017 – Ending Games using Fatigue & Exhaustion Mechanics

In Episode 17 of the Nerdlab we will talk about the topic “How to finish a game” and will especially deal with the situation when a game takes much longer than expected. To avoid this situation in our games, we will also look at some fatigue and exhaustion mechanics that can be used as secondary loss options.

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Review of my last playtest weekend
  • Why and how to end games as soon as possible
  • Fatigue & Exhaust Mechanics
    • Design Principles
    • Examples

Important Links:

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Sources:
Music by Mathew Pablo

Main Quest:

All things must come to an end. This generic phrase is absolutely true for board games as well. Imagine your favorite game. And then imagine the game would go for hours over hours and just wouldn’t come to an end. No matter how good the game actually is you are thinking about, after some time it’s just not fun anymore. You can’t keep the tension up for that long and repeating the same mechanics and plays over and over again becomes boring.

There are a number of common ways to bring games to an end, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

Typical ways of ending a game:

  • Fixed End Point
    • Simplest way of ending a game.
    • Having a clearly defined situation at which the game ends.
      • This could be time based. For example after 5 minutes in 5 minute dungeon.
      • Or once the chess clock runs out the game is over.
      • Or the game could end after a given number of turns.
  • A Race
    • the game ends once a pre-set condition is met by a single player.
      • As soon as one player acquired 6 Tokens
      • As soon as one player reached the final spot on the board
    • Advantage of this ending variant is that these games show a clear progress and make it easy for players to track their current position in the race.
  • Defeat
    • The game ends when the one player or one team is defeated.
      • This often is achieved by reducing a resource such as hitpoints to zero.
    • In cooperative games defeat often happens by
    • Having too much or too little of something
      • If you run out of disease cubes (Pandemic)
      • if you run out of cards in a deck (Magic)
      • Or you lose once a marker gets to the end of a track. The track or the tokens could be literally anything. Rage, Stamina, Loyalty, Insanity, Moral
  • A mission
    • In a mission each player or a team has to fulfill an objective
      • Often players get a card telling them what they need to do. This can happen hidden or revealed. The game ends once a player or a team achieved their mission objective. If the goal was hidden the game can sometimes end very suddenly. A good example here would be risk were players have to control specific areas on the battlefield or control a certain amount of units or eliminate a specific player.

These are the most common win and loss mechanics in games. I don’t want to go too much into detail here, but I thought they would make for a good starting point of the discussion.

In my game you are always on a mission. But one of the main selling points of my game is that the objective of that mission can be almost anything.

My quest track can be used to:

  • create an objective that has a defined endpoint. For example: If you can defend the wall for 8 turns you win.
  • But it could also be used to simulate a race by placing different tokens on the quest track and letting them move under different circumstances. An example would be that you are hunted by a group of orcs and their war dogs and you win that quest if you somehow manage to get to position 6 on the track before the orc token is on the same spot on the track as the group token.  
  • And the quest tracker can be used to track the amount of a resource. That means it can be used to track if you have too much or too little of something. And it can even measure it for the entire group or for an individual character, an NPC or an enemy. An example would be that the game ends once you found 5 clues for a mysterious murder.

The combination of the quest track and my other game elements allows for very interesting quest design and makes the entire game very diverse. Sure it also has its flaws and issues and it is by no means finished. But that flexibility in regards to the ending options of a quest is what I really really like about it. One issue that came up during the playtesting session last weekend was a situation in which the players had an unlimited amount of turns (for preparation, recovery ,etc.).

In that situation I realized, that my quest track is very versatile on one hand what is a good thing. But on the other hand it sometimes is not restrictive enough in regards to the time component. What I mean by that is that there is not always a strict time limit that forces the players to push the quest forward. In that specific quest the players were supposed to escape from an orcish laboratory in which a shaman had performed some unspeakable experiments on them. The problem was once all the enemies on the battlefield were eliminated there was nothing that pushed my players to go to the next room. What was supposed to be an escape in which the players get weaker and weaker from room to room degenerated quickly a quest in which they cleared the dungeon room by room and rested in between until they were fully healed and perfectly buffed for the next room.

