In order to keep engagement in a game, there should always be an opportunity for players remaining in the game to win. There are few things more frustrating than knowing with certainty you have no chance to win a game, but being forced to continue playing. Having mechanics in your game that allow players to remain competitive will help maintain the excitement level throughout play. The longer your typical game length, the more important it is to have good come back mechanics. Here are some considerations when adding come back mechanics to your game:
Early vs. Late Game Decisions
One key tradeoff when evaluating come back mechanics is the importance of early game decisions vs. late game decisions. By magnifying the significance of late game decisions (e.g. offering more points in later rounds of a game), you can help players feel like they can still overcome an early game deficit.
It is important to balance the strength of come back mechanics against the feeling that early game decisions are still impactful. It can be helpful to think of each phase of your game as its own mini-game (e.g. beginning, middle, end). The prize of each mini-game is an advantage to the winner in the next phase of the game. Focus on each phase independently and make sure it is engaging and impactful on its own.
Randomness is another valuable tool to give players a feeling of engagement late in the game. Introducing even very small probabilities for outrageous outcomes (e.g. the player in last taking the lead late in the game due to a “hot” run of dice rolls), can greatly increase excitement.
One form of randomness particularly effective in keeping engagement high is to make the timing of the endgame uncertain. In Reiner Knizia’s boardgame Ra, the game ends whenever a certain number of Ra tiles are pulled. As more Ra tiles get pulled the tension rises, but a lucky run of tiles can extend the game out, giving trailing players a chance to catch up to the leader. If you never know exactly when the game will end, you never know if you still have time to catch up.
Hiding information about the final score can also be a useful tool for keeping engagement high. Even when the information is “in theory” not hidden, making it harder for players to track exactly who is winning can keep the excitement level alive even if the outcome is already predetermined. In my deckbuilding game, Ascension, for example, cards included in each player’s deck are worth points at the end of the game. Since players acquire so many cards throughout the game, it is almost impossible to keep track of all the points in each player’s deck. We could just as easily have made it so players get point tokens whenever they acquire a card, leaving all points in plain view, but this would have significantly reduced excitement as the outcome would be much more easily predicted before the game end.
Negative Feedback Loops and Explicit Mechanics
You can create explicit mechanics in your game to combat against the advantage of the leader. The racing game Mariokart uses these tools very effectively. Players in last place are more likely to pick up valuable power ups, including the Blue Shell which always attacks the player in first place. Explicitly creating mechanics that disadvantage the leader can be a turn-off for competitive players if they are not integrated well. Many videogames will increase your stats behind the scenes when you are low on health, increasing the likelihood that you will have a “come back” victory when it looks like you are near death.
In Boardgames, a common negative feedback loop is player self-regulation. When one player is clearly winning in a game of Settlers of Catan, other players can choose not to trade with her, making it harder for her to score more points. Similarly, in a multi-player game of Magic: the Gathering, players can gang up on a leader to help keep their advantage in check. Player self-regulation has its own challenges, however, as “politicking” (aka whinning) becomes a signficant part of game play (“I’m not winning, she is.” “Why does everyone always pick on me?” etc.). To incorporate self-regulation, simply give players the opportunity to disproportionately benefit (e.g. trade with) or harm (e.g. attack) players of their choosing. Other negative feedback loops in boardgames include making the leader pay more for resources (e.g. Paying increased upkeep for workers in Through the Ages) and giving players in last place “first pick” of future resources.
Personal Objectives and “Little Wins”
You don’t always have to give everyone a chance to win to make people feel like winners. Small victories and personal mini-goals can reduce the need for each player to feel like they can “win” the entire game. In a match of counterstrike, even if my team is doomed to lose, I can still try to get a personal high score or number of kills. My mentality shifts to my personal objective, which removes the sting of losing the game at large and keeps me engaged. Give players other stats or goals to track to help them build their own games within the game.
You can also build your mechanics so that each player makes progress towards personal strategic goals. Deckbuilding games are great at giving people “little wins” because each player’s deck will get better continuously throughout the game independent of how other players are doing. The feeling that I can execute my strategy successfully and have a few good turns can make a game satisfying even if I don’t “win” the game overall. Think about what mini-strategic objectives your players can accomplish within the broader arch of your game.
As with all things game design, the key is to focus on how players feel. Come back mechanics aim to keep players engaged and interested until the very last move. This feeds into the most important feeling- the desire to come back and play again!
Come back next week for a lesson in how to get your game published and an exciting giveaway!