A coworker came into work thrilled about something the other day, something board game related. They tracked down a fresh, unopened copy of the now out-of-print Battlestar Galactica (Corey Konieczka, Fantasy Flight Games).
I have to admit, I've never seen the show. Is that terrible? I've been through Star Trek and Firefly and a bit of Stargate but I never got around to Battlestar. But they were so excited to play it, and I was excited for a new rare board gaming experience.
We cracked it open right at work despite limited table space and dove into a three player game. The game immediately had a few strikes against it in my head: the ship pieces are all shiny gray (enemy and ally ships were all the same size and colour), it used a lot of lingo for everything that you really need to see the show to know, and it used episode stills for all the art which to me is just a cardinal offense. But as we played, I ended up warming up to it for a few reasons. It had a neat hidden-identity mechanic, where you had two chances to be put on the "enemy" cylon team giving, and you could keep it a secret and take the humans down from the inside or reveal it to get a bunch of new powerful options to fight the humans with.
The best experience however was the tension leading up to the final turns. The game nails the ending, with multiple ways to win or lose and all of them clearly displayed on the board at all times. We ended up running out of population on our ships, which is one of four resources you can't let deplete to zero. You also are at risk of a boarding party taking over the ship and of your ship taking too much damage. To win, the humans have to fly forward in space enough to reach their final destination.
That opening is miles longer than I wanted it to be. What I wanted to talk about were game endings.
I grabbed this name from Stonemaier Games which they refer to as a game without a set number of rounds. Organic endings have a reputation as being the "right" way to design a board game, so much so that Stonemaier lists it as one of their design tenants. And in the right situation, it works. Not only are you giving your players agency, letting them control the end of the game, but you're also letting the game come to its conclusion naturally.
This tends to be found in competitive and tense games where there are clear goals such as in game events, achievements, and point totals. It creates the feeling of a race, because the advantage usually leans towards whoever can meet the objective first, though that's not always the case. Scythe (Jamey Stegmaier, Stonemaier Games) does this very well, trying to avoid the feeling that you'll automatically lose because someone else is about to end the game.
There's a dangerous theoretical territory where you can't really depend on a consistent play-time with this type of ending. I don't know if I've experienced that often, but regardless you need to consider this when designing. If there is no turn limit, how do you guarantee that the game won't be over too quick or last too long? Having those answers is essential.
Round Limit Endings
Games that have a turn tracker are pretty common. Limiting your game to a specific number of rounds adds a stability and predictability to your design that can make a lot of you mechanics decisions easier. It lightens the load on you as a designer because you don't have to worry about play-time varying as much. You can even vary the number of rounds with each player count to give your game more consistency in playtime.
But it also creates its own set of problems. How do you prevent the game from feeling like it's over too soon because no one can catch up to the winner? What keeps players that are behind from throwing in the towel? How do you keep tension up as the game moves forward?
Lords of Waterdeep (Peter Lee & Rodney Thompson, Wizards of the Coast) and Caverna: The Cave Farmers (Uwe Rosenberg, Lookout Games) are two very successful games that use this ending mechanic. They help counter these problems by keeping the players' scores partially hidden. In Waterdeep you never know how many bonus points players will score at the end of the game for the number of quests they complete, even though there's a point tracker that gives you a rough idea of how everyone is doing. Caverna calculates points at the end of the game, meaning you could study a player's board to discern how well they are doing, but it's not obvious at a glance and you have your own turns to worry about.
Even with these fixes in place, it can still feel pointless to carry out your last few turns when you know you can't catch up. That's why I feel this suits games that gives you more to manage individually with less interaction between players. It's particularly common in worker placement games, where planning, strategy, and analysis are favoured.
My next post will explore Hybrid endings which have a whole personality to them separate from the other two types. Maybe I'll even mention my love-hate relationship with Betrayal at House on the Hill (which should have a "the" in the title, it's infuriating).