Board game design

What is a board-game without a winner?


For most board-games it's win or bust!
For most board-games it’s win or bust!
We play a board game and at the end of it one person does a fist pump while the others hang their heads. One winner and multiple losers.

The difference can be one lousy point (on a total of two hundred) and still there is a watershed between glorious victory and humiliating defeat.

As a board game designer this fascinates me: Why is “the winner” so important?

No-winner game: Sim-City

There is a whole swath of computer “games” that can’t be won, with Sim-City being the first that comes to mind. I spent hours staring at my screen, trying to get enough money to be able to create more space for houses so that I could get more money…

Technically such a “game” would be better qualified as a “simulation”, but it’s not my intention to get into semantics here.

And though you can’t win Sim-City, I generally did have an idea of what I wanted to do: Get the biggest city. Or create a city without any pollution. Or see how quickly I could completely raze what I built up using tornados. What I wanted to do became my goal for that particular session. I wouldn’t “win” the game. But I could most certainly achieve something.

No-winner game: Dungeons & Dragons

A second game that generally can’t be won is a role playing game, Dungeons & Dragons being the quintessential example.

In a role playing game the game master throws up a number of obstacles, which the players are to overcome. These obstacles are carefully tailored to be difficult but not impossible.

It’s also true that the game never needs to stop. Overcome one obstacle, there is a next one. Reach a higher level, there’s an even higher level to reach. Defeat the boss monster and it turns out she was just a lowly minion of an even bigger bad-ass.

There is however a clear succession of goals for the players: Disarm this trap. Defeat that monster. Level up. Get out of the building alive.

Winning in cooperative games

In modern cooperative games (e.g. Pandemic) we say that we “won” when manage to beat (survive) the game. In Pandemic that means “finding the cures for all the diseases”.

But does it make sense to say that you “won” from a game; a board, some cards and a set of rules? Can you defeat something that isn’t alive, that doesn’t have intelligence?

Colloquially it’s of course perfectly acceptable to say you won. But technically it is better to say that you achieved the goal set by the game (forgive me for going into semantics after all…).

Winning in a standard board game

If you lose, then I win!
If you lose, then I win!
For your run-of-the-mill board game, “winning” means doing something better / faster than the other players: Be the first to reach 10 points, have the most building, etc.

Winning means achieving a certain goal, where that goal is relative to other players’ performance. Which makes “winning” s specific sub-set of “achieving a goal”.

I’d like to delve into that idea a bit further, but first let’s take a look at what different people like to get out of games.

Winning and different player types

There is something called “Bartle’s Taxonomy of Player Types” which though originally developed for computer games, works for board games as well:

  • The killer want to be better than the others
  • The achiever wants to make something happen
  • The explorer wants to see what is possible
  • The socializer wants interact with other people

Of the above the killer is most interested in winning, in fact it’s about the only thing that really matters to her, everything else is a means to that end.

The achiever is interested in winning, as it’s one form of making something happen. But the achiever would be equally pleased with achieving any other goal.

The explorer likes to win, as that is one of the things that can happen, but she would be just as happy with simply poking around and trying different things. In fact, having everybody else so bent on winning makes it harder for her to see what else might happen if they tried something different.

The socializer doesn’t care about winning, he is in it for the “togetherness”. And if there was no internal strive but the group could still do something interesting and fun together, that would be even better for him.

So from the above it seems clear that the killer requires the possibility for “winning”, while the other types don’t specifically need it (the achiever), to in fact actively would prefer not having it present (the socializer).

Consequences for designing games

The way games are designed now we actively cater to one sub-group of all (potential) players (the killer) and they don’t do justice to at least one of the groups (the socializer).

In the above I’ve already been hinting at another possibility: Instead of each player aiming to be the (single) winner, each person could work on one or more goals. These could be implicit (like in Sim-City) or they could be explicit (like in a tabletop role-playing game).

What might it mean for a game to incorporate this idea?

An example

Before we go further let’s create a small example of a game, which we can use in the following discussion.

Our imaginary game of course uses one of the most common themes in board-game-history: Building a trade empire on the Mediterranean Sea. In fact let’s call it Mediterranean!

