Game Design

the thrill of narrow wins in slay the spire and mario kart

You know that moment in a movie when the hero is certainly doomed but pulls himself through at the very last second?  From Indiana Jones’ evasion of a rolling boulder to Jack Sparrow’s escape from the gallows, some of the most memorable film scenes show iconic characters getting out of impossible situations.

These narrow escapes are emotionally charged climactic points of the movie’s story arc.  And, those exist in games, too.

Tension and Catharsis in Game Design

A narrow escape in a film is a great moment because it is one of catharsis.  When this happens, there is a release of all the built up tension from the perceived threat.  The higher the stakes, or the lower the chances are of success, the greater the release of tension.

Similarly, in games, winning by a tiny margin is very satisfying.

There is an achievement in Slay the Spire called “Shrug It Off”, which you get by winning a battle with 1 HP remaining.  I personally really like this achievement, because it highlights that same climactic moment in a player’s experience that is not often talked about in game design.

Making a Surprise Winning Moment Count

In my last post, I wrote about techniques used to create a satisfying player experience even if the player is losing.  Among them was the concept of a “comeback mechanic”, which gives players a way to come back from a sure loss.

But even if a comeback mechanic (or as some smart people might call it, a “negative feedback loop”) exists, there’s no guarantee that an attempt at a comeback will be successful.

In this post, I will analyse the game design of Slay the Spire and Mario Kart around that exciting moment of narrowly winning, and compare two different techniques that can be used to make that moment extra special for the player.

Slay the Spire: Balancing on a Fine Line Between Winning and Losing

Slay the Spire does a brilliant job at building tension and creating opportunities for catharsis.  No matter how much I play Slay the Spire, the opponents always seem formidable.  I’ve entered many a battle with extremely low health thinking that there’s no way I’ll come out on the other side.  And then, to my surprise and delight, I win.


I don’t know the specific mathematics behind Slay the Spire, so I don’t know if I’ve been close to losing many times simply due to dumb luck.  Regardless, it would be clever of the designers to implement a system to keep players as close as possible to the line between winning and losing.  The longer that players survive at a low health, the higher the tension builds, and the greater the payoff when they finally win or lose.

Giving a slight edge to players with low health to let them scrape through a few levels will make them feel lucky and capable of making it through levels when the odds are against them.  From personal experience, getting through levels by the skin of my teeth made me more inclined to continue future runs even when I wasn’t so sure I could win.

Mario Kart: Favouring Losing Players

While the logic behind Slay the Spire’s narrow wins is invisible to the player, Mario Kart has an overt discrepancy in power-ups depending on players’ positions in the race.

It has long been known that Mario Kart favours players who are losing, giving them much better power-ups that could turn the game around for them.  As far back as 1996, Mario Kart 64 introduced the infamous blue shell, which allows players to launch a projectile auto-targeted directly at the racer in first place.

This creates surprising and thrilling scenarios when an underdog races past the frontrunner at the last second and win the whole race.

Image from: Business Insider

Comparing Techniques for Designing Narrow Wins

The following table depicts how two different types of games can approach the same goal of setting up the player to experience a narrow win.  Both require adjustments to the logic and probabilities behind certain events occurring.

Slay the SpireMario Kart
  • Single player PvE
  • Multiplayer PvP
  • Keep players as close to losing as possible (suggested)
  • Award better power-ups to players who are losing
  • Invisible to players
  • Visible to players

Understanding Fairness in Games

In both cases, there is the argument that changing the logic to treat players differently due to their game state is fundamentally unfair.

In Slay the Spire, players might ask the questions, “Am I getting an easy pass?” or “Are the enemies being nicer to me just because I’m at a low health?”  And in Mario Kart, there’s already a portion of players who think that the game isn’t fair because it allows anyone to rush ahead and win.


However, I don’t agree with these evaluations of “fairness”.  For one thing, games are their own worlds with their own rules.  As long as those rules are consistent within the game world, they are fair.

The game designer, in getting to make the rules, gets to decide how the game world works.

Consequently, players can adapt their strategy to take advantage of the game’s rules.  Many good Mario Kart players I know purposely don’t get ahead of the pack, in order to pick up the best power-ups like Bullet Bill and speed past everyone else to cross the finish line first at the very last second.

Mario-Kart-8-Deluxe-260618-002” (Public Domain) by Instacodez

Game Design is about Creating Moments

Game designers should use every opportunity to improve the player experience.  Near escapes and narrow wins can build tension, excitement, and surprise, as well as increase a game’s replay value.  We should continuously explore how to foster the thrilling experience of almost losing but coming out victorious.