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Anti-climactic endings in Euros?

Morten Monrad Pedersen
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I got a rather interesting question from a friend a while back. You see, I’m a eurogamer, and he isn’t, and there’s an aspect of many eurogames that doesn’t make sense to him: The way they just stop in the middle of the story. Here’s what he wrote to me:

Quote:
most Eurogames do not have a good and thematic ending. Most games just abruptly stop. Someone reached 100 points: game ends. Someone placed 6th star: Game ends.
[…]
Why is it that (mainly) Euro Designers don´t come up with a good thematic ending? Aren´t they interested in that? Does the definition of Euro doesn´t allow such an ending? Are those games all meant to be racing games? In essence they are. And the endings often feel as boring. I know, reaching 100 points is a goal. But aren´t there any better and more climatic goals? Become King? Conquer the earth? Find all artifacts and escape before the island sinks? Survive until rescued. Save the world?
[...]
Since I´m not much into Euros and cannot find a lot of thematic excitement in ending a game midway by a point threshold, maybe I´m just not the right target player here.

So I´d like to hear your opinion on that. Maybe I´m just missing something.

This post is an attempt to try to answer my friend’s questions and outline techniques for avoiding the issue he’s describing. It also represents something of an experiment, since I haven’t done pure game design posts on this blog before, though, I’ve done plenty on my other blog. I think that his questions goes to the heart of some of the Stonemaier design philosophy and the remark about “Someone places 6th star: Game ends” is a direct reference to our game Scythe, so I found it relevant to post here.

Before we go any further, I’ll highlight the fact that it’s hard to pin down what Euro and Ameritrash games are. I’ve written this post based on my views on those two terms, but others will disagree with me. I also need to state upfront that I’m ignoring the kind of player who just plays for the social experience, since for them the type of ending is likely not all that important.

Ending Ameritrash in a whimper

The goal of Euros is not to be a simulation of the theme, instead it’s to focus on the fun part of a contest: Imagine that you’re watching an exciting and tense soccer match. Do you imagine it as the teams being closely matched and roughly equal in goals scored, or do you imagine one where one of the teams has gotten their three best players sent off and are behind with 5 goals?

I’ll venture the guess that you’re answering the former. A contest is the most tense and exciting when all contestants have a reasonable chance of winning.

If you instead focus on games as simulations or storytelling devices then they must be played until the thematic end. The consequence of this is that you’ll often be playing for a long time after the winner is known – to paraphrase game designer Wes Erni, you’re just playing out the proof of how you already know the game will end.

E.g. in a 4X game you might play until all but one of the players have been eliminated, but it’s likely that after a certain point one of the players will have gotten so powerful that no one can stop him, and you could be sitting there turn after turn while he mops up the defenseless opponents.

I love the old school board game Titan I played it in physical form as a teen (and still have it on my shelf including the counter a dog chewed on ) and over the years I’ve also played the Java implementation on PCs and the iPad implementation many times over a period of 20 years.

I love that damn game, but one of its downfalls is that you can end in situations where one player has become enormously powerful and the last remaining opponent is in a position, where he can no longer improve in any meaningful way. In such a situation, you can end up playing a lot of boring turns until the leading player finally catches the opponent’s titan army (defeating that ends the game). This is then played out as a battle, where the winner is known in advance.

That is not very exciting, and instead of becoming the exciting climax to long game, the game ends with an anticlimactic whimper.


A game of Titan. Image credit: Kris Comeyne.

It could be argued that you could just leave it to the players to decide when the losers should concede, but that would mean that they end in the middle of the story, just like in Euros, and you’re still likely to have played well beyond the point where you were almost completely sure who the winner would be.

It could also lead to unpleasant discussions where the player who’s going to win insist that he be allowed to enjoy his win by playing to the bitter end and the loser refusing to do so. Such conflict just won’t do for the typical Euro game, which as far as I know arose from the German genre of family games, where you want things nice, cozy, and friendly.

I think that the above discussion shows that the main reasons for the abrupt ending of many Euros is that the fun part of a contest is when it’s in the tension sweet spot, where it’s still unknown who’ll win. Therefore, Euros give you that part and then end.

