A great many games are based around the concept of conflict. This may be a literal war or strategy game, where you are marshalling armies or forces against one another, but conflict can be found elsewhere in more mundane settings. Essentially it boils down to I want to win and in doing so, I want to beat everyone else playing. In Snakes and Ladders, you want to reach 100 first. In Cluedo, you want to find the murderer first, whilst throwing other people off the case. In Munchkin you must stab your buddies in the back at every available opportunity …
Conflict is an important part of games and competition. The question I would like to look at in this article is about taking it to its extremes. Player conflict that ensures that your opponents are not just put into a disadvantageous position, but are removed from the game entirely. I am talking about player elimination.
Several games make use of this mechanic. A beaten player is removed from the game and play carries on without them. It is typically found within the American styles of board games, that tend to incorporate themes of conflict and are more luck driven, than their European counterparts. That is not to say that it is strictly found within these style of games, as several “classic” board games have this mechanic included (the entire point of Monopoly is to bankrupt all your opponents and knock them out).
I must confess that personally, I am not a fan of player elimination. When I sit down for a game, I don’t want to think that my involvement could be over after a few turns or bad rolls (and I am more than capable of rolling bad dice – ask my friends). However, I have been convinced that in certain situations it may be warranted, either in terms of game theme or even for the benefit of the game’s playability.
Player elimination does introduce threat to a game. If defeat or failure was just a minor inconvenience which you can bounce back from, it encourages a more gung-ho approach to the game that may not be appropriate in certain genres. Soldiers that get knocked down and then pop straight back up won’t work in a gritty war game. A dungeon crawl with no risk of injury or death becomes a treasure hunt. These sorts of games have to have a risk/reward balance with the ultimate risk being to your (character’s) life.
I am also more convinced of the validity of player elimination in a shorter game. Consider the contrast – Risk (potentially the game I dislike the most above all others) is pretty long. A player can be eliminated relatively early on and then has to twiddle their thumbs whilst the game grinds on for another hour or so. This destroys the concept of games as a social experience – off you go and do something else.
However, a game like Love Letter also features player elimination. But because the game’s rounds will only last for a few minutes at a time, the knocked out players have an opportunity to get straight back into the action and get their own back. My first time of playing Love Letter saw me knocked out in the opening move of the game (thanks a bunch Charlie). Normally that is terminal for introductory game, but because I saw everyone else getting thrown out and within a few turns I was back, I could see the very fine game behind the elimination.
Having alternative win conditions beyond simple elimination works too. Whilst most games of Love Letter end in elimination, you can end up in a situation where you need to hold the highest value card at the round end (which are the riskier cards to try to hold onto). King of Tokyo, the kaiju inspired combat games, see you able to win by beating down all the other monsters, but also by gaining 20 victory points over the course of the game. Suddenly I am aware that I don’t always need to go for the throat, but a patient and measured accumulation of points can see me triumph over the more aggressive player.
I am particularly keen on the elimination mechanics in Betrayal At House On the Hill, where players cannot be killed during the initial stages of the game. This ensures that everyone gets to fully explore the house and play the game for a decent period of time. Of course when the traitor is revealed everything gets a lot more lethal, but the game tends to speed up during the haunt phase. Certain encounters will even result in defeated players joining up with the traitor to make the survivor’s game even more difficult.
When I started this article, I was fully expecting it to rant about how player elimination was the one of the worst mechanics a game could implement. But after writing, it’s clear to me that as a system it may have its flaws, but it is fully dependant on how it is implemented into the game. Being inventive with it can still allow players to enjoy their game, even with the risk of them spending some time on the sidelines. Perhaps player elimination isn’t such a dirty word after all …