And that situation made me thinking. It would be easy to solve this mistake in the quest design by adding a time component in addition to the number of rooms they had to go through. But I am sure that the same situation would come up again and again in other quests as well. And I didn’t want to have a specific time limited in all of my quests. So what was my game missing?

It was missing an exhaustion mechanic. Something that simulates the strains of adventurer life and ensures that the heroes become weaker and weaker as the quest progresses. But why exactly do I need an exhaustion or fatigue mechanic?

  • The goal of the mechanic is to make sure there is always some pressure to push the quest forward and to eliminate the situation in which the players have an unlimited number of turns.
  • It should also function as a secondary loss condition and limit the games’ length.
  • And especially in longer games, fatigue may become a tactical element for players to decide how they allocate their resources.

The core idea of building such a mechanics can be explained with the following causality chain

  • Players are using Actions → that builds exhaustion → and that somehow reduces the  character abilities
  • Maybe the player gets to determine the amount of effort they put into an action what also affects the amount of exhaustion, but maybe that is just too much for that mechanic. We’ll see.

To find the best possible mechanic for my game I did what I always do: I asked for help in the community and researched what other game designers have used in their games. Then I defined some design principles for me regarding that mechanic and tried to incorporate it into my theme and my existing mechanics.

Design Principles

The following principles are my design principles for an exhaustion mechanic. They are for a cooperative adventure card game. They may be completely different for your game but I hope they can at least be used as a good starting point to think about your mechanic.

  • Agency:
    • One thing that has been mentioned on reddit by the user Tavahka is the concept of agency. It makes a difference whether a player can decide for himself when to rest, compared to a game that simply tells him he is exhausted and has to rest.
    • The very simple decision of “do I rest now or do I wait one more turn” adds a lot to the game because the consequences of that decision can be very complex.
    • A disadvantage of giving player agency about when to rest is extended game length because you add another decision they have to think about individually and maybe even discuss with their team.
    • I really like the tactical element in games that give players agency over how fast they exhaust themselves.  That’s why one of my design principles for this mechanic is to give players agency.
  • Individual vs group vs enemy:
    • Another aspect that was also mentioned by Tavahka is the question of who is going to be affected by the exhaustion mechanic. That could be either the individual player or the entire group that becomes weaker and weaker. But the exhaustion mechanic could also affect the enemies and grow their strength as longer the game progresses. I will mention some examples later.
    • Each of these creates a different feel to the game, and emphasizes either individual weakening, hard time limits or growing evil.
    • The evil in my game is not always acting in the same way: Therefore, I can rule that option out. I like the idea of having different playstyles that allow players to exhaust at different rates. That’s why I tend towards an individual solution. But I don’t want to rule out a group solution in which all players rest individually but use some kind of shared resource to pay for the rest.
  • Integration into existing game mechanics
    • The next design principle is that I want the exhaustion mechanic to be very well integrated into my existing game mechanics.
    • I don’t want to add another game element. I could easily implement some kind of stamina bar but  the additional bookkeeping would not only slow down the game. It would also require additional mental capability to keep track of what can lead to analysis paralysis for some players.
    • My goal is to tackle the exhaustion mechanic and the challenges of other game elements all at once.
  • Thematically integrated
    • The next design principle is that the exhaustion mechanic should be thematically integrated as well. In my game players are acting as an adventurer. That means it should somehow represent physical and or mental fatigue.
  • Influencing factors for Exhaustion
    • The last thing I did as a design principle was to define some influencing factors for exhaustion.
    • By influencing factors I mean aspects of the game, the quest or character decisions that should affect the rate at which players exhaust. And I came up with the following list:
      • Number of actions a player takes. In my game this is almost equivalent of how fast a player churns through his deck. A player that plays 4 spells every turn should exhaust faster than a player who plays only 2 spells a turn.
      • Power of character actions. Some actions are clearly more powerful than others. If possible I would like to see an exhaustion mechanic that takes that into account as well.
      • Environmental influencing factors (In some quests players maybe have to spend a significant amount of time in a rough environment. Let’s say a burning building or under water. I love the idea that the players are exhausting faster under these circumstances).
      • Encumbrance by Armor. A character’s armor can also influence how fast he becomes exhausted. Remember the Game of Thrones scene in which Bron fights the Knight of the Eyrie at the bloody gate. Bron is wearing a light leather armor and the knight a heavy plate. Bron wins this fight only because his enemy exhausts earlier than he does.
      • Class of a hero?
  • Players shouldn’t feel useless after rest
    • Players shouldn’t feel useless after a rest, so they shouldn’t have too strong restrictions. But the restrictions need to be strong enough to incentivise the players to advance the quest. This is probably best done when either the restrictions become worse from exhaust to exhaust or the frequency in which players have to rest is increased towards the end of the game.

If you are actively looking for your own exhaustion mechanic I think it would be helpful for you to define your own design principles. With these principles in mind, let’s go though some examples of fatigue mechanics in games. I focussed in the effects of exhausting.

Example 1 – Fatigue as separate resource

The first example is adding fatigue as a separate resource to your game. The example I want to mention here is Descent.

  • Each Hero class has a Stamina value that represents the maximum amount of fatigue a hero may suffer and determines with how many fatigue tokens he or she starts.
  • Players can actively spend fatigue in two ways.
    • The can spend it for additional Movement or
    • some skills require the hero to suffer fatigue to use. That amount of fatigue is listed on the specific card.
  • Once a hero is out of fatigue tokens, he or she may not spend fatigue again until a rest action has been performed to recover all fatigue tokens.

In the case of Descent Fatigue is an additional resource to represent the exhaustion of a character. However, the way the mechanics are implemented doesn’t help to bring the game to an end, because the characters are fully recovered after a rest.

Example 2 – Deck as a limitation (running out of cards)

In many traditional collectible card games such as Magic the Gathering, players instantly lose the game as soon as they ran out of cards in their library. This is a secondary loss mechanic and acts as a time deadline every player is affected by. If the deck size is fixed and you draw a fixed amount of cards per turn, running out of cards is only a another way of measuring the number of turns taken and thus players do not really have full control over it.H

Hearthstone also uses the deck of cards as a limitation. That means it has a similar exhaust mechanic to Magic but it’s a little bit more forgiving – instead of straight-up dying when you run out of cards, fatigue deals an increasing amount of damage to players who have already drawn all of the cards in their deck, whenever they attempt to draw another card. Fatigue deals 1 damage to the hero, plus 1 damage for each time Fatigue has already dealt damage to the player. Fatigue therefore deals damage cumulatively, steadily increasing in power each time it deals damage.

I prefer the implementation of Heartstone here. Because it doesn’t end the game right away, but still gives the player a little chance to win. If you lose as soon as you run out of cards, it can sometimes feel pretty abrupt and surprising to a player. With the system that Hearthstone uses, the fatigue mechanics feels better integrated into the game’s existing health mechanic. It just connects better with the whole rest of the game and makes it feel like every decision made during the game mattered.

But is this exhaustion mechanic really what drives the game forward? In my eyes it isn’t. It is just a secondary loss condition: In Magic and Hearthstone alike the mechanic that pushes a game towards the end is a different one. It is the resource system. In these games the resource system works in such a way that you are able to play more powerful cards from turn to turn. It keeps raising the power level. The game will end because these spells are big enough to make it end. The game creates a system that enables the players to end it.

Example 3 – Recovering Cards comes with a cost (Gloomhaven & Spirit Island)

Whenever you play a card as an actions you lose that card from your hand or deck to a discard pile. Once you are out of available cards you have to rest. But resting comes with a cost. In Gloomhaven for example you have to remove one card per rest action from your discard pile to your lost pile. That means you cannot get it back under normal circumstances. In addition to that some cards are lost as part of the casting costs. That means their effect is so strong that you can only use them once.

  • That means with every rest action and every lost card you play the number of available cards is reduced. That means towards the end of the scenario you will have to rest more often and your options are reduced. I think this is a brilliant mechanic.   

In Spirit Island recovering cards also comes with a cost.  But it is a different kind of costs. It is more of an opportunity cost.  As a growth action you could reclaim all played power cards from your personal discard pile, returning them to your hand. But this action directly competes with other growth actions such as gaining presence or additional power.

Example 4 – Limit the number of reshuffles

Mage Knight uses a fixed time mechanism. Depending on the quest the number of reshuffles is limited to a specific value. For example the length could be specified as 6 rounds each consisting of 6-8 turns. This mechanic creates a very ruthlessly time limitation. I have heard different opinions about it. Some people like it, others don’t. It forces the players to maximize efficency because the time limitation often is the most important factor.

Example 5 – Directly reduce combat strength

Let’s use a dice pool mechanic as an example. Let’s say a player rolls a number of dice as part of a skill challenge. A well-rested character may succeed on a 4,5 or 6 while an exhausted player would only succeed on a 6. This is a nice way of giving the players agency about the timing of their rest ability. Some players may prefer to take a break earlier to increase their probability of success, others may be more prepared to take risks and want to test their luck with a more difficult test.

Example 6 – Escalating Enemies

In competitive games your opponent typically has an interest to make progress. In coop games you do not have a real human being as enemy. That’s why these games need a mechanic to simulate that interest.

Aeons End takes a different approach in order to bring the game to an end. Regaining the used cards is free in Aeon’s End and comes without a cost. There is no real exhaustion mechanic that directly affects the players. An increasing difficulty towards the end of the game is achieved by increasing the strength of the opponents. The mechanic that scales up the opponent is a deck of cards that determines the actions of the AI. The deck is divided into three different difficulty levels. On the other side the players also become stronger and stronger as longer the game progresses because their decks become more streamlined and consist of stronger spells.

Example 7 – Combat pushing the quest forward

Another co-op example comes from the game Legends of Andor. In Andor, killing enemies is directly related to making progress in the quest. Each killed opponent causes the narrator to move one field forward on the quest track what means the quest progresses and you come closer towards your loss condition. This leads to the fact that players are only allowed to kill a limited number of enemies in each quest. This solves the problem that the opponents always kill all opponents first and then take care of the actual non-combat quest goals.

Example 8 – Advancing Event Cards (every turn)

Another example for advancing the quest can be found in Arkham Horror the Living Card Game. Each turn you have to put one doom token onto the current agenda card. The agenda cards  represent the progress and objectives of the enemies in a scenario and the players want to prevent them to advance. But if the value of doom tokens in play equals or exceeds the doom threshold of the current agenda card, the agenda deck advances. Because you are putting one doom token on the agenda each turn, you have a time constraint that is always working against the players.

Conclusion:

There needs to be something in your game that moves it along towards completion. You have to have something built into your game that makes sure it advances and ends at some point.

And this should be an element that is not entirely in the hands of your players. You can’t depend upon your players to advance the game.

That means: In a neutral state your game should be pushing the players towards completion.

Because if the players make the wrong decision the game may become stalled and never end. Or it could take way too long. It is our job as a game designer to set the pace of our games.  

I hope I could give you some ideas of how you put some pressure on you players towards completing the game. You can do it with a strict time limitation. You could do it by escalating enemies or by an event deck that progresses every round.

I think exhaustion is best done when the players are given fewer options or their options become more costly towards the end of the scenario. In case of my game this means, that I will most probably handle time limits and increasing monster strength within my quest design (which can be different for each quest but won’t be in players agency). Exhaustion on the other hand will be something players have more agency of. For my next iteration I will test an exhaustion mechanic that lets players exhaust when they have no cards left in their deck or when they are out of threat tokens. When they rest, they will regain some of their cards and reset some of their threat tokens. But they won’t get back all of them. That means they will have to rest more often the longer the quest goes and they will lose access to some of their spells.

Something to keep in mind is that a well-crafted game should end before the players want it to end. In fact the game should end as early as you can make it end. From a designers perspective it is much better to have a game that the players wanted to last longer than one that they wanted to stop earlier.

And a good mechanic that pushes the game towards completion along with a challenging exhaustion mechanic helps to do that.

Thank you so much for all you comments, emails and messages. That means a lot to me. You can leave a comment on nerdlikeaboss.com or find me on twitter instagram and facebook with the hashtag “#nerdlikeaboss”.

Thank you for listening and until next week keep shooting for the moon and nerd like a boss.

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