Axes of Victory

Here is a game design concept we’ve been talking about on the Keith Burgun Discord. I think it is useful for creating and honing the type of “strategic dance” we find in games like StarCraft. (See strategy triangle)

First, a definition:

“Axis of victory” – A spectrum along which player power or “position” is measured. Once a player achieves sufficient progress (a “critical mass”) along an axis relative to an opponent or the game state, they can convert or exploit that position into a victory. (Note that sometimes an overwhelming advantage along one axis will actually be converted into another to formalize the win. See: StarCraft, Magic the Gathering, examples later)

Why we care: Having multiple axes of victory can help create “strategy dance/pivoting” dynamics, introduce opportunities for lateral thinking, obfuscate player positions and introduce hard-to-compare trade-offs.

The Strategy Dance: Players make moves that change their commitment and power along each axis (some moves also change how much an opponent knows about each). Each player tries to find a “window” in which their power along some axis is sufficient relative to their opponent or the game state to allow for a win.

Practical Advice:
In order to allow for the dance, designers should do two things:

  1. Carefully manage the relationship between “commitment” and “power”. If a move is powerful along one axis, it might be counterbalanced by the degree to which the player is locked into that choice. Both power and “commitment” (i.e how much this limits your ability to pivot to another axis later) exist on a spectrum. This might also be conceptualized as “strategic inertia”.
  2. Ensure an interconnections between the pursuit of different “axes of victory”. Moves might explicitly spend power on one axis to attain it in another, or gain a smaller amount of power along two (or more) axes in order to “hedge” or defer your decision. Vitally, it is important that players are incentivized to remain somewhat “open” to pursuing more than one axis. (In Civilization, players are specifically too incentivized to “focus” on just one, which can narrow the game into an optimization puzzle along that axis)

Examples of games with multiple clear axes of victory:

  • Puzzle Strike/StarCraft: Econ, Army, Tech (defense is more of a situational response to an opponents advantage in army)
  • Dragon Bridge: Push, Escape, Items, White Gems
  • Magic: The Gathering/Spectromancer: Card Advantage, Board Advantage, Reduce Opponent’s Life to Zero
  • Pax Pamir: Faction Dominance + Loyalty to that Faction (3 different axes), No Faction Dominance + Have the Most Supporters
  • Race for the Galaxy: Produce-Consume Engine, 6 Cost Developments, High “Point” Tableau
  • Air, Land and Sea/Crimson Company: Each of the three lanes

Formal vs. Emergent Axes of Victory

As a game is explored/studied/designed, axes of victory that are not strictly defined by the formal goals of the game may emerge. For example, having a better economy and being able to defend it in StarCraft allows you to get a bigger army than your opponent *later* which in turn will allow you to destroy your opponents buildings (the formal win condition). These can become more and more nuanced and particular as the game is explored. For example, maybe having a “critical mass” of Corsairs and Dark Templar allows you to exploit a weakness along the “detection” axis. Or in a card game perhaps the combination of card X and Y are strong enough to effectively ensure a win. We can refer to progress towards the critical mass or towards playing card X and Y at the same time an “emergent axis of victory”.

Adding formal win conditions/goals can (but doesn’t necessarily) have the effect of increasing the number emergent “axes of victory” in a game. It may be the case that some of the formal win conditions are impractical to reach, or subsumed within the pursuit of another, easier win condition.

Conversely, a game with only one formal win condition may have multiple emergent axes of victory (i.e StarCraft, Race for the Galaxy).

Finally, in the case of a game like Race For the Galaxy, advantages along multiple axes are combined at the end into a score, allowing for “mixed” strategies. This is sometimes referred to as  a”point salad” approach. However, in some cases this can end up feeling less like a dance between multiple axes of victory and more like an optimization puzzle along a single axis. (This is similar to what happens in Civilization when you “lock in” the axis you will focus on to a certain extent early on).

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