The final countdown
Exploring the use of end game timers by looking at Knarr
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This week we return to board games, specifically Knarr. It’s a relatively new game that’s a good example of having a clock or a countdown in a game.
Knarr (Dupont, 2023) is a hand management, open drafting, and set collection game:
Recruit Vikings (víkingar) to form your band (félag). Make your fortune by sending them to discover new territories on your ship (knarr). Establish trade routes and, in some cases, settle down for good. At the same time, increase your reputation and make your name resound in heroic songs to earn even more victory points!
Each turn you take one of two actions:
Recruit: You play a Viking card from your hand into a column of the same color cards in front of you. This allows the player to gain all of the assets (i.e. Victory Points, Recruits, Silver Bracelets, and Reputation Points) shown on all of the cards in that column.
Explore: Choose an available Destination card and pay for it with cards from the columns in front of them. The Destination provides an immediate benefit, as well as benefits during Trading.
The game is a race. The end of the game is triggered when a player reaches 40 Victory Points or more. There’s a chance to finish out the round, but after that it’s whoever has the most points wins.
One of the assets you can gain when triggering a column of cards by Recruiting is the Reputation asset.
When you gain a Reputation you advance your token one space on the Reputation Track. The track has fourteen spaces, with four milestone spaces marked 1, 2, 3, and 5.
At the beginning of each player’s turn, they move their Scoring marker forward a number of spaces equal to the highest value that their Reputation marker has reached.
In the example shown above, the Ram (beige) player would advance their score by 2.
Forcing the end of the game
I’ve played Knarr quite a few times both in person and on BGA. My strategy usually involves ignoring the Reputation track, and focusing on engine building and acquiring Land cards. It always seems the Reputation points accumulate too slowly when other players are racing to 40 points to end the game.
So why is Reputation in the game?
It could be that the Reputation track is a valid strategy, albeit one that hasn’t worked well for me. I think, however, that it’s a way to force the game to end.
Even if you don’t actively try to play Reputation cards, you will no doubt end up doing it. You’ll increase your Reputation trying to line up colors to buy lands, or you end up with a Reputation card in the middle of a column. Either way, all players gradually advance up the Reputation track.
This makes everyone’s score increase at an increasing rate throughout the game. Toward the end of the track, players are getting 3-5 points (7.5% - 12.5% of the victory condition) at the start of every turn. That’s before they take any actions!
This forces the game to end in a timely manner, even if players aren’t doing a great job of scoring points in other ways. It adds pressure to do something, because you can see the end coming.
Exclusion Zone Botanist
While not required in every game, I really think a clock or countdown in a game can add the tension and pressure needed to force the player into action.
Consider Exclusion Zone Botanist, where you have been assigned to discover and document strange plants in a dark and corrupting forest.
One of the core mechanisms of this solo hexcrawl is to check for Corruption each day (i.e. once per round):
Determine the Risk Value (RV) based on the current hour. The RV starts at 1 and increases to 6 over the course of the game.
Roll 2d6 dice. Do not add them.
If the individual values of both dice are less than the RV, you have been corrupted. Apply the next effect from the Corruption Progression List.
The Corruption Progression List has six steps, with the final one ending with you trapped forever as part of the forest.
Without this pressure, you’d be able to just wander around forever, leisurely rolling to discover plants. There would be no fixed “end” to the game, unless the player just decided to eventually give up. That wouldn’t be a fun time. It’s the pressure to get in, discovery and document, and get out that makes it fun!
Simple countdown methods
The countdown method doesn’t need to be complex. Many games have a very simple timer that does just as well in adding pressure. For example, the game ends when:
A deck of cards runs out
Certain events are drawn from a stacked deck
A token on a track reaches a specific zone
A resource slowly runs out (e.g. air, hit points, etc.)
Making the method visual and tied to physical components can add some sensory fun to the game, along with ensuring it has tension.
Some things to think about:
Give your game a timer: I mentioned at the end of the Dead Belt article. Again, not every game needs one, but it is definitely worth considering. Think about what triggers the end of your game and how long you want it to last. What happens if the players don’t take the actions you’d expect?
Countdowns don’t need to be complicated: Ending the game when a deck of cards runs out is used in countless games. Interesting things can be done, however, by stacking the deck and adding a bit more complexity.
This works in TTRPGs too: Consider adding a timer to your TTRPG as well. It could be something as long as The Calendar of Nechrubel in MÖRK BORG, lasting an entire campaign. It could be as short as the final exam in Tangled Blessings.
I’d love to hear your favorite examples of timers and countdowns in both board games and TTRPGs! Please leave a comment below!
— E.P. 💀
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