Here’s a fun fact for you: there are more losers than winners in the tabletop gaming hobby. That’s right, I’m talking about YOU, ya buncha losers! You….. and me *sigh.* Everybody. That’s just the way it is. Most games have player counts above 2, which means that, on average, each game crowns more losers than winners whenever it is played. Easy cooperative games are, of course, the exception to this rule. But that doesn’t take away from the reality that this is a hobby full of LOSERS.
So how is this board gaming industry still even a thing? Is there more to it than… winning? Of course there is! You know that, I know that. Perhaps in games of pure luck, there really is nothing fun about losing. But when we begin to mix other elements into the game… the interesting friends, the dynamic strategies, the dramatic moments… that’s when the finish line fades and the journey prevails. Let’s take a look at some of the many games that hurt so good. In other words, let’s explore games that are fun to lose, and most importantly, why:
Close, Intense Battles for Victory
These kinds of losses are perhaps the most fun, at least for me. When I feel that victory is within all of our grasps, and even when I’m not crowned champion, I love a good battle to the death. I’ve encountered it time and time again in tightly designed titles including Inis and Pax Pamir (2nd Edition). It’s what puts these games among my all time favorites. You can never count a player out, because there is always a route for them to make a wrecking-ball comeback.
Along the same lines, I love a close race. When the winning objective is clear—reach El Dorado first in The Quest for El Dorado, or fill your mat first in New York Zoo—yet the competition is tight. The games I just mentioned have provided multiple instances where opponents were one good turn away from claiming the victory. It’s the kind of roller coaster of tension that I love taking again and again.
When You Are Proud of what You’ve Built/Accomplished
I love it when a game allows the players to approach its challenge in unique and creative ways. Often times, the path you pave can be even more satisfying than reaching the finish line first. You see this all the time in games like Junk Art, where players must stack wildly different shapes as they build their own teetering works of art. Men at Work is another obvious example, as one player may not win the overall game, but they’ll pull off the most challenging task of all (to the “Ooos” and “Ahhhs” of their opponents). More recently, I experienced this with our first play of Curious Cargo. My wife ended up kicking my trash (nearly doubling my score), yet I was still mighty proud of the tricky network I had built and the maneuvers I had pulled off.
When the Strategy you Execute Plays Out Beautifully, and Somebody Still Outwits You
Pax Pamir (2nd Edition) is one of my absolute favorite games. It quickly rose to the top of my list despite me losing the game over and over again. I believe it took me 6 or so plays (even with less experienced people) to actually win the dang thing. Despite my struggle, I loved every session of it. Pax Pamir is the kind of game where the strategies and tactics are seemingly endless, and I’m always scheming up new plots to swoop in and win a dominance check (a scoring phase). Often, I can get at least one of these schemes to pay off each game, and thereby position myself in the lead. Even when my crafty opponents manage to snatch the victory from my salivating jaws, I still have a satisfied belly from the tasty schemes I hatched.
When an Opponent Shoots for the Moon and Wins Against All Odds
You have to respect the moon shooters of our hobby and the games that give them those tiniest of windows to hope and victory. When I see an opponent, fresh out of reasonable options, shooting for the moon, I always give them an internal salute. Everyone knows that they have the slimmest shot of victory, but the key is that they still have a shot… and you can’t help but root for the underdog. Speaking of Root, this game’s Dominance Cards are a great example of shooting for the moon. You’ll see one player just barely cross the 10-point mark as their opponents are closing in on the 30 point victory. Suddenly, the 10-pointer plays out a Dominance Card, removes their score marker from the track, and declares that they will win on their next turn if everybody else doesn’t stop them. Respect.
My utmost respect also goes to those folks who bet on the camel in last place winning the race of Camel Up. To those in Lords of Vegas who choose to gamble all of their money at the enemy’s casino in a desperate attempt at a comeback, we salute you. To that one wild Space Base card that is extremely hard to complete, but when completed it automatically declares its owner the winner (throwing out the whole points-based objective), I tip my hat to you and the player who lassos you up and rides you into the sunset of victory.
When You Set a Perfect Trap and They Still Manage to Escape
Two of the greatest dexterity games on the planet include Crokinole and Klask. Perhaps one of the most underrated features of these games is the ability to set traps for your opponent. In Crokinole, that involves planning and positioning your discs in the hardest to reach spots for your opponent, who must at least touch your disc in order for their shot to not be a scratch. For Klask, that involves nudging the magnetic biscuits onto your opponent’s half of the board, surrounding them with booby traps that are hungry to latch onto their pawn. Putting my opposition in these situations never ceases to delight me. Yet I’ve seen people pull off mission: impossible by executing the perfect shot and turning the tables on me. Touché, good sir/madame.