I was sooo close to winning

Another reason for the abruptly ending Euros is a feeling that I think is coupled tightly to the enjoyment of a Euro: The if-I-had-just-gotten-one-more-turn-then-I-would-have-won-feeling. I remember that feeling from a large number of my best gaming experiences. It leads to tension, excitement, and enjoyment.

If you can give the players that feeling in the end game then the Euro gamers among them will walk away happy. They got what they came for: A tense and exciting contest in the form of a game. They weren’t forced to sit through a long proof of the inevitable.

Scythe is an example of this. It ends at a point where the game is still likely to be tense and it would drag on forever if you had to play on until one player had wiped out all others. To me Scythe’s endings are tense and climatic. The strategic choice, where you try to optimize your strategy based on how many turns you think remains, is fun and interesting to me.

Sitting there wondering whether one of the other players will end the game before it becomes your turn again is the very definition of tense gameplay for me and I love the resulting if-I-had-just-gotten-one-more-round-I-would-have... feeling, when my opponent ends the game one lousy turn before I would have brought my brilliant master plan to fruition.

Normally I refrain from praising games published by my employer, but in this case I hope it’s OK, since it serves to illustrate the kind of joy the Euro gamer in me gets from the type of endings that Euros have.

Ending Euros in a whimper

Now, I’m not saying that this is the only right way to make games. Playing the game out to a thematic end is a perfectly valid design choice if you’re targeting players who value simulation or storytelling over keeping the game in “the tension zone”.

I can actually relate to the desire of being allowed to play to the bitter end. Sometimes in the aforementioned Titan I have finally succeeded in mustering an army of the most powerful creatures in the game (this doesn’t happen often) and then the game ends before I get to use that army. Sometimes I’ve actually refrained from killing off the last remaining AI’s titan (which ends the game), so that I can get a chance to get to the point where I can get the most powerful units and only then do the final fight using an army of those.

Furthermore, from the perspective of the Ameritrasher, then it’s Euro games, which tend to end in a whimper by simply stopping in the middle of the story without a satisfying end.

Runaway Loser Syndrome

Another core difference between Euros and Ameritrash is how they deal with Runaway Leader Syndrome (RALS). RALS refers to situations where if things go well for you, then you get awarded with more power, and if things go badly for you, then you’re penalized. This makes the leader of a game accelerate away from the other players, thus making it much harder to catch up if you fall a bit behind.

Designers of Euros will often try to counter RALS to some extent either directly or indirectly. Ameritrash designers on the other hand normally embrace it. In Titan for example if you have more powerful creatures than your opponent, you can end up taking all of those that are available in the game before your opponent can get enough to be useful and thus leaving him stuck at the lower rungs of the game’s creature upgrade tree. Similarly, in combat the player with the best army will often win the battle with few loses while the weakest army is wiped out. Furthermore, the winner gains points that can give powerful special units, a teleportation ability, and make her titan unit more powerful. All of this of course leads to RALS in Titan.

Compare this to Scythe, where if you win combat, then you often do so at a fairly high cost that can leave you in a vulnerable position.

The cause of this difference is the same as above: RALS takes a game out of the tension zone where Euros want to be and so RALS is often reined in, while Ameritrash is more about being simulations and telling stories and so RALS is only hindered if it makes sense in the situation being simulated.

Marrying Euros and Ameritrash

The above leads to the question of whether the two approaches can be combined? The answer is: Sometimes. Between Two Cities, to take a Stonemaier example, does in my opinion have a thematic ending: The game ends when you have finished building all the cities.

Between Two Cities uses two techniques for allowing the game to have a thematic end:

1) It’s not clear at a glance how many points each player has and so there’s uncertainty about the winner until the very end.

2) An end criteria is used that keeps the game in the tension zone just like other Euros, but the end criteria is given thematic trappings.

We can call the first technique obfuscation. It’s not that you can’t know how many points the other players have – in principle you could keep track of that. Instead, it’s simply hard to do this without a lot of effort.

Many Euros use obfuscation, e.g. Tigris & Euphrates, Puerto Rico, Small World, Scythe, and Monster Factory, but none of those three games use it to achieve a thematic end, instead they use it to keep the tension high, by making it harder to know what the score of each player is. Thus obfuscation is not in itself something that will give you thematic endings, but it helps keeping the game tense even if you’re already at a point where it’s all but certain who’ll win, because it keeps the players from knowing that.

