What’s the Score?

This past Wednesday was a day full of sports for me. In the afternoon I had my first opportunity to learn and play the sport of curling. Then, later that evening at home, I caught the closing moments of Game 6 of the 2009 World Series. All of this exposure to sports got me thinking about scoring systems, something that underlies both sports and board games. Linked closely with this concept is that of two of the most important mechanics in any type of game: the ending condition and the winning condition.

To avoid confusion, let’s define those terms. (Sorry to any scholars who have already done so; I might not get these precisely correct, but they will be accurate in the ways that I use them in this discussion.) An ending condition is the set of criteria by which a game ceases to be played by its players and no further adjustment to scores may take place. A separate but related concept is that of something like the sports world’s overtime in which the ending condition is replaced by another so that further scoring my take place. A winning condition is the set of criteria by which the winning player of a game is identified. Again, there is a related concept, the tie-breaker, in which secondary scoring criteria are examined beyond the primary scoring criterion due to a tie in those primary scores.

Now, let’s take a survey of some games and these conditions:


  • Ending: play of nine innings completed
  • Winning: more runs scored than the opposing team


  • Ending: a player had satisfied the winning condition
  • Winning: take the majority of sets to be played (either 2 in best-of-3 or 3 in best-of-5)


  • Ending: 60 minutes elapsed on the play clock
  • Winning: more points scored than the opposing team


  • Ending: play of eight ends completed
  • Winning: more points scored than the opposing team


  • Ending: play through all levels
  • Winning: satisfy the ending condition

Settlers of Catan

  • Ending: a player has satisfied the winning condition
  • Winning: accumulation of 10 victory points at one time

Power Grid

  • Ending: a player builds his/her (X)th city, where X varies by the number of players
  • Winning: ability to power the most cities


  • Ending: a Great Power attains at least 25 Power Points, reaching the x5 region of the Power Track
  • Winning: highest sum of multiplied bond value and cash-on-hand

Puerto Rico

  • Ending: cannot refill the colonist ship OR run out of victory point chips OR build into 12th city space
  • Winning: highest total of victory points


  • Ending: a critical mass gets tired of playing
  • Winning: who knows?

Okay, so the last one isn’t quite right, but I’ve never played any other type of Monopoly game and I didn’t feel like sifting through the rules.

There’s many more I could name, probably some with interesting mechanics, but these will do for now. The first thing to note is that the ending condition and the winning condition are often closely linked. This has a number of advantages. Take tennis and baseball as the two opposites in this case. In tennis, the ending condition goes hand-in-hand with the winning conditions. This has the neat property that a player hasn’t won until he/she guarantees that his/her opponent cannot win. In other words, a US Open finalist engaged in the championship match can still hope to win even when he’s down two sets and trailing 5-0 in the third set. Don’t get me wrong, this kind of turnaround is highly unlikely, but there is still space for this player to outscore his opponent, and so the thinking goes that the game should continue until it is literally impossible to win. This is a nice property that doesn’t seem valuable at first glance, but you sorely miss when you’re playing a game without it.

This brings us to baseball, which is, in my opinion, a scoring mechanics disaster. (I pick on baseball, but most sports are guilty on this count: replace baseball and its terminology with the same pertaining to basketball, golf, football, soccer, and, yes, even curling.) The disaster comes from the frequency of the so-called “runaway leader problem” that you so often observe. This is when one player has acquired such a large leading score so as for it to be insurmountable by the opponents within the remainder of the game. Now, you complain (or should!) that many games have such a problem. The tennis example above comes into play again. While the described situation still allows for the trailing player to win, the actual possibility of this happening is about as close to zero as the baseball team facing an 18-0 run deficit in the first inning. Where tennis scores some brownie points, then, is from its ability to hasten the end of the game. The tennis match continues only as long as the losing player is able to mount some sort of comeback; meanwhile, the baseball spectators are stuck waiting around for eight more innings for whatever might happen. (I’ll admit that there is a re-ingnition of interest in these lop-sided scoring cases, a sort of “how high can it go?” interest.) But we see that if a game’s ending condition and winning condition are “in tune”, we can develop a better game-playing experience.

Now that I’ve preached about how important it is to link the ending and winning conditions, I’m going to turn that on it’s head and claim that an even better game would de-couple them … to a point. Prime examples of this are some from the family of eurogames. Let’s take a 5-player Power Grid game for this analysis. The ending condition is the building of the 15th city, but the winner is the player who powers the most cities. In many games, these players might be one and the same, but the interesting part is that they need not be. This leads to all sorts of fun jockeying for position. Compare this with Settlers of Catan, which is an example of a game with closely linked ending and winning conditions. Yes, the game doesn’t drag on unnecessarily even in the runaway leader case, but its end is altogether less interesting.

So, what’s the secret recipe? As with a lot of things in life, the hybrid approach seems best: I would argue it’s having a correlation between the game ending condition and winning condition that gives us the best game experience.


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