A very short sketch of what this game would be like: During a player’s round she can improve one of the cities with things like ports, she can produce agricultural products (wine, olives, etc.) and she can trade products with other cities through sea routes. There is a common currency to be earned which can be used to pay for all your improvements.

Goal driven games

Getting that goal is immensely satisfying!
Getting that goal is immensely satisfying!
Using the example from the previous section, the list below gives some ideas on options that open up when we step away from winning and move towards goals. I’m sure that with a bit of thinking you could come up many more (feel free to add ideas in the comments!):

Different game-play for different players

In modern games players are all trying to do more-or-less the same thing. They might have different strategies and tactics but the game-play is the same for everybody.

With different goals each player could have a completely different game experience. For our game one player could have the goal to have the biggest wine shipping empire, while another would have the goal to make Greece into an economic powerhouse.

Interesting interaction

“If you’re not with me, you’re against me!” And for most board-games, you’ll be against me!

When you’re all trying to be better than the other players then anything that helps them is automatically bad for me and vice versa. When you have different goals you can work together on one area while being in fierce competition on another, creating a much deeper game experience.

In Mediterranean I’m very happy if you build up the ports in Greece so that the wine I ship there becomes more valuable. The guy who is trying to corner the olive-oil market however is sending way too much stuff to Tunisia so they don’t have any money left to buy my stuff! At the same time I’m happy that he is trying to increase the population there, so it should get better over time…

Adjust the difficulty level

“Let me introduce you to this game I’ve already played 10 times. And squash you like a bug!”

When you play a game more often you get better at it. And this makes it difficult for experienced and novice players playing together; the former is much more likely to win.

With different goals however you can tailor the difficulty level to the players.

When your daughter plays for the first time all she needs is to have three ships at the end of the game. You however need to bring up the population of Spain, by a factor 10, ship at least 20 amphoras of olive-oil and defeat the the pirates roaming between the Greek isles.

Let people go for what they are interested in

Some people want to build, others want to destroy. Especially when people can chose their own goals (either taken from a number of pre-set ones, built using a goal-builder or made up by themselves entirely) they can go for the thing that is important to them.

A killer might chose to go for more money than any of the others at the end of the game. The achiever could try for having more ships than she had the last game. Explorers can see what happens when they try to connect the farthest cities on the map. And a socializer would be able to help whomever seems to have the worthiest goal.

Difficulties with goal-based games

Though I believe that creating goal-based games would add to our hobby, there are certainly some difficulties with this. Feel free to add more to the list:

  • Multiple possible goals can make it much more difficult to keep a feel of “balance” within the game
  • Different goals can create unforeseen effects when combined; the need for play-testing would increase
  • Not everybody will be interested in playing a game that they cannot conclusively win


I believe that taking a step away from a “there-must-be-a-winner” mentality would further enrich board-gaming as a hobby and board-game design as a profession. That is not to say that we should do away with winning and losing. Instead I think that there is room for goal-based games next to their more traditional kin.

There are certainly downsides to goal-based games, some of which are listed above. There are however downsides to anything new that we try. That should not stop us from giving it a go though.

The challenge

My challenge to any game designers reading this: What would happen if you let go of having a single winner in the game you’re currently developing? What avenues open up, what becomes impossible?

I’d be very happy to hear about your thoughts and results.

I’ll be sure to share mine as well.

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know if you agree and where you think I completely missed the point!

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter?



  1. Rutger

    I’d say Mao is a nice example of a board (well, card) game where there is no winner. The game is indefinite, but holds sub-goals to win rounds by getting rid of cards. It very much favours the explorer type of player, and appeals to socializers.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Mao certainly is a nice example. One issue I have with it is that there is also no “natural” end (the rules don’t specify one); you keep playing until people decide to quit. So there is no winner, but you also never reach any kind of goal…

  2. Sean Epperson

    There is another major factor not being considered in the difficulty of designing a game you don’t need to win. Namely, when do you end it?

    “There is a whole swath of computer “games” that can’t be won, with Sim-City being the first that comes to mind.”
    This underscores the problems, because the nature of those games is that you can play over the course of many days, weeks, months, etc and the platform allows for that.

