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BG Design Concepts #5 - Building Paths to Victory

Building multiple balanced tactical pathways to victory

This is a mouth full, a challenge all board game designers face, and a goal to aspire to! Game design is a complex process. The type of game you are trying to make might have just one easy goal or "path to victory" and there is nothing wrong with that type of game. However, some game designers are trying to build "grand strategy" games. These are not "better" only different from other games. The main difference between these games (from one point of view) is, there target audience! Players looking for a challenge in tactical strategy building.

In this case, we are dealing more with the type of game that suffers from constant headaches from working on balancing all the many mechanics or trying desperately to figure out how to use some mathematical formula for calculating the probability of some combination of dice. These game are sometimes "component or mechanic heavy games" that have longer rulebooks and longer play times.

So, with that being said; what do I mean by the opening line about pathways?

Building one single victory condition into the game helps players better understand what it takes to win. This becomes "fuzzier" in the mind of players if there are many different victory conditions. Here are some ways of looking at the issue and none are "better or worse" just different: (listed from easiest to hardest to design)

    1. Building one pathway to one unique victory condition (1 to 1)

    2. Building many unique pathways to one unique victory condition (Any to 1)

    3. Building many interlocking pathways to many interlocking victory conditions (Any to Any)

    4. Building one unique pathway to each corresponding unique victory condition (Any 1 to 1)

Each of these has its own "flavor" and the one you want to put in the game needs to be firm in your mind as you design the game. Three and Four are arguably the same thing, the main difference is whether or not the paths cross and affect each other". Here is some explanation of how each work:

1 to 1: This would be like a "racing game" there is just one way to win the game. This is like "Snakes and Ladders" or "Candy Land". It is often a literal path in the game that all player must travel to reach the goal at the end. For the most part, players have only one main type of action to move along the path (but not always). This is not to be confused a scoring track.

Any to 1: In this player 1 can say. "I am going to focus on getting and selling beer to the pirates" and player 2 might say "I am going to focus on attacking the pirates". In this, both players are after the pirate "gold" and the player with the most wins. The same end goal is reached by any of the pathways you build for the players. This is by far the most common type of game because it includes many actions to earn some type of "points" that win the game. These game will also "most of the time" be the games that have a score track.

Any to Any: This involves some of the things above to some extent. If we add more victory conditions to the "Any to 1" type of game we can get an "Any to Any" game but it can also quickly become hard to manage. These are games that advertise the "many" victory conditions as a "selling point" of the game. Games where players can win by military force, economics, diplomacy, and other such factors of gameplay. One thing that sets these games apart from the "Any 1 to 1" is that each of the goals affects (or is connected to) the other goals in many ways.

Any 1 to 1: This would involve many different "unrelated resources or actions" that can be gathered or accomplished in order to win. Also, this might be a game where players have a unique victory condition they alone need to fulfill but the goal they have this game comes from a pool of many choices or is given at random. Each path is unique both in what the players do and what they need to have in order to win. In some ways, this is just like having many “1 to 1” games inside the same game. Each player is still racing to finish but each player is on an independent path. This type of game is less common. The concept for it is a little counterintuitive to the way we want to "compete together" on the same playing field. Variants of this type of logic are useful in building paths for solo games and co-operative games with variable player powers. You also see this as “extra or optional” ways to win in some games that are normally otherwise only score based.

    Note: The idea that it is "all or none" of the paths that "can or can't ever" affect the others is not the most important thing that separates the types, it is just one main thing that can. Some "ways of drawing lines between games" are just blurry... because we are people and there are far more types of games than I am making categories for.

Take the example I used from the Any to 1. Now if player two attacks the pirates they "capture" a pirate. If player two can capture 4 pirates before player one can sell enough beer to them they win. Everything about the game changes and the goals are now themselves part of the conflict. There are fewer pirates to sell beer to every time a player captures a pirate. It is because the paths are "interlocking" or "interconnected" that makes it more complicated to balance. Now this would be it is an "Any to Any" game.

Example: The "Any to 1" game of "Scythe" by Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games.

Let's take the game of "Scythe" and "push" or “change” how it was designed and shift it between some of these types to see how they work. If you don't know or understand how this game is played. You can watch this 32 min video or "trust" my short example below before moving on:

There are ten independent objectives for the players to earn "stars", but once any player has earned six stars the game ends. The player who "ended" the game does not always "win" the game. The overall goal is to have the most "coins" at the end. Based on the "end state" of the game, players earn a different number of "coins" for each star. So while the player who ended the game has six stars to score, the stars another player has might be "worth" more based on the "end state" of the game. Also, stars are not the only thing players get coins for at the end of the game, so there are also three other factors that lead to the "end game coins" in addition to any coins earned by actions in the game.

If you played "Scythe" where the player who earned any star first was the winner, you would change it into an "Any 1 to 1" type of game. The problem is that if you did this you would break the game.

Because earning some of the stars is "easier" than earning others, that "easy" star would be the "only" strategy to win and all the other ways of earning stars would become useless to the players. This makes the "Any 1 to 1" (in my mind) the hardest game type to balance.

If you played "Scythe" where actions that help a player to earn one type of star made getting another type of star "harder" for the other players (and changed many other small things), this would change it into an "Any to Any" type of game.

