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Victory Points Are Abstract and Unthematic

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20 Aug 2019 13:08 #300944 by Shellhead
(Erik Twice made some interesting comments in the Eclipse flashback thread about how combat in that game is just another mechanism for acquiring victory points. I haven't played Eclipse, so I will take his word for it and give him credit for inspiring this topic.)

I think that victory points are an abstract and unthematic way to determine the winner of a game. I don't generally like abstract games because I like the idea that I am playing a game about something, ideally something that offers at least the illusion of a narrative instead of just a series of work procedures to follow. A game is automatically more interesting to me if the victory condition is based on something more tangible, like killing monsters or other enemies, acquiring the most cash, or claiming a target item or territory. I suppose it could be said that most cash is not terribly dissimilar to most VP, but a game with paper money or some sort of coinage really makes me feel more directly engaged in the game. Pirate King is essentially just Pirate Monopoly plus a simple combat system, but I really dig the little plastic treasure chest where each players stores gems (glass beads).

Thanks to the modern and largely uninspired glut of new boardgames, I can often easily recognize a dud by the VP track on the border of the board. Even games that otherwise offer a decent sense of narrative, like say Chaos in the Old World, are diminished by a VP track, because it constitutes a vast hand-waving abstraction of what is allegedly happening within the setting of the game. That abstraction creates a distance between the game and I, and that distance makes me care less about everything that happens.

Off the top of my head, here is a list of some of my favorite games, and how players win:

Arkham Horror: seal/close gates or defeat Great Old One in final battle.
Dune: take control of at least three key locations.
Sons of Anarchy: have the most money at the end of the game.
Death Angel: accomplish the mission.
Camp Grizzly: escape or defeat the slasher in final battle.
Spartacus: gain 12 influence and maybe win the run-off tournament.
Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (Jyhad): win the most VP.
Shadowfist: control or burn for victory five feng shui sites.
The Gothic Game: Survive longer than any other player.

At a glance, it looks like influence in Spartacus is just VP by another name. But a player needs enough influence to play certain cards, and may need to get help from other players if the influence requirement is high. And while Vampire: the Eternal Struggle uses actual VP, gaining even a single VP requires a significant amount of thematic activity involving minions sneaking, fighting, and/or voting.
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20 Aug 2019 13:14 #300945 by hotseatgames
I agree, and am always happier when the VPs can be represented by at least something else, like money or health.

One of my favorite features of Lords of Hellas is that there are 4 different victory conditions, and not a VP to be seen.
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20 Aug 2019 13:44 - 20 Aug 2019 13:44 #300948 by Michael Barnes
You know what else is abstract and unthematic?

- Rolling a die
- drawing a card
- playing a card
- counting movement spaces
- tracking “hit points”, “influence points”, or any kinds of points in general
- game rules in general
- game components in general
- the concept of games in general

It’s all in the context. VPs have to be given meaning, just like all of the above.
Last edit: 20 Aug 2019 13:44 by Michael Barnes.
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20 Aug 2019 14:02 #300950 by Shellhead
If a game is actually about something besides passing the time in a structured manner, then the VP should represent something more than mere points. For example, an economic game is ultimately about money. So why not play with money instead of VP? Modern game designs lean too heavily on VP instead of doing a bit of extra work to make the gameplay at least a little bit meaningful. That leads to many samey games that offer little more than quadratic equations, aka "point salad."

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20 Aug 2019 14:03 #300951 by Jackwraith
Counterpoint: Almost every athletic competition (i.e. game) in the world uses points to determine a victor. Those points are usually assigned for playing the game well and/or better than your opponent. A three-point basket in basketball is, by definition, worth more than a two-point basket because the shot is more difficult to hit. Similarly, feats in board games are worth varying amounts of points based on their difficulty and they're not as abstract as you might think.

