Posted On: 2022-04-18
One of the most important feature of any competitive game (digital game, board game, or even physical sport) is the victory condition: the specific requirements for determining who "wins" the game. There are a wide variety of possible victory conditions, but they often boil down to a handful of common patterns (ie. who has the most points, who reaches the goal first, etc.) Interestingly, most of these patterns (and most games generally) rely upon a fixed victory condition: some arbitrary goal (point total/duration/etc.) is defined by the rules and the game abruptly ends when it is met - regardless of the rest of the game state. A flexible victory condition, by contrast, is far less common, and it provides a radically different kind of play experience: the criteria for when a victory occurs is itself based on a part of the game's state (ie. whoever is the first to get a 10 point lead over the next highest player.)
Fixed victory conditions provide a lot of benefits: they're easy to understand, predictable, and (usually) simple to measure/calculate. They are also frequently analogous to goal systems that are common in real-life*, which can make it easier for players to embrace them. They do, however, have some significant problems - the most notable one being that the winner can often be determined well before the victory condition is met. While some design can reduce the impact of this (ie. using catch-up mechanics, obfuscating players' current progress, etc.), it cannot be completely avoided - or, more precisely, any approach that does avoid it does so by being more flexible.
To unpack this weakness a bit more, consider a foot race. The racers (players) are running towards a fixed location (the goal), and the first one to reach it is the winner. At the start of the race, everyone is even, so guesses about who will win will largely be just that - guesses. Once the runners have started, however, they will start to separate, with the fastest at the lead and the slower further behind. The longer they race, the less distance remains to be run - meaning that the distance between the lead runner and the person in last will be a larger and larger percent of the total remaining race. At some point, the person in last will know they can't win - perhaps the gap just keeps growing, or the distance between them and the front-runner is greater than from the front-runner to the finish line. For everyone in the race - and even spectators outside the race - this holds true: at some point, the winner is clear, even though they haven't yet reached the finish line. This same phenomena is present in virtually every game with a fixed victory condition: at some point, someone is close enough that everyone knows who the winner is - it's just a matter of putting in that last bit of effort/time/etc.
Flexible victory conditions are all about comparisons: ie. how far ahead is one player than another or which player is in the best current position. Though not as common, there are a few high-profile uses - perhaps most notably, the rules for the sport Tennis combines both fixed and flexible victory conditions. In Tennis, each game is played to a specific point count (the fixed goal), but there is also a flexible goal mixed in: the game can only be won with a two point lead, so even if a player reaches the fixed goal (4 points), the game may continue if the scores are too close together.
The way it's used in Tennis, a flexible victory condition heightens the drama of a close game*, but it can also extend a game's duration. The duration of a tennis match (which is made up of many games) can vary wildly, thanks both to the use of flexible criteria for individual games, and its generally comparative way of scoring (sets and matches are scored in a "best of" fashion, making one-sided sets end much more quickly than ones where it goes back and forth.) As best as I (an outsider to the sport) can tell, it seems that Tennis scoring is designed to create an engaging competition while minimizing the amount of time with an obvious winner.
A common theme across many flexible victory conditions is the role of "not losing". While a fixed target gives players a goal to strive towards, a flexible one often leaves players measuring their progress against a clear lose state. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in games that use Elimination as their victory condition. To put it succinctly, elimination games are defined by having clear lose states and when there's only one player remaining that player wins. Elimination shows up in all kinds of games, from digital (ie. PUBG) to board (ie. Risk) to classic children's games (ie. Simon Says).
Unfortunately, elimination games can be particularly problematic for group dynamics: eliminated players often are left with little/nothing to do, while the flexible nature of the win condition means that there's no telling how long they'll be excluded. As a result, the design of modern elimination games often consider how to keep the losers engaged - whether that's through mini-games to unlock second chances (ie. as a ghost/outside force, eliminate a player to take their spot) or reducing barriers for continued play (ie. letting players immediately join a new match, rather than wait for the conclusion of the current one.)
There remains a lot of unexplored design space around flexible victory conditions. Some of that might be related to designers sticking to what's already familiar (ie. simple fixed victory conditions, or occasionally elimination), but it may also be related to the many strengths of keeping goals fixed. Having variable length games is often undesirable, especially for players with limited free time. Flexible goals often bring complexity, so the increased learning burden will need to be justified. Personally, I'd like to see more games explore using more flexible victory conditions (particularly in genres where matches end with players quitting before anyone technically wins), but I don't expect such experiments to catch on for a long time (if ever.)