Variant: Artificially Close Scores
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an article over at Painted Wooden Cubes about close finishes and whether they were satisfying or unsatisfying. He contrasted games of Airlines Europe (where his decisions mattered little in final scoring) and Dominion (where they seemed to have a greater impact). That got me thinking about close finishes that are tense and satisfying versus games that seem to have close finishes built in, like an artificial closeness.
Having a close score in a game like Macao or Castles of Burgundy can be exciting for two reasons. First, the scoring potential is very high in those games. Macao sees scores near 100 and Castles can be over 200. So a victory margin of a point or two often means that the game was competitive and close. The victor can relish defeating his worthy opponent by the narrowest of margins. But, more importantly, these games often have entirely different strategies. In Castles, one player may focus on knowledge and pastures while another grabs buildings and ships. In the end, it’s exciting to see who implemented their plan better and which was stronger in that game.
This is true even for games that have very low scoring tracks. Dungeon Lords, for example, has high scores in the twenties and thirties (with some amazing scores slightly higher). In theory then, a one or two point difference should be more common and less interesting. But the opposite is true. With comparatively lower scoring, each point is of critical importance and it makes every move feel necessary and calculated. And, again, with different emphases (represented by the different titles), the interplay between strategies gives a new dimension to final scoring.
I think a close game is far less satisfying when the scoring is artificially made close by the rules. There are a few games where it seems, no matter what you do, you’re going to get points. Every play scores something and the strategy is either about maximizing at the margins or simply getting to them first. A big offender is The Road to Canterbury. Partly, this is a byproduct of making a lighter game designed for casual and family gamers. But it seems that every action gives you points and it is simply a race to complete them first. Many points are doled out based on first, second, and third place – with third place (in a three player game) still achieving points. Further, though the game has strategy, there aren’t really “multiple paths to victory” allowing a player to customize the game. As a result, it feels like everyone is more or less doing the same thing and the close scoring tends to feel like it came out of the rulebook rather than from clever play.
In one sense, it’s more about how interesting the game is than it is about how close two numbers are. If the game allowed for interesting choices, and allowed players to take different approaches, then scoring feels more meaningful and close scores are exciting. But if the game encourages players to play similarly and the choices are less meaningful, then close scoring (and, really, any scoring) feels artificial and loses its excitement.