Losing a game isn’t fun.
But playing a game where, early on, it becomes apparent that you cannot win is awful. Since designers want the players to have a maximum amount of fun (mostly), they try to postpone that feeling of defeat as long as possible. Two major categories of solutions that commonly address this problem: end game conditions and catch-up mechanics.
End Game Conditions: In point based games, player scores are kept hidden so that it is not obvious if any one player is really ahead or really behind. It addresses the perception of the game, it’s hard to feel like you’re losing if you’re not sure of the other players’ scores (Small World for example). This can be made more effective by having points that are only awarded at the end of the game, that way, even if you know you’re behind, there may be some salvation that comes at the very end that keeps you engaged (Ticket to Ride’s Longest Route for example, or Tokaido’s numerous awards). One limitation to these fixes, is that the end of the game cannot be tied to one player winning. While not necessarily a problem, it often makes winning a matter of tallying up points (these games are sometimes called “Point Salads”) which is not an exciting finale for certain types of games and themes.
Catch-Up Mechanics: The infamous blue shell mechanic. The player who is losing has access to the best tools, while the player who is winning has access to the worst tools. Board games are rife with examples of this, usually in a way that is a lot less heavy handed than the Mario Kart Blue Shell. Power Grid and Gravwell both use player score to determine player order, giving the players proportional advantage to their score. Other games layer catch-up mechanics into player interaction, Munchkin is a game famous for players collectively aligning themselves against the player who is winning, which will give the players in last a chance to sneak a victory.
Game Balance is more than delaying the inevitable defeat, wins ought to feel earned and losses should feel close. A designer needs to finely tune their catching up features and mechanics to ensure that the game plays well for everyone.
Killer Croquet has had multiple issues with game balance throughout the course of its many iterations.
In Croquet, when you pass an obstacle you score what’s known as a “Roquet”, which entitles you to another move. This element of Croquet is difficult to balance because it rewards progress with more progress, allowing a player to get the momentum to rocket ahead.
However, Croquet has somewhat of a self balancing mechanic , in that you can score a roquets off of wickets or other players’ croquet balls. The player in the lead has no other players in front of him to score extra actions, while the player in last has many opportunities to chain enough actions together to jump ahead.
In Killer Croquet, I’ve exaggerated this advantage by turning the croquet balls into damaging projectiles. The player at the front of the pack is a prime target for a beat down. Get hit enough times, and you’re knocked down and lose an action. There are ways for the player to mitigate the risks of being the front runner, but they all involve slowing that player down.
My other attempt at balance is in the construction of the victory conditions. There is a tiered system of goals. A player wins by being the last player with both a ball in play and a standing player piece. To knock other players’ balls out of play you need to complete the course, and then track each player down individually. This has a two fold equalizing factor.
While the player is trying to knock out other players’ balls, this gives the remaining players time to complete the course.
But another important factor is that you don’t need to complete the course to win. A clever player could wait until everyone else had their balls knocked out, and then knock down the leading player with a well timed blow to the face for the win. This satisfies the requirement that they would be the only player both with a ball and a standing player piece.
In practice, pulling off these strategies requires mitigating a great deal of chance, but allowing those opportunities means that a player always has, at the very least, a longshot chance at victory as a last ditch effort.
By layering catch-up elements into the strategy and playing of the game (as opposed to discreet mechanics) my hope is that players can stay engaged in the game, but also feel like they can win under their own power and steam.
It’s also important that a veteran player be able to gain an advantage over new players, so finding those strategies has a bit of skill to it as well. But that’s a blog post for another day.