A couple of posts ago I wrote about the problem of what sort of game people want to play. I want to have a game in which people can play in very different styles. Well and good, but can how then do you compare their successes?
In an ordinary, symmetric, uniform-interface game each player faces the same challenge. Everything is probably zero-sum, and you can tally up units lots, provinces taken, and general nastiness suffered by some formula to arrive at victors and vanquished. Perhaps winning will not really look like victory - in a game representing the campaigns in Europe in 1945, Berlin holding out until July can be considered a considerable success for example. But it can still be measured, generally in some sort of point or victory conditions.
But if Aaron is playing the King of France and Bill is a minor Prussian General, how do you compare their relative performance? This is not a question to which I have an answer, but it is one that has to be answered.
Or does it?
Does a game need to have a defined form of victory in order to be played for fun? Role Playing Games seem to rely on the personal objectives of the players. The objectives do not have to be provided by the GM, or even shared with the GM by a player. While play often proceeds within the context of a "mission" or a "quest" or the GM's latest splatbook, the whole thing (in my experience, at least) is intended to be as freeform and open as possible.
Can a large multi-player wargame be just as free-form? It's been my experience that if you provide a large enough group of gamers with an environment where war is a possibility, and an eventual war is inevitable. On the other hand, societies come with a concept of success that I think may have to be expressed to get players to approach the situation with the mindset you want as the referee. This is especially important in an historical game. While it may make sense in a fantasy game for the King of Erewhon to spend half the budget on trying to develop flying machines, suspension of disbelief may fray at the edges if the King of France does the same. Or perhaps that just shows that fantasy games are, at some level, more fun than history. After all, they can work even if some of the players have not done the research.
So, do we need victory conditions, or is the play the thing?