My empire was one of the greatest in the world. My people were the best educated in the planet. My cities were highly productive and filled with Wonders. I even claimed the strongest army, both in numbers and technological superiority. I should have been happy. But then something happened: I glanced at my Victory Conditions, and saw there were one hundred turns left. Only one hundred turns before the game would halt, take stock of my affairs, and choose a single winner. And that’s assuming no one else launched a Space Shuttle, or finished a Utopia Project, or won the game through a United Nations election. It was a stark realization; all of the excellent work I’d done so far would mean nothing if 2050 rolled around and I had nothing to show for it.
I realized that I had stopped playing one hundred turns ago, and had been spending all my time since trying to win.
Up until that point, my first game of Civilization V was a casual yet engaging experience. During most sessions, I’d check on worldwide developments, build new roads and farms, respond to requests for trade, and take one last glance at my defenses before logging out after twenty minutes. I maintained friendly relations with all my neighbors, and in the single case when I was attacked by another civilization, I pushed back the invaders before signing a peace treaty. Developments progressed smoothly, my people were flourishing, and I was satisfied with that.
But now the endgame approached, and I was being told that if I didn’t meet one of five victory conditions, everything I’d done would be forfeit. My strategy changed. I redirected all production towards Scientific and Cultural pursuits, the most likely candidates for success, and literally stopped paying attention to anything else. If a unit had nothing immediate to contribute towards victory, I ignored it. Producing my own resources was already cost-effective, so I neglected trade agreements. Most surprisingly, when my allies asked for help against an increasingly aggressive empire, I declined even though my presence would decisively end the conflict. My nation secluded itself from the world, churning out new technologies and wonders solely to advance to the next stage. Eventually I completed a Utopia Project and gained a Cultural Victory, but I realized that I had stopped playing one hundred turns ago, and had been spending all my time since trying to win.
It’s not bizarre to want to win at a game. Everybody feels good when they succeed at something, and games are all about achieving a goal. Games require victory conditions by their very nature, whether the player is to rescue a princess, win a war, or just avoid whoever is “It” in Tag. The problem with Civilization is that what I considered a victory differed from what the game considered a victory: The game wanted a civilization that could stand the test of time, but I was having more fun strategically role-playing as a world leader. And instead of just shrugging my shoulders and doing what I wanted, I changed my behavior because that’s what the game expected of me.
The problem with Civilization is that what I considered a victory differed from what the game considered a victory.
Not only do games define victory, they also reinforce its meaning through play. In a Call of Duty multi-player match, players receive bonuses for racking up their kill count. When Mario defeats a mini-boss, rewarding music signifies your success. At the same time, the player is made aware of the consequences of failure. The Announcer from Team Fortress 2 verbally reprimands players when their team fares badly, and if any platformer character loses their last life they face a recognizable Game Over screen. These are not quaint genre conventions; developers consciously add these elements to teach you how the game is played. Certain tasks are encouraged at the expense of others, which is perfectly fine until you do something that runs counter to the victory condition the developers chose for you.
Even the rules speak volumes of how developers think participants should play. Take Zombies!!!: The Board Game by Twilight Creations Inc. The core rules provide two possible victory conditions: Be the first player to find the escape helicopter, or be the first to kill 25 zombies. The rules allow players to explore an abandoned city, gather weapons and supplies, and fight off slowly-approaching undead. Most importantly, there are no set rules for zombie movement; all undead actions are controlled by human players each turn. These victory conditions and rules create an atmosphere of intense competition among players. By declaring that only one person can “win” the zombie apocalypse, the game assumes that players are lone wolves looking out solely for themselves. Supplementary rules and event cards promote in-fighting and reward those who hinder their opponents in any way. A player can freeze another in their tracks for a full turn, spawn zombies at major intersections, or even relocate the helipad across the board, all while bringing themselves closer to the goal. If you prefer a cooperative experience, you won’t find it in the core ruleset. This game requires all participants to be ready and willing to screw over everyone else or the gameplay slows to the point of monotony.
Klaus Teuber’s Settlers of Catan, on the other hand, takes a very different approach. To win, a player must gain ten victory points. Victory points are awarded by building settlements, extending roads, and otherwise developing your territory. Here’s the twist: The resources required to achieve your goal are added to the game through the whims of the dice. A player might have to wait ten agonizing turns to get the ore and bricks they need. If you want to grow quickly, you must agree to trade with your opponents. Settlers of Catan rewards this cooperation with fast development. Highly competitive players who refuse to trade either fall behind in victory points or slow gameplay to a crawl. Those who horde their resources for future use are punished when a seven is rolled, forcing players to give up half of their undeveloped materials. After a few bad turns, players associate cooperation with ease of play and learn to behave accordingly.
In games that offer a great deal of player agency, the ability to determine your own victory has infinite importance.
So what difference does all this make? If games require victory conditions, clearly developers are required to build them into games, aren’t they? Not necessarily. Games require victory conditions, but it is not always the job of developers to tell us what they are. Expansions for Zombies!!! make this point explicitly clear by adding bonus scenarios and alternative victory conditions, then encouraging players to make up their own. Team-based rules, rescuing NPC humans, and even player-designed event cards are all optional additions to the game. Tabletop roleplaying games are generally designed without set victory conditions, but allow potential goals to emerge over the course of play. In the Call of Cthulhu RPG players are practically expected to fail at their task, and the fun comes not from succeeding but from making the attempt. In the electronic gaming world, Minecraft has taken players by storm without offering a single victory condition. What makes Minecraft so engaging is that it allows anyone to set their own goal to achieve while the system and game world present a balance of obstacles and rewards to make the attempt challenging.
Victory conditions are very important because their presence defines so much of what we choose to experience in a game. Even when we don’t notice their presence, they alter our habits and change our in-game behavior to an unrecognizable degree. Sometimes, that’s perfectly fine. It’s a great experience to rise to the challenge that someone else picked for you. But in games that offer a great deal of player agency, the ability to determine your own victory has infinite importance.
Marshall Lemon is a Masters of Library and Information Science Graduate who plays lots of videogames in his spare time. Occasionally he’ll write something about them at http://machinima.starfoxweb.com