Pretty much every hobby game contains some sort of score which measures who is in the lead and decides who wins the game. That's undoubtedly true for competitive games, but sometimes also for cooperative ones. The score can be in the form of victory points, glory points, reputation, money or something else or even a mix of different things. Some games keep track of players' scores throughout the game, others count everything up at the end and there are also games that have a mix of in-game scoring and end-of-game points. In this article, I want to look at these different ways of score keeping and how it affects gameplay experience.
A lot of games have a score track around the outside (round the outside, round the outside) of the game board. As players gain points, their score markers are moved forward the relevant number of spaces. Usually, whoever is the furthest along the track at the end of the game wins.
A public score track is a great visual representation of how far ahead or behind players are. Throughout the game, everyone can see how many points everyone has. If you have a big lead, you can relax a little. If you're far behind, the pressure is on. When scores are tight, then everyone feverishly tries to get more points. The knowledge of where you are relative to other players creates a lot of excitement.
In games with negative player interaction, a public score track can make the lead player a target for those further back. Players might negotiate alliances or their decisions will be influenced by how many points everyone has. Many games recognize that in their design. Instead of offering a linear scoring potential, some games ramp up the points on offer towards the end. So even when there is a runaway leader, everyone can still win.
Even without increasing the point potential as the rounds progress, some games' scores can feel like there is a huge point difference between players. Being behind by 10 or 20 points doesn't feel as bad as being 100 points behind. Yet, in some games, you can easily score 100 points in one go. In those games, winning by being 100 or more points ahead is basically equivalent to winning by 10 points.
Games, where you add points at the end, obfuscate how many points players actually have. These additional points can be based on a player's personal objectives. Often, these are kept secret. Other times there are shared, public goals. Some games have a mix of both. However, irrespective of the type of end-game scoring, it's usually not immediately clear if someone is in the lead or not. After all, the points they gain at the end of the game could take them from last place to first.
Keeping scores partly secret changes the dynamic of a game. Most players happily attack the lead player, but when it's not clear who is actually winning, it changes things. Everyone tries to gauge what the scores will look like after end-game scoring, but nobody can be sure how the game will actually end. It's this uncertainty that creates the potential for bluffing. Someone could plead that they're currently in the lead, but that another player will gain enough points to win at the end. Of course, nobody will know if that's true or just a way to distract everyone around the table from their own impending victory.
Even in games where end-game scoring is based on public objectives, it's not always easy to calculate the points other players will gain when the game finishes. Depending on the group you play with, you might be allowed to take your time working out everyone's end-game scores. Many online implementations of games even do this for you automatically. However, more often than not, you're not allowed to work out final scoring during the game. You just have to go with your gut.
Finally, you have games where scores are completely secret. In some games, all of the adding up is done right at the end. There are no points awarded during the game. In other games, scores are tracked secretly in some way. Players might be given victory point counters that they place face down or put behind their player shield, but there are other ways to keep the score secret.
Players now have the same conundrum of trying to work out who is likely to win the game. Bluffing and misdirection will come to the fore in these games, if they have player interaction. Players will apologise when they attack someone almost randomly, because they simply can't work out who is in the lead. The target will lament how they were already in last place and now have no chance of winning. Of course, it's only at the end of the game that it becomes clear who was telling the truth and who was emotionally pressuring their opponents.
In multi-player solitaire games, it doesn't really matter if scores are kept secret until the end. After all, there is nothing anyone can do to stop the player in the lead from ultimately winning. The only thing you can do is play the best way you can. That's why I think that games without any player interaction should always have public scores. I'd rather know that I'm way behind other players and need to work harder to win.
However, I also understand why sometimes it's actually nicer not to know. Rather than sitting through a game where you know early on that you basically have no chance of winning, you can still just play your own game while being blissfully unaware of where you are on the podium - if at all.
What About You?
I know I haven't listed any games for the various scoring possibilities, but maybe you can name some? What type of scoring do you prefer? Do you rather know the exact score throughout the game or do you prefer to just find out at the end? Do you like games where players know who is winning so those who are behind can make pacts to take down the leader? As alwa