Winning! An alternative to “most points”

It’s been a while, Internet. Life has been hectic, and playing few games meant I thought about design less. But now that life is calming down some, and that I’m gaming a lot…

So to get back into writing, I’ve decided to dig into my notebook and look at the SISIGIP section (Stuff I’d Steal In Games I Play): every time I play a new game, I write down one small mechanism that inspires me. It’s kind of like Jamey Stegmaier’s “My Favourite Mechanism in…” series, but I’m focusing more on small pieces rather than the main selling point, and thinking more about where it could fit in a game, or how it could be used differently.

Today, I’m starting the SISIGIP series by talking about Winning conditions: after a game is over, how do you know who won it? As a Euro gamer, I play a lot of Most-VPs-Wins games, but I’m starting to sway more and more towards games which avoid the end game accounting associated with those.

There are a lot of different ways to define victory conditions, but a lot of better writers have tackled those questions before: my first draft of this article was basically repeating Alex Harkey’s Games Precipice article about “Most, First, Last” (link). To recap, the article presents three types of victory conditions: Most (most point-based games), First (race games, but also mission-based), and Last (survival games). More interestingly, they then talk about games with multiple victory conditions, like how in King of Tokyo, you can either be the first to 20 points, or the last monster standing, or in 7 Wonders Duel, which is a most VP game, except for two instant-win conditions if you can manage to complete them (which are, in a way, a mix of first and last, but the line is blurry in a 2-player game).

But in all of these cases, the examples were about multiple, unrelated winning conditions, divided by OR: get to 20 points OR be the last standing; have 5 Sciences, OR reach your opponent’s city, OR have the most points.

Spirit Island‘s Fear System

When I played Spirit Island recently, the Fear system jumped out to me as such a rich victory condition. If you don’t know the game, it is a coop game where you play as Spirits defending an island against colonists laying claim over your land. If you break it down to a very deep, core level, it follows the Pandemic-frame: you must control the unending threat of colonists (playing the role of disease cubes) while making progress towards your goal by accumulating Fear (playing the role of cures). However, how those two aspects translate to the winning condition is very different.

In Pandemic, winning is straightforward: “Find 4 Cures before you lose”. The cubes affect the losing, but not the winning.

In Spirit Island, the winning condition starts as “Get rid of all Colonists”. Every time you get 4 Fear, you gain a small bonus event card; after the third (therefore, after 12 Fear), the win condition becomes one step easier. First, it allows you to ignore the least powerful type of Colonists, and becomes “Get rid of all Towns and Cities”, and then after another 12 Fear, “Get rid of all Cities”. Then, if you gain another 12 Fear, you just immediately win, regardless of board state, just like with 4 Cures in Pandemic.

It would be like if Pandemic‘s winning condition started off as “Win if there are no disease cube”, and after the first Cure, became “Win if there are no cities with 2 or 3 cubes”, then “Win if there are no cities with 3 cubes” after the second, and then “Win if there is no more than one city with 3 cubes”. Then, on the fourth Cure, you win, like in the current game.

What it does well

In Pandemic, you either play defensively by taking cubes away, or offensively by working towards the cures. Mostly, you try to play as offensively as you can, switching to defense when it’s required, because you’re still working against a ticking clock. The puzzle of the game comes in making those switches as seamless as possible: “if I go there to cure cubes, I can also give you this card”. If you play too defensively, you lose: you must take action.

In Spirit Island, you can technically win by killing all Colonists and staying on the first victory condition, or you can win without killing a Colonist, by moving them around or defending against their effects, and by producing 36 Fear before you lose. In reality, most games will be a mix of the two, but it makes “playing defensively” viable.

What makes the Fear System work so well, too, is how different the two axes feel. Gaining Fear is often a thing of manipulation, with a lot of fear-generating effects having “if” or “for each” clauses, and you must still find a way to survive the Colonists’ attacks. On the other hand, Fear gained is never lost. Getting rid of Colonists, however, is a much more direct thing, requiring both frontal assaults by the Spirits and by the island’s natives, the Dahan. They are their own form of defense, but any progress is temporary: more Colonists will come next turn, and the one after. When it comes to the winning condition, Fear is a one-way track, but Colonists are a snapshot: you can rid the board of all Towns and Settlers for a push to victory, but if you were to keep on playing, more would come.

