I was sure I must have written this post before, but a search for the phrase tells me that while I've mentioned it, I've never dedicated a post to it. Another search for dwarf fortress got no hits, so let's start there. Here's a quick image of a game in progress, I'm pretty sure I won't need to explain what's going on here.
Dwarf fortress is a free game that's been around a good few years now and has been steadily improving over time. It is dear to my heart because no matter how long it stays around or how much gets added to the game every improvement is aimed at making the game mechanics deeper and more interesting without wasting any time on wishy-washy rubbish such as "graphics" or "art". This is how all games would look if I were in charge.
Now that you're all done with your collective sigh of relief that I work at an art publishing company who generate all sorts of clever ideas about making great games look wonderful, we can go on to talk about losing. I brought up dwarf fortress because of the mantra that losing is fun. The in game help tells you that losing is fun. The wiki links any item that is likely to kill you to the article "fun", which redirects to losing, where you're informed that losing is fun. The game is actually unwinnable, the only two states you can occupy is to have lost or to be in the process of losing. The thing is, it's fun! People keep downloading and playing it and having a great time, hundreds of thousands of people downloaded just the latest version. It's been installed in a museum, not even one especially dedicated to gaming. It is a world class losing experience. Now let's talk about what that means for board games.
In the majority of games there will be one winner and several losers. Even in cooperative games people appear to vastly prefer games which have win rates closer to 30% than 50% (based on unscientific opportunity sampling of internet forum discussions). For the players of any game that you create you can reasonably expect that people will experience losing far more often than they experience winning. As such it's vital to find ways to embrace the "losing is fun" mentality. Here are my top four (everyone always picks three or five) ways to make losing fun:
Losing should be abrupt
Playing a game for several hours when the outcome is already known and there's nothing interesting to reveal is tedious for both winners and losers. It is far more interesting for a game to involve a slow and steady build up towards a climatic conflict which decides the nature of the game. The sudden conflict offers a high point of the game and the resolution follows swiftly afterwards to prevent the game from being stuck in a rut. Many Ameritrash games do this literally with an actual build up of forces and major conflict (some games of Twilight Imperium do this brilliantly), but the idea is executed just as successfully in Euro games in which the final conflict consists of revealing hidden assets and counting victory points.
Losing positions should still be playable
Being locked out of a game is horrible. It happens in three ways and they're all bad, some games have player elimination in which the player who was losing has to sit out of the game and twiddle their thumbs while waiting for their friends to finish. Even worse are games that force the player to remain at the table while taking literally no actions, as they are locked out by constant "miss a turn" cycles or other players trivially destroying any assets they obtain (some games of Twilight Imperium suffer from this terribly). Finally some games will have a losing player able to take plenty of actions, but none of these will have any impact on the outcome of the game, which somehow seems worse to me.
There should be ways to score moral victories from losing positions
Sometimes you hit a position in a game where it's just not possible to win. At that point there can still be some fun in the game if another interesting and achievable objective presents itself. For instance losing Galaxy Trucker can be an awesome experience, having a ship with no engines and one surviving crewman glide across the finish line due to intertia feels great even though your score will be worthless. Space Alert offers achievements for coming really close to losing and grabbing a victory (and you can stop play and start a new round the moment you do lose). In general I think Vlaada Chvátil has got the art of making losing interesting and fun pinned down.
Losing should encourage you to make the game more fun
There are a lot of games that suffer from various forms of spoiler effects. A losing player is able to take someone else down with them, or can play kingmaker between the top two players. In these games the tools at a losing player's disposal most readily lend themselves towards ruining someone else's game, which in turn ruins everyone's game as the winner is no longer being determined by the best play, but by the mood of the loser. I'm not sure I can think of a game that's come up with a brilliantly elegant solution to this situation. Some games allow losing players to drop out; giving up their chance of winning for the opportunity to be some sort of nemesis to the other players that has been deliberately included in the game, but this solution feels lacklustre to me. The best examples in this class are probably party games like Twister in which a desperate maneuver by a losing player can result in hilarity for all, but I can't think of a serious game that does this well.
I'm going to spend some time contemplating that last point and seeing if there's a way to build a game that emphasises it. Can anyone think of a pertinent example?