Psychology of final scores

There’s a lot of talk in design circles about balance, and how the real focus should be on the illusion of balance, rather than balance itself. I have a cool story about that!

My first game, Cartographia, got signed in 2017. It does new things, but one wheel we didn’t reinvent is “most points wins”. When we pitched it to the publisher that signed it, the final scores were something like 120-80-50. A lot of people who finished in second place felt like they got blown out.

After agreeing with the publisher to change it, we gave everyone an extra 50 points. Not “you each start with 50”, just increasing the value of stuff so that, on average, everyone has higher scores. Scores were now 170-130-100. Suddenly, even though the lead was just as hard to catch up to, players felt better about those scores.

We then halved everything: what gave 4 is now 2, 12 is now 6. You’re smart, you know how halving works. Scores were now 85-65-50, and the point spread was never brought up again.

It would be easy to point to the fact that last place still has 50, and what used to be 70-pts behind is now 35-pts behind: of course they’re okay about that! But in reality, those 35 points now are as hard to get as the 70 before. But the odds of a comeback are not what we care about: the hope is. And that’s emotion, and that just requires re-framing.

All in all, points are a way for the game to compare players’ performances to establish the winner, but players will also compare themselves through it.

It also reminds me of my first game of Heaven & Ale, which is a game I automatically fell in love with. In it, most of your score is your resource that’s lowest on a track (representing how much beer you can produce) multiplied by your beer’s quality (which, IIRC, goes from 2 to 6). But the track starts wayyyyyyy below zero: at the beginning of the game, your lowest resource is at like -12. So, of course, one of my friends finished the game with one resource under 0, and a score of 0. In reality, he scored 0 because you start with -24 points. I think they numbered the track that way to limit the multiplication to lower numbers: you have to play pretty badly to score 0. But when comparing points, it kind of throws everything off, sort of like a graph that doesn’t start at 0.

Do you have a special story about a game’s scoring system, either from a designer or a player perspective? Please share it below, I’d love to read them!

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