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Game Design: Player Elimination

Player Elimination is an interesting concept, for many reasons. It evokes strong opinions and is used in several 'classic' games found in millions of homes. Personal feelings aside, I want to take a look at some topics of interest about this divisive mechanic.

Player Experience

It is safe to say that player elimination has a profound impact on player experience, regardless of the game. To clarify, player elimination isn't simply the changing of roles or selecting a new character or persona after the death of a previous one. An eliminated player walks away from the game and has zero impact on the outcome going forward.

The biggest player experience issue is downtime. An eliminated player has the pen-ultimate downtime experience, but without any connection to the game being played. This can be very frustrating for the player, as they are simply waiting for the game to finish.

There is always the argument about actual player elimination and effective player elimination. There are many games, Agricola or Age of Steam spring to mind, where a player who has fallen behind the leader or been forced into deep debt, is effectively eliminated from the game. They are playing a game they simply cannot win. However, they are still taking turns and engaging in play.

This situation will impact players depending on their personality. A player who is invested at all in winning, will be at least a bit frustrated. Would it be better to actually eliminate that player and allow them to leave the table? A player who enjoys the flow or play of the game, will