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Giving Victory Points for Fighting Battles

Occasionally I hear about a game that gives victory points (VP) for fighting a battle (not even just for winning, just for fighting).

Why would you do that? From a modeling point of view, what’s the virtue of fighting a battle, especially one that you do not win?

In the real world, fighting a battle is one of the dumbest things you can do. Or as Sir Winston Churchill said, "Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes in manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter." And the best general is one who wins a war without casualties.

One reason to reward fighting that is common in video games, where the computer can easily track it, is that units gain experience, and ultimately gain new capabilities, through fighting. Of course, you’ve got to survive to prosper. And in tabletop games there is too much record-keeping involved in experience for individual units to make it practical. Still, that’s not victory points, it’s increased unit capability.

There are excuses for VP points for losing battles: it represents glory, causing fear in others, learning lessons that can be applied later; but then these should only apply to winners. While we can argue that those who lose a battle learn more than the winners do, and this is often the case for a war as a whole, it is much less clear for individual battles. You can’t learn anything useful if you’re dead or captured.

No, in virtually every case, I think, this kind of rule is added to encourage fighting where otherwise it may not be worthwhile. That is, the gain in VP is worth the losses (physical and positional) when you lose a battle.

So why would a designer do it? Awarding VP for fighting strongly implies that the game otherwise encourages “turtling,” that is, hiding out, staying out of battles, sitting on the sidelines, letting the other players beat each other up. In other words, giving VP for fighting and not winning a battle is a kludge designed to save an otherwise flawed design. (“Kludge” originally meant “a software or hardware configuration that, while inelegant, inefficient, clumsy, or patched together, succeeds in solving a specific problem or performing a particular task.” But this term can be applied to game design just as well, just substitute "game design configuration" for "software hardware configuration".)

The most well-known game design kludge I can think of is in Risk, also to discourage turtling. It’s the turn-in of territory cards for lots of armies. Players must successfully attack at least one area to get a territory card, thus forcing turtles to do SOMEthing, to take at least one territory. And no player can afford to stay out of the “card derby” because it yields (under American rules, at least) so many armies in the long run when you turn in sets of cards.

Risk is hardly a model of the real world, but the card-play, in particular, has absolutely no correspondence to anything that happens in reality, it is analogous to nothing. It is there only as a structural kludge.

The cards are also a kludge to bring the game to an end in a reasonable amount of time. Without them, given the structure of the game, many games would last many, many hours. With them, players can be wiped outn by the enormous influx of armies when someone turns in a set of cards, and the enormous reward for wiping out another player is that you gain his cards, which can lead to another turn-in for even more armies.

Now if you see a game design as just a collection of mechanics devised to allow certain things to occur, you might see awarding VPs for fighting as just one more mechanic. If a game is abstract, this point of view is easier for me to understand. But a non-abstract game is modeling some reality in some sense, and that's when this VP-for-fighting mechanic becomes an obvious kludge.

So why the kludge to encourage attacking? I think it’s because the rest of the game design is flawed. What can a designer do to discourage turtling?

I discussed the turtling problem at length in the first chapter of the book Tabletop: Analog Game Design (chapter title, "The Three Player Problem") which is a free download at
(the book consists of contributions from a couple dozen writers).

Briefly, you redesign that game so that it makes sense to fight despite losses that may occur. Make what you gain from the battle more valuable, in the long run, than what you lose. One way to do this is a zero-sum game, that is, you can only gain something if someone else loses it. A turtle stays static while successful attackers get stronger. Consequently, turtling doesn't lead to success.

But even in a non-zero-sum game, if your gain is worth the losses - in the long run - then fighting makes sense. This usually involves an economic game, often with a maintenance limit, that is, your economy must support existing assets before you get more, so the only way to increase your overall assets is to improve your economy. If you can improve your economy peacefully, or improve it as much peacefully as you can belligerently, then you can turtle. If improving your economy requires territorial expansion, you've got to attack, not turtle. See my discussion of "The economic production cycle in games" at .

Extreme uncertainty about who is ahead in the game also discourages turtling. Turtling only makes sense when the turtle can see that he benefits by hanging back.

In games that are primarily tactical rather than economic, but for more than two players, the tendency is for everyone to turtle. Consider three or four player chess. Unless the rewards for attacking are very great, the only smart strategy is to sit back and let the others kill off one another - because there's virtually no economy to allow creation of new units (promoting a pawn is the exception).

Fortunately, most tactical games, and most games depicting a set-piece battle, are for two players (or two sides, which amounts to the same thing). Turtling is rarely a problem in a two (or one) player game.

Design your game so that you don't have to use VP to encourage fighting.


What if I am making a

What if I am making a gangland game, and the victory condition is increasing your cred by proving that you are hard and you ain't scared of nothing?

What if I'm the soviets in Stalingrad and it doesn't matter how many men die so long as it slows down the natzis?

What about some kind of modified samurai/wushu tournament game that has more to do with honor than it does with warfare and victory points are given for valiance and bravery, not vanquishing foes in a European manner?

One game's kludge is another game's elegant thematic mechanic.

If you can find a way to make

If you can find a way to make it fit the theme, more power to you. However, I am unconvinced:

Gangsters appear a lot tougher when they win a fight, than when they lose. And once again, if you're dead, loser, you're dead.

If it slows down the Nazis, isn't that what should be awarded VP, not the act of fighting itself? The object is to slow down the Nazis, not to fight.