If I score a bunch of points in Tyrants of the Underdark for promoting a number of cards to my inner circle, I'll often win the game. That's a measure of me a) getting the right cards to promote (those that are worth a lot); b) taking the risk of promoting, since they're no longer playable in my deck; c) playing certain combinations that allow me to promote them at the right time; and, d) when the current struggle of the Underdark is concluded and the clans retreat to lick their wounds or enjoy their new dominance, I'm hopefully in the latter group because I have a trusted circle of operatives whom I've removed from the normal cut-and-thrust in order to advise me. See how that last part works? It's thematic, represents the temporary contest that the game idealizes, and is based on the VP that I've acquired in playing.

Points are a necessary mechanic to determine who is playing the game well and, eventually, who wins it. Scoring VP in Chaos in the Old World is the same as scoring points in tournament cricket. It's a way to bring the game to a close in a decent amount of time. If you don't like VP-oriented games, I sympathize. But I've played way too many great, thematic, interesting games like 51st State or Tiny Epic Galaxies or Blood Rage that are based on accumulating VP to agree with a blanket statement that says they're somehow a lesser version of determining an end. Many games have done it better than others, but I don't find VP to be an automatic detraction.

Incidentally, one of the classic games from history, Go, is based on VPs shown by territory acquired and stones lost. Seems kind of presumptuous to suggest that adapting that method to other, more thematic games is simply wrong.
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20 Aug 2019 14:32 #300952 by Josh Look
I am beyond bored with the idea that games should adhere to this ideal of being “thematic.” Yeah, stuff should make sense, but it’s also A GAME. It’s all an abstraction, if VPs make it all work, then fine.
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20 Aug 2019 14:35 - 20 Aug 2019 14:37 #300953 by charlest
Points aren't simply a measurement of who is playing a game well, they're an incentive. If given a set of rules devoid of a win condition, we have no idea what playing well looks like. In fact, each person would come to their own conclusion on what playing well means and that would produce a broken contract defining play.

Points are indeed the most abstract way to incentivize behavior, but they're also the most malleable and fluid.

If Lords of Hellas wants to come out with an expansion that fundamentally changes play, it needs to adhere to the previous victory conditions which are stringent and narrow. Victory points allow you to adapt gameplay in numerous directions and facilitate highly asymmetric play.
Last edit: 20 Aug 2019 14:37 by charlest.
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20 Aug 2019 14:44 - 20 Aug 2019 14:46 #300954 by Shellhead
Good point about sports. Points can mean different things in different sports, and there are sports where the outcome can be determined without points.

For example, a race is won by the person who completed the course the quickest, especially in a race with all the participants on the course at once so people can see who won with their own eyes. Combat sports are sometimes won with a crowd-pleasing knockout, or with a less interesting tallying of points.

Ball sports are won by points, but at least the point represent tangible results like putting the ball in a hoop or a goal despite defensive efforts.

Then there are performance sports like gymnastics or figure skating where the points represent arbitrary rulings by judges who may or may not adhere to scoring guidelines. For a long time, ice skating competitions also gave a lot of points (as much as 60% of the overall score) for executing rote maneuvers (compulsory figures) outside of the context of a performance routine. The International Skating Union finally eliminated compulsories from competition because they were boring.
Last edit: 20 Aug 2019 14:46 by Shellhead.

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20 Aug 2019 15:48 #300955 by phandec
There are so many different things even within the concept of victory points, though.

The main difference between money & VPs, other than name, is that you can *spend* money.

If you're thematically earning money in a game, but have no way to spend it in the game, it's just VPs by another name, and isn't really any better. And vice-versa. If you can spend VPs, it's usually way more entertaining and it basically is money.

Also, there's a huge difference in how a game feels when it's a race to reach a specific number of VPs rather than just seeing who scored the most at the end of the game.

Counting points during the game also adds more conflict than solely endgame scoring

And a game creates way more tension when VP totals are just one possible victory condition. Chaos in the Old World, for example, can end on VP threshold, dial victory, or deck ending. It's also what makes 7 Wonders Duel infinitely better than 7 Wonders.

