Eliminating Player Elimination

In modern hobby board games player elimination has largely been eliminated. That’s a good thing, right? Probably, but it depends on the implementation. Let’s take a look.

Current Norm: Generally, most recent games avoid player elimination unless the game takes less than about 30 minutes and any player is unlikely to be out of the game for more than about 10-15 minutes. (Note: These statistics are based on a quick summary of games I have played recently and are not scientific, but you get the idea). The modern designer doesn’t want any player left in the cold for more than about 10 minutes and presumably that is based on the fact that most players don’t want to risk being out in the cold for more than that either.

As a designer working on a game design, you may ask yourself, “How do I keep all the players in the game to the end?” Depending on what you mean by “in the game” you may be asking yourself the wrong question. If your first thought is to let the player stay in, but without any real chance of winning (probably by some brute force method of basically starting over) then you are not only asking yourself the wrong question, but getting the wrong answer. Better to let them go jump into another game or Tweet on their phone for the rest of the game than to patronize them with a false sense of belonging in the current game. At least they will be Tweeting about how they sucked instead of how your game sucked. Maybe.

Beyond the obvious, though, there are some considerations that require playtesting to refine a game design to keep players “in the game.” One player who falls short of the pack, could have just played poorly, but a recurring theme of players losing before the game is over is a hazard. Note: There are many reasons why players may exhibit these traits. See the Player Types Playtesting Notebook entry for more on traits of different player types. One player may choose to exhibit “bad player behavior” despite your game giving them a winning chance to the end, but a recurring theme of players getting bored is possibly another entrance to that same hazard.

Here are a few terms I use to describe the situation, the player responses, and how to identify them:

  • Elimination: A player is removed from the game.
    • Active Elimination
      • Players can be eliminated from the game at which point they are completely out. Their dudes can be removed from the map, their cubes put back in the stock, their item cards can be scavenged by the remaining players.
    • Passive or Silent Elimination
      • Players are not eliminated from the game, but at some point have no chance of winning or even putting up a valiant effort.
  • Bored Loser: A player who has been passively eliminated and has left your game to look for entertainment in the metagame or on their phone.
    • Zombie
      • Recognized by: Low moans, noisy eating, pestering or pawing at the other players.
      • Effect: Distracts and annoys other players such that they would prefer for the game to just end.
    • Prisoner
      • Recognized by: The player starts scratching their name into the table.
      • Effect: No one has fond memories of prison, so all prison stories generally focus on how painful it was to be there and/or how good it felt to be released.
    • Whiner/Chronic Loser
      • Recognized by: All they can talk about is how they are bound to lose.
      • Effect: No one likes a pity party, so the other players just try to get the game over so they don’t have to listen anymore.
    • Kingmaker
      • Recognized by: Repeated attempts to elevate one player, usually the perceived second in command, and knock down all the others, particularly the perceived leader. (As stated earlier, there are many reasons for one player to become kingmaker that have nothing to do with player elimination, but you want to be certain this is not the cause.)
      • Effect: The perceived leader generally recognizes they have been dethroned intentionally, so at least this has less an effect on the evaluation of your game.
    • Dawdler
      • Recognized by: This phrase repeated in their direction, “It’s your turn,” followed by 20 more seconds of texting, 45 seconds of remembering what game they are playing, and on.
      • Effect: The game literally becomes a drag for everyone.

The problem of bored losers may be one that is hard to detect in playtesting groups that are not monitored.

  • Some players will blame themselves for their predicament – I didn’t play well enough – and not mention it.
  • Some players are prone to these behaviors regardless of the chance your game provides them.
  • Some players will blame other players and give your game a pass.

Identifying and fixing passive elimination is a case when it is good to have some bad player behavior in the group – someone who will respond poorly to their situation. If they don’t mention it, the other players will be more likely to. “The game was fun and I won, but one of the players spent the last few rounds just making it miserable to be at the table.” Another way to test this situation is to intentionally include player types that will behave badly – either known players or playtesters who have been asked to play the role.

Some difficult questions:

  • How can you keep players in the game without a brute force method?
  • How early is too early for a player to realize that they cannot win?
  • How can you keep players involved in the game past the point of being out of contention?