To win, or to not lose?

To win, or to not lose?

In this post, we’re gonna take a look at a topic I’ve always found very interesting. It’s a thing that can be applied to any game’s mechanics, at (more or less) all levels of abstraction. Simply put, it’s the difference between mechanics which help a player win, and mechanics which help a player stay in the game/avoid losing the game. While at first glance these might feel like the same thing, in practice there is a very big mechanical difference between the two types. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

What’s the difference?

Wait, how is winning different from not losing, I hear you ask. Doesn’t the former imply the latter? It does, and in the general case, you’d be right. However, vice versa need not apply in this case, and this isn’t so much about the end result of winning or losing, but rather about how mechanics progress the game state (or fail to do so).

To get further into this, we have to take a look at something I personally consider one of the absolutely most important principles in game design:

A game must progress towards some end state, even without input from the players.

This is extremely important to proper game flow. It ensures that the game will eventually end, and is one of those things that is mostly felt when absent. Most games do this, so we take it for granted as both players and designers, but it’s still important enough to shine a spotlight on, and to make sure that as many people explicitly know of it as possible. When designing all your rules and cool mechanics, it’s easy to accidentally lose track of the fundamentals, and bugs like that just get harder and harder to fix as the game’s design progresses.

As an example, a lot of card games do something when a player runs out of cards in their deck: in MtG, the first player who tries to draw from an empty deck loses the game, and a draw is mandatory each turn. Hearthstone does a weaker version of this, with players taking ever-increasing damage every time they try to draw from an empty deck. Games with a fixed number of rounds or moves also do this—once the allotted rounds are used up, the game just abruptly stops, and the winner is usually determined by comparing each player’s overall performance during the course of the game.

Even though the game ending through the empty-deck lose condition in Magic is extremely rare (unless someone is explicitly playing with that strategy, but we’re talking about the ‘default’ game flow), it’s still there to prevent infinitely looping game states or just letting the game go on for some absurdly long time. Hard caps on a game’s length are a very useful tool because it’s in the very nature of games to want to end and have someone be declared winner.

Now, there are games where enforcing this principle verbatim isn’t really possible, for some mechanical reason or another. Fear not, because there’s a weaker version of it that’s still perfectly valid:

A game must progress explicitly towards a single player winning if the other players do nothing to stop them.

Again, this is very obvious when spelled out, but not everyone has encountered the issues that arise from its absence. This is the principle upon which all race-type win conditions are built. This principle is based on the assumption that in a competitive scenario (i.e. pretty much every game), no player would sit idly and wait for themselves to lose. It doesn’t matter if you’re competing against other players or the game itself, human nature doesn’t really allow us to not act in scenarios like that.

An interesting thing is that one can make a game that doesn’t adhere to these principles. More specifically, games can exist (and probably do, haven’t looked into it that much) where no player can progress further without the other player’s input. To be more specific, ‘input’ here is specifically referring to meaningful input, actions that drive them closer to victory, rather than just things like passing the turn or doing forwards-and-backwards moves in games like chess. Finding (or making) such games is left as an exercise to the reader.

Congratulations! You didn’t lose!

With the framework of games progressing to an end state set up, we can move on to the main course.

  • Mechanics that help you win are ones that get the game closer to an end state where you end up victorious.
  • Mechanics that help you not lose are ones that get the game further from a state where an opponent wins, or further from a state where you lose.

Wait, wait, wait. This is confusing again. What’s the difference between an opponent winning and you losing? Well, I’m glad you asked, cause it’s time to talk about win conditions vs lose/loss conditions.

These things are not mutually exclusive, even though it might seem that way initially. The case where this applies in the most tangible way is multiplayer competitive games. When a game is elimination-based, with the last person standing as the winner, players can lose the game without someone immediately winning the game because of that (except, of course, if there are only 2 people left in the game at that point). However, in games that take the ‘race’ approach, the first person to reach some end goal wins, and when that happens, all the others lose simultaneously by default. These are two completely different dynamics, and figuring out which better suits your designs is a key part of the process.

As an example of a mechanic that helps you not lose, we’ll take that old favourite from Magic: life gain. For those unfamiliar with Magic, the point of the game is to get your opponent’s life from 20 down to 0, usually by attacking them with creatures that you play using resources.

New players overvalue the absolute hell out of life gain. And this is fairly understandable: it prevents you from losing quickly, and it gives you time to gather more resources that might help you win. Read that last bit again, since it’s very important: “gather more resources that might help you win”. Life gain itself does not help you get closer to victory in the slightest, since the default wincon is to drop your opponent’s life total to 0.

There is no alternate victory condition baked into the game’s rules that lets you win if you have a certain amount of life, or anything that looks at how much life you’ve gained over the course of the game (and yes, while cards exist that implement that, it’s not a part of the core rules of MtG).

Compare this to threat removal. More often than not, removing your opponent’s creatures not only helps you survive longer because you’re facing a smaller number of threats, but also reduces your opponent’s defenses, allowing you to punch through their creatures for the win. Because of this, removal effects are ones that help you with both winning and not losing*.

*An important bit of semantics here is that removing other resources that don’t have an immediate impact on the win-loss balance of the game mostly just serves to slow the opponent down. Not all removal can do double duty that way.


One of the key things to remember, as with many of the other things I’ve written about on this blog, is that these things are tools. They’re not inherently bad, and in fact, mechanics of this type are often absolutely necessary to have in a game in order to maintain competitiveness and interaction, effectively keeping the balance of fun between the players. Buying time is perfectly fine, as long as it’s not the best strategy, nor the only viable strategy—neither of these lead to actually fun and engaging gameplay.

There’s a fair amount to be said about pacing and swinginess when it comes to mechanics, and I’ll approach some of those topics sooner rather than later. In general, you want to ensure that most of the mechanics/effects in the game move things toward some end state, because games where players are just treading water aren’t fun for anyone involved.

Until next time, I leave you with a chill song to drive the stress closer to an end state:

This is InvertedVertex, signing off.

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