Winning Is Fun, But Not Knowing What Victory Means Might Be Better

I spent a good portion of this weekend playing Terraforming Mars, a tabletop strategy game (soon to be available on PC and tablet) where different corporations compete to adapt the Red Planet to human habitation and to reap the greatest rewards from the effort. Unlike both Surviving Mars and Offworld Trading Company, Terraforming Mars feels like a much more dramatic story of extraterrestrial colonization: Instead of just building domed cities and planting gardens, you’re also carrying out violent and borderline apocalyptic plans to redevelop the planet’s ecosystem. In one game, an opponent built a giant, energy-capturing space mirror to power their colonies. Someone else spent all their money and engineering to yank Deimos out of its orbit and crash it into the planet in order to rapidly heat Mars’ atmosphere. Another player detonated old nuclear weapons to achieve a similar, but much more modest, effect.

It was a lot of fun, and each game featured a different implicit narrative based on everyone’s choices. But the other interesting part was how each game ended up coming down to the wire, even if it felt at times like someone had a massive lead. Every time we completed all our terraforming objectives and started tabulating final scores, it turned out that everyone had quietly been meeting lots of conditions for special victory points. Suddenly someone revealed that they’d built a ton of valuable buildings, or that they'd quietly won an award for producing the most science. I came within a point of a come-from-behind victory thanks to, I kid you not, a massive collection of pet animals whose presence improved the planet’s habitability and—one assumes—cuddliness. Every game ended in a kind of photo finish that left everyone feeling good about the game they’d played, and excited to try again. And it made me realize how much fun secret or uncertain victory conditions can make a strategy game.


This is a pretty commonplace feature of modern board games: Games frequently end with players tallying up their scores across a variety of different endgame categories that can cause dramatic swings of fortune at the last possible moment. Some games employ hidden objectives that players will try and fulfill on the sly, which hides the real progress that they are making versus their “public” score. Lords of Waterdeep is a well-known example of this. But even games that don’t actually hide information rarely publicize the true state of play: Unless you are the kind of person who can effortlessly count cards and retain that information, it can be hard to sit around a gaming table and keep track of how everyone else is going to score in the end.

What I like about it is that it seems to keep everyone invested in the game. The last thing you want in a board game is for a few people to realize they’re irretrievably screwed and that there’s hardly any point to continuing. But if it feels like you might have a buzzer beater left to throw, you can always try to reinvent your approach to the game after some initial failures and frustrations.

This is a hard thing for video games to replicate because they track so much data that they take a lot of the guesswork out of your calculations—and if a game doesn’t track useful information for me, I’m probably going to complain about how intentionally obtuse and user unfriendly it’s being. Still, I think there’s a lot to be said for a game whose final victory conditions do not become fully apparent until the end.


A lot of strategy video games feel like a series of sprints. You need a strong start to have a chance at a strong mid-game and that mid-game needs to go well to set you up for an endgame. That’s the Civilization model, certainly, and you could even argue this approach is even more ironclad in most RTS games. The alternative is usually the self-directed sandbox fun of a Paradox game: For instance, right now Austin, Danielle, and myself seem to have decided that our radical socialist democracy in Stellaris needs to wipe out all the galaxy’s slavers. It’s not really an endgame victory condition, but it feels like the kind of thing we’d do if we had starfleets at our fingertips.

But I love this idea that you could be reaching the end of a strategy game campaign, and everything is going to plan, and you’re still not quite sure that crossing the finish line and ending the race is actually going to work in your favor. You always know that you could watch someone else jump into the lead because they fulfilled a bunch of secondary objectives that you ignored or didn’t know about.


Maybe everyone would hate this in reality. A “blue shell” equalizer probably feels very different after 12 hours of play than it does after 45 minutes, especially if it’s an AI opponent pulling that move. But lately I’ve felt like a lot of of my strategy game experience end by running out the clock and hoping that I’ve been a little bit faster than everyone else. Or they end practically before they’ve begun, as I realize I’ve misplayed a map and should just start over, because clawing my way back into contention seems either impossible of just so frustrating as to be pointless.

Then I think about Terraforming Mars, and all those games where everyone finished within a handful of points of one another. Everyone was happy to finish and eager to play again, and that sure feels like just as important a feeling as “one more turn”.

What about you? What are some of your favorite "win conditions" that break the conventional mold and make a game more fun?

Let me know in today's open thread!

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Working on a board game prototype that started out as an experiment in designing a game without a win condition.

It’s about kids playing dress-up, or maybe a david bowie-eseque goblin ball. I’m not sure which yet.

It plays with Bartle’s Taxonomy types as measures of personal success, and I would LOVE playtesters.

I’m not aware of games that do the thing I’m about to describe (though surely it exists somewhere and I’d welcome examples if you know of them), but I’d like to see games implement non-zero-sum win conditions. I don’t mean just cooperative games or non-competitive games, but rather games that are simultaneously competitive and cooperative.

If that’s hard to conceptualize, imagine a game where each player wins as long as they cross a certain threshold of points by the end of the game. There could be different ways to generate points for yourself as a single player, to grow the pool of possible points for all players, and to gain points for some players at the expense of others. At the end of the game, you could end up with everyone winning, or no one winning, or any subset of players winning, depending on player skill, luck, and cooperation.

There are a couple issues with this basic setup. For one thing, you don’t want people to reach a victory condition and be guaranteed a win and have the game still continue until the turn limit. For another, the game could devolve into a pure cooperative game or a pure competitive game if it’s not balanced correctly. There’s a couple ways I could see to address these things: first, instead of relying on accumulating victory points, the victory conditions should be tied to states of the game that are always subject to change. Towards the end of the game, players that aren’t on track to achieve victory should be able to try to forcibly redistribute points away from the leaders in a zero-sum (or even negative-sum) way. Another variation you could add to this setup is to give players personal objectives that are preconditions to victory.

This is getting a bit complicated, but what it boils down to is that I’d like to see games where cooperation is a competitive advantage but you still can’t trust that other players have the same interests as you but also you don’t need to crush everyone else in the end to win.

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You’ve outlined a lot of the reasons I think there isn’t much of this – it’s a REALLY hard design problem – on the level of designing a successful healthcare system.

Broadly speaking, MMOs can do a pretty good job with this – allowing for competitive and cooperative games with shifting alliances. The time scale of short vs long term optimization opens up this design space. Similarly, legacy style games that evolve over multiple playthroughs often have players trying to balance individual goals against group needs.

Dead of Winter is probably the biggest example I can think of that does coopetition well. Each player has a sub-goal to meet, but it only triggers if the main goal succeeds.

If you’ve ever played the original Final Fantasy Crytsal Chronicles multiplayer, which is a tall order I realize, there’s a great mechanic where each player has a separate goal and the person who gets their goal most accomplished gets first draw from the loot at the end of the level. GREAT mechanic, perfectly balanced for coopetition.

What you really want in a good mechanic like this is some kind of loop that spurs cooperation when competition is high and incentivizes competition when cooperation runs too high.

Yknow, like life.


I think there’s a theoretical space for games to go that is not about ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ and more about predicting and optimizing end game state. If you have a complex enough end game, and enough control over goal setting…

off to write down some notes.

This is one of the things I love about tabletop RPGs, but it seems extremely difficult to implement in any other game where there is not a GR/DM/MC to facilitate things. Games like Betrayal at House on the Hill or Drinking Quest are sort of required to remove individualized player goals due to the randomized nature of the card/tile systems.

The flip side is that tabletop RPGs are usually fundamentally cooperative, and having players work against each other becomes a headache for the GR both in terms of handling dramatic irony and social tensions that might come up. I am very interested in finding a good way of combining something like Werewolf with Apocalypse World and still have it be fun and engaging. I also think that the tabletop RPG space has a lot more flexibility in terms of making that work than something with strict rule set like a board or video game.

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This is interesting, because in my experience, board games have been the best at delivering this sort of semi-cooperative experiences. Board games like Dead of Winter and especially Archipelago or CO2 are very successful at forcing players to work together while simultaneously giving each player a hidden agenda.

But as for a roleplaying game, have you heard of Fiasco? It’s sort of perfect for what you’re describing I think! Though it’s even less rules heavy than a game Apocalypse World, which I like but the lack of structure can be less enjoyable for many types of players.


I’m interested in the idea of apparently selfish goals that give way to cooperation – the trick is doing it in a way that DOESN’T get the cooperators to big-dog the new players.

Oh wait, that’s democracy.


I know very little about board games, so I am probably overlooking a huge swath of them. I have never heard of any of the three games you mentioned. I’ll have to look them up.

I’ve seen the book covers for Fiasco but never seen it played or anything. After looking up the rules on wikipedia I’m extra confused, but I think it’s normal to be confused if you haven’t seen the actual rulebook. Do you think it would be worth it to get the companion book as well as the base rules?

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They are good board games, though Archipelago is a terribly uncomfortable in it’s presentation of colonialism. Of the three I’d recommend Dead of Winter the most as it’s the friendliest to newcomers and is really good at matching theme with mechanics!

Concerning Fiasco: I would first get the core rulebook and if you’re still confused get the companion. I look at the fiasco companion to be like a GM companion guide for D&D or any other tabletop game: it’s helpful for avoiding common mistakes, but not at all necessary. I got it after my first game as it didn’t go as smooth as I hoped, but it isn’t needed for everyone!

If you’d like to see a playthrough, the tabletop episodes on it are very good (ep 1 and ep 2).


I cut my teeth DMing D&D 3.5, so I just feel like I should always have as many books as possible.

After watching the first video I’m pretty sure I get it, and I think it would be a good framework for what I want to do. The only thing I would have to figure out is a mechanical way to reward players for achieving their pseudo-werewolf goal. Having just the light dice be rewards feels a little lacking, but hey, that’s what homebrew is all about right?

Thank you very much for sending all this info my way.

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Ah yes, I started with Pathfinder so every rulebook led me to thinking “I could probably use even more rules, right?”.

Happy to help! For all I know there could be better systems out there, but some home brew would likely do the trick too!

I appreciate that the game tries to talk about it. Whomever taught me how to play pitched it as an attempt to engage with Puerto Ricos deeply tone deaf brown tokens.

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This video review does a good job at quickly explaining why the game still could have been better at confronting the offensive nature of the time period. But I do agree the game does a lot better job than Puerto Rico (and many board games) at presenting colonialism for what it was. But I haven’t played it in forever so I might be forgetting things, or maybe it was updated and I missed it?

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Thanks for the link! I’ll deffo take a look at it when I have a chance. I tend to be more tolerant than most of faults in this area when I perceive the creator as trying to do better – occupational hazard of being a teacher.

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I find myself moving increasingly in the direction of not wanting win conditions at all for a lot of games.

A thing I like about Battletech is that you don’t really have to pursue the story if you don’t want to. You can just play the game, inhabit the world, and manage your company. There’s no constant push or pressure to attain forward movement.

I contrast this against something like XCOM, which has a similar structure in many ways, but doesn’t feel at all the same for two reasons: The Avatar project, which demands that you pay constant attention to the story missions that block it, and the tech tree, which is linear and easily exhausted.

On a similar note - I always bounced really hard off of the civilization games, but I never understood why until I started getting into Paradox games. I like the idea of managing a civilization - what I don’t like is being funneled towards narrow victory conditions.