The Board Game Design Course

Where great games begin

Game Design

Why nobody likes ties and how to break ties in your game

Last week, I talked about why nobody likes to lose a game because of complete randomness and how to apply randomness to your game the right way. This week, we’re going to look at the reason that many players don’t like to end a game in a tie and what you can do to break ties and help determine a winner in any situation.

You’ve been moving your pawn around, gathering resources and picking up just the right cards, and have pulled off your strategy. However, another player also found success with their own unique strategy and after playing the game for an hour or two, the game ended in a tie. That’s not a very satisfactory feeling at the end of a game. Of course, you’d like to come out the victor, but even if you don’t, it’s often better to have one player declared the winner.

If you’re a competitive player, it can feel like you’ve just wasted a good deal of time and have not come any closer to declaring who the better player is, at least this time around.

In sports, a tie is said to be like kissing your sister. While I don’t necessarily share this exact sentiment, it’s understandable that many sports have employed the use of overtime or even a shootout to declare a winner. During the regular season, there may be the opportunity for ties, but when it comes to the playoffs, one team must always advance and only a single team can be crowned the champion.

However, there are ways to break ties that are fair and rational, and others that don’t leave either anyone feeling satisfied. So, let’s look at some ways to break ties effectively and ways you should avoid doing so.

Tie-breakers to avoid

Nobody wants to play a one hour game where the winner is determined by the flip of a coin. That hardly seems fair.

It may seem obvious, but you don’t want to break a tie through something like flipping a coin or rolling a die and declaring the player who rolled higher as the winner. So, make sure to avoid creating a tiebreaker that will be based completely on luck (unless your game itself is completely luck-based).

You’ll also want to avoid tiebreakers that don’t fall in line with the theme or require an additional component just to determine the winner. Rather, a tie-breaker should be in line with the gameplay and what players are striving to do throughout the game.

How to create a fair tiebreaker

The first thing you want to do when determining what to use as a tiebreaker in your game is to think about what you are incentivizing your players to do.

If you are trying to get players to play as efficiently as possible, then a good tiebreaker may be the player who has accomplished their score with the fewest cards or has the fewest resources remaining.

If your game is about accumulating a lot of resources, that tie could be broken by the player with the most of a certain type of resource collected.

If your game is a race to the finish, you might want to consider something along the lines of how many items a player has collected or how much fuel they have remaining.

Or you might want to break the tie by declaring the player with the most bonus points or private goal cards accomplished.

It might even be based on the player who went first, last, or made the most progress on a specific track.

Your tiebreaker really depends on what your game is about and what players do from one turn to the next. Try to keep your tiebreaker thematic and in line with what you want players to do in your game.

Some games employ multiple tie-breaking conditions, as it could be quite possible that players could tie not only with the most points, but also with the most gold, silver, etc, and will need multiple conditions in order to determine a victor. However, you’ll want to avoid creating a laundry list of tiebreaking conditions that require players to spend a lot of time counting all the resources at the end of the game. At some point, you’ll probably have to say that if a tie still remains, the players share the victory. If it is determined that two players actually did play equally well on all fronts, they will usually be able to accept that they are both victors.

Although I’ve yet to play this, I understand that the tiebreaker in Arboretum is stated as “If there is still a tie, the players must each plant a tree. In 5 years’ time, the player whose tree has grown the tallest wins.” I think that’s a pretty cool way to handle a tie!

Final thoughts

The best advice for creating a tiebreaker in your game is to keep it thematic and in line with what you expect players to do in your game. Quite often this will be based on the most resources of one type, particularly something that is valuable in your game, however, this will be highly dependent on what players are trying to accomplish.

What’s one innovative tiebreaker that you’ve seen done in a game?

Please leave a comment and let me know!

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    Very true. Although personally, I have no problems with ties, I think it is an important detail of the design that should not be overlooked. After I found out that a game I´m working on had a large probability of ending in some sort of a tie, I made a small rules adjustment, adding a thematically appropriate tie-breaker, which completely eliminated the possibility. The game is quite a bit better because of that tweak.

    Thanks for the comment, Leon! You’ll sometimes find that one small change can make your game so much better.

    Thanks Joe for a great post! Lots of great points.

    I recently added a points system to my card game, and currently, the way that points are distributed throughout the deck seems to regularly result in a tie. I tried to introduce a tie-break rule similar to the game Unearthed, whereby the player with the most cards of the highest scoring value wins. But even with this I am still coming up against further ties! I am now about to test the game but with a slight rebalancing of the distribution of points within the deck, I will see how that changes things but I’m also continuing to search for other ways to change the points scoring and/or tie-breaking rules.

    Hi Lew! That’s a good point. If your game is super-well balanced, it can often result in a lot of ties, which is no fun. In this case, it’s less important to focus on the tie-breaker and more important to figure out why this is happening so much and find a good fix for it.

    This may require changing the scoring on cards and making it a bit more “swingy” if necessary to deviate the points more. Playtest, try some changes, and see if it improves the game while reducing the frequency of ties.

    In chess, it has a good tiebreaker rules, if a game ends in a tie, the player with more pieces or a better position might be declared the winner.