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Unwinnable By Mistake / Board Games

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  • Chess:
    • A "stalemate" occurs when the player to move has no valid options, but is not in check. In contemporary chess, a stalemated game is a draw, although in some tournaments a draw is worth points in the overall tournament, encouraging a player who cannot win to at least force a draw. Historically there was no standard rule, and stalemate was sometimes considered a loss for the stalemated player — or sometimes a win (like in Chinese Chess).
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    • There's an explicit rule that the game is drawn if no possible sequence of moves from the current position can lead to a win. The most obvious example is when both players have only their king left (or king and knight versus lone king, or king and bishop versus lone king), but there are other possibilities, such as the 16 pawns forming a complete blockade, that are covered by the rule even though they will never arise in realistic play.
    • Another specific case is the "threefold repetition" rule, whereby a game is drawn if an identical position (with the same player to move) occurs three times in the same game, implying that no progress is being made.
    • The game is declared a draw if 50 consecutive moves are made without either player advancing a pawn or capturing a piece. The idea is to be a fallback for more complicated loops or other scenarios where forcing a proper end is impossible — there are positions which can be won but require more than 50 moves, but enough of them that after briefly trying to catalogue them all as exceptions, the chess federations gave up and just decided to ignore them entirely.
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  • Empire Builder has the potential to create this for one or more players and make things very annoying for the others. If a player is very low on cash, a natural disaster like a flood can destroy enough of their railroad that they can't afford to repair it and are cutoff from any city where they could make more money. As a last resort they discard their contract cards and draw a new set of contract cards hoping to get one that will get them the money to proceed. However, this increases the chance that another disaster card will be drawn which only makes things worse. They have legal actions in the game but those actions get them nowhere. The other players now have to deal with the possibility of a natural disaster card every other round instead of every five to six rounds. Also, having one player sit around for another hour or two locked in an unwinnable situation is not a pleasant experience for anyone. Since lending other players money is not allowed, the others players will find a way to pay the stuck player rent money for using their railroad just to get them back into the game.
  • In the board game HeroQuest, it is entirely possible to lock the game into an unwinnable state by making either the Elf or the Wizard use the spell "Pass Through Rock" then passing through one of the many boulders that are used specifically to stop you from going to rooms to have no way in and nothing of interest thus trapping you on one side of the board with no way out.
    • An Obvious Rule Patch changed it so that if you "Pass Through Rock" and end your turn in one of the empty rooms or hallways, you are considered to have ended your turn inside solid rock, and died messily.
    • In some HeroQuest games, the rules state that the players can only search once in a given room. This can lead to some of the quests becoming unwinnable.
  • Betrayal at House on the Hill (and other versions of the game like Betrayal At Baldur's gate) have huge numbers of end game scenarios called Haunts that are randomly chosen based on when and where the Haunt was triggered. However, due to the random nature of the game, it's possible to end up in a situation where one side literally cannot win. For instance, the Traitor becomes a monster and the other players need to find a specific item to beat them... but the traitor happened to find that item and was carrying it when the Haunt started, leaving the heroes with no way to retrieve it. This is made even worse worse by the fact that some scenarios as originally published have conflicting or unclear rules that could also render a scenario Unwinnable. Fortunately the games are not generally very competitive, so in most situations players can either come to a consensus on how to deal with the rules issues or veto the haunt in favor of something more fun (something that the later edition rules books explicitly suggest to avoid things like repeating Haunts).
    • The game ended up getting a 20-page errata book to correct the worst of the errors, and some are still there.
  • In-universe example: on the Sitcom Newhart, George invents a wildly popular board game where every space landed on gives the player 3 points. The first to score exactly one million points wins. Not until someone actually reaches that point does anyone involved realize that one million is not divisible by three.
  • The board game Dragon's Gold normally revolves around players negotiating over which items each will take from a dragon's hoard. However, the game features an alternative mode where the loot is divided according to fixed rules. In this variant, if all a player's forces are committed to taking down a dragon whose hoard contains a cursed item (although possibly a large amount of treasure as well) but due to interference from other players cannot beat the dragon, the player is effectively out of the game. Without any soldiers they cannot attack other dragons, nor can they pull back their existing ones. Normally, they could ask another player for help, but under the fixed rules for loot distribution it is impossible for them to promise that player that they will not end up with the cursed item, meaning that no player will accept their offer.
  • In 7 Wonders games with more than three players, it's possible for an inattentive player to find themselves in the third round with no access to certain materials (especially the gray cards of glass, textiles, and paper, which are relatively rare but factor into a lot of building costs) and no way to get them, since materials stop appearing after round two. Since these are necessary to build a large percentage of the other cards, and the cards in the third round usually contribute more to players' scores, players in this scenario will find themselves locked out of building some of the most valuable things in the game and without many alternatives to make up the difference.

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