. Their implications guided gameplay strategy and tactics to achieve positive outcomes for that player both in the short- and long-term. That is, the player doesn’t feel they’ve done anything completely stupid because they didn’t understand what the goals were. Their interest in winning the game makes players very goal-oriented and stumbling around without a sense of direction is very frustrating.
2. The more in doubt the outcome. A game in which there is little doubt about the outcome becomes either boring (when you win) or frustrating (when you lose), and neither of those is satisfactory nor compels play to completion.
The closer the victory/defeat at the finish line:
A. The more exciting the game;
B. The better the winner feels about ‘earning’ such a close victory,
C. The less the losers will resent losing; and
D. The more the losers will think that they can win next time.
The game is doing well when it keeps players informed how well they’re doing with a coup d'oeil (a “coo dae” for those who speak more English than French, meaning at the stroke of an eye; a quick glance or glimpse to achieve understanding) and, upon completion, how well they finished. A neck-and-neck race with a photo finish is always the most tense and dramatic (and there’s another article I need to write: Dramatic Tension in Games).
3. The narrative payoff is worth it. Gameplay that tell a story with a compelling, well-scripted ending (a.k.a., the game’s epilogue or, in video game terms, its “Cheese Screen” – the player’s reward for completing the “maze”) compel players to cross the finish line even if only to garner that game universe’s reward. It is always nice when there is some sense of accomplishment for winning (or even, sometimes, just surviving) and, however modest that reward, it often drives a player to completion of the game just to earn it and begs repeated playing just to improve your epilogue.
Player Ownership and Investment
Players are more compelled to complete a game in which they are invested – in which they have some personal (virtual) ownership in its world and characters, and a therefore a stake in its outcome. This outcome stake's reward can range widely from satisfaction and “bragging rights” to a tangible tournament ribbon/trophy or other prizes.
The key concept here is that the player must feel it is worth it to complete the game.
Player’s Return On (and To) that Investment
When you have engaging systems and/or human interaction among your game’s core mechanics (those things that player’s constantly perform when taking action in the game, be it moving, arranging, acquiring, spending, or whatever) and clear goals, players will at first develop “obvious” strategies to achieve them. Player enjoyment is particularly derived from trying out alternate strategies and employing their own improving skill. If you think about it, this is one of the attractions of poker and its ever-expanding semi-professional and professional classes of players.
In a good game design, losing players will walk away from an utterly humiliating (“crash and burn”) defeat, still having enjoyed playing, and wanting to play again to try a new plan or strategy they’ve already devised which they think will improve their performance. That is, in good game design, players should easily grasp where their “mistakes” were and be able to devise new approaches to avoid them in future play and improve their next performance.
The key formula here is that fun + player “possibility space” (different paths to explore to improve their chances for victory) = a lot of “thinking about that game” time between sessions and engenders a desire to play it again. For a game designer, that is the best audience for your game: they will post messages about it, recruit new players, and generate enthusiasm for it long after they’ve stepped away from the game table.
Okay, You Win!
I teased that there were only four ways to win a game and now you have completed this portion of the maze and earned the cheese. Offered here are the game’s Ultimate Victory Conditions; the ones that end the game and determine the winner and, often, their performance quality (or “level of victory”).
Every game’s ultimate goal(s) boils down to some variation of one of these four Zero-Sum (that is, in order for “me to win, you must lose”) victory conditions:
1. Sole Survivor
This Victory Condition, all known as “King of the Hill” (named after child’s play) means being the last player left in the game. Quite simply, these games end when every player but one is eliminated. Classic tabletop game examples include Monopoly; Risk!, and Chess.
2. First to Finish
This Victory Condition defines every type of race game. Classic tabletop game examples include Candyland, Sorry, Clue, and a hand of Gin.
3. Superior Position
The above two Victory Conditions assume no time limit to achieve victory. Many games, however, have a time or turn limit defining their play length.
For these games, typically the player with the highest (or lowest) score at the end is the winner. Classic tabletop games include Scrabble, but most sports, gambling games, and economic simulations frequently employ this type of Victory Condition. Even wargames where one side’s superior position on the map when the last turn is played adheres to this goal.
Where these is a finite play length, the Superior Position Victory Condition judged at its end is common.
