All things must end, including (or especially!) board games. Imagine a game that just won’t stop (Monopoly? Risk?), it’s just not fun anymore after the 3th hour…
There are a number of common ways for games to end, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. In this post I want to take a look at different ending conditions for board games and how to use them in game design.
Between ending and winning
Ending a game and winning it does not need to be the same. Citadels ends when a player has built an 8th building. The winner however is the player who has gathered the most points during play, which need not be the same player! Alternatively, in Catan the player who first scores 10 points both wins and ends the game.
Ending the game when someone has won (like Catan) makes it very clear what you’re striving towards and how far or close everybody is to that. I’d say that in general this is the simpler option and thus worthwhile for lighter weight games.
There are however good reasons to pull winning and ending apart. For one it can keep the game tense for much longer, especially if part of the winning condition is hidden. In a game of Monopoly it’s generally clear who’s going to win well before someone actually does, making the latter part of the game far less fun for everybody involved. In a game of Terra Mystica on the other hand there are a lot of points only scored at the very end, meaning that you never know who will be the final winner. This tends to keep players involved much more, even if they’re not doing stellarly.
Determining the winner after the game has ended can obscure why someone won. Especially in a “point salad” game (a game where many different actions give you some victory points), it can be hard to determine which actions were a great idea and which ones were not so much. This can be good, as it makes the replay value of your game higher (“I’m not sure if it was my overall strategy or my great tactics that won me the game… Let’s play again to find out!”), but it can also leave people dissatisfied as there might not be a clear way of improving their play.
5 ways of ending a game
Having made the distinction between ending and winning a game, let’s look at some “traditional” ways of ending board games.
1. Set in stone
Terra Mystica and Smallworld each have a given number of rounds and after those rounds are over, the game ends.
Similarly, Chess is generally played with a clock and if time runs out then the game ends (though it can also end earlier).
This is probably the simplest way of ending a game. Everybody knows exactly what is going to happen and they can plan accordingly.
A result of this is that players will tend to play differently in what they know is the last turn: No more investing, grab all those last-minute points!
2. The race
In Catan you’re in a race against the other players: Get to 10 points first. It doesn’t matter if the next round someone else would’ve gotten to 11 points (or 20), the game ends once a pre-set condition is met by a single player.
Similarly, Lewis & Clark is a literal racing game, in that you’re trying to be the first to get to the end of the board.
Racing games show clearly the progression of everybody and thus it’s easy to gauge how far you are from ending the game. There is however some uncertainty, as you can’t know for certain whether your opponent won’t pull a trick out of their sleeve and end the game early, or whether your perfect plan to end this turn gets thwarted and it’ll take you another go to get there.
As a result players will generally start playing differently towards the end of the game, but there is no clear cut-off when behavior changes. This depends on the estimates of each player on how much time they have left. As such it can create a “smoother” experience in that there are no sudden changes in the behavior over the course of the game.
3. The kill
In Monopoly and Captain Sonar you end the game when the other players (or team) is defeated. This generally means taking away certain resources (money for Monopoly, life for Captain Sonar).
Especially in multiplayer games “killing” someone isn’t much fun, as it means that they are no longer allowed to actively participate in the game. For two player games however this isn’t a problem because as soon as one player is out, the game ends for everybody.
“Killing” generally means very confrontational play: You’re directly trying to diminish the other player(s). Not every player is comfortable with these kinds of actions. However, it is also possible to “kill” in a more passive-aggressive way; in Monopoly you never directly “attack” your opponent, it is through their own “actions” (or the roll of the dice) that they are depleted of money.
Ending the game through player elimination can create huge swings in playing time, especially if there are multiple players present: There will be a tendency to “gang up” on whomever is perceived to be winning. The amount of player interaction then determines how successful this is.
4. Too much or too little
In Pandemic you lose the game if you run out of cards in the deck, if you run out of disease cubes or if the “outbreak” marker gets to the end of the track.
All of these are examples of having too much or too little of something.
This type of game end condition is especially prevalent in cooperative games, though it exists in player-vs-player games as well: In Bohnanza the game ends after running out of cards in the deck for the third time.
This is a very versatile mechanism to end the game with, as it allows for many different variant. How much do players have influence on whatever it is that is ticking towards the end? In Pandemic players very actively try not to get outbreaks, so there is a strong influence on that game end condition. Running out of cards however is only a function of the number of turns taken and thus players really have no control over it.
When players have a lot of control, the length of a game might swing quite a bit, as it depends on how well they are able exercise their control whether the end is triggered. If however there is limited control, game length is much more fixed.
5. The mission
In Risk players get a card telling them what they need to do to win the game: Control 24 area’s, control 3 continents, etc.
The result is that the game can end very suddenly: A player declares they have achieved their objective and the game is over. On the one hand this can create an interesting tension, on the other it can also leave players frustrated as they did not get to anticipate the end of the game. As such, care should be taken when using this mechanic.
However, it is generally hard to fulfill an objective, without signaling in advance that this is your objective and thus other players can anticipate the end of the game to a certain extent.
Using (hidden) objectives also creates an element of bluffing into the game. It can be a wise tactic to go for things that are not directly related to your objective so that other players will try to stop you from doing things you don’t really care about, while giving you free reign to do the things you do care about.
In modern versions of Risk players get multiple objectives and they show them when they are completed. This then gives a sense of progress towards the end: If a player has no objectives finished then they are unlike to be able to end the game any time soon, but if a player just needs a single one, it’s good to start preparing for the finish.
Technically this a version of the “race”, in that each player is racing to complete their own objective(s). However, in “standard” racing games all players are heading towards the same finish and it’s generally known how close they are to it.
Personally I would love to see more games that incorporated this mechanic to end the game. Perhaps something for my own next game…?
I’ve found that so far in my designs I never paid really a lot of attention to my end-game conditions. They sortof just “happened”. Which is not to say I never changed them around, but I did it without a lot of thought on what I was trying to achieve. I hope that for the future I can be a bit more direct in this.
And it would be interesting to design something around a specific game ender. As mentioned, I would love to see more around achieving certain “objectives”
Did you ever have specific considerations when designing the end of your game? What were your thoughts?
I wrote a previous article about games ending, but that focused on the limited lifespan of any kind of resource: Resources are temporary
This also links to another post: The time-value of resources
And it seems that the awesome people over at Games Precipice had similar ideas, because here is their article on end conditions (I haven’t read it, but knowing their previous work I’m happy to endorse them unread)
About the author
Hi, 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.
And perhaps you know of others interested in learning? Share this post using the buttons below: