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  • Essays
  • All Tied Up - Ties and Tie Breakers in Board Games

All Tied Up - Ties and Tie Breakers in Board Games

O Updated
(Photo by Ruthson Zimmerman on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

Someone once said that board games are basically just a framework to arbitrate a victor. Even though that sounds quite cold, at its heart, it describes how many of us, especially competitive players, feel about board games. There needs to be someone at the end of the game who has won. The emphasis here is on the singular victor rather than winning as a team. In this article, I want to look at what it means not to have a single victor.

I think the obvious place to start is with competitive games. These games have one or more victory conditions. In many games, it is only possible for one player to win. There are no other ways to end the game other than with a single victor. Victory conditions could be things like the first player to reach so many points or the first player to reach the end of a track or similar. These games are very clear-cut and there is never any possibility of more than one person winning the game.

Of course, there are also many competitive games where it's possible that multiple players can claim victory at the end and these games have at least one tie-breaker to ensure that only one person will be the winner. Some games need more than one tie-breaker and I've seen games that list three. It can get rather technical and often, tie-breakers don't feel very satisfying and a victory based on a tie-breaker can feel undeserved. Someone might have played an absolutely amazing game, clinching victory right at the end, but simply because they had one less resource than another player, they lose. It doesn't seem fair.

However, many of us just need to know who the winner of a game is. It's fine to know the order in which people come in a game, by which I mean what place they take at the end, but only one person can be first. In fact, if you come second, you're still considered the loser of the game, even though you may have been really close to the first player in winning the game. Losing by one, single point can be hugely frustrating.

People, who don't like the idea of a single winner, are told to play co-operative games where everyone plays together and either everyone wins or everyone loses. It can still be very frustrating if the game is lost by one point, but at least everyone is in it together and the next time you play, you can probably win it. That's one of the attractions of co-operative games, of course, the feeling of everyone working together and nobody being the single victor.

At the same time, if you are a very competitive player, co-operative games won't be very satisfying for you and I must say, I prefer competitive games when I play with my games group. The idea of everyone playing their own strategy in a bid to win is interesting and exciting for me. Yet, losing against someone on a tie-breaker just doesn't feel right, especially if you have to go through several tie-breakers before you can decide who wins and who loses.

It gets even more bizarre when a game has several tie-breakers and if none of those resolves which player comes out top, then the game tells you that the players share the victory. It feels like they might as well not have bothered with the tie-breakers in the first place and simply told players to be grown-up and accept that they played equally well and deserve to consider themselves joined winners.

That seems to get at the heart of the matter for me. If two or more players fulfil a victory condition at the same time, then they all played equally well, as far as the game is concerned. There should be no need to arbitrate a single victor. We, as players, should be able to accept that we all won, each in our own way using our own strategy. We're not children who need to know that they are better than everyone else. We should be able to accept that several people have reached the goal of a game together and I think it's actually really exciting if different people took a different path to victory.

After all, a really interesting game is one where there are multiple ways to win. If everyone is forced down one route, then it becomes rather boring. If it's always just about being the first player to reach a certain goal, then turn order is probably the only deciding factor and it's just about luck. However, if everyone has an equal chance of winning, then the game should allow multiple people to claim victory together, because everyone has found a solution to the problem and deserves to call themselves successful in the game.

I think shared victories remove a lot of the frustration and feelings of unfairness in some games. Take out the tie-breakers and allow players to win together, especially when they've been competing throughout the game. If the game allows for alliances, then there is even more reason to offer shared victories.

Sure, the thrill of working with another player and forming a team that you know will need to be split before the end, because only one of you can win the game, is exciting. You need to decide who you ally with and when you break the alliance, but that's still possible, even if the game allows a shared victory. In fact, it could add another element and your decision is no longer just about when to break your alliance to win, but also about whether it makes more sense to hang onto your team partner with all your might, just so that you can have a shared victory with them.

I do think shared victories in competitive games are underrepresented and we need to see more of them. I think they will add another element to the gameplay and open up new strategies and paths to victory. I say, let's have more competitive games where multiple players can win together.

Now I wonder what you think about shared victories in competitive games. How do you feel about tie-breakers? Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #328579 08 Dec 2021 04:15
It depends on the game a bit, but I'm of a similar mind essentially. I'm quite happy to tie with someone. There's actually a certain thrill in it, again , game dependent, but as you say, if it's been an interesting game and we've done different stuff and then we come out equal after all that - it's a cool result. Part of that is probably influenced by watching alot of Test Cricket growing up (and football). But it's a not dissimilar feeling to that last throw of the dice with the last play, and rolling exactly what you need to win. All that play, and it comes down to this. If "this" is a shared victory - that's a memorable kind of moment. Personally I am not a competitive person (or player) so I'm sure that has a bit to do with it as well, but I don't need a winner to be declared.

As I said though it depends a bit on the game. There are certain tie-breakers that are actually fairly important - the example that springs to mind is Samurai; with only 3 things up for grabs, ties are quite common. I get why that one has a multi-layered tie-breaker. And its tie breaker is fairly obvious too, because it is essentially who has the most pieces.

