Breaking the Tie
A few friends on Twitter recently began a short debate regarding tying in a game. More specifically, what should the designer do (if anything) to reduce the chances of a tie. Furthermore, they pondered whether ties are bad in the first place, and what a reasonable tie breaker is.
I was prompted to throw my thoughts into this rather gentle ring, so I am doing so via the blog.
This is a bit of a difficult argument to enter as I don't have a great deal of experience with tie breakers. I rarely encounter them in the games I play and the games I've designed haven't needed to rely on them too heavily. I've heard of player's using the tie breaker for Farmageddon, but I've never personally used it. In various stages I think we've had ties in Empire, but they too are somewhat rare.
I have used a tie breaker a few times in Alien Frontiers, a game that scores very tightly. In these instances, the player who usually lost the tie felt a bit cheated. The tie breaker, if I recall correctly, is having the most Alien Tech cards. Catching up here while also landing colonies and stalling an opponent isn't really possible.
I'll argue, therefore, that games are better when they do not result in a tie. A clear, decisive win by a single player or entity is the best outcome. How does one go about designing a game that tends to not result in a tie?
There are a few possibilities. Most obviously is to create a game that features elimination. One cannot tie if he no longer exists! Another is to create a finish line or objective, i.e. the first player to accomplish a goal wins.
Another possibility is to fill your game with multiple ways in which to earn points of varying quantities. For example, every round every player can earn points based on a certain metric. The point values assigned can differ based on superior performance.
You can also create multiple paths go gain points. For example, in Empire, players earn a small amount of points for controlling territories throughout the game. At the end of the game, they earn a more significant number of points for winning battles. The most points can be earned by earning the Strategic Victories, which are earned for going deep on specific aspects of the strategy. Typically, players respond and react to one another and in a four player game, you see 1-2 players focus on battles, a player focus on territory, and a fourth player throwing a wrench in things.
One option is to limit the possibility for winning players. In general people don't care for a runaway leader, especially when it's painstakingly obvious. But, if you make the distribution of points such that it is very unlikely that more than one player can win, that helps. Just be sure to make this information hidden so everyone doesn't check out.
As a final suggestion, you can create varied opportunities for players that are outside their control. In Farmageddon, the crop cards you draw are random. There are 4 basic crop types and 10 unique FrankenCrops. The first choice you must make every turn is what to plant. Players can't control their point opportunities, but they can choose which opportunity to pursue based on its likelihood of success. Because these point values vary significantly (4/7/10/15) it leads to a very tight, but rarely tied experience.
But, and I think this isn't terribly negotiable, unless it is impossible to tie your game, you need to create a tie breaker. Creating a tie breaker can be quite simple or complex depending on the number of "knobs" your game has to twist. If your game is incredibly streamlined and simple, it may be difficult to craft a compelling tie breaker mechanic.
I think it is of the utmost importance, both for simplicity and to reduce player frustration, to make the tie breaker both obvious and deeply integrated into the core experience. When the tie breaker must be referenced, none of the tied player should say "what?" when it's revealed. Nobody should feel frustrated or cheated for not memorizing the rule book and knowing the tie breaker is a path that isn't well-tread or obvious.
In fact, the tie breaker shouldn't be something anyone has to think about. It should be as pre-baked as possible, like a delicious cupcake.
In Farmageddon, the tie goes to the player who has harvested the most crops. You must harvest crops to win in the first place, so if you've harvested more, that seems like a good way to denote the victor. In Empire, the first tie goes to the player with the most Units on the board. This is something players want to do regardless and fictionally, the player with the biggest army present should get the nod. The second tie goes to the player who has won the most battles. Again, fictionally, the player who has the best army should be favored.
A deeply integrated, intuitive, obvious tie breaker is essential. Don't get clever in this instance. If people spend an hour on your game, don't belittle their time, or leave a sour final impression, with a clunky and dissatisfying tie breaker. Be sure that the winner still feels like he or she earned it.
What are some of your favorite tie breakers? What are some of your least favorites? Which games tend to result in ties? And why?