A while back cultural juggernaut Game of Thrones drew to a close. The reactions to the final episode ranged from melancholic to indifferent all the way up to apoplectic. It‘s interesting how an ending can retro-actively change our impression of the whole. A particularly successful ending can elevate a story (cf. The Wire or The Shield), whereas a less successful ending undercuts a lot of what made the series special (cf. Lost or Breaking Bad).
This only somewhat applies to games, but it‘s nonetheless worth looking at the criteria we apply to a game‘s ending. Not only because it may helps us recognise what made the game worth praising or criticizing. It also helps us realise where our focus lies when we play games.
So what makes a good ending?
The simplest and often most trite criterion on which to judge the quality of a game‘s ending is whether we won or lost. I understand that there are studies that show that an ending the evokes positive emotions tends to convince us to think of the whole experience as „good“. A revelation that is most likely to blame for the many producer-mandated happy endings to blockbuster movies. If you leave the cinema (or turn off your TV) with a smile on your face, you are more likely to forgive the ramshackle storytelling that got you there. It‘s a phenomenon that has only limited applicability to board games, since in most cases there is only one winner among multiple competitors. By that logic only one player would actually enjoy the ending, while the rest would not. This is not the kind of success rate that leads to a lot of commercial success.
Experience shows that people can often consider a game‘s ending to be good, even if they do lose. Cooperative games in particular seem to grow in appreciation in some circles based on the number of defeats a group has suffered first. A game of Pandemic tends to be more memorable and exciting when losing, as opposed to one that was one with ease. In that sense our appreciation of movies and games does share some similarities. A happy ending is easily digestible and easier to forget. As opposed to a defeat that makes us mentally revisit the experience or even think about the small changes that may have led to things turning out differently. You tend to rate a deeper and longer engagement with a game as a more rewarding experience.
Game length tends to be a very relevant criterion for most gaming groups. A good shouldn‘t last too long, but also shouldn‘t be over too quickly. This is about when the ending kicks in, not necessarily how long it takes to get there. There are obviously games that are designed to be quite long (cf. War of the Ring or Twilight Struggle). But these games are rarely criticised for having their ending taking too long to arrive. The restlessness that a game can cause is usually due to the game‘s central conflict being resolved or its main challenge becoming overtly repetitive. In a typical, competitive game this can happen when players consider one of the group to have won the game in all but the technical sense of it. This can be an issue when this happens long before the game itself is designed to wrap up. Suddenly the drive to fight over victory points drops out. The game‘s outcome is already settled, even if it still takes a few turns to get there. It‘s a problem that most game designers are keenly aware of, and which leads them to different approaches to deal with it. One of the most popular is obscuring or outright hiding the number of victory points of each player. This way determining the winner before the end of the game becomes either impossible, or simply too difficult to demotivate players. Unfortunately, sufficient experience with the game or a simple knack for card counting tends to invalidate those design decisions. The next, slightly trickier approach introduces an increase in victory point payout as the game progresses (cf. Chaos in the Old World). The drawback of this approach tends to be that early turns lose both their urgency and relevance for the overall resolution. Critics say that such games really only get interesting in the last few turns. The easiest solution is ironically also the one that most groups find least acceptable: calling the game early. It‘s an unforgivable sin in the eyes of most gaming groups. A game reaching its resolution in this way is considered irredeemably flawed. Instead players tend to „wrap up“ games, even if it means dull and repetitive final acts. In most cases such games are saved by their short game length (cf. Just One). But you have to ask yourself to what extent a monotonous game is improved solely by the fact that it‘s over fairly quickly.
A lot more subtle, but no less effective, is the way in which player decisions and the game‘s end relate to each other. Ideally, the game‘s ending is a direct consequence of player actions. The so-called point salad games tend to emphasise this the most. A wide number of individual decisions and achievements result in points, which are then weighed up to determine a winner. Critics of this approach tend to argue that this makes individual choices interchangeable. Fans of it consider those points an appropriate reward for their efforts. Generally, players who love the point deluge tend to reject games that obscure or straight-up hide which decisions are worth points (cf. Code of Nine or Archipelago). Admittedly a little deductive work allows players to infer much of this information. But it often comes at the expense of the number of actions that would allow them to capitalize on that knowledge. It‘s not unusual for players to feel like their time was wasted, because the victory point qualifier did not match the things they worked towards throughout the game. This doesn‘t even have to be a question of victory point conditions. It can also simply be the discrepancy between the parts of play that engaged us and entertained us, not having any value at the end of the game. In a game like Modern Art, new players may quickly get sucked into entertaining and spectacular bidding wars, only to find out that the rules do not really care about that at all. Instead the quiet, unassuming and carefully calculating bidder ends up winning. Of course it‘s easy to criticise these players for making a mistake and focusing on the „wrong“ element of the game. Still you‘re left with a disappointing ending to a game, because what was fun didn‘t really connect with what was advantageous. It‘s a trap that particularly inexperienced players need to be reminded of repeatedly.