Why Victory Points Are Lazy Game Design

Victory points are a common win condition in many tabletop games. Too common, I would say. Let’s start by asking why one might use victory points and then why they might be a crutch for designers.

Consider gridiron football. I have to respect the design of this game regardless of how little personal interest I have in it, because it represents war in sports-form better than any other physical sport I know of. In a war, what’s the objective? Subdue the enemy and take their land. In gridiron football, you subdue the enemy and then take their land (the end zone).

Once you have taken the enemy’s land, do you wait until they take it back? No, that would be boring. Instead, both teams reset and run through the battle again, except this time the defenders become the aggressors, and vice versa. The point being, in gridiron football and many other sports, each possession is actually an individual game with a primary objective, followed by a reset. What is scored, therefore, is how many of these minigames you win in a row.

Now, let’s imagine a version of gridiron football that using scoring in the same way that many “point-salad” tabletop games use it: on top of the points assigned when the ball crosses the end zone, perhaps teams will achieve points based on how far down the field they made it before losing possession. Perhaps an interception or sacking the quarterback will be assigned a point. Perhaps we might even end the game once a team has a certain number of points. Would this improve the game?

I would say ‘no’ for three reasons:

  1. Tedious and non-immersive. Let good or bad plays serve to further the team’s overall quest to achieve the primary objective. Every play does not need to be its own minigame with its own point value. In tabletop games specifically, tracking victory points is effectively a meta-chore that invariably requires rules, components, and time outside of delivering the promised experience.
  2. Non-thematic. Victory, influence, reputation, glory — call it what you want, but it’s still abstract. Capital, destroying an army, catching a murderer, surviving a zombie attack, or creating a monopoly is thematic. First player to X victory points is not.
  3. Arbitrary. If we’re assigning victory points to X, why not also to Y? Why not also to Z? Moreover, why is X worth 1 point? Why not 2 points? Are we not denying players the opportunity to discover the value of certain actions when we tell them outright what they’re worth?

Exceptions could be made to abstract games — a genre of game I am admittedly not a fan of — but within games that are trying to mimic the real world in some way, you can see the inconsistency. If the game isn’t abstract, why is the victory condition abstract? This is inconsistent. I saw this quite clearly in a game design forum recently, when someone wrote this in their defense of victory points in a 4X game:

VPs allow me to apply small bonuses for certain effects, such as combat and politics, which can add up as players engage with those systems.

I had to ask, why is it not enough for these systems to produce incremental strategic benefits that allow players to reach their main objective? Many of the best games of all time have straightforward, thematic objectives: Counterstrike, Warcraft 3, Civilization 2, Dota 2, HOMM 3, Darkest Dungeon, etc. No need to assign arbitrary values to one’s success in a particular area; a good designer weaves them all together seamlessly to affect the outcome. A base expansion means additional resources. A happier populace means resistance to rioting or propaganda. An new trade route means a stronger economy. A large infrastructure means faster production of units and buildings. And so on.

You will notice above that I only mentioned computer games. What is so fascinating about computer games is that they can completely remove the tedium of tracking VPs and yet the best computer games typically eschew VPs. I will not lie, I think the quality of game design in computer games is far beyond that of tabletop games, where “Euro games” have seemingly normalized the uninspiring VP objective. Victory points blemish so many otherwise beautiful tabletop strategy games — as though great emperors and generals of the past marched to the battlefield or build wonders of the world in pursuit of an abstract number by which they would be ranked with other figures of history.

Some have claimed that my comments only apply to war or 4X games, whereas in political or economic games, there is no need to have an objective that is the result of political or economic dominance: the designer should choose a point at which the player could consider themselves economically dominant. Again, I consider this lazy and unimaginative. If the goal is political power, why not require the player to gain a majority of seats in a galactic parliament? If the goal is economic power, why not require the player to buy out their competition?

The only thematic tabletop game that I am aware of that may implement victory points well is Dominion — and perhaps that is because the victory points are tangible rather than abstract, in that they take up real estate (pun intended) in one’s hand. Since the victory points are effectively game pieces, immersion is not broken and tracking them does not require extra components.

In conclusion, as designers, we should ask ourselves if they’re using VPs because their game needs it or if they’re inadvertently forsaking their duty as a designer to create a game that is thematic and clean where it matters most: the objective.