I wanted to have a review of it up today, but the book “Characteristics of Games” has been so good so far that I keep savoring it like a particularly delicious bite of steak instead of actually finishing it. This is good, though, because instead it has inspired me to talk about a very interesting topic in game design.
Chapter 3 of this book by Elias, Garfield, and Gutschera discusses different kind of game outcomes–how they finish and delineate winners and losers. The most straightforward kind of outcome is with the 2-player (or 2-team) game where there is a winner and a loser. Incentives for the players align very neatly there–both sides want to win, and that provides a clean level of competition.
What I’m going to be talking about are games where there are multiple sides. Most modern board games like this have some kind of end ranking or a points system that supplies ranks. For instance, in Castles of Burgundy or Ticket to Ride, players accumulate points (scored on a public track around the edge of the board) and the winner is the person who has the most points at the end of the game. Additionally, those points can provide a ranking from first to last. Even in a game like Monopoly or Risk, where all but one player is eliminated by the end of the game, there’s an implicit ranking system–whoever lasts longer ranks higher than those eliminated earlier.
The problem with such systems is that they can create kingmaking issues in the game. Recall that kingmaking is when a person who (ostensibly) has no chance at winning affects who ultimately wins the game by choosing who (or who not) to attack, block, or otherwise inhibit. In board gaming this is considered a negative player experience, since it eliminates agency from those in the lead. In other words, their skills in the game ultimately didn’t have much of a say in who won.
Of course, some might say that becoming good at political maneuvering is part of the skill of the game, and I would actually generally agree with that sentiment. However, games of this type walk a very fine line when it comes to kingmaking.
Mechanisms and characteristics of the games themselves can fight against negative player experiences, for sure. Let’s look at three good games that nonetheless can succumb to kingmaking problems: Eclipse, Kemet, and Dominant Species. Eclipse and Dominant Species are both epic, long area control games with potentially a lot of combat and general hostility. Play times can get up to 4 or 5 hours. This puts these games in a perilous position. If the winner is determined through kingmaking, that’s a lot of time that’s been spent on an unsatisfying outcome.
Dominant Species comes out ahead, in my estimation, because it’s harder for players to precisely know who is ahead. There’s a score track like with Ticket for Ride, but a significant number of points are scored in the final scoring phase at the end of the game. While it’s possible to see how many points someone would get in the scoring phase at the current board state, the board has the potential to change so much over the course of one round that you can only predict a general understanding of what’s going to change.
Indeed, a huge part of Dominant Species is trying to figure out what your opponents are going to do and how that might affect your play. But there’s too many variables to accurately count the number of points at stake to a precise amount. Because the score is obscured so much, even if there is a pseudo-kingmaking situation at the end of the game, it could be more readily attributed to the winning player effectively politicking their way to the top in a subtle way (not bullying the other players but disguising their intentions and using the mechanisms of the game to use their opponent’s tendencies against them).
Eclipse, on the other hand, has a much more easily read board state. What players can affect in the latter parts of the game are more limited and more clear–certain planets are worth more points than others and there are only so many successful attacks you can accomplish (generally 2 or fewer of any significance). It’s not very difficult to quickly count up how many points each person is sitting on, and while there are some points kept in secret, they’re not particularly difficult to estimate.
This creates situations where you can optimise the final couple of turns of the game based on how many points you’ll get through various actions. It doesn’t kill Eclipse (it’s still a fun game) but it can create anti-climactic situations.
Furthermore, it presents very uncomfortable choices to the people not in the running for the win. If we say that they should try to maximize their points, does that change if the best point-maximizing play is to do an all-out attack on the player in 2nd place? What if, instead, we say that they should try to maximize their relative rankings? Doesn’t that also incentivize them to attack people in 2nd or 3rd place in order to catapult ahead of them, effectively kingmaking anyway. Do we value coming in first only, and everyone else has lost? Or is there value in placing 2nd instead of 3rd?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, and personally I tend to try to maximize absolute points while deliberately trying not to explicitly king-make. That seems to be the least obtrusive path, though I don’t know if it’s the most satisfying for everyone involved.
Kemet adds another angle, because it is played to only 7 points before it’s over. This means that everyone knows at all times how close any other person is to victory. In fact, it’s a big part of the game because whoever is behind in points can determine the player order for the next round, which is an extremely powerful advantage. A lot of the game then becomes a matter of manipulating turn order while trying to accomplish a big final turn in order to surge into the lead.
This creates a myriad of kingmaking opportunities, though like with Dominant Species, they don’t seem as bad as they should be, but for different reasons. In Kemet the kingmaking is mitigated both by the length of the game (1.5 hours or so) and by the fact that everyone begins so “close” to victory. Fighting others constantly is heavily incentivized, so attacking the leader is a constant fact in the game. Kemet then is a game about manipulating kingmaking to your advantage. It becomes so much a part of the game that it becomes the game itself.
However, that doesn’t mean that Kemet avoids negative player experiences entirely. In fact, because the incentives are so stark and because player order is so important, adept players can often figure out the string of events that will happen in the last round and who is likely to win. It’s usually because that person has played well the rest of the game, of course, but the incentives are so tightly locked together that the end game can seem deterministic.
All of this to say that there are no easy answers when it comes to kingmaking, but that different games can use different mechanisms to mitigate their effect. Multiplayer games with any kind of direct interaction have the potential to create negative kingmaker experiences, but only the best games will be enjoyable despite that potential. It’s a tough design problem, and I look forward to seeing how games work around it in the future.