This weekend I played a card game called "You're Bluffing." It is a game where the players take turns auctioning off cards and trying to buy cards from each other with secret bids. The goal is to end up with full sets of cards from a deck with 10 different sets of 4. The game is a lot of fun and has some real strategy to it - it is clear that better players will win the vast majority of the time but there is definitely some luck involved. The strange part about the game design is that it is very predictable in the early game and there is a lot of strategy but the endgame almost always comes down to one person putting a stack of cards facedown on the table and one other person having to guess the value of the hidden cards in the stack; the result of this single guess will determine who wins the game. The trouble is that by the time the endgame arrives it is very likely that there is no useful information anyone can bring to the table in terms of making the guess and both players are basically picking numbers randomly to determine the winner of the game. Of course if you play very badly throughout the game you can be in a position where no amount of luck will give you victory at the end but it is abundantly clear that most games are decided in the closing moments and not before.
This is a good thing. There is nothing worse than being in a game for the long haul where you know who is going to win but much time yet needs to be spent confirming that fact. If you are a competitive gamer who thrives on pushing the envelope of skill and strategy to claim victory it is terrible to play a game where you know you have lost in the early going. Maintaining that ray of hope for every player involved (even if for some the ray is faint indeed) keeps the game enjoyable because everyone is intent on playing well and angling for victory.
This is a terrible thing. During the game you will make dozens of tiny, tricky decisions and there is nothing worse than getting to the end of a game where you feel you played spectacularly and then are forced to make a completely uninformed guess to determine the winner of the game. Even if you are in an excellent position having outplayed your opponents for the whole game you still stand to lose it all based on a roll of the dice. This leads to people hardly caring about most of their interim decisions because they know that someone will be crowned at the end and it might well be the person who screwed up all game.
So which argument is more compelling? Of course it isn't as if everyone will agree either way but I wonder what most game players prefer. Do they like having all the decisions in the game slowly add up to inexorable success for the person playing well or do they like to keep the game wide open even to the end? Obviously most people dislike both of the extreme examples - playing a 6 player game for hours and then simply rolling a die to see who wins would feel entirely unsatisfying and playing out a game where the winner is determined halfway through and then much busywork must be completed before the game is 'done' is boring as hell. Some games (Puerto Rico, for example) solve this by keeping the scores private so even though the game is completely decided the players don't yet know it. This allows people to be involved right to the end even if they have no chance... though as playskill increases it becomes harder to obfuscate the scores like this.
What do you think? Is it better for a game to remain an open question right to the end or is it better for it to be more deterministic from actions that took place well before the denouement?