Tuesday, May 23, 2006


What is it with games and ties? Everyone seems to hate the fact that something might end inconclusively. I just don't get it. I have no problem sharing a win...or a loss.

Two sports teams spend a couple hours in heavy competition. The game "ends" 28-28. You'd think everyone could just say, "Wow! I guess these two teams are just about as even as you could get!" Not so. They must continue to play until someone scores again.

Why? Is it really a further test of skill to have a sudden death? Is it really a test of skill in a board game to have a tie breaker that has nothing to do with the normal goal of the game?

Yes and no.

The obvious answer is that since the rules of the game include rules for breaking ties, then players must account for any and all possible outcomes. This affects their choices during the game. It is a skill to be able to win by rule A, and if not then to win by rule B, etc.

But at some point--in some games--it seems like the rules go to great length to pick an arbitrary winner from the set of those players who tied. This really doesn't interest me. Might as well roll a die to see who wins. Might as well just share it.

So let's examine some games and the ways that they handle ties.

Samurai: This game is more about scoring than it is about tile laying. You collect as many figures as possible, but you can win even if you have the fewest. From the point of view of most games, the scoring rules are crazy, yet they are very logical and simple. Ties are broken by "other" figure counts and "total" figure counts, but ultimately there can still be ties. Very cool.

Carcassonnes: Fight tooth and nail for every point. All scoring meeples on the highest numbered space get to hug.

Around the World in 80 Days: A couple of things going on here. First, the player who reaches London last (not on the same turn as any other player) cannot win. A similar mechanism occurs in other games (eg High Society). Secondly, player order reaching London is saved, which breaks any ties in days. I'm not so fond of this as it is sensitive to player order.

Kahuna: The player who wins the final round of scoring wins in a tie. So if player A scored 1 and 2 points in the first 2 rounds, and player B scores 3 points in the final round, player B wins. I'd prefer to let the tie stand.

China: This is one of several games that breaks ties based on efficiency of play. The more "stuff" you have unplayed, the better.

Hansa: In contrast, some games break ties based on inefficiency. That is, the more "stuff" played, the better. This one always bothers me.

Jambo: Some games allow all the rest of the players to have one more round of play after a player triggers the game end. In Jambo, you win if you can tie or beat that player's score. This is a really nice mechanic. It forces you to evaluate whether ending the game is a good idea, since the advantage goes to the opponent. Of course, this works best in a 2-player game.

Antike: Some games use the "race" mechanism. The first player to reach some condition wins. There can be no tie. This is very nice as long as there are lots and lots of turns--mostly eliminating the start player bias.

I will always play games as written unless the rules are truly broken. However, I do feel in many cases that tie-breakers are thrown in at the last minute. They have no relationship to the flow of the game, have some player order bias, or are simply based on luck.

What games have the best/worst tie-breaking rules?

[Samurai image by Aldie]


At 3:50 PM, Blogger Ryan Walberg said...

It's funny that you posted this, as I was just going to blog about something that irritated the crap out of me this weekend.

Ties in Ra. What's the tiebreaker? The player with the highest sun. Nevermind that I had the 9, 11 and 12, the other player had the 13, so she won.

I'm not a sore loser, but I think the tie should be award to the player who skillfully did something better than the other player. Grabbing the highest-numbered tile for the sole purpose of winning a tie is stupid.

At 3:52 PM, Blogger Ryan Walberg said...

Oh yeah, and I was going to say that Samurai's tie-breaking mechanism is really the game itself. Ties are expected since points are so coarse. The tie-breaking mechanism encourages you to specialize but not *over-specialize*, and that's, uhhh, *special*.

At 5:17 PM, Blogger sodaklady said...

I think the tie-breaker for Hansa makes sense, Jim. It seems you've played quite efficiently, to me, if you've managed to garner a lot of points from selling goods and still traded in enough goods to place more markets on the board.

At 1:39 AM, Anonymous Greg Aleknevicus said...

I really dislike the tie-breaker in Power Grid. (Most money wins, then most total cities.)

Why? Because during the game, money is merely a means to an end, powered cities are your real goal. So to my mind, either unpowered cities or unused power plant production should be considered before cash (possibly fuel as well).

Consider the case where Al & Bob tie with 16 powered cities each. Al has an additional 3 unpowered cities and no cash whereas Bob has no unpowered cities and $1. Under the real rules Bob wins but this doesn't feel right to me.

The "order" of units in the game is:

cash -> {cities, plants, fuel} -> powered cities

That is, cash is used to buy cities, plants and fuel which are combined to create powered cities. Basically, I see cities and plants as "higher up on the food chain" and of greater worth than cash. So, it strikes me as discordant that the tie-breaking elevates cash.

At 6:38 AM, Blogger Gerald McD said...

