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The Final Round
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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