4. “Kill Foozle”
“Foozle” is the generic name for the Ultimate Bad Guy in that game. Whether you’re trying to defeat the evil galactic overlord, Ming Vader, or the clear out the Halls of Insanity and banish Prince Blightbottom, to a game designer we can refer to all such Victory Conditions as, simply, Kill Foozle.
Killing Foozle is typically the goal of most solitaire and cooperative play games, firmly establishing its Victory Condition. Essentially, player(s) must quest through the game’s checklist of (pre-determined and/or random or quasi-random) obstacles (traps, puzzles, minions, henchmen, hardships, strange encounters, etc.) before reaching the last box on that checklist, the game-winning box, that of killing the Ultimate Bad Guy (or some other similarly vital narrative goal, depending on the story of course).
Armed with these four Ultimate Victory Conditions in mind, I would venture that you can’t name too many games with an Ultimate Victory Condition that does not fit somewhere among them. And that is the lesson: there are only four “finishing blades” in game design with which the ultimate goal is set and player’s lives in your virtual world will be guided. Respect your players even as they respect your game’s end-goal to create the best gameplay experiences and harmony between the game player and the game world.
Sometimes, You Lose
Let us briefly turn our attention to defeat. Which would never happen to a genius gamer like you, I understand, but humor me on this. How you will disappoint defeated players is worth a moment’s reflection; after all, you prefer that they would desire to play again…
Remember the social contract of a Zero-Sum game: for there to be a winner, there must, of necessity, be losers; the winner(s) receive 100% of the victory, the loser(s) receive 0% (and vice-versa for ownership of the defeat).
In game design, there are two kinds of Loss Conditions:
The Implicit Loss condition: That player lost because another player won. That is, they were not the first to finish or failed to achieve the highest score. This is typically the loss condition for First to Finish and Superior Position games.
The Explicit Loss condition: That player lost because they failed to reach the finish. That is, their character died, they went broke, or otherwise fell by the wayside en route to completing the game. This is typically the loss condition for Sole Survivor and Kill Foozle games.
As in life, before you can accomplish something, you have to do something else first. This is catnip to a game designer because players pursuing a game’s Victory Condition (its “Core Objective”) often encounter Intermediate Goals (“Sub-goals” and “Sub-quests”) along the way, each advancing them in some way toward the ultimate goal of winning; some must be completed, others might be optional diversions, but all should be thematically related to and beneficial toward achieving ultimate goal.
Kevin Oxland in his book Gameplay and Design stated this very well:
All games have a “core objective,” but designers break the monotony of chasing it with sub-goals punctuating the gameplay on the road to achieving that core objective. These sub-goals should be related to the core objective and play a significant part in the game’s design. A game is like a complex spider’s web, all linked and related to the central point. Take a piece away and it will weaken or possibly break the game altogether.
In video games, goals, quests and challenges are your targets and motivation for playing, no matter how big or small. Goals, quests, and challenges can be a complex string of events, or they can be one simple ‘core objective,’ like in Tetris. They are also the elements of a game that define its gameplay.
What are these intermediate goals that designers task players with on the road to victory (often presented as waypoints and “check boxes” that must be completed to reach the ultimate victory condition)?
Here are some examples:
Advancement: Reaching a higher “level” in the game. Each successive level might increase in difficulty (as in most arcade and puzzle games – often termed “leveling up”) or allow your character to grow more powerful (as in many RPGs).
Capture: Taking or destroying something of an opponent’s without being captured or killed in return. This remains one of the most over-arching game goals across all genres (including Action and Real-Time Strategy video games).
These are known as Displace Games in traditional board gaming – where one is trying to capture or immobilize an opponent’s pieces, such as in Chess and Mancala.
Chase: Catching or eluding an opponent – often by utilizing either quick reflexes or stealth strategies.
Chase Games in traditional board games are ‘hunt’ games where one player has a larger number of pieces and seeks to immobilize the other player’s smaller force (or even single unit or avatar), such as in Fox and Geese and Ogre.
Conflict: Conflict usually refers to disagreements or combat between characters, and it’s used in almost all game genres to provide dramatic tension.
Construction: Building and maintaining objects – common in process simulations, and involving resource management and trade. Many app game "time wasters" are process-oriented "builders."