In our games of (5- and 6-player) Around the World, player order has little or nothing to do with the finish order. There are too many variables in card selection and related actions to give the first player of the first round that much of an advantage. Granted, whomever is the first player, if all players are at New York at the beginning of the last round, does have the advantage, but that advantage is one which players could have competed for, in the two or three previous rounds (selecting the "First Player" action).

In any game with a very arbitrary tie-breaker rule, we ignore it. We do record ties as wins for both (or multiple) players, in our gaming records. But, if the game tie-breaker rules are reasonable (as we believe they are in Around the World), we use them.

At 8:07 AM, Blogger Fellonmyhead said...

If you're going to share the win and it really doesn't matter, then you might as well break the tie...

...I absolutely agree many games handle this badly.

Greg, the Power Grid tie-breaker is clearly there to ensure the player who has progressively advanced and supplied his network will more likely take the win than the player who has just saved up enough and leapt to x cities.

To have enough money to break the tie is what Power Grid is all about, IMO. Most players are probably going to be capable of supplying the same number of cities when the limit is reached, so the player who has the most money has usually planned it that way.

If we change it to most unpowered cities as a tie, then you will probably have to break that tie further - it's highly unlikely where there are two or more close leaders that one can build clear of the other without him having managed his money better, so the subsequent tie-break (be it money, unused resources or age) is likely to be more arbitrary than if you'd just considered cash-in-hand in the first place.

I'm probably not explaining myself very well; I'll try this:

If at the endgame it takes around thirty elektros on average to build to that last extra city, then unless your at least thirty elektros clear of the opposition you're looking for another tie-breaker. Might as well just count the money.

Also, breaking it on plants and resources more or less creates a winner midway through the game. Just my two penn'orth.

At 10:29 AM, Blogger hibikir said...

The silliest tie breaking mechanic I've ever seen is from 'Monkeys on the Moon' : The player with the longest hair wins! Bald people and chemotherapy patients are clearly at a disadvantage here.

At work we use the 'Homer Simpson rule': If the two leading players are tied, we claim that 'They are both losers!', and award victory to whoever finished third.

Yes, it's a silly place.

At 5:00 PM, Blogger Steve Janecek said...

And then there is diplomacy, where ties happen more often than not. That game is more about who doesn't lose. I guess thats why so few people are willing to take the time to play the game and go through the exercise to simply avoid being mentally abused by a neighbor.

At 9:22 AM, Anonymous ejamer said...

"At work we use the 'Homer Simpson rule': If the two leading players are tied, we claim that 'They are both losers!', and award victory to whoever finished third."

That's excellent! I've never heard of this tie-breaker before, but unless playing a very serious game it sounds great.

We often play Wizard at work during the lunch hour, and ties are reasonably common in that game. Several players created an entire set of rules dedicated to breaking ties, but this sounds much easier... and funnier!

At 5:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with the post. Ties should be celebrated, not avoided at all costs. A pathological need for a victor seems suspicious, to me.

At 7:22 PM, Blogger Seth Jaffee said...

In response to Greg Aleknevicus regarding money as tiebreak for Power Grid:
With money as a tiebreaker it helps keep people from simply spending all their cash at the end of the game - since they won't need it anymore. It's fairly easy to tie in that game, and money as a tiebreaker makes that last auction continue to be interesting. At least, that's what I've noticed whenever I've been pondering a bid and wondering if I'm going to pay too much or not.

At 7:33 PM, Blogger Seth Jaffee said...

a more general comment: this might not be true of everyone, but many people play a game because they want to try and win. A tie is unsatisfactory. With regard to Ryan's comment: "I think the tie should be award to the player who skillfully did something better than the other player. Grabbing the highest-numbered tile for the sole purpose of winning a tie is stupid." All players know the tiebreak rules, and if you don't think it's worth going after that 13 tile in the last round because you don't think you'll end up tied with someone (or more importantly the player who will get it), then that's your decision. I don't think it's stupid to play in a manner that will win you the tie if it comes down to it.

I think this is what Jim meant when he talked about designers designing tiebreak rules into their games - it can be used to encourage playing the game a certain way (I have heard complaints about this). Often though the tiebreak rewards efficiency, or the harder course. If you and I have the same number of points, but it was harder for you to get them than for me, then you should win.

That last bit is why i think Jim's a little wrong about some of his assertions about tiebreak rules. Yes, some of them are sensitive to turn order - but would you criticize a game which gives players 2,3, and 4 more points to begin than player 1? That's pretty sensitive to player order as well, but in some games there's a situational advantage to going first.

In any case, however arbitrary the tiebreak rule might be, it's there from the outset and you can play such that you either have a good tiebreak or you can play such that you don't. It only matters if the game ends in a tie (and you are one of the tied players), so if you feel like it's too much work, then don't bother. But don't complain when you happen to tie and lose to someone who played such that they'd win the tiebreaker!

Of course, if he tiebreak is truly arbitrary, then it's possible a player might "play so as to win the tiebreaker" completely by accident, and not because they meant to. Of course it's still true that you knew the tiebreaker when you started...


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