I saw a quote from a recent Mark Rosewater column about Magic's new direction today that struck me as very important.
"I explain that if the game ends while the players are still invested they end the game excited and wishing to play it again. If the game ends after they wanted to stop, though, it makes them leave the game with a negative impression, which decreases their chance of playing again."
This is, I suspect, a hugely important reason why the last few turns of my game Fantasy Monster Beatdown (FMB on the sidebar) haven't been as engaging as I would like. The trouble is that the game is over when someone reaches 45 points and because the entire score a player has accumulated is visible at all times people give up when it becomes clear they can't win. It is hard to be invested in a game when you know that the outcome is already decided regardless no matter if you are winning or losing. Perfect knowledge of who is winning exists in plenty of other games but it is obscured by having complicated calculations to figure out the final score.
For example, you could easily count a player's entire score in Vegas Showdown to determine exactly where they will end up but people don't do this - they look at the points scored on the track, make a rough estimate as to how well the player seems to be doing on the board, and go with it. Even though a player who is losing could be aware of that in theory they don't know it in practice and they can play without any certainty of the outcome. This ensures that veteran players can have a very good sense of who is the front runner without explicit counting but newbies get the excitement of playing the last turn without knowing that they have already been defeated.
There are a few ways around this. The usual one is to keep much of the scoring on the board and make it complicated to add up as Agricola, Le Havre, or Carcassone do. New players just can't penetrate all of the scoring details so mystery remains. There is also the solution employed in Puerto Rico where points that are scored are kept hidden so that newbies only have a vague sense of what a player has scored but in theory all point totals are accessible via memorization. One of the requirements of any of these systems is that the game have a fixed end condition that is not dependent on the number of points scored and as it is currently designed FMB does not have that as an option.
One interesting option that comes from a game the name of which escapes me at the moment is having scoring be slightly random. Each time a player scores they get a token which has either a 1, 2, or 3 on it indicating how much it is worth but the number stays hidden. That way a player who performs better overall almost always has the higher total but you can't actually be sure just what each player's hidden total is. This does introduce additional randomness into the game but it also functions to keep people who are just a few points behind in expected value interested because with a little luck they could still claim victory.
I can't change FMB to have a scoring system where a lot of the points rest on the board because it just isn't that sort of game. I also don't like the partially hidden mechanic that Puerto Rico uses in this case because people would feel obligated to try to memorize their opponent's scores and that is tedious and not fun. Making the optimal way to play also a fun way to play is a key component in good game design. What I do like is the idea of knowing how many point tokens an opponent has but not knowing the exact score they have as a result. It would be pretty easy to change the scoring system such that every point scored is a chip with a value of (1,2,3), (0,1,2), or (1,2) without changing any other mechanics and I could neatly avoid a lot of the issues the current game has at endgame.
There would be some small issues that need resolving - I would need to establish the game end conditions based on the game turn rather than point total but that is very trivial since the game tracks the game turn passively anyway. There would also need to be consideration of how to balance going first vs. going second but I have a few easy dials to turn in that regard like preventing the first player from picking up spells or an artifact card on their first turn.
The thing I like most about this solution is it changes the actual tactics and gameplay very little aside from the last turn. The game always had a situation where the last turn or two involved crazy maneuvers to gain points while surrendering territory and this changes that just a little but in a way such that anyone who is already good at the game will remain so.