When the Players are the Most Entertaining Part of the Game
It’s hard to be mad about losing a game when your friends harnessed its mechanisms to surprise and entertain you. Games such as Wavelength (my all-time favorite party game) and A Fake Artist Goes to New York never fail to provide this type of experience. Even when our team is falling hopelessly behind in Wavelength, I can’t help but laugh when our group ranks black licorice only slightly less unpopular than child labor. Even when an innocent teammate is epically failing at proving their innocence in Fake Artist, I can’t help but appreciate their pitiful attempt at drawing a meaningful line.
When a Game Lets You Feel like a Genius
Deep down, I think I only ever wanted to be a wheeler and dealer. Chinatown gives me what I’ve always wanted. Chinatown is game where I get to dangle carrots in front of my opponents, carefully selecting the right carrot at the right time, to lure them in to my schemes. Those moments when I can use the hot garbage under my ownership and convert it all into golden geese through crafty trades and clever negotiations make me feel like an absolute genius. After that, it doesn’t matter all that much whether I win or lose the game, because in my heart, I’ve already won.
The same can be said of Decrypto, a game where players must give clues to their teammates that are neither too easy for their opponents to crack nor too hard for their comrades to misunderstand. As the rounds march on, players are forced to be increasingly creative to keep the opposing team swinging and missing, and this game of cat and mouse can be even more satisfying than the victory.
When You Feel Yourself Improving
I love a great cooperative game that teaches and strengthens a group through their failures. Games like The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine and The Mind are perfect examples. Typically, when friends gather around the table to give one of these a go, everybody is out of sync, inexperienced, and/or rusty. But after fumbling through a few rounds, the collective skill level at the table rises and the team finds a nice groove. Things get even more interesting as the challenge ramps up and the players must increase their focus and determination to succeed.
I get the same feeling of growth and improvement from sprawling titles such as A Feast for Odin and deep puzzles such as Curious Cargo. These games provide plenty of new paths to explore to help keep one from getting too comfortable. Even when the scores are tallied and my total isn’t at the top, I love seeing the progress in my strategies and abilities from one game to the next.
When Rounds are Quick and Addictive
It’s hard to get salty about a loss when you only have a minute or two to wait before you’re back into the next round of play. This is what makes Love Letter and Skull such addicting fillers, aside from being great fun, of course. Shortening the playtime is one of the best ways to compensate for a high-luck or high-punishment mechanism (such as player elimination or luck-of-the-draw). Eliminations and poor hands become funny instead of painful.
When Losing Earns You a Meaningful Pity Prize
Nobody likes being the loser of the group, but everybody likes prizes. A meaningful pity prize can be a great way to dampen the blow of losing. In My City, a competitive, polyomino legacy game, the player(s) who lose the round are often awarded with a bonus that permanently improves their board or tiles. This functions as both a catchup mechanism and an exciting opportunity.
Tournament at Avalon takes a similar approach, but in a much more dramatic way. This is the type of trick taking game where one person usually becomes the piñata of the round that everyone else takes a big swing at. Only when this player-piñata is struck in Tournament at Avalon, instead of spewing out candy from their gaping wounds, they end up spewing out vengeance. You can explore my review of the game for further details, but the long story short is that whoever is in last place (or close to last) from round to round gains more abilities and powers for them to gleefully unleash on their enemies. Sometimes it pays to be in last.
When You Take Down Others With You
We’ll conclude this topic by looking at two more games: one that is still in the oven and one that has stood the test of time. Bristol 1350 is a game that I had the pleasure of previewing through many play testing sessions during its development. It’s a roller-coaster of a social deduction game where a few select players secretly start with the black plague, doomed to succumb to its wrath, and they are striving to bring down every other healthy player with them. While it is absolutely thrilling to make it through the game healthy and unscathed, the opposite end of the spectrum is plenty of fun as well, even when you catch the plaque mid-game and must pivot to a new objective. This is one form of losing that I look forward to experiencing more when it officially releases next year.
But when I think of losing with dignity—going out with bang, if you will—perhaps the best example that comes to mind is the battle mode in Mario Kart 64. Yes, you know what I’m talking about. That moment when you lose your last balloon and transform into a mobile bomb. Few things in life are as good for the soul as when you kamikaze your bomb into an unfortunate player and their last balloon.
This concludes our exploration of games that are fun to lose, and why! Which games do you enjoy, despite your losses, and what keeps you coming back for more pain?
Article written by Nick Murray. To learn more about his tabletop gaming tastes and preferences, check out his blog series: Tabletop Tastes: My Favorite Flavors in Board Games. To follow his designs as they come to fruition, subscribe to our newsletter and follow Bitewing Games on social media!