We're on a kick talking about how to learn how to play games, and in the last post talked about the weird indirect conversation between publisher/designer and audience.
But there's also a weirdly indirect conversation between publisher and designer, prior to the game being accepted, even prior to its being submitted.
Publishers tend to ask, as a precondition to considering your submission, one (or both) of two things: what is your game's hook, or what about it is innovative? Now I've argued in the past, in typically curmudgeonly fashion, that your game's hook, interesting though it may be, isn't what keeps players coming back to your game again and again; rather, it is the game's experience, and the belief that playing the game another time will give that fun experience once again.
Thus it was interesting to me that when publisher AEG just held a call for submissions, one of the questions they asked was: “What is the coolest thing that happens in your game?” AEG’s question rightly puts the emphasis on the fun moments your game can create, and not just the cool little gimmick you came up with for an action system, or whatever. Ultimately it’s those fun moments that make people want to play again, and sure, cool mechanics can bring about cool moments, but the moments are the thing.
What the question doesn't sufficiently allow for is something we talk about here quite a lot, a game's arc that builds to an exciting conclusion. Ideally, that is the game's most exciting moment. "The coolest thing that happens is when it ends!" doesn't sound like a great sales pitch, but ideally it's true. It feels like a let-down when a game just ends, or ends in a fizzle. We were expecting our story to conclude in dramatic fashion, but it turned out the butler did it, just as we suspected the whole time.
I played trumpet in high school jazz band, and we played this one kind of cheesy faux-funk song called "Walkin' and Talkin'", ooh, what a bad mother (shut your mouth) of a song! Anyway the ending builds up to the climactic final note, a high C on the trumpet. Think of the high note in the Star Wars main title, "duuuun duuuun, dun dun dun DUUUUUN duuuunn", the "DUUUUN" is a high C. And I couldn't reliably hit it, and so the song built and built to this climactic ending and then, blarg.
But sometimes it's just as disappointing if the run-up to the big ending fails to excite. In a recent game of Root I was in, the Cats jumped to an early lead, and never let go, winning by 10 points. In another recent game of The Castles of Burgundy, a player opened up a 50 point lead early on and held that lead for the whole rest of the game. I don't want this thread to devolve into the perennial discussion of the runaway leader, I simply point it out to say that runaway leader is a problem because it's demotivating for the players; pursuing victory seems impossible so you resign yourself to defeat, and the end game falls flat. (emphasis mine)
Endings are hard to pull off. I'm realizing this in working on Candyland bidding game. Combining bidding with a race leads to a weird endgame, because in a bidding game, your decisions are all about "how much is the thing that's on offer worth to me?". But when you're right at the finish line, anything that will let you cross the line is worth bidding on, and you'll bid everything you have to cross it. There's no agony or tension, just bid to win, every time.
There are many games where the tension shifts in the end game, and I don't just mean "the pivot", where you go from making money to making points. What I mean is that the incentive structures to do things like manage your resources and plan for the future and put yourself in good position change as you get close to the endgame, because there isn't any more future, there's only now.
Let's look at a few exemplars.
Carcassonne. Most of the decisions that make Carc exciting are of the press-your-luck variety. Do I expand this city or start to close it down? Do I try to move in on Betty's field or is that unlikely to pan out? And of course a lot of the fun is the counter-maneuvers players can use to bring your gambles to ruin. Late in the game, there's no more speculation, and you're just executing on what you're given. If you know the tile distribution, you know whether the tiles you need are still in the deck or not, and so you know whether that pair of adjacent cities you're trying to close off can be finished in principle, but you don't know whether you'll be the one to draw the tile you need.
Now Carc has the advantage of being fixed-length, which intrinsically drives up excitement from the feeling that time is running out and whatever points I'm going to make, I'd better make them now. Of course in some fixed length games you realize that you just don't have time to make up whatever gap the leader has opened up, and this is why player-controlled length games can be attractive; not only can I try to close the gap, I can try to stall the end game as well.
Lost Cities. This is a good exemplar because it accommodates two endgame situations with equal facility. The first is that I have a hand full of good cards that I've held back and am worried about having enough time to play. You'll see that player start to pump the brakes by drawing junk from the discard pile. The other is, I'm not going to get the cards I need so I just need to cut my losses at this point. You'll see that player cap off rows that have slightly negative scores and hit the draw pile hard to try to end the round before your opponent has time to get everything down. It feels like a satisfying resolution to see whether the risks you elected to take early on as you chose expeditions will pay off.
Can't Stop. As the ultimate push your luck game, you'd think some of the same considerations as those that inform Carc would apply, but Can't Stop is actually a bit weird. When a person completes a column, now no one else can place in that column, and that means that you necessarily become much less risk-tolerant the closer you get to the end, and thus the end game actually decelerates the excitement curve a bit.
Attika and 7 Wonders Duel. I mention both of these together because they both have a twist, a "quick-win" condition. Attika is usally won by being the first to get all 30 of your tiles onto the board; 7 Wonders Duel is won by having cards that are worth the most points. But Attika can be won by connecting two temples, and 7WD can be won by either pulling the military track all the way to your side, or by having 6 different science icons in your tableau. Both games give the players the tools to obstruct their opponent's ability to pull off the quick win condition, but because it's always present as a possibility, you're constant guarding against it, or perhaps pushing toward it yourself. A quick win can be an exciting victory if you manage to achieve it, but what seems to happen in Attika and what I suspect happens in 7WD is that most of the time, someone makes an attempt, it's blocked, and then you go back to what you were doing. The more interesting question, then, is whether you can block the outright win if an opponent is leading. In Attika this is hard but in 7WD maybe it's more common.
Because games like Root and CoB and lots of other games can give anticlimactic endings, despite being good games, it's all the more important to study games that transition from mid-game to end-game gracefully and in which the turn mechanic allows the player to set up a strong position (mid-game) and then use that as a springboard from which to contend for the victory (end-game). And this is why, although it's common to end a playtest half-way through ("we've seen enough and you know what changes to make"), it is important to play the game to the end a lot of times, not just to check the final scores but to ensure that the end game delivers the excitement that players are right to expect that it will.
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