It's all about win conditions. You can use victory points, but *how* you use them is just as important as to *whether* you're using them to begin with.
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20 Aug 2019 16:36 #300956 by ubarose

Michael Barnes wrote: You know what else is abstract and unthematic?

It’s all in the context. VPs have to be given meaning, just like all of the above.


Yes, they must be given meaning. A game description and it says that the object of the game is to earn the most Victory Points, is a red flag to me, unless the game is an abstract. This is a lazy description, which indicates at best a lazy copywriter, and at worst a lazy designer. The object of a game should be to build the best farm, or be the most notorious smuggler, or develop the greatest civilization, or become the richest drug dealer, or be the most brown-nosed ass-kissing Burgermeister. If this is determined by getting points for various accomplishments, that's cool with me, but I want to be told what those points mean thematically.
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20 Aug 2019 17:11 #300958 by Michael Barnes
But you know what, I think most game makers got this memo 15 years ago. It’s not often I see newer designs that have really abstract, decontextualized VPs. I mean, I remember having this exact same discussion a few times over the past decade and a half and I think that the zeitgeist of design has more or less moves away from this kind of concept, where the VPs aren’t a measure of something concrete in the setting or fiction. It’s almost like grousing about wooden cubes as components this far along.
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20 Aug 2019 17:17 #300959 by ubarose

Michael Barnes wrote: But you know what, I think most game makers got this memo 15 years ago. It’s not often I see newer designs that have really abstract, decontextualized VPs. I mean, I remember having this exact same discussion a few times over the past decade and a half and I think that the zeitgeist of design has more or less moves away from this kind of concept, where the VPs aren’t a measure of something concrete in the setting or fiction. It’s almost like grousing about wooden cubes as components this far along.


I think maybe you don't have to read as many crappy game descriptions as I do.
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20 Aug 2019 17:37 #300960 by Gary Sax
Go with the OCS "who looks like they're winning" completely subjective metric.
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20 Aug 2019 18:02 - 20 Aug 2019 18:59 #300961 by Frohike
I mean, at the end of the day, unless we're talking about deathmatch, there usually needs to be some abstract measurement of victory or performance that isn't entirely diegetic since, as Charlie said, steering incentives can be a big part of a design & what gives a game its identity. It can be used like a "graphic equalizer" of sorts (probably dating myself here) to shape the mix a bit, to adjust the types of behaviors or contests that the designer wants to emphasize in the game, which in turn can affect other systems or parts of the design.
Last edit: 20 Aug 2019 18:59 by Frohike.
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20 Aug 2019 18:25 #300963 by n815e
So the vast majority of games use a point system to determine victory.

Any game that determines victory by collecting an amount of a thing, reaching a collection threshold, depleting a reserve or similar quantifiable measures are points games.

VP, money, provinces, degrees, votes, spaces moved, hits, quatloos... Putting a thematic label on it doesn’t make is any different than points.

Let’s look at Eclipse. Eclipse is an empire building game. What makes empires great, or at least greater than others? Is it the amount of territory they control, their scientific and social advancements, their culture and arts, their military reputation or economic prowess, their discoveries, their diplomatic relationships?

It can be any or all of these. You’ve got yourself an empire/civ design with all of these elements and an empire is great when it develops itself above all others. How do you measure, in your design, what makes one empire any more successful than another with so many variables? In the end, it’s going to come down to quantifying success in different categories, not all of them perhaps created equally in your mind.
You can provide everyone with a complex value conversion chart: x advances are worth y systems controlled are the equivalent of z enemy ships destroyed... Or you can do the conversion on behalf of your customers and provide points so they can stick to simple arithmetic to provide valuation to their activity in pursuit of having the best empire the galaxy has seen.

Not every game does the conversion for you easily. Lords of Hellas has four different quantitative victory conditions: A monster points is worth B land points is worth (C idol points plus D king of the hill points) is equal to E temple points.
It’s still all just points.
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