Tie-breakers can feel not that good though, especially when there are multiple aspects to a game and the designer has chosen one of them to be the tie-breaker - why THAT one? It can change the way the game is played (that is, if people remember it... how many times is it getting near the end and it's tight and people are like, "what's the tie-breaker again?". Personally I find those types a bit unsatisfying. But I don't mind cash as a tiebreaker. Although I prefer games where cash is just the thing that gives you the outright victory.

Anyway - mostly, I'm happy to share a victory. It's all good, I don't need a winner, I'm playing a flipping boardgame.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #328581 08 Dec 2021 07:27
Speaking of tie breakers, this was recently announced. Should be interesting to say the least. Not that there is any way in hell I am attending.
sornars's Avatar
sornars replied the topic: #328582 08 Dec 2021 07:29
I'm generally indifferent to tie breakers and am totally comfortable with "you both win" even if my generally preferred framing for two player games is "you both lost". If listed I will respect and follow the tie breaker rules and will even take them into consideration when choosing between multiple options, but what really gets my goat is when tie breakers are enumerated along axises which are only tangentially related to playing the game well.

Arboretum has the best tie breaker: "If there is still a tie, the tied players must each plant a tree. In five years' time, the player whose tree has grown the tallest wins" but Pax Pamir is a close second: "if there is still a tie, whoever can cook the best chopan kebab wins."
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #328584 08 Dec 2021 09:53
I'm okay with one tie-breaker mechanic in a game. Multiple, tiered tie-breakers are a ridiculous accommodation for the I-Win Guy who has an unhealthy obsession with winning every game. There is no absolute law of nature that There Can Be Only One winner, and a fixation with winning can leave someone blind to the advantages of teamwork, cooperation, synergy, and deal-making. I'm not advocating for participation trophies for everybody, just saying that it arbitrary and unnecessary to declare that only one person can win a game.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #328603 08 Dec 2021 15:31

Shellhead wrote: ...There is no absolute law of nature that There Can Be Only One winner, and ....

Actually that is the main law on nature in most species ;) - most species groups have the one 'leader' in charge and death/exclusion is the result of any challenge :lol:
But I agree with you on when it comes to human gamers B)
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #328605 08 Dec 2021 16:07
If there's a second tie-breaker it needs to be something truly arbitrary and pointless. "If both players are still tied, the win goes to the player that most recently sneezed, unless their name is Kyle. Kyles can't win second tie breaker."
mads b.'s Avatar
mads b. replied the topic: #328609 08 Dec 2021 17:03
Starcraft The Boardgame has a great system for breaking ties. In the game, you can either win by getting 15 conquest points, or you can win a special victory when the third phase of the game begins. Those are different for each faction, so one faction might need to hold areas with specific resources, where another has to hold two entire planets. The special victory condition means that as the game comes to a close, most players will have a fair shot at winning. But since conquest points are tie breakers, you still want to get them because it's not uncommon that two or more players reach their SVC at the same time.

The game could use a bit of streamlining to be honest (and no, Forbidden Stars did not do this entirely), but the core of the game is pure genius.
southernman's Avatar
southernman replied the topic: #328611 08 Dec 2021 17:25
Spartacus - A Game of Blood & Treachery has the only tie breaker to be considered (and definitely no second one needed) - a fight to the death in the arena.
DarthJoJo's Avatar
DarthJoJo replied the topic: #328614 08 Dec 2021 20:04
The King is Dead is an interesting case for the subject at hand as there are multiple tie breakers. Saxons control four regions? Whoever has the most sets wins. No faction majority in Britain? Whoever won the most recent power struggle wins. No player has a majority in the winning faction? Whoever has the majority in the second strongest faction wins. Still tied? There’s another conditional tie breaker dependent on who played the last action card.

This may be the rare case where more than three tie breakers work. The minimal actions and points available mean ties will be frequent and foreseeable, so you can tailor your strategy of going for one, two or three factions appropriately.
mc's Avatar
mc replied the topic: #328618 09 Dec 2021 00:27
Yep. Games like TKiD kind of crossover into another thing altogether - it's not so much they are tie-breakers as they are practically different victory conditions, and the aim of the whole game is to engineer things to make one of them work in your favour.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #328622 09 Dec 2021 09:09
For games that have a lot of rubber band mechanisms to keep all players clustered together a layered tie-breaker system is necessary since it is quite hard for anyone to really break away from the pack. The problem in my experience, is that newer players often don't get told these secondary conditions or don't properly grok their importance, so they get whiffed at the end because they built enough power stations to trigger the end of the game but neglected to hoard enough power resources or money to actually win it.

I actually kinda like the narrative end system a lot of solo games use. Score X number of points, look up in the book and read a paragraph to see if the ending was satisfying. Score more points to get a "better" ending. I'd like to see multiplayer games use such a system to articulate how several players can simultaneously "win" while incorporating the theme of the game.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #328632 09 Dec 2021 11:55
Good point, Jason. Years back, eurogame designers embraced a goal of designing artificially close games, potentially creating an a greater threat of tie games needing tie breakers.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #328655 09 Dec 2021 21:49
Agree that TKiD is very different. In most games, tiebreakers are afterthoughts to appease overly competitive nerds. In TKiD, the decision tree is so painfully constrained, that it exists to force analysis down multiple paths, because someone is going to mess up. And then they lose.