Greg's Design Blog

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Open Objectives

United Kingdom
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Original Post: This is the original! Something is wrong with the 3DTotal site so for one week only I'm writing directly on BGG. Also there'll be no images since I don't do hotlinking and can't upload them to the 3DTotal site. Lets get started...

One of the most fundemental parts of a game is that the end state of the game declares some number of winners and/or losers creating a goal state to aim towards and motivating every other part of the game. If gameplay is about interesting decisions then the mechanism for creating interesting decisions is to offer two things that bring a player closer to the winning condition and require a certain amount of skill for the player to determine which one of these things will result in more progress.

This is so important that the guidelines for uploading a game to BGG start with "What is a Game? In the abstract, a game is something where a single person or a group competes or cooperates toward a goal whereby one or more players win or one or more players lose."

So what happens when a designer breaks this rule?

I wrote about Consentacle a while back, the Kickstarter was delivered recently and one of my friends excitedly brought it over to my house to play. Skipping over the theme as briefly as we're able: It's a game about a consentual sexual encounter between an astronaught and a tentacle alien. The reason I've brought it up in this context is that it has a scoring system, but does nothing to define one outcome as "better" than another. As such it doesn't produce a clear winner. At the end you get a line of text based on how your character experienced the game, consisting of an opening line based on the total statisfaction tokens created and a closing one based on how many you got. Consider these three closers:

"...remained happy to desire whatever your partner did, and little more."
"...were left aching with desire and unfulfilled, wracked by your partner’s satiated smile."
"...took care to share your moaning pleasures in perfectly equal measure, at times forsaking wild abandon for fairness."

You could make a fair argument that the middle option is the worst of the three, but it's also middling in score so it doesn't have a simple "higher is better" scoring mechanism. Even if you felt the statements were in order, there's no formal result for how to compare one overall statement to another. Did someone who got a stronger first line and weaker second line do better than someone who was middling at both? The game doesn't say.

What the design is doing is being ruthlessly simulationist. It doesn't care for your desire to 'win', it's not trying to gamify the sitaution (any more than necessary to be a game). Instead it's going to simulate the situation, let you do whatever you want and tell you the outcome. You can decide what you're trying to do. That's strong here for two reasons: Firstly the outcome is something thematic that a lot of people have strong feelings and experiences of, so it's natural that people will have some sort of heirarchical thought about it. Secondly the game is about communicating (with restrictions) with your parter to synchronise your plays to best achieve...whatever it is you're trying to achieve. The possibility that you're working at slight cross purposes to do this enhances that aspect of play since that mixes "Am I interpreting their signals correctly?" with "Are we persuing the same objective?". Where the core gameplay is communication, enriching the complexity of the communication without increasing the complexity of the game is a good thing.

Having a "result" rather than a "winner" lets the game do things it otherwise couldn't. So as a design choice, where else could it go?

I'd be interested to see a legacy game that was bold enough to pull this off. When we got to the end of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 we calculated our score but it felt like a flat, empty thing. How could a number really capture what had happened? A long running character died for that number and it's just a number? Was it okay to sacrifice South America to make the number bigger? The legacy format seems like one really open to having a 'result' rather than a 'winner' because so many actions throughout the games are contributing to longer term things. When winning disappears players are free to argue the morality of sacrificing a few thousand members of the population of Cairo to ensure that they know who started this plague. Is a game really better for putting a number on those objectives and telling you which is more important, or would it be better to let players decide which objectives they think are meaningful and play (even play at cross purposes) to work towards them?

Some games have completely arbitrary objectives. The ending to Tales of the Arabian Nights has almost never been satisfying. The points goal seems arbitrary and almost completely divorced from the rest of the game that it almost always ends in an "Oh, you won" rather than any sort of climax. Not to say it doesn't have high points, but those happened ten minutes ago to a player with no chance of winning but whose epic journey is complete. There might be a call for games using results rather than victory where the best algorithm the designer can come up with makes the players less good at deciding who won than the players were without it.

You couldn't just strip it out though - a 'result' over 'winner' game isn't just defined by the absence of a mechanic for declaring a winner, but also by the presence of mechanics that make it possible for people to assess their performance and the performance of others in a more naturalistic way. That's just as tough a job as designing a scoring mechanism - games that use it as an "easy way out" and just write "vote for the winner" on the last page tend to be rightly decried as lazy and tend not to be much fun.

I can think of a lot of very successful computer games that operate on this sort of basis, but I don't think the seminal boardgame that totally nails this sort of gameplay exists yet, but I'd be interested to play it some day.
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