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The Final Round

O Updated
(Photo by Josh Millgate on Unsplash)
There Will Be Games

I don't know if you've ever come across it, but the final round, or sometimes the final few rounds, of a game often feel different to the rest of the game. There is the common term "end game" and the concept of an "end game trigger" in modern board games, so there is a relatively clear distinction between how a game finishes and the rest of the game. In this article, I want to discuss how games feel different as they come to their conclusion and what different types of "end game" formats there are.

I think something that many of us will have noticed before is how some games slow right down in the last round, be it because the game has a limited number of rounds or it's clear that someone will win on their next turn or if someone has triggered the end game condition and everyone is just taking one or two last turns. Everyone's turn becomes purely about maximizing points for yourself, or reducing the point potential for others, which has basically the same effect. Everyone just thinks about what benefit each possible action has for them or how it affects others. The aim is to choose the best option, be it taking a victory point tile that gives you a bonus or spending your coins to build another settlement, because that gives you more points or whatever else it might be.

In many games, there are lots of different options on your last turn and each of them requires some arithmetic, as well as some thought as to how your choice will affect other players' ability to score. Those are very time-intensive activities, leading to everyone's last turn taking a lot longer than they spent on their other turns in the game. Everything grinds to a halt.

That's especially true in games that have an engine building element, even if the game isn't an engine builder as such. If a game gives you more and more things you can do on your turn, then your last turn will definitely take a lot longer than your first. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that turns progressively get slower during these types of games. If you have a relatively clear strategy, turns can continue at pace until the end game, when it's all purely about maximizing points.

I've noticed this in Tapestry for example. For most of the game, you spend only a little time working out how many resources you need to do the actions you're hoping to do in the current era, but overall, every round flows pretty quickly. You have a rough strategy in mind and you follow that. However, the last two turns or so suddenly take a lot longer, because you spend ages working out how best to use the remaining resources and there are often many different combinations of actions you have to evaluate. You want to use every last resource effectively, but it's not immediately clear how to achieve that.

However, not all games with an engine-building element will slow down on people's last turns. The Quacks of Quedlinburg for example is an engine builder - or more precisely, a bag builder. Yet, every round is the same, even though you have more ingredients in your bag as the game progresses. Even during the phase where you buy new ingredients, you don't tend to spend much longer thinking about what to get. After all, you can only ever buy two ingredients and they have to be different ones. Consequently, the last round is not really any slower than the rounds were during the rest of the game.

Even games that don't have an engine-building element can feel quite different as they come to their conclusion. I think in general, as a game comes to its conclusion, everyone is rushing to get more points and win. The pressure increases towards the end. Everyone is confident at the beginning and has at least a rough idea of what they're going to do, but during the game, things change and players adapt their strategies accordingly. In the early game, it's never really clear what might happen and whether a strategy will pan out or not. As the rounds go by, it becomes more and more difficult to turn things around, so when it finally becomes clear that the game is nearly over, it's often too late to do anything about it.

It's not even something that's exclusive to competitive games. In fact, I think many co-operative games are great at raising tension and excitement as the game goes on. In Pandemic, for example, the situation becomes more and more desperate as the outbreak level increases, the number of infection cubes decreases and the draw deck empties. It slowly becomes clear that players are about to lose, especially if discovering new cures has ground to a halt. There is no clear point when the end game begins, but all players together will probably realize they're in it and discuss how desperate the situation is and what possible last-ditch attempt they have to try.

There are some games, where the game speeds up towards the end. I can't think of the name at the moment, but I clearly remember playing a game where every turn became quicker and quicker, but not because players were getting more familiar with the game or anything like that. That was taken to the extreme in the last round, when it basically didn't matter what actions people took, because none of it would affect the outcome and who won. Everyone was just spending their last resources on something that made sense, but nobody was able to change the victory point track to any great effect.

That game felt a little bit weird and probably a bit disappointing. Even though I think games, where the last round takes ages, are a bit frustrating, I do prefer them to games where the last round has no effect whatsoever.

So I wonder whether you have ever noticed how some games have a clear "end game". What games have you played where you really enjoyed the "end game" and why? Are there great games where the "end game" is really exciting and doesn't end up in a slow slog of maximizing victory points? Please share your thoughts 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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Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #331953 29 Mar 2022 10:56
The easiest way to prevent this end of the world situation is to create variable end game. I wish more games did it, this is a very frustrating AP problem that even normal non-AP players will engage in. My bigger problem with it is that it creates very weird gameplay in the final rounds as you strip your engine completely in a way that is inconsistent with the whole rest of the game.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #331958 29 Mar 2022 11:45
I'll disagree on that. The easiest way to prevent this end of the world situation is to not play a game with a clear, discrete set of options that have no unpredictability in them. In short, if you can't pull the goalie, the game is fundamentally flawed for the last turn. It may be more entertaining for other turns, but the end of the game is going to be rote. Decision by committee, everyone at the table can agree on your last move even if you have hidden cards.

My conclusion as an old man with lots of games under his belt is this -- every game needs a way to pull the goalie, needs a way to trade risk for reward in order to make end-of-game events relevant. Because you know what? Nobody else can tell you when it's time to pull the goalie. That's on you, and your gut. That makes the game yours to play, not the other way around.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #331964 29 Mar 2022 14:50
The End Game is, for me, the most critical part of a game. Everything else should build towards it, players (those paying attention at least) should be able to anticipate it, and the game should deliver on a thematic conclusion that makes the previous 30-270 minutes feel like time well spent.

