When you design games, write about games and in some cases simply try to make sense of them to better explain them to your gaming group, you eventually have to ask yourself what motivates people to play. Specifically, what goal do they pursue to get the elaborate construction of rules and components going. What exactly fuels the engine to create the play experience the game promises to deliver?
For the vast majority of games this answer is simple and straightforward: victory. You want to win. That’s it. That’s the reason to play. At least it’s the only reason the game is willing to account for in its design. Incentives and decision points are arranged around the idea, that players are driven by only one consideration: what does it take to beat my opponents? Out of this understanding a number of strategies can grow. Collect VP faster than your opponent. Slow down your opponent’s VP accumulation. In zero-sum games it becomes more about decimating your opponent’s position. If you’re particularly ambitious, you can opt for destroying your opponent in every game you play. Even the ones where you could just as well have left each other alone throughout.
Playing to win is fun, though. Competing for victory is something a wide range of players enjoy. Particularly those long involved with the hobby appreciate this exactly about games.
But it’s no coincidence that board gaming didn’t take off with the release of Diplomacy. The golden age of modern board games didn’t start when people got wind of Risk or Monopoly, or any other game that distills play into unfettered competition.
There is a reason why designs that need unrestrained player ambition to live up to their potential, aren’t unreservedly recommended to everyone. The more a game needs players to be at each other’s throat all the time, the smaller the audience that will embrace it. It’s not hard to see why. Competition is not the natural state of human beings playing together. Victory is not the golden chalice everyone chases after when they sit down to play.
In 2019 I was at Spiel in Essen, where I played a game based on an enthusiastic recommendation of somebody in my Twitter timeline. The game was introduced to us as one in which we enter temporary alliances to score decks of cards, and split the points among ourselves. In theory – and as the design intended – the game would lead to tense negotiations, bluffs and begrudging point splits.
In practice, none of this happened in our game. We cooperated when we could. We were happy, when we managed to score points. Eventually one player won the game – as the rules dictated – but our fun, enjoyment and the memorably experience were the moments in which we worked together.
You could argue, that we played the game wrong. That we made our own fun, apart from what the game offered. But I would counter that the game was simply stuck in the dogma of Victory-Über-Alles. It ended up missing out on the most appealing emergent player dynamic of playing it. Our interaction developed towards the pro-social, as human beings are naturally inclined to do.
We wanted to help each other. We enjoyed each other’s successes. We weren’t interested in being jealous of what others had done, chasing after solo scores or trying to pull one over on each other.
It’s hardly a secret, that games offer far more to enjoy than something as basic as victory. Cooperative games in the vein of Pandemic are about the joy of working together. Party games often work, because the core activity is fun by itself. In games like Concept, Just one or even Wavelength groups often end up ignoring scores, because play itself is what’s exciting about the game.
Outside of rote victory, there are a number of goals that can drive the game forward. We have a number of very fine distinctions when it comes to action selection in board games. There’s worker placement, rondel mechanisms, action cards, point buy system, custom dice results and so on and so forth. Isn’t it time we start looking at goals a little more closely?
Victory always presupposes beating another player. You don’t win a race because you set a personal record. You don’t win a puzzle because you solved it. You are only victorious, if you have defeated an opponent. That is different from overcoming the challenge of a cooperative game, or solving the task of a party game.
The distinction becomes obvious when we look at how we respond to different goals. A competitive game lets us indulge our vanity and makes us feel proud of the skill we’ve displayed. That is not a criticism, but an explanation for the intense emotions we experience, after winning or losing a particularly heated game. Even though we are aware of the limited importance of the game, we have an emotional reaction to its resolution.
Once we look at a game as completing a task or overcoming a challenge, it shifts the range of what we experience a little. Failing to complete a task, or falling short of overcoming a challenge feels different. It doesn’t simply color our perception of the game’s outcome, it also changes how we approach the game itself. We consider different aspects of the game, when we stop thinking about how to beat our opponent.
This is hardly news to players. I often hear players tell me how they pick new goals, once it’s clear to them that winning the game is out of the question. It would also not surprise me to hear, that a number of current games have only included victory conditions that put one player above all others out of a sense of tradition and obligation.
Players will always vary in how much value they place on winning a game. Maybe it’s time designs start to question this old habit of arranging play around the idea of victory as well.