Beginning at the End

For my first blog on this new site I decided to start with writing about my thoughts on how to end a game. One of the early steps in creating a new game design is figuring out the games ‘flow’. How will a player interact with the game? How do players interact with each other? How does a turn or round play out? But also you must decide how the game will end. This can be tied to thyme or mechanics.

For an ending to be tied to the theme something must happen when the game ends, like the end of a book. The king returns. Mars has been terraformed. The cathedral has been built. The dragon has been slain.

For the end to be tied to a mechanic usually a goal is met, more like an activity. When someone scores X points or after a set number of rounds.

In both cases your game MUST end.

I know that seems silly to point out but I’ve played more than a couple prototype games that didn’t have a clear ending. In some cases we were playing to find a good stopping point but often games would go on for hours with no clear end in sight.

Let me pick on a very popular game for a moment.

In this game you and other players are set off to terraform a world over many years (not in real life but in my first game it felt like it). The end of the game is clear: Heat up the planet, raise the oxygen level. Once that is done the game ends and points are tallied. Seems simple enough. But if you dig through the game you find a lot of the actions that score you points DON’T raise the heat or oxygen. So if you want to win, don't let the game end or at least don’t bother with actions that contribute to bringing the game to an end.

My first play of this game took seven and half hours… no joke. It was all because one of the players was just finding cards/actions to score points and letting everyone else do the heavy lifting in the game. He chained an engine that took 5-20 minutes each turn to resolve. Me 2-3 hours in, not knowing what was going on, tried to follow suit thinking that’s how the game was played and it must end at some point. Finally I gave up and just focused on ending the game 5-6 hours in. I lost by more than 100 points.

I’ve played the game again and found that actions that lead to the end of the game are not worth as much as actions that prolong the game and those actions only work if the game is prolonged by those actions.

Now folks love this game much more than any game I’ve ever gotten published. I just use these as examples of how important knowing how to end your game is. This games ending I would say is inline with the mechanic of the engine builder that it is but the game misses merging the end of the game with the mechanic. The end matches the theme.

I feel this game would be better with a timer. Meaning thematically ‘others’ are also raising the heat and oxygen every so often. If the players don’t choose to end the game the end is still coming and if you don’t raise the heat or oxygen the players miss out on points. Thus engaging the players in the events of the end of the game.

This brings me to the two types of endings in games;

  • The Timer

  • The Event

Each can be used in almost any game but which to use may not be clear.

The timer is a ticking time bomb! The players should clearly see as the timer ticks away. This brings tension and dread to your game but also a clear goal to get things done. Some examples of this would be your life total before you die and the game ends, or a round tracker you check off after everyone has gone.

The event is coming you may never know when! Event endings are often hidden. Most likely in the last few cards of a deck. But also once the players accomplice a goal could trigger the end. The event can bring suspense and surprise to your game.

There are examples of mixes of the two, for example the game ends once a player reaches a set number of common points (if the points are hidden only to be revealed to end the game then that would be an event).

And games can have multiple ways to end. In my prototype game ‘Cathedrals to the Gods’ the game ends in one of two ways. Once a player builds their third cathedral or once the bag of terra tiles is empty. In either case the player finishes their turn and then the game ends. This is an example of using both endings: the bag of tiles is a timer seeing as any player may peek at the contents and an event when the last cathedral is built.

In summary, sometimes it is just as important to know where your game should end as it is to know where to start.