Going Analog

Where video game industry veterans introduce great board games to video gamers

Our favorite tiebreaker rules for board games

Because first place was only meant for one.

Bow ties, zip ties, the ties of friendship...with such excellent examples, you might be fooled into thinking all kinds of ties are great. Well not in board game land, buddy! On these mean cardboard streets there can only be one winner, which is exactly why we invented tiebreakers.

The best tiebreaker rules from board games

We’ve already taken you through the best first-player rules from board games, and as if that weren’t enough, we even shared some of our favorite custom rules for kicking things off. Since we got started, it’s only fair we finish as well, so collected below are some of our favorite tiebreaker rules for board games. 

Arboretum

Arboretum
Arboretum

The rule: The tied players each plant a tree. Whoever’s tree has grown the tallest in five years is declared the winner. 

For a game about creating a beautiful home to trees, Arboretum is a surprisingly cold and calculating affair. Weighing the value of your hand for not only for yourself but your opponents as well is some pretty hefty mental strain. It’s a good job, then, that Arboretum’s final tie breaker is an excuse for a calming trip outside. 

Fail to determine a winner through the first deciding factor of most tree types, and you’ll be asked to plant some leafy friends of your own. Hold your patience -- and maybe engage in a sneaky spot of extra watering -- for five years, and whoever’s tree grows the tallest is declared the winner. 

Given Arboretum originally released back in 2015, we’d say it’s about time that some deciduous deciders -- coniferous trees are also acceptable -- come of age. We’ve never ended a game of Arboretum on a draw (past its initial tiebreaker rule), but we hope someone, somewhere has. If you took that rare opportunity to follow this brilliant ruling to the letter, we’d love to see the resulting saplings. Smart money is on a Hybrid Poplar, because those suckers grow fast.

Thief’s Market

Thiefs market best tiebreaker rules

The rule: The first player to grab the start player marker and run from the room shouting, “You fools! Muahahaha!” wins.

The problem with a heist isn’t the challenge, the coordination, or the target; it’s what comes afterwards. Sit a bunch of unscrupulous thieves around a table covered in treasure, and things are never going to end well. It’s a rule of narrative that the loot-splitting Thief’s Market understands very well. Even the best laid plans for betrayal, however, can sometimes result in a mildly disappointing draw. 

Thankfully, designer Dave Chalker foresaw this potential outcome and created one of the best tiebreaker rules we’ve ever heard. Should you and your equally shady peers tie on Notoriety Points, cards, and score tokens, the winner is the first player to grab the start player marker and dash from the room, laughing maniacally at the swindled chumps they’ve left behind. It’s a brilliantly thematic moment that transpires rarely enough to catch the table completely off guard. 

Portal: The Uncooperative Cake Acquisition Game

Best tiebreaker rules in board games portal

The rule: Tied players may appeal their cases in 10 words or less to the other divisions (or anyone nearby) and put it to a vote. None of these 10 words may contain the letter E.

The Portal video games are famous for the ruthlessly mocking sarcasm of robotic overlord GlaDOS, so it’s only fitting that the board-based adaptation would make a joke even of its winners. Fail to split a tie through the number of test subjects in your labs, and the remaining players will need to construct a 10-word case for their victory, all without using the English language’s most common letter.

It’s exceptionally challenging to produce a short argument without the letter e. Seriously, there were nine in that last sentence alone. The result is one in which the competing players wind up sounding more like cavemen, transported to the modern day and placed on trial. We also love the idea that anyone nearby can weigh in and vote, leaving some unfortunate soul in the room to pick between two barely coherent cases.

“I NO BURN FOOD. HIM BURN YOUR FOOD. BAD MAN.” 

Uh, her, I guess? Please leave me alone.

Super Motherload

best ways to break ties in board games

The rule: The player who lied about digging a hole loses.

There’s a hole in your story, and it’s about time we dug deeper. Super Motherload is a competition of mining expertise, pitting rival corporations in a race to dig through the Martian surface and claim the mineral treasures waiting under all that sand and dirt. Its tiebreaker rule, however, is about digging an entirely different kind of hole. 

Like many other board games, Super Motherload includes a fun, thematic ruling to pick the first player; whoever most recently dug a hole gets to start. But did you actually dig a hole, or did you kinda make it up just so that you’d get the first shot at those buried gems? We won’t tell on you, but Super Motherload might. 

You see, squirrelled away in the game’s ending rules is the statement that, should the players tie, whoever lied to claim that first-player marker is immediately the loser. It’s a cheeky trick to catch out the sly members around the table, and even if you did dig a hole recently, you’d best be prepared with evidence lest your suspicious friends cry foul.

Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot

The best decider rules in board games rattle battle grab the loot

The rule: Write an email with photos of your pirate ships to designer Ignacy Trzewiczek, who will decide the winner.

The open seas can be as cruel as they are kind, and it’s well known that pirates put their trust in Lady Luck as much as their own crew. When you need to consult the fates in this board game for would-be blaggards, what better god to turn to than the designer themself? 

Included among the entertaining and educational manual to Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot is a special ruling to establish the real pirate from the mere pretenders. Should players tie on parts, pirates, and upgrades, there’s only one person who can divine the ultimate seafaring scoundrel. Send an email that includes images of the tied players’ ships and treasure to designer Ignacy Trzewiczek (via portal@portalgames.pl), and he promises to pick a winner.

Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot isn’t the only game to offer designer-decreed victories. Stonemaier Games’s Viticulture: Tuscany also offers inspiration from above, suggesting players who tie on wine and grape values should “submit a two-paragraph essay to stonemaiergames@gmail.com on the topic, ‘Why I deserve to win this tiebreaker.’” Given the mere mention of the word “essay” sends us reeling into terrifying school flashbacks, we had to side with Rattle, Battle, Grab the Loot when it came to a place on this list.

Other great tiebreaker rules:

  • Petrichor: The first person to run to the nearest field and harvest a crop wins -- or players can just enjoy a shared victory. Only cowards pick the second option.
  • Nothing Personal: The first player to throw the game off the roof wins. Not advisable if you live in a block of flats.
  • Plague Inc.: The Board Game: The first player to lie on the floor and pretend to be dead wins. A fun one but perhaps best saved for when real world isn’t engulfed in a real pandemic.
  • Blood Bowl: Team Manager:  If there is a double tie, the Team Manager’s Union suspects foul play and conducts an investigation. The TMU suspends each suspected (tied) manager indefinitely, and they lose all their fans. The TMU presents the “Manager of the Year” award to the remaining manager who gained the most fans and that manager wins the game instead! If all managers are still tied (after checking for the most well-developed team), then the TMU loses all credibility, the fans revolt, and nobody wins the game! Need we really say more?
  • And if all else fails: Hold hands, skip down the sidewalk, and rejoice in your shared victory. OK, fine, sometimes it’s nice to win together.

Those were our picks for the best tiebreaker rules in board games, but if you know a better one then drop us a message via Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. While you’re here, be sure to have a listen to the Going Analog Podcast as well for more entertaining board game discussions.