The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

What is Winning? Factorio, High Frontier and the Goals of Games

(Update — Fixed some typos, fleshed out thoughts, added links. Also, I don’t wish to imply that Mombasa or Jump Drive are bad. I like both. I use them because I played them during the same week).

During my time at the Gathering, I played 31 games. Eclipse, Colonists and 3 plays of High Frontier took roughly 21 hours. The remaining 26 games took about 20 hours.

I spent my first two games of High Frontier doing terribly. I earned 1VP apart from Heroism (aka “The Challenger Explosion card” aka “Pity Points”).

Suppose winning just involved earning VPs at a fixed rate (ignoring opponents). It takes about 40 VP to win High Frontier, so I would ‘win’ after four hundred hours of gameplay.

Let’s flip that around. Wins/hour. For those first two games I earned 0.0025 WPH.

Among the other games I played were Mombasa and Jump Drive. For Mombasa I earned about .7 WPH, since I generated enough VP to win in my game, which was about 1.5 hours. A nice rate. My Jump Drive rate was 4 WPH for the Gathering, slightly higher than my typical 3 wins per hour. But I taught the game twice.

So, for 10 hours of High Frontier (roughly 1/4 of my gaming time) I was arguably the least effective game-player in all of the gathering. I’d have to go to ten gatherings to eke out a single win. (I have some true anti-skill in that game. But I did eventually get a bit better). Apparently I did OK in my only game with second edition (although it left me cold), but we did the fast start, so I may have randomly gotten a good setup.

Of course Wins Per Hour is a somewhat ludicrous idea. Isn’t it? It seems obvious, but winning isn’t the problem. And we routinely praise games for being “tight” or “fast” or having a high decision density.

I was already pondering the similarities between High Frontier (the current hotness) and Factorio (the current hotness is not necessarily a singular). I mean, they both have Rockets, but there were other similarities. I’d been thinking about it (vaguely) even before Jeroen asked me to pitch Factorio to him over breakfast. One of the random thoughts I blurted out was its old school scoring. (It was a long pitch. In my defense, I had previously warned him that if he asked about Factorio he should set aside a day for my answer).

Anyway, old school scoring. Launching one rocket (aka “Winning”) gives you a score of …. one. Its like how the original pinball machines had scores like 1-2-3 for each bumper, but now you get a million points for simply launching the ball. But after you get on the scoreboard in Factorio, you can keep going.

Factorio is optimization, but you are free to decide what to optimize:

1) Speed (the speedrun: how fast can you win?)

2) Throughput (how many rockets per unit time can you get? This can be subdivided to a final sprint, ignoring the setup time, or over the lifetime of your game).

3) Size (How small a factory can you get a rocket out of. This is currently a challenge on Reddit. Yes, these rockets would take roughly one year of real time to be built, but they are ludicrously small factories).

There are others. People play without using robots (or just logistic robots, or just personal robots), or without lasers, or trains. Some play peaceful, some play Deathworld. Factorio has a victory condition, but people often ignore it. You can keep playing after you win. It’s a sandbox. You make what you want. I’m watching “The Belt Diva” on youtube, and its like watching Bob Ross. Happy little conveyer belts. She wants to build a mega base. I have no idea if she’ll launch a rocket. Does it matter?

Mombasa is not a sandbox. Neither is Jump Drive. You could argue that High Frontier isn’t a sandbox either, it has VP and end game conditions, but the standard criticism again Eklund’s games is: “Great simulations with arbitrary endgame/VPs attached.” (The latest edition of High Frontier’s scoring seems reasonable and at about the right time).

Ignore the victory conditions for High Frontier and just play with the system and it would still work. (Also true of American Mega Fauna, or other games like Seven Ages. You could just tell people to play in the best interest of their species/nation and not the actual victory conditions).

You could add self imposed conditions on your game. Only use solar sails, or “try to get out to Neptune with only basic cards,” or “Make the Kessel Run in 7 parsecs.” For any Eklund game, you could take a reasonable goal (“Expand your species,” “Become President of Mexico,” “Kessel Run”) and if you achieved it, who cared what the VPs said?

High Frontier feels like a sandbox (much like all Sierra Madre games).

Can you do that with a Euro? I suppose you could just say “I’m trying to maximize my red cubes and not VP” But that seems silly. The goal is to maximize VP.

Objectively, there’s no difference. You lose, the other players win. You may throw the game by being silly. But in a sandbox game it feels acceptable.

You might not even mess up the other players. (If you didn’t mention you had mentally altered your victory conditions, they might not even notice, assuming you chose something ‘reasonable’) We’ve already quietly accepted the premise that in a sandbox game the VPs are somewhat not the point when we criticize the poor victory conditions in otherwise good games.

We wouldn’t play a Euro similarly broken. Wouldn’t make sense.

I once knew someone who built a Magic deck with 58 islands, 1 mountain and 1 fireball. (Several of my readers should remember him). The point was to build a deck that could theoretically win (if you drew the mountain, the fireball, and then managed to play 20 lands). He’d pull this deck and lose and lose to people who often did not notice that their opponent never did anything except play islands. He was truly Andy Kaufman, CCG player.

Or perhaps Stanley Milgram.

When I’m losing a game like High Frontier (or Combat Commander, or Seven Ages, or Here I Stand), I may flounder and grasp for a way out of my situation, but I feel perfectly happy just exploring the system even though the time invested is well out of proportion to what I’d normally give to a game.

I’ve dismissed countless games after one play (or less), games I’ve won included. Games I won especially. Those tend to fail the test of time (unless everyone was new).  A game where I can beat experienced players probably isn’t that deep, or has too much luck.

Whereas games I lost repeatedly include Titan, 18xx, Magic Realm (counting dying as a loss), Chess, Go, Bridge.

Clearly, I’m not optimizing my wins per hour. Knizia has that quote….

When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning

Pretty Zen, but I get (and approve) the idea. Those guys who crushed that sub-sub-Mendoza line Magic deck and chortled and kept playing it again and again to rack up wins? Not great gamers.

But is the goal really to win? Usually, yes. When I played American Megafauna with non-existent or terribly wrong Victory Conditions, I don’t recall having less fun. In High Frontier I started out trying to win. Mainly I was trying to do something constructive. A Winning-adjacent goal.

Some play games to explore systems, but that requires a system worth exploring. Which is not to say that Mombasa or Jump Drive’s design is not deep. Just (relatively) transparent. You can argue about the best path to winning, but that path is well defined. With Combat Commander or Magic Realm or High Frontier, you aren’t sure what’s going to happen, and sometimes the joy is just in unlocking the secret or even seeing that rocket take flight. In fact, defining the direction of the path is surprisingly hard … the player that did best may be the one that lost, according to the rules. It’s like that old Supreme Court definition of pornography. You know who won when you played it. Who cares what the rules said?

Its like watching your factory grow, then deciding what you want to optimize next.


Written by taogaming

April 15, 2017 at 11:04 pm

Posted in Ramblings

Tagged with ,

14 Responses

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  1. You may have just capsulized a definition for the elusive term “experience game”…

    Rick Heli

    April 16, 2017 at 1:17 am

  2. Somehow your post makes me think of Here I Stand.

    The Protestants are trying to bring the Gospel to all of Europe. The Papacy is trying to stop them. The Hapsburgs are trying to dominate the world. The English are trying to sire a male heir. The French want to build lovely chateaus. And the Ottomans want to punish the heathen.

    Eric Brosius

    April 16, 2017 at 7:24 am

    • chateaux 🙂


      April 16, 2017 at 4:40 pm

      • You know, I thought about writing chateaux, but since I’m writing in English, it seemed too precious to me to write it that way.

        Eric Brosius

        April 17, 2017 at 1:26 pm

  3. Great blog entry Brian. I immediately started thinking about an Up Front: Banzai scenario that I probably attempted half a dozen times in a row one day in an attempt to not do worse than the previous attempt. I never won, but I slowly improved and that was all that mattered.

    Craig Massey

    April 16, 2017 at 4:53 pm

  4. I would sum this piece up as:

    Experience. Chaos. Kaizen.

    Good read.


    April 17, 2017 at 10:33 am

  5. This is an interesting idea that I’ve been sort of playing around with in a different context. My line of attack was: how much can a game tolerate an individual player’s personal interpretation of the victory conditions? It can be a small interpretational issue (like playing all-in for 1st place vs. playing to maximize your position) or something big (like choosing your own victory conditions which are totally different from the printed ones and playing for those); almost every game will either break the game system or ruin the experience for one or more other players somewhere in there (even High Frontier). This is of special interest to semi-cooperative games like Republic of Rome or (I’d argue) Magic Realm, where players “buying in” to the premise and the interpretation of the victory conditions are fundamental to the success of the game.

