All good things must come to an ends, that’s why no one finishes Monopoly.
Victory, defeat and game length are all important factors in a games overall feel. You should be able to judge roughly how players are doing compared to each other and how much of the game remains. This is especially true of tabletop games.
Sometimes games have a fixed length with a set time or number of turn. Thus gives players a framework to plan out their strategies.
Other games use a softer progress mechanic such as a limit pool of victory points. Even if the player isn’t aware of exactly how many points are available they should have a sense of how many points have been picked up by other players and how many remain. This tends to be a little more chaotic and can lead to things like the “Duchy Rush” seen in Dominion.
Taking Dominion as an example we can see that the game would be quite different if the end of the game was reached in a different way. What first appears to be an odd collection of parameters to declare the game finished ( depleted the pile of the highest denomination of victory point cards or depleted three other piles ) is actually carefully considered. This naturally terminates the game as players reach critical mass and allows players to visually see roughly how long the game has left. Here is my interpretation of how the game would end with different mechanics.
– First to X number of victory points : This would cause a great deal of analysis paralysis as players would need to be aware of the number of victory points they hold at any one time. It would also probably mean that victory cards that gain points depending on how many of another card you have would be frustrating difficult to utilise. I suspect dominant strategies would develop to get to X number of victory points as fast as possible as players always gravitate to the path of least resistance. This would lessened however by the randomness of the cards used in each game.
– Fix turn number: for the game to work as it is you would need a large number of turns which makes the admin required painful. If you did have a limit of say 30 turns I expect players would put off purchasing victory cards until the last 10 or so turns. I also expect that it would steer people more towards having a leaner deck as there is a change that you simply wouldn’t get to utilise cards in a big deck, especially towards the end of the game. At this point you could by victory cards in bulk knowing that they would never appear in your hand.
– First to X number of cards: This could lead to some interesting strategies involving forcing other players to fill their deck with poor cards. Over all this has the same problems with the admin overhead needed to know the number of cards in your deck. Like the limiting the turns it would encourage players to keep their decks slim and upgrade cards.
For other games there is a point at which the game ends when a certain number of negative actions have occurred. The number of outbreaks in Pandemi is a good example. This also causes players to change there play style as they feel they can get away with riskier play earlier on.
Another type is victory points that can be achieved in different ways. Risk Legacy for asks that players get 4 red stars to win but these can be acquired in multiple ways and more options are added as the game progresses. This lets plays use multiple tactics; one player might be trying to conquer HQs whilst another might be trying to gain resource cards or complete missions. This allows more horses to stay in the race and adds another dynamic. Conquering HQ is high risk and high reward but resource cards are slow and safe as they can’t be taken from you. Risk Legacy also gives players who haven’t won before an additional Red Star to star the game to help new players out.
The end of a game is as important as the ending of a book. A game needs to reach a peak rather than just stop dead in mid flow. It should be a core part of the designer rather than an afterthought.