Victory Point Games: What Does Point Spread Mean When Playing or Developing a Game?

For both players and developers, point spread can mean a lot about a game and how it's played. Somewhat like accuracy and precision, "point spread" often indicates how reliable a game's strategies are, as well as the variance between the best and the worst players. Sometimes a large point spread means that a game is extremely random; other times a large point spread means that there's a lot of room for growth as a player. Though it may seem contradictory, both a small point spread and a large point spread can indicate that there is a singular way to win the game.

What Exactly is a Point Spread in Victory Point Games?

A point spread is the gap between player victory points, either during or after the game. During the game, players often refer to visible victory points as a metric by which they rank their own competence. If a player pulls ahead, it's very likely that other players are going to begin sabotaging that player. Quite a few games use "end game scoring" as a mechanic to obfuscate the point spread and ensure that players play by their own strategies rather than trying to tear each other down.

In many victory point games, the smartest strategy is to find a way to pull ahead only at the last minute. When it comes to development, many developers try to ensure that there is a "fair" point spread between players of equal skill -- but that could be a mistake.

Is a Large Victory Point Spread Bad?

There is some sentiment that a game that has a smaller point spread is, in some way, more fair. If everyone performs about equally with an equal skill level, that can indicate that the game is less random. In other words, assuming that everyone has about the same level of skill, landing at about the same amount of victory points indicates that the game is truly measuring player fitness.

But not all players are good at the same games. A small point spread can also indicate that there isn't much that a player can do to influence their score; that they are going to rack up about the same amount of points regardless of what actions they choose. Worker placement games tend to be particularly bad about this type of even mechanic, where players may have a set of options that, while diverse, will still net them the same amount of victory points on average. A better way to judge randomness is to play the game multiple times with similar strategies. 

major issue with a large point spread, when it occurs during the game, is that there can come a point where it's impossible for anyone to catch up to the first player. When there's a fairly narrow point spread, it can also feel as though it's "anyone's game" until the end. And then there's the player reactions: when there is a large point spread, many players will complain that the game was "broken" or that it was stacked against them from the start. 

What Are Examples of Point Spread in Games?

We recently played Raiders of the North Sea. There are few random elements in this game and every early action in this game gives more or less the same amount of victory points. But having a consistent strategy allows for the compounding of power and -- because it's a worker placement game -- there are ways to lock others out of actions. In Raiders of the North Sea, you frequently see people operating at about the same level of strength until the very end, at which point one person will pull ahead.

On the other hand, there's Bunny Kingdom, a game in which we frequently have one player pull ahead by over 100 points. Scores in Bunny Kingdom can often be something along the lines of 40, 60, 75, and 280. Bunny Kingdom has some extremely random elements and scoring that compounds. But it isn't unfair; as players learn the game, their scores go up exponentially. Thus, it's a game where a large point spread indicates that there's something more to learn about the strategy; there is something for the player that hasn't yet "clicked."

In Fallout, there is a race to a low number of victory points, and victory points are largely hidden. This contributes to a sense of urgency and tension throughout the game, but it is mechanically possible for a player to end the game within just twenty minutes if they choose the right tactic (stacking agenda cards quickly). And then there's games like Terrafroming Mars and Scythe, where the end game objectives don't directly relate to victory points, so players must also weigh their knowledge and determine the right time for them to end the game. 

What Are the Consequences of Point Spread in Games?

A large point spread almost invariably leads to salt at the end of a game. For players, it's important to recognize that a large point spread could indicate that there's just something they haven't figured out about the game. But developers also need to be mindful that large point spread games bring out the worst in people, often leading them to conclude that the game was random, and that winning was simply luck of the draw. 

We've recently playtested a solid two-player game that had extremely volatile scoring, and it was very common for the trailing player to simply give up. Mathematically, they were doing fine on average, but the perception of being too far behind simply left them with a sour disposition. Even more interestingly, many players would begin throwing the game once they fell too far behind. 

Game generally appeal to an individual's sense of accomplishment. When players trail behind significantly, it's easier for them to blame the game than to blame themselves. And even if they don't blame the game -- even if they recognize that it's something about themselves and their strategy -- they may not find the game fun.