Updated: Mar 6, 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, hav