What is Winning?
Anyone who says winning means coming in first place is playing in a tournament. The actual victor of the game - by points, by money, etc... - is entirely secondary to winning the game in the broader sense. Unless you're in a tournament, winning means only one thing: everyone enjoyed the experience.
Enjoyment can come from a variety of different intellectual and emotional sources, some of which may be important to an individual, and some of which may not be. To name few possibilities:
- Winning the game (as victor).
- Playing well.
- Someone you love winning the game.
- Facing a challenge and succeeding.
- Facing a challenge and doing better than previous times.
- Not coming in last.
- Everyone playing their best.
- Finding the gameplay funny, interesting, clever, awesome, or meaningful.
- Finding the conversation funny, interesting, clever, awesome, or meaningful.
- Impressing someone.
- Playing or doing something clever, or witnessing someone else doing that.
- Enjoying the experience vicariously.
- and so on ...
I'm willing to bet that for most people who read this, actual victory in the game is not enjoyable if your fellow players didn't enjoy themselves (unless your opponent was somebody obnoxious that you were trying to convince to leave the game group). If you come to the end of the game and you find yourself in first place, but surrounded by people who look entirely unhappy, frustrated, bored, or even on the verge of tears, have you won?
Enjoying the Game
With so many people having different expectations as to what makes a game enjoyable, how can you ensure that all players, in fact, "win" the game?
- Play with well-mannered people
I've known five year-olds who are more enjoyable to play with than forty year-olds. It is not a question of age. It is a question of manners. Well-mannered people don't get upset if they are losing because they insinctively know what winning means: having fun and doing your best. Well-mannered people don't harass other people, make fun, insult, demean, play moves for other players, ruin games by undermining hidden information, argue incessantly about the rules, or ruin the game components or places in which they are playing.
- Play games that people like
Games are meant to be fun, not a trial. It may be difficult to match everyone's needs with a limited selection of games, but it is better not to play at all than to play, or force someone to play, when they don't enjoy the activity.
- Don't play to win at all costs in long multi-player games
Sometimes a game will allow you to totally destroy another person's chances of winning. For instance, I played a game of Cities and Knights of Catan where I had a choice of where to build a settlement: either of two locations was equally good for me, but one totally eliminated the last location in which one of my three opponents could build. By all rights, the right "winning" move was to kill my opponent, which I did ... and instantly regretted. My opponent then had to suffer without a single meaningful decision to make for another hour and a half, painfully wanting to leave. He didn't blame me for the decision; it was the "right" play to win. But he also never came to the game group again. It was not the winning move, after all.
- Play games without early-player elimination, games where players can make meaningful decisions even if they are far from winning, or play short games
It is one thing to lose. It is another thing to be bored for two, three, or six hours with nothing to do, but not able to leave without wrecking the game for other people.
This is less problematic in shorter games, or in two player games that allow a player to resign. In these cases, the game experience is felt over the course of a number of games; a single game becomes no worse than losing a "battle" in the main game.
- Don't let your game life ruin your personal life
Don't start familial or neighborhood wars because of your game playing or the members of your game group. Keep your priorities straight.
- Cultivate some of the other sources of enjoyment
That's a good list of ways to enjoy games up there. Maybe you can branch out as to what you consider "enjoyment".
For myself, whenever I no longer have any chance of winning, I set myself a sub-goal in the game that is similar to the original goal: achieve a certain number of points, acquire a certain number of territories. As long as I have something challenging to keep me interested.