This example is far from perfect but I hope that it helps you to see the way the "main goal" of the game and the path to reach it are very different and can be designed in many ways. Keep in mind that complexity and depth are not the same things. Having many paths that interact may work well in some games and not as well in others. But just the fact that there is more than one path does not in and of itself add "depth" but for sure it does add "complexity".

How the raw number of choices a player has to sort through vs. how meaningful each of those choices is toward advancing a player's "strategy" is what gives a game depth. If a game has so many choices that a player cannot "find" the meaningful ones for their strategy they will not "find" the bottom of your game's "depth". By contrast, if you limit a player's choices to only a few simple by meaningful ones, you might make it too easy to always know the best move every turn. This puts a player on "auto pilot" and they don't have to think at all during the game. You could say that they "find" the the bottom of your game's "depth" just by stepping in and stubbing their toe!

Building Paths

Now that we understand how paths to victory "fit" into games, we need to first select the "type" we want in the game. This choice is normally easy for most game design and only becomes more complicated as you get into designing "heavier strategy" games.

For the sake of argument, we will not look at building the "old school" "roll & move" single path to victory game and just move on to the most common type found in games. Let's do that by talking about how the "any to 1" it is formed.

The goal of the player is to win! But the thing we will "count" to show that they have won is the one thing you need to design. This "have the most or do the most" scoring method can be almost anything. When you are trying to design "what victory points should be called" think about the core ideas for the "theme" of the game you are making and see if you can find something other than just Victory Points or Gold or Money. This is not to say that they are bad, just overused and if you don't think of anything else then, by all means, use one of them.

Always try and think of "things" that can be obtained in many ways!

Villain Power! Why do the players have to win by having the most? A way of tracking what the heroes have done to weaken (take away from) the power of a villain? Taking territory, killing the minions, looting resources, arming the weak and helpless. This can't be boss villain's health because of the "race to the end", this would convert the score track into a health meter. Then other aspects of villain "power" are not on the same "path" and damaging the boss. Remember this is about many things leading to the same thing.

Hero Fame! The highest fame at the end wins. Players might get "fame" from completing quests, challenges, killing foes, owning land, having the most followers, exploring the most areas. the list is nearly endless.

Happy Customers! This can take many forms, farmers feeding the most townspeople, most damsels in distress rescued.

As you can see this all comes down to "how to name the thing". This is more for the sake of having a clear theme, but by having a more descriptive "name" representing your game's "victory points" will help to make the "types of paths" your chosen theme has to offer more visible to you.

In the end, you can go back to gold or victory points for the "ease of use" if your target audience needs that hook.

Once you have the types of paths that work with your theme, you can start to think about what mechanics can be used to make each path interesting. This will inform (or shape and mold) the mechanics and to help make them seem more natural to the players based on the theme you are going for. Going back to the "Pirates & Beer" game example.

If the players are in a "game world" where their actions have an effect on the elements of your theme it can feel more "real" to them. Game mechanics for getting and selling beer to pirates are much different from mechanics for fighting pirates (or they should be). One would think that fighting pirates might have "dice rolling" combat, and selling beer could be more of a "pick up & deliver". Both make the players go to where the pirates are located in the game and both might involve some "risks". Each pirate "clan" might have one type of beer it likes most and one type it hates! The weapon you take with you to fight the pirates might work great against some and not so great against others. (if a rock-paper-scissors is used in some way).

The point is, the type of actions in the path should fit the theme and the mechanic used should go hand in hand with how you would expect that path to work. Each path might be more or less random, make players move or go places, buy things, build things. All based on the theme of the game.

Because all of the paths go to the same place, you have the freedom to make some harder to complete but give a greater reward in the end. Harder risk does not mean more random. But that is "one way" to add "risk". All of this is based not only on the theme but also the sort of game you are trying to make (the type).

There are other ways to approach the idea of building paths. Many games can "fit" more than one theme. This is because instead of building around "one theme" you can also build around a "core mechanic". Many times this is why a game is called "this X type of game". A "pick up & deliver game" stands independent of the "themed things" being "delivered". You can build around any core mechanics and then "paint on" a theme later.

There is no "right way" to do things when building a game. But there is a "right way" for you to do it! This is your "method" of game design and it is not the same as the game theories you know or understand. This just means that if it is easier for you to think about your idea more if you can visualize the theme, do it that way. If you can picture a great way to get something fun out of a mechanic or set of mechanics then build them first and add theme later.

No matter how you do things remember that each path needs to be equally as good as every other path or else one path might not be "worth" the player's time to try and use it. Each path needs to be carefully balanced against the rest to ensure it has the same "costs to benefits" as the rest, but they don't all have to have the same "risk to reward" ratio.

This is a very large topic that has many other things to consider, but they will have to come later as my time to write allows.

Parting thoughts:

Do players know they are winning? Do other players know who is winning? Do you want players to know? Will there be player elimination? Do you want it to be a close game right up till the end?

All things to think about as you choose how to build your "multiple balanced tactical pathways to victory".

This is intended only as "Food for Thought". Please let me know what you think, I am by no means the authority on this subject so any input from other designers is greatly appreciated.

"Always remember to think outside the box so your games will fit inside!"


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blog | by Dr. Radut