Why victory points?

I’ve been musing about board game design recently (as usual), and I thought I’d share my thoughts on victory points.

In many modern games, victory points (also called influence, honor, etc.) are an extremely common way to decide who wins the game. Players race to do various cool things on their turns, but the ultimate winning condition is “who has the most victory points?”

So here’s the question: Why use victory points?

Game designers probably understand this point already, but here’s my short explanation:

Victory points as a winning condition help prevent runaway leaders.

If you’re not much of a board gamer, this might be confusing, so let me explain.

Let’s say you have a game where players are competing to gain money (Monopoly, for instance). Money is useful in the game from turn to turn. It lets you buy useful things that can get you more money (engine building). It protects you against bad things that would otherwise happen (getting stuck in jail or going bankrupt or being forced to mortgage your properties).

Attribution: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Monopoly board. Attribution: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

The problem with money as the victory condition (or more precisely in the case of Monopoly, lack of money as the losing condition) is that the rich get richer. Once you have a big lead, it becomes progressively harder for other players to catch you. Not only do you have a high score toward winning, but you also have more powerful options on your turns (buying property and improvements). You get a “snowball” effect, where the winner just wins more.

Let’s take Risk as another example. The winning condition in Risk is to control all of the territories. Controlling territories is useful in and of itself throughout the game, since it gives you more options of where to attack and, when you get complete continents, more armies each turn. It does present some drawbacks, giving you more territory that you need to defend, but Risk is another game where a player who gets into the lead tends to gain momentum, extending that lead until an ultimate victory. It’s another snowball effect.

Risk map

Risk map

Let’s contrast this with a game like Dominion. In the base game of Dominion, the victory point cards (Estates, Duchies and Provinces) are dead cards when you draw them. Part of the strategy of Dominion is to get rid of your Estates as quickly as possible, replacing them with “engine” cards that will let you gain lots of resources on future turns.

However, if you focus just on building your engine and never acquire any victory point cards, you will lose the game. Sure, you’ll have impressive turns, but they won’t help you win.

Dominion card image by Wim de Grom of BoardGameGeek

Dominion card image by Wim de Grom of BoardGameGeek

In order to win, a Dominion player has to start acquiring victory point cards at some point, which will throw some sand into the gears of the deck engine. Future turns for the leader will be worse, as her hand gets clogged with “useless” victory point cards. This gives other players some hope of catching up, and thus keeps players engaged longer.

Another example can be found in my first game design, Chaos & Alchemy. In Chaos & Alchemy, players add Innovation cards to their laboratories (their boards) in a race to build up to a total of 10 points in the laboratory. Some cards, like the Telescope, are very useful for building an engine (letting the player manipulate the Fortune Die), but provide few victory points (even zero points for certain very powerful cards).

Telescope Old and New

Other cards, like Capricious Favor (which will be known as Specter Jar in the updated full-color version that Game Salute will soon be publishing) are worth a large number of victory points, but they don’t help build an engine at all. In fact, this particular card might not even stick around in a player’s laboratory.

Capricious Favor Old and New

So, why use victory points rather than have the winning condition be based on the “active” resources in the game? It balances the game and helps to prevent the feeling of an inevitable victory by whoever is in the lead.

Sure, victory points have their detractors; they can be a little bit boring and flavorless. But in many games, they contribute to keeping the game exciting right up until the end.

By the way, you may have noticed two versions of some Chaos & Alchemy cards in this post. The black and white illustration versions are from the small print run I did myself last year (which sold out out in a couple of months); the color versions are from the upcoming version that Game Salute will be launching on Kickstarter pretty soon. I’m excited about this project; the color cards look so cool! Please let me know if you’d like me to drop you a line when the project launches; I hope you’ll check it out when it goes live.

Michael Iachini, the OnlineDM

ClayCrucible on Twitter

4 thoughts on “Why victory points?

  1. I like Victory Points because it also allows for multiple paths to winning. If there is only one way to win (take all the provinces in Risk) it is not as deep a game as one that allows for different paths to winning (gain VP for taking a province, gain VP for building a railroad, gain VP for completing a set of cards, etc).

    • Excellent point. A game can give you victory points for doing all sorts of different things, some of which might represent wildly divergent strategies. I agree that this is fun!


  2. The D&D 4E adventure “Reavers of Harkenwold” used a VP system to decide the result of the struggle agains the invading Iron Circle after the first half of the adventure. It relied on the choices and accomplishments made by the players during the first half and it was so good that they used it again, although not in such an effective way, in the Encounters season “War of Everlasting Darkness”.

    “Reavers” featured different results based on the outcome of the VPs and those directly influenced the resistance players were to find in the enemy stronghold during second half.

    • Interesting perspective. I remember that section of Reavers, but I don’t see that as being much like victory points in board games. It was just a twist on the skill challenge mechanic. It’s a good twist, to be clear, but it didn’t serve the same function as victory points do in board games, in my opinion.

      Michael the OnlineDM

Leave a Reply