By comparison, Rajas of the Ganges is a popular competitive game with a similar system: there are score tracks, one tracking your money, and one your Fame, and they go in opposite directions. If your markers ever reach one another, you win. In theory, it is a very similar system to Spirit Island’s: you could say that gaining money lowers your victory threshold, or vice versa. However, gaining Fame and gaining Money feel very similar, despite being gained from different systems. If the game had been created with only one point-type, and a single-threshold, the gameplay would not have changed much, I think.

How would I use it?

The Fear system has inspired two mechanisms for me, one for my Coop game SuPR, and one for a competitive game that’s still just scribbles in my notebook.

The first thing that came to mind is “can we play with the number of Fear needed to advance?” That could add one more dimension to play with and link abilities to, but also a very interesting timing element: Fear production is more effective when the threshold is low, so you must strike when the iron is hot!

In SuPR, players are a PR firm working for a Superhero, trying to get them to be liked by the general public. Where in Spirit Island you gain Fear and defeat Colonists, in SuPR you gain Reputation and defeat Supervillains. To me, the Fear mechanism was an obvious move, and a mechanism I wanted to work with. Interestingly, playing with the threshold for advancement had a great mechanical implication: the more dire the situation was, the more heroic your actions were! Mechanically, every neighbourhood’s Hope represented both its “health points”, and how much Heroism you needed to gain Reputation. This added an interesting layer of strategy: how far will you let things slip before you go in to save the day? It added a cynical aspect to the theme, too, which I loved to play with.

In the competitive space, I like games without point systems, which feel a lot more dramatic than the accounting session at the end of my favourite games. Games where you can just reach a certain situation, and WIN. However, more often than not, when I try to design those, they end up with a Munchkin effect: it’s not about being able to Win, but about being able to Win WHEN NO ONE CAN BLOCK YOU, which I think only works in a 2-player game.

However, my scribble concept went to a game about politicians and lobbyists. Every player is a politician, with some key lobbies supporting them. You start the game with, say, 6 cards dictating a certain board state: one says that the education budget must be over 10, another that the tax rate must be under 5. But, of course, both are related, and lowering the tax rate also lowers the education budget. And one of your opponent is pushing for the budget to go to infrastructure. If, at any point during the game, all 10 of your cards are completed, like the victory condition in Spirit Island, you win. Also, throughout the game, certain events and actions lead to Popularity Boosts. When you gain a Popularity Boost, you get to discard one of your Objective cards: now, you only need 5 objectives to be true, then 4, then 3. Like in Spirit Island, you could win through sheer Popularity, but odds are it will be a mix of the two.

Quickly, you’ll get an idea of what other players are pushing, and who is pushing against you. However, the game is not about waiting for others to be out of sticks to put in your wheels, but to, over time, lower your threshold so that you can hit at the right time.


I think there’s a lot that can be done to make the process of determining a winner more dynamic, without losing the granularity and feeling of progress of victory points. Spirit Island’s Fear system is only one of them. What other games explore that space in dramatic, interesting ways? Have you explored that in your own designs?

Carla Kopp on her Roadblock

Roadblock is a series of articles where I interview other designers, developpers, and others involved in the industry, to do a deep dive into a specific issue they’ve dealt with in a project. The goal is add concrete examples to the mass of game design advice out there.

JV: Today I’m sharing with you folks a discussion with Carla Kopp, owner of Weird Giraffe Games and publisher of Dreams of Tomorrow, Fire in the Library, Big Easy Busking, and the project she wants to talk to us about today, Tumble Town!

JV: First, can you give us a bit of background on the game at that stage?

I had just recently signed Tumble Town from the designer, Kevin Russ. He’d only been working on the game for a few weeks, but I could immediately see the potential of the game. Tumble Town was always a town building game set in the Old West, but initially, it didn’t have any engine building or spatial puzzle aspects. Just simply building a town out of dice in the West. 

JV: What was the problem, and when did you first encounter it? 

The end game of Tumble Town was an issue at the start of the design process. Kevin had made the game a specific number of turns and I had never liked that in games. I really enjoy when I don’t exactly know when the game will end and when my choices in the game can make it go on longer or end it early. 

JV: Had you ever encountered a similar problem before? Why was this one different?

Every game has to end in some way, but each game is different and has different actions and components that can lead to the end game happening. Tumble Town needed to go on long enough that players could build up an engine and feel successful in doing so, but I didn’t want the engines to get too out of hand where it meant that you had only one real path to victory. 

JV: Can you talk about the process of solving it? What worked? What didn’t?