    My feeling is that boardgames are missing out on opportunities to do interesting things by not assuming players will do this “buy in”, by never communicating to players the intent of the design or how the designer expects the game to be played, and instead relying 100% on rules. I would argue that this was the downfall of Churchill – Mark Herman wasn’t convinced he could get players to buy in to the premise (that somebody winning was much better than everyone losing), so he instead designed these horrible, broken victory conditions so that there could always be a player winner (Churchill has othe problems too, of course). I think if you start by assuming buy in, and then reward that buy in with player engagement, you could do a lot of interesting things.

    The recent Sierra Madre stuff (Bios Genesis, Neanderthal, Pax Renaissance) are interesting because they definitely *feel* less sandbox-y than their predecessors and have clear and working victory conditions that don’t leave a ton of room for interpretation (although with Neanderthal and Greenland particularly still give you a great deal of strategic latitude). But the player engagement level is so much higher, just due to the increased playability, pacing, and control, while retaining all the science-y stuff we like. And ultimately player engagement is what we want. High Frontier gives you engagement at least in part through exploration of the game space and by presenting you with a tough challenge that is emotionally rewarding to solve, and in part because your are not so much in competition with the other players that they will frustrate you. Greenland gives you engagement because it’s competitive, both between players and with the environment – everyone is freezing to death and you want to be the best survivor.

    Chris Farrell

    April 17, 2017 at 11:32 am

    • Chris, I’ll mention Dean Essig’s designs, which, although he generally supplies victory conditions, don’t tend to depend very much on victory conditions. He often says, “if you can’t tell at the end of the game who won, you’re probably not paying attention.”

      And if the goal of his wargames is to put you into the shoes of the historical commanders, then it generally makes sense not to have victory conditions. It’s rare that a historical commander had a detailed set of victory conditions, at least not the kind that said “you get 5 VP for controlling this hex, and 3 VP for this one, and so on.” In most wargames (take as one example Last Chance for Victory, Dean’s Gettysburg game in the LoB series,) I’m perfectly comfortable trying to do what I think the historical commander would have done. I don’t feel I need victory conditions to do that. And I don’t mind if my opponent takes the same approach.

      In other sandbox-like games, I can take the same attitude, though it seems to fit best for historical wargames.

      Eric Brosius

      April 17, 2017 at 1:31 pm

      • I’m actually pretty skeptical of Dean’s victory conditions, which are sometimes pretty bad (although I am a big fan of OCS and BCS as system designs; less so some of his other stuff). I think in this sort of wargame you need to have clearly stated and understood objective. The historical commanders knew what they were fighting over. Otherwise you can get players playing two different games where one has decided that he’s going to make a big push for Leningrad or whatever (I remember this situation from Vance von Borries’ Barbarossa games, even though he writes very good and specific VCs) even though it’s not really the way to win, and the other player is playing to the actual VCs, and you end up with not much of a game because the way the chosen objectives overlap isn’t interesting or doesn’t result in real conflict. This actually used to happen all the time in TCS or CWB because those games were *so* unplayable that nobody could ever finish them so you had to pick how you were going to interpret the fact that the VCs could never really be checked and games between skilled players were unlikely to result in victories that were obvious just by looking at them. For wargames to work they have to feel like real high-stakes conflicts, and when you have victory conditions that are vague or hopeless for one side or the other it saps the games of energy. Once freed from any hope or expectation of actual victory, players can do whatever they want, which makes their moves impossible to anticipate or evaluate, which feeds disengagement.

        Chris Farrell

        April 17, 2017 at 4:38 pm

  6. […] 7. Sadly the spellchecker doesn’t recognize it. Why the search? Rick Heli tipped me off to an article by Brian Bankler. I found it very interesting and pretty much proof of what I suspected: that I […]

  7. […] with the basic rules. I couldn’t decide how victory should be determined, then realized it didn’t really matter. “Just don’t get canceled early,” seemed enough of a goal, and “getting […]

  8. Being a sandbox game is less of an insult than many people seem to think it is. I much prefer a sandbox that gives you reasons to pursue goals based on the thematic nature of the game (Phil Eklund Games) to a game with tightly constrained victory conditions that lead to paths of play that make no sense in terms of the theme (most of Uwe Rosenberg’s worker placement/action games).

    Mark Delano

    April 18, 2017 at 6:07 pm

  9. I do think it interesting that what you’ve captured is much of what draws me to Troia (which, admittedly, is a small sandbox) – a game that I know sends you running.

    Joe Huber

    April 20, 2017 at 7:58 am

  10. […] the spellchecker doesn’t recognize it. Why the search? Rick Heli tipped me off to an excellent article by Brian Bankler. I found it interesting and pretty much proof of what I suspected: that I don’t […]

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