I ran across a potentially violent situation this morning, a couple of young people got into an altercation with the ticket conductor. They didn't have tickets and he was refusing to move the train until they got off, which they were refusing to do. The situation escalated somewhat, the staff from the station came onto the train, the police got called and everyone was shouting so due to my spectacular ongoing lack of wisdom I decided that was a good time to get involved. I waited for a gap in the shouting and calmly asked the pair what a win looked like.
Here the question wasn't really important, they'd already worked out that their options were to get off the train or stay and get arrested (It had been shouted at enough times). What they were really looking for was respect, for their point of view to be considered and for someone to listen to what they had to say. Each of them also needed their departure to look like something they'd chosen to do for themselves rather than something they'd been intimidated into, because the other was present. The question wasn't important, but I ended up extrapolating forward anyway.
Over the journey I started projecting all of their options. Running cons or seeking sympathy to get someone to buy them a ticket, hoping the police took long enough that the train company decided it was faster to keep the train moving, even hijacking the train was viable with the driver involved in the dispute and most folks being quite timid. Ultimately they didn't really have any though, winning looked like arriving at their destination without being arrested and for them it was pretty much off the cards. When that happens, you quietly revise your definition of winning (leaving the situation without getting arrested or losing face) and try for that instead. There's an important game design lesson in there.
Actually, before I get to the point of this post and talk game design I just want to reflect on the situation very briefly. I could also have resolved the situation by buying their tickets; I wouldn't have noticed the money in the long run. It'd have been better for them, but also rewards adults for tantruming and messing up the rail service for the morning (trains arrive every few minutes and two stops behind us was a major station that messes up the whole region if it gets clogged.) On the other hand I doubt they took any lesson from this that would change their behaviour in the future so if it wasn't going to change things either way would it have been better to see them get home? Why are we in a position where there are folks who struggle to find the coins to get to their home in the first place? Or who need to find their sense of worth in the world from their ability to fight with and intimidate others? What happened to the other places they might've found that? Stuff like this bothers me, but I don't see a solution. I guess I don't know what a win looks like for the big things.
Anyway, you don't read this to think about depressing things (there are better options for that.) I had a point about game design somewhere in the past five hundred words. I was interested in the idea that a designer should ask themselves the question "What does winning look like?" for all players, at all stages in the game. Ideally the solution is simple, the game has a victory condition and winning looks like matching that condition and winning the game. However having watched a lot of games played, it's not always the case.
Yesterday I played Britannia with a couple of friends of mine. It's my game and I had more experience with it so they predicted from the outset that I was likely to win. It didn't help that I drew the Romans who have a supreme early game advantage (balanced by a weak middle game) so obtained a fantastic early lead. Despite receiving reinforcements every turn, which people who played the game will recognise as something of an embarrassment for that particular side. In line with the prophecy I won (largely due to the Angles and Saxons both getting nearly wiped out before my Danes arrived) but the player who came second remarked to the third "Well Greg won, but I beat you so I won the *real* game." It was somewhat in jest, but highlighted a real feeling, that once a particular victory is out of reach the definition of victory changes to something obtainable.
The same thing had happened to me at some point during the game. I was happy to pack it in three turns before the end, as the outcome was fairly certain (The Normans and Norse were still to come for the other two, but it didn't seem likely they could close the gap even with a max score.) Once we played on I ended up making my win condition "Have a Jute survive until the end of the game." and focused more on that than on anything else. The Jutes are one of those races that have a scorecard that goes up to the last turn of the game, but who are very rarely still in play by that point. Making unlikely things happen is fun in a game that's supposed to mimic history (Welsh as kings of England for the win) so takes over as an objective once the game's main objective isn't in question.
I think that there's room to operate here as a game designer. A lot of games take the approach of "Make sure victory appears obtainable at all points for all players." but this seems weak to me. Either a game will be so arbitrary that at any given moment a players prior actions have no impact on their chance of winning, it will rely on a failure of perception on the part of the players or it allows for a random factor to swing a game that has been won on merit as part of a die roll. I think that a better approach is "Make sure that there is something for a player to categorise as victory in all conditions."
This seems like somewhere that thematic games stand out. It's quite hard to make getting 78 VP feel significantly more awesome than 73 VP to the point that a late game player who can tell that they won't win can be excited by the prospect. However it's entirely viable to hook people on "Well I can't win, but if I play it just right I can beat our group's record for most ships killed in a single attack so I'm going to see if I can do that instead."
Personally I like for there to be milestones on the path to success. In 404 each objective is a milestone and within them there tend to be obvious subgoals (step one of destroying all food is obtaining all of the food). In Wizard Academy hitting a new level of spell is a milestone, so is defeating a particular threat or even locking an individual spell. Once victory is out of reach it's nice for players to be able to go "Well in that case I'll complete the hell out of this next obstacle, I'll complete it like it's never been completed before, I'll show the world I can do awesome things even if the game says that technically I lose." Conversely performing things in particularly elaborate ways can make things interesting to someone who's far ahead and wants an opportunity for a flourish.
Of course most games end with the players neck and neck racing for the intended victory condition - but nothing is perfect and not every game will go that way, so it pays to make sure that the game doesn't stop being fun if it's not a close run race. What sort of alternative victory conditions have you seen people shoot for in the past?