Escape: Rescuing items or players and taking them to safety – often involving analytical reasoning and resource management.
Exploration: Moving into new areas and seeing new things. This goal satisfies the curiosity of the player, and it’s popular in adventure games and RPGs.
Organization: Arranging items in a game in a particular order – often by utilizing spatial and pattern-matching strategies (common in puzzle games such as Bejeweled).
In traditional board games, these are known as Space Games: games of alignment and configuration, such as Go and Nine Men’s Morris.
Outwit: Applying intrinsic (learned within the game) or extrinsic (learned from the real world) knowledge in order to defeat the competition.
Puzzle-solving: Applying mental processes to solving riddles and cryptic codes. This is a mental challenge and it’s used most widely in puzzle and adventure games.
Race: Accomplishing something before another player does. This is a reaction-time challenge associated in particular with video Action and Racing games.
Race Games in traditional board games feature the object of being the first to get one’s piece or pieces from 'start' to ‘home,’ such as in history’s oldest games, The Royal Game of Ur and Senet, and the more modern version, Sorry!
Solution: Solving a problem or puzzle before or more accurately than the competition does –involving analytical reasoning and knowledge application. This goal is common in Adventure and Sleuthing games, which incorporate a lot of detective work (typically under the “ticking clock” of time pressure).
Taboo: Getting the competition to “break the rules” – often involving physical or emotional stamina (e.g., Twister, Don’t Break the Ice).
Nourishment: These rewards allow a player to heal, rearm, re-equip, and/or pick up some non-player character (NPC) allies, etc.
Privilege: Keys, security codes, and favors granted (typically by non-player characters) that allow access to a new area or information, thus removing an explicit roadblock placed by the game designer.
Gee Whiz Features: Scripted events such as a video game's entertaining cut-scene (e.g., closing one mission and setting up another), instant replay features of a spectacular visual event, the revelation of shocking plot twists, or even acknowledgment of the player character’s fame and seeing the reaction of non-player characters to it during gameplay.
Winning with Victory Conditions: Things to Think About
Because the path to victory is well-worn in game design and as we are travelling it together, allow me to point out some signposts. These are things you should think about:
Design things into the game where a player feels they always have a chance to win (or at least dramatically improve their position) even if they’re in a bad situation. Never let them lose interest in the quest for victory with a completely hopeless situation; always try to leave them an ‘out.’ It doesn’t have to be as extreme as Uncle Wiggly (published in 1910 and notable for bringing this wild disparity upon which losers can hang their hopes), but in exciting games the lead will occasionally change. Some designs include a “rubber banding” element to push back the winners and pull up the losers – which works, but vindictively penalizing those who worked smart or hard to be out front makes it very demoralizing for them to strive and to achieve.
Consider secret Individual (“asymmetrical”) Player Victory Conditions. Not being certain of other players’ goals creates wonderful natural tension from Player Paranoia. Good examples can be found in the classic boardgame Careers and most paper Role-Playing games where individual player characters are ‘looking out for themselves.’
Try having multiple ways to win. This allows players to pursue alternate (and sometimes very divergent) strategies and really explore the “Player Space” you have created for them. Examples might include becoming the first player to either collect a set of tokens or cross the finish line. Or, in Master of Orion 3, be the first player elected Galactic President, to dominate the galaxy militarily, or discover the Antaran Mystery.
‘Moving Goal Post’ Victory Conditions, if thematic and not too random or frustrating, can open up player strategies along the lines of “should I rush for the current goal to try to win now or prepare for the next goal and be in a better position to win it.” Sometimes the goal of the game can be changed during play (as part of the game). The card game Fluxx is a perfect example.
Perhaps you can allow for multi-player Victories when those are thematically possible. Not every contest has to end in a single winner. Sometimes players can ‘share’ the victory through cooperative play, or there are multiple winners such as one winner with the most money and another who won the most races, and a third who built the best stable of horses. In the end, however, there must be a loser or it isn’t really a competitive game now, is it?
Players seem to prefer tie-breaker goals rather than tie games. Before you call it a draw, consider as a Victory Subcondition a way that players tied for victory can sort how who among them was the greater victory (because whoever made the most deals, or owed the least money, etc. was in a slightly more superior position at the end of the game). When you, the designer, only want one winner, be sure to create additional criteria for breaking ties.