Won't everyone be fighting in the samurai tournament? If everyone gets VP, why bother? Giving VP for something IN a fight that is particularly worthy, that might not appear in every fight, would make more sense. Then you've modeled your situation in a better way. The object becomes fighting in a particularly honorable (or whatever) manner, not fighting itself (since everyone is fighting).

Fighting is, almost always, a means to an end, not an end in itself. Reward the ends, not the means.

WW1 western front, to

WW1 western front, to simulate politics and popular opinion forcing suboptimal military decisions?

I know it still feels like a kludge, but those factors are difficult to make part of the game.

At this point I'm playing

At this point I'm playing devils advocate, but I'm here on this forum to talk about creating games, and constraints produce novel material, so I'll keep defending my examples and see if we can't make a working game concept out of them.

Gangland: Being "hard" and being tough is not the same. Being tough is about your capacity to take hits over your capicity to dish them out. being "hard" is about balls. A elephant is tough, but a wolverine is hard. Someone who would take on a superior opponent on the streets, is someone I wouldn't want to mess with when they get out of the hospital, he's crazy. The guy who beat him, I still might call the cops on or find someone bigger yet to take him down, he is still answering to logic and reason.

Stalingrad: If you are Stalin, the goal is to slow down the Nazis, If you are a foolsoldier. The goal is to lay down your life to protect the motherland. The commander told you to go fight Nazis. He did not at all tell you to survive. Granted you could use a kill count here, but when you are talking about a 3/1 death toll, you really need to count partial kills to simulate it right. Wounding Nazis for VP? Maybe, but more accurate would be to say every Russian who encounters a Nazi who later dies had a hand in their death. slowing them down, wounding them, and eventually killing them. But a much simpler mechanic that is more historically accurate to Russia's understanding of themself, would be to assume all Nazis are going to die eventually.

Wushu: I don't know about you, but every Kung Fu movie climax I've ever seen featured a unscheduled or unplanned fight. The hero ends up fighting the badguy outside the ring like in Redbelt. Or the tournament was just a means to get to the bad guy, and once I;m there I'm going to fight him, like in Enter The Dragon. Or he has my prother and is making me fight him like in Kickboxer. Imagine a Wushu tournament where those are the rules. There are no brackets, you have 48 hours to make and accept challenges, at the end of that time, the audience will decide who fought most valiantly. So you get something like 2 points for issuing a challenge, one point for accepting, and another point for winning. That way a fighter that only gets in one fight, because everybody turns down his challenges, still wins the tournament.

We as designers create

We as designers create incentives for certain behaviors, right? So putting thematic consonance out of it for a moment, I would have to assume that "VPs for fighting" is intended as an incentive to have players fight. Why would you want this? In real life fighting isn't so smart, there are plenty of situations where "turtling" is the best option strategically. But turtling can make for a very boring game where progress is not made, nothing happens, players just pile up defenses and nothing gets done.

If a particular game is set up such that sitting back on defense is the best play, then maybe it's appropriate to reward starting a fight - even if you don't win. This could be the incentive players need to 'get a move on' and play the game.

I recall reading somewhere that Blood Feud In New York (an Axis and Allies type of game about running a crime family in the middle of a turf war) does exactly that - it is intended to be an aggressive, fast paced game, and without incentives or rewards for being aggressive, players are way better off simply turtling and waiting to win via "Incontestible Dominance" (you can win if, at the beginning of a round, you collect a certain amount of income).

Then again, if players all turtle and nobody can reach the required level of income, then the game never ends!

I think that's probably a decent example of a game that encourages attacking, and a fair reason why. If you haven't seen Blood Feud in New York, check it out. I haven't played it in a long time, and it's not really my type of game, but it's got some great little design aspects in it.

Fighting a losing battle can

Fighting a losing battle can sometimes have advantages: diverting resources, exposing a front so that a third player can get involved, paying back a favour (politics), etc.

I agree that, thematically, victory points should not be awarded to the loser of a battle. There are other ways to encourage fighting, though.

Have you ever played Diplomacy? It is an excellent (and frustrating) game of politics and war. It's great fun. Play it no more often than once per year or you'll lose friends. Here's how it works: There are seven countries in Europe that were involved in the first world war. The game starts in 1910 with seven players, each playing one of the countries. Countries are divided into regions, and some of them are supply centres. You need a threshold number of supply centres to win the game, and you get them by moving your units around the board to capture them. However, you only have enough units to attack one front at a time. That's why you need to make friends with some of your neighbours, but not all of them. Actually, you need to make friends with all of your neighbours and lie to them, because you need to fight an exposed front. You betray your friends to win. If you play honestly, you will lose.

Fighting in Diplomacy is not encouraged by gaining victory points, but rather by politics. You can enter a losing battle unknowingly, or by doing a favour for an ally.

"If a particular game is set

"If a particular game is set up such that sitting back on defense is the best play, " then it's a poorly-designed game. And VP incentives to fight are a band-aid, a kludge, when the game really ought to be recast so that sitting back on defense isn't the best play.

Diplomacy is a strictly zero-sum game. In its maintenance-based economy, the only way to increase your forces (as opposed to replacing the occasional loss) is to take a center from someone else, who then will lose forces. Turtling is thoroughly unprofitable in such games.

A good rule to follow in game design is that, if there's a way for a player to gain an advantage even though it's "not in the spirit" of the game or "not the way it's supposed to be played", some people will do exactly that. You should design the game so that behavior you regard as undesirable is most unlikely to make the player successful.

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blog | by Dr. Radut