As to the second technique, then Between Two Cities doesn’t go on to the point where only one player is left standing as in a combat oriented Ameritrash game and as said its end criteria is not really different than other Euros. Just like in Small World and Carcassonne, the game ends after a set number of turns, but in the case of Between Two Cities this is given thematic trappings by saying that the cities are finished when they consist of a 4x4 square, which is arbitrary from thematic point of view.

Thus, you could argue that the end criteria is just a veneer of a thematic ending and it might very well still feel unsatisfying for thematic gamers.

Caylus and Snowdonia use the same technique as Between Two Cities (I’m not saying that they copy Between Two Cities, if anything it would be the other way around). In Caylus the game ends when the King’s Castle has been built and Snowdonia ends once the Railroad is completed.


Building a castle in Caylus. Image credit: Ana Joaquim.

These games have a thematic commonality: You’re building something and when it’s built the game ends. This gives the game a thematically meaningful end, but it still allows the designer to set the end criteria such that the game is kept in the tension sweet spot.

From this we can learn an approach to marrying the tension sweet spot of Euros to the thematic endings of Ameritrash: Make games where the players are doing a project that has a thematically meaningful end. Games where the players are building something together, like Caylus, Snowdonia, and Between Two Cities, thus presents an easy way to accomplish the marriage between Euro and Ameritrash.

PvE and PvP


The Forbidden Island before it sinks. Image credit: Raymond Fowkes.

In multiplayer video games the terms Player vs. Player (PvP) and Player vs. Environment (PvE). PvP games are of course games where the players compete against each other. PvE games are games where the players are not competing with each other, but are instead competing with the game itself, so to speak. Don’t get fooled by the term “environment”, it’s not like you’re out fighting against shrubbery or atmospheres with low oxygen levels, the environment can just as well refer to a horde of rampaging Orcs or alien spaceships. In the context of board games we normally call such games coops and solitaire games, but for the purpose of this post it’s easier to refer to them together using the term PvE.

I think that my friend referred to Forbidden Island with the last part of his question about collecting all the artifacts and escaping before the island sinks, which is interesting to me, because I see that game as a Euro.

Forbidden Island is a PvE game and it turns out that many PvE Euros have thematic endings. Some examples are Pandemic, The Witch of Salem, Forbidden Desert, Onirim, Castellion, Elevenses for One, Maquis, Friday, and Ghost Stories.

I think that the reason for this is simply that it’s easier to make thematic endings in PvE games. The designer can control how the “environment” reacts and scales better than she can a human player. It’s simply easier to make the tension curve of the game tight and increasing towards a climax, when you as the designer decides how the environment responds, instead of when the opposition is controlled by a capricious human.

Furthermore, one group working together against a common enemy lends itself better to telling stories with a thematic ending than a multi-player where everybody is against everyone else.

Finally, PvE games lends themselves well to asymmetry and asymmetry is very often at the heart of the kind of stories that thematic games want to tell: A band of adventures going up against going up against the evil Necromancers and his horde of undead creatures or a small group of soldiers defending a fortification against an huge invading army.

TL;DR

I’m not just a eurogamer and I’m not disparaging thematic games – that would be silly since I now have written more than 200 posts for my blog about thematic games and my favorite game is the ameritrash game Dawn of the Zeds, which I love because it’s the most thematic and cinematic game I’ve ever played. So, the intention here is, as said, not to disparage thematic games, but to explain why Euros often end the way they do and to explain the kind of joy that Euro gamers are getting from their type of games.

To sum up: The core difference as I see it and the reason for the different ways that Euro and Ameritrash games is the difference in what they’re trying to do:

1) Euro designers want to create a tense contest.

2) Ameritrash designers want to make simulations or tell stories.

In this post I’ve outlined with three techniques that allow designers to marry the tension sweet spot of Euros with the thematic endings of Ameritrash:

1) Allow the game to go beyond the point where it has been decided who the winner is by obfuscating this, so that the players don’t notice. The most common way of doing this is making the scoring complex or (semi )secret.

2) Make the game about completing a project and set the end of the project so that the game is still in the tension zone, when it ends.

3) Make PvE games.

Before I go I’d like to ask whether you have some good examples of Eurogames that have thematic endings and/or other techniques for achieving that than the three I listed?
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