When I design a game, I usually assume 4 players. Most 4 player games will work with 3 or 5 easily enough, and many will work with 2 players without too much work. So for the sake of the next sentence, let’s just assume that the average player count of a multiplayer game design is 4.

Most games only have 1 winner, so that means on the average, for every winner of your game, there will be 3 losers!

I wrote an article recently about the designer’s responsibility to provide a good play experience, even if the players try really hard to avoid it. Specifically, my point in that article was that the designer should strive to ensure that a player cannot make a choice or series of choices that will lead them to a state where they’re not really playing anymore. Where their turns consist of “Pass… again.” and they are forced to simply wait while their friends are having fun taking turns, making progress, and actually playing the game.

What I did NOT intend in that article was to imply that a player be protected against making plays which will cause them to lose the game. Bad play should absolutely lead to a bad finish. The point I was trying to make in that post was that even when losing, a player should enjoy your game — or they won’t want to play again!

As I mentioned above, for every winner of your game, there’ll be 3 losers. I aspire to create games that people will enjoy, and if the only way to enjoy my game is by winning it, then I am only going to succeed about 25% of the time. That’s a failing grade! I would much rather ensure that ALL players enjoy my games, every time they play them, as much as I possibly can. So how can I accomplish this? Here are a few ways…

1. Don’t allow fatal mistakes.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I think it’s important to disallow a choice that will leave a player unable to continue playing. This is worse than player elimination, as they are still in the game, expected to take turns, while completely unable to make progress toward any sort of goal. Often times this position will only be encountered due to particularly bad play by a player, but my assertion is that that’s not good enough. I prefer disallowing or avoiding that position altogether because when it’s possible, even if rare, some player will put themselves into that position… and when they do, it’ll be a miserable experience.

2. Provide something to learn or a puzzle to solve.

When a player can solve a puzzle or learn more about the game and improve at it, they can still feel good about themselves and can enjoy the game even if they don’t win.

3. Obfuscate who’s winning.

If players cannot tell for sure whether they are winning or losing, it’s easier to feel like they’re still in contention — even if the reality is that they’re behind. By obfuscating the scores, resources, or relative positions of the players, we can remove the feeling of helplessness a losing player may feel.

4. Allow for swings of fate.

Including a high-risk, high-reward option (or as James Ernest calls it, a “crazy train“) gives players a chance to make a comeback, even if it’s a long shot. This potential swing of fate can keep players engaged when they’re behind.

5. Include a catch-up mechanism.

Catch-up mechanisms can be a double edged sword. They do help keep players from falling too far behind, but at the same time they can soften a game, removing some of the consequence of bad play. Often times, a player who consistently plays poorly will not win on the strength of the catch-up mechanism alone, but the thought of bad plays leading to a similar outcome as good plays can be off-putting to many gamers.

6. Buy them alcohol.

If all else fails, most players will not mind losing as much if they can drown their sorrows in a bottle of suds. There’s nothing quite as good as a free beer!

Seth Jaffee

Seth is a designer, developer, and player of strategic board and card games. He is Head of Development for Tasty Minstrel Games. You can find Seth at many game conventions, from Protospiel in Ann Arbor, to BGGcon in Dallas, to Strategicon in L.A. to name a few. Find him and play a game!

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  1. Seth Jaffee Author on February 6, 2015

    Disclaimer: I don’t actually drink alcohol, so I don’t really know if #6 is legit!

  2. Jamey Stegmaier on February 6, 2015

    Great article, Seth! My favorite point–one that I hadn’t considered before in association with keeping players engaged–is the idea of giving them puzzles to solve. I’ve definitely experienced this in Terra Mystica where I knew I was too far behind to win, but I was still highly engaged in trying to optimize my engine. The game gives me opportunities to feel clever and have little victories even with the ultimate goal out of reach. Thanks for sharing this insight!

  3. John Parker on February 6, 2015

    Hi Seth. Thanks for the follow-up. I particularly like #2 and #3.

  4. Rich Durham on February 8, 2015

    Good points to remember! To mash up numbers 1 and 3 into a monstrous #7, I’d add “Don’t create victims”. Meaning, try not to allow the other players to easily pick on a weaker player to help themselves win. It doesn’t feel good for the ‘victim’ to be picked on, especially if it’s a winning strategy to do so.

  5. Jason Cox on February 10, 2015

    Not to echo Jamey, but l haven’t thought about #3, but now that you mention it, it seems so obvious. I would add a #8 if I dare be so bold. And that is control game length. If its a six hour game and a move I make in the first twenty minutes completely destroys my chances to winning I am going to be pretty disgruntled by the end; however, if I get completely eliminated from a game that lasts five minutes I am going to spend the minute or two I have to set out thinking about how I am going to dominate the next round, cheering for the underdog, freshening up my drink, or using the bathroom. A perfect examples of this is Love Letter and Coup.

  6. Lewis Pulsipher on February 15, 2015

    “. . . even when losing, a player should enjoy your game — or they won’t want to play again!” is good advice. Though it’s easier to achieve in some kinds of games, than in others. Not all kinds of games can be designed to proverbially wrap the participants in cotton wool so that they can’t get hurt.

    I have often said, when playtesting you can rely more on what the losers say than what the winner says. Winning tends to cause people to forget what they didn’t like (or understand) in the game.

  7. Reed Comire on February 23, 2015

    Very good advice. In the past 2 playtests of a game I’m working on, a player has commented that they gave up, and one said they wanted to “flip the table over” at one point. I think I’ve fixed that now. We should be observant and watch for players that appear to give up in tests.

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