Co-ops and solo games are the most problematic, as they can often nose dive into defeat very quickly based on some card draws and who wants to lose to a deck of cards? But competitive games without good rubber band mechanisms can lead to a run away winner so everyone else either has to battle for second place or just spoil the victor as much as possible.

I like a combo of hidden VP and obvious leaderboards so everyone is at least a little suspicious of the visible VP track/hoard of chits/stash of cash each player has. Helps to limit kingmaking as well, since the clear winner may be deficient in the hidden VPs. The endgame ought to be at least a little telegraphed a few turns out even if it doesn't trigger a distinct "Phase Three" like Power Grid so players can move to the consolidation phase and start to pay out any long strategies they are playing. In games like Twilight Imperium this typically leads to several hours of frantic dice chucking and wholesale genocide of entire civilizations of neon plastic but that is the EXPECTATION of the players in a 4X game after all. If the game ended by a scientific VP victory WITHOUT a massive galactic war...who would play that game?

Fixed turn count games tend to have a specific lifespan of their own, games like 7 Wonders have it fine tuned. But I've played others what feel like the turn count ran out right as the game was getting interesting so I prefer a more variable "win condition" type endgame versus "7 turns and then count your points". Win condition activation but with a bit of continued game play is nice because the person who triggered the endgame might not be in the best position to capitalize on it, players deliberating on WHEN to trigger the endgame as part of their strategy is a nice metagame element.
Whoshim's Avatar
Whoshim replied the topic: #331989 30 Mar 2022 20:34

Gary Sax wrote: The easiest way to prevent this end of the world situation is to create variable end game. I wish more games did it, this is a very frustrating AP problem that even normal non-AP players will engage in.

It really depends on the game. I thought as you did, and I was working on a game design with friends. The first few playthroughs went long, and we had to say "This is the final round." Those games ended in a tense and exciting way. When we did finally have time to play the game according to the variable end game condition, some random events happened that left me with an unstoppable way to end the game "early" and just win. However, it felt pretty empty and unsatisfying. That caused me to re-think some of my ideas about how games end.

I think that variable end conditions generally work in wargames and miniature games, in order to avoid "gamey" maneuvers and preserve the illusion of a "real" battle. (Things like "Roll a d6 - on a 6, the game is over, otherwise, play another round and roll again with a +1.)

However, there are two other end-game types that I think are valuable to have across different genres - alternate ways to win and alternate ways to trigger the end of the game.

The first gives options to players who may have been locked out of contention along the main lines of the game. Shooting the Moon in Hearts is an example.

The second allows for a wider range of strategies. Catan offers the Road and Army side quests. Dominion has two ways to end the game. In Magic: the Gathering, there are many different ways to go about winning - from fast aggression, to combo, to slow control. The end of the game is not variable in the sense that I used regarding wargames above. The players directly decide, as they build their decks, what sort of strategy they will use to end the game. The ending of Rummy hands is in control of the players, and a player can take advantage of it by not melding until she can go out, though it does put her at risk of losing more points.

I am also a big sports fan, and basketball, football, and hockey (as mentioned) all change in the final minutes if the game is close. Baseball and soccer do not really. Some of the changes are annoying (like fouling in basketball), while others are more exciting (Hail Marys and onside kicks [though less so with recent rule changes] in football). Despite being somewhat annoyed by how intentional fouls slow the game down, I do like the tension and gaminess at the end of basketball games. I enjoy the tradeoff between managing time and managing points that teams have to make. There was even a big issue a few years ago in football when a team intentionally held the opposing wide receivers to deny them a chance at the end.

(Edit: Football also has strategies to manage the clock at the end of the game, depending on which side of the scoreboard one finds themselves on - running the ball or using a hurry-up offense.)

I find that I enjoy games with end conditions that are in the players' control more than other sorts of games.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #331998 31 Mar 2022 09:01
I'm with Sag on this. My primary problem with a lot of euro-style games is that they fizzle to a weak close because they're overly predictable. This absolutely ruined Power Grid for me because it's so clear, so far in advance.

A corollary is that games that rely heavily on end of play scoring tend to be weaker than those that don't. There's nothing worse than everyone toting up their points in silence. And while the "reveal" can have some tension it's also often a source of disagreements while we check everyone's done their sums correctly.
cdennett's Avatar
cdennett replied the topic: #332012 31 Mar 2022 13:52
"Pulling the goalie" is my new favorite term that I want to apply to board games...

Doesn't hurt I've gotten back into hockey over that past two years.
boothwah's Avatar
boothwah replied the topic: #332028 01 Apr 2022 12:06
I like games that end with table flipping
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #332029 01 Apr 2022 12:36
Magic deck flung across the room count?
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #332030 01 Apr 2022 13:22

Matt Thrower wrote: I'm with Sag on this. My primary problem with a lot of euro-style games is that they fizzle to a weak close because they're overly predictable. This absolutely ruined Power Grid for me because it's so clear, so far in advance.

Say whaaaaaaaaaaaaaa? The end game of Power Grid is GENIUS! It's not about a race to the finish line of X amount of cities "owned", its a clever trip wire to launch a race for cities POWERED that involves a last minute power plant scramble, resource hoarding, cash balancing, city blocking flurry of activity few games can match. It just doesn't really fit with the rest of the game thematically (is the government announcing an end to private power systes or something? and is REALLY tricky for new players to grok).

Either you play with scrubs or you just salty that you bought 15 cities first and then got starved of coal :P
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #332033 01 Apr 2022 14:34
A game of Power Grid:

Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #332067 04 Apr 2022 17:00
An excessive amount of open information can drag a game down to a crawl even before the final round, especially if AP Guy is playing.