The first idea was supposed to be a fix of two problems; adding in dice mines. For the dice mines, there would be dice that you didn’t have to roll that you could take if you took a building plan from that specific row. Having dice that you didn’t need to roll meant you could plan your turn a little more and the game would be a bit less random. When two dice mines run out, then the game would be over. 

The dice mines worked to solve those two problems, but they introduced a new problem; players were confused on what dice to roll and what dice not to roll and would often forget or do the actions backward. I try to make games as intuitive as possible, so this definitely was something I wanted to solve. 

JV: So did you go back completely on the non-rolled dice?

Yep! There’s no dice that you gain that you don’t roll. I found that it’s so much easier to get players to roll the dice, if all the dice have the same rules and are treated the same. Making things easy is definitely something I prioritize. 

JV: What else did you try?

The next solution was to use Plan End cards. These cards would be placed under a specific amount of building plan cards based on the player count and the game would end if two of the plan end cards were visible. This worked better in that players weren’t confused on how things worked, especially since the Plan End cards had the game end trigger written on them. However, the problem with the Plan End cards was that the game end was very variable. If players all took from the first row, then went to the second row, no one ever got to the third row of cards. I like when games can end early, but not when players haven’t experienced a third of the game. That’s a bit too early. 

The solution that actually got a good end game was having the dice supplies run out. There’s four different kinds of dice, with gold associated mainly with level three building plans, brown with level one, and gray and black both with level two. With two colors for the level two building plans, it meant that even if most of the players did focus on level one and level two buildings, the game would only end early if the players someone only went for black OR gray buildings. As most players tend to base what building they want on other factors, usually the gray and black dice are taken at about the same rate and the end game is triggered when the gold and brown dice run out. 

JV: So both of those last two options give players some control over game length, but an unusually short game is now something that skilled players do on purpose, rather than new ones doing by mistake?

Yep, that’s exactly right. I think it’s more interesting as I always like for things to happen when players deliberately choose to do something, instead of when they don’t realize that they’ve done something. If I want to try to rush the game, if I succeed, I’m more happy with the experience, even if I don’t end up winning, as the plan I had worked out. I also like when there’s several different strategies in games, as you now have a strategy based on a long game, average game, and a short game. Players will have to play a number of times to see what works best for each game length. 

JV: When working on end game conditions, what do you set as a goal? Do you aim for a specific length of time? Do you aim for a specific moment in-game? Do you base it on the game arc?

I usually try to make the game less than an hour and also for the game to end before players want it to end. If players are still really engaged when the game ends, they’re way more likely to play again than if the games ends a turn or two after a player is bored of it. 

For Tumble Town in particular, I wanted the game to end after a new player can build a level three building (the level with scoring conditions based on the other buildings in your town) and still get a chance to build another building or two which will gain extra points based on the level three building they built. 

JV: How do you feel about “play one final turn” in games? Do you default one way or the other when you design?

I’ve done both! In the past, I’ve usually done equal amounts of turns and finishing out the round. Recently, I’ve tried where all other players but the player who triggered the game end gets another turn and I really like that for games that are based on player count. It means that you have to be in the lead to trigger the game end, but you might not end up the leader after everyone takes their last turn and any hidden scoring is added. 

For Tumble Town, I went with finishing out the round, as having two colors of dice run out means that half the buildings most likely can’t be built and the other colors of dice might also be close to running out so even having an extra round might mean that no one can do anything, unless they have stored dice. 

JV: Personally, I usually push off designing an end game trigger: I’m not planning on finishing the first few tests anyway, so why bother? Are you the same way? If so, do your testers also complain about not finishing the game?

I usually have a non ideal end game trigger in the beginning; either a number of rounds, point value, or a deck running out. Sometimes the end game stays, sometimes it doesn’t. For the very first test, I might even not tell players what the end game trigger is until we play a few rounds and I can kind of see where the game is going. 

JV: Can you think of a published game with a particularly well-designed end game trigger? 

Rajas of the Ganges has a really great and unique end game trigger that I love. There’s two tracks in the game, money and points. When one player’s markers cross, it triggers the end game, so you can focus in one aspect, the other, or try to do both simultaneously.

JV: Well thank you for your time Carla! I think that knowing how to end a game is a difficult skill that is much about nuance, and I’m sure sharing your experience will help many others! 

Tumble Town is currently on Kickstarter! If that sounded interesting, go back it here!