    A board game must be taken down, in most cases. Pieces need to be put away, things need to be cleaned up.

    This means that a board game must have some incident that triggers an “end”. Sometimes that is goal driven (victory points, killed the boss, built the stuff…etc etc). Sometimes that is time drive (by a real world clock, sand timer, rounds, resource availability, etc).

    I think there IS some potential of incorporating phone apps into game progress to allow for longer plays…but then you’re starting to pull away from the concept of a board game and push more into video game territory.

    One of the problems I see here is that board games and video games are being looked at as identical platforms. They’re not.

    Board games are more like a movie. You go in, have an experience, and are done. Video games are more like a TV series. You have an experience, then come back again to continue that experience, over the course of time. And it doesn’t have to end. The state is kept alive external of the consumer, allowing them to consume at their own pace.

    The “legacy” board game titles blur that line a bit, being something that changes as you play, over the course of time…but they have an eventual end as well.

    The medium of the art form, often dictates the space in which you have to work. It kind of makes me think of someone asking why a painting can’t be more like a daily comic strip. The mediums are just very different and have different constraints and potentials.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Sean,

      There are many games where “ending the game” and “winning the game” are not directly related – games where you play for X turns and then the winner is determined by e.g. victory points. I would suggest something similar: Have a clear game-end condition (turns?) and then determine who achieved their goal or not.

      I do very much like your typification of a board-game as a movie and computer game as a series. Indeed the legacy games blur this distinction (as do sequels to movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe being the prime example).

      And regarding the “blurring of art forms”: I think this is a very exciting edge to be on. Innovation isn’t something completely new, it’s combining already existing elements to create something that is different from what is already there (see legacy games and the Marvel Universe). Would I go to a museum to look at a blend between comic and painting? I might very well enjoy that!

  3. This is a very interesting topic, and is one of the reasons that board games and video games are very different.

    The strength of board games is that they offer a chance at human interaction and play that can be enjoyed by people with different interests without requiring commitment beyond the game session (or sessions, for legacy games).

    Given this model, competition (against one another or against an objective) is the best and easiest way to lend context to a game. Outlining clear conditions of victory and defeat provides players with an understanding of the rules of engagement. Even experiential games, where competition is secondary, still have a winner (or winners) because it lends value to the players actions in the game.

    Recreating that value for different psychographics is a difficult challenge in board gaming. The “explorer,” for example, wants to dig in every part of the sandbox, but only the rare tabletop game can facilitate this need the explorer has to discover the unknown. Creative players that enjoy open-ended building games like Sim City and Farmville don’t find quite the same value in board games–I don’t know of any that can really make the player feel like they’ve genuinely made something that lives on after the game goes back on the shelf.

    Broadening the traditional board game model to appeal to these neglected psychographic groups could be huge for the industry. So how to do it?

    My theory is: through app integration, both to save progress and compartmentalize information.

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      Hi Mike,

      Competition is indeed a good way of creating context. It also makes balancing a game much easier (if everybody is striving for victory then everything else will get valued based on how much that helps you attain that victory; if someone has a superior strategy others will quickly start to copy it, taking away the benefit).

      I think it’s going to be a discovery process for the industry over the coming few years on how to appeal to even broader groups. App integration most likely will be a part of that, but I think it’s not going to be the end-all. Different types of games, different ways of interacting, different ways of “winning” are all going to be in there. I’m looking forward to being a part of that! 🙂

  4. I’m trying to build a semi-narrative-driven boardgame at the moment and so the idea of players having differing goals is a really good reminder for me that this sort of play exists. I do like the idea of players selecting their own goals, which feeds into the Explorer type of play very well – and also opens up the possibility of multiple players satisfying their victory conditions by the end of the game. I think in most games you’d have to have tiers of victory conditions (or require that more experienced players attain *more* victories).

    1. BastiaanReinink Author

      How is your narrative game coming along? Is it based on story telling (players telling stories) or story creation (the game creating the story out of the interactions)?

      And having more experienced players pick more goals seems like a good idea. Something like that should be done for all games, because it’s very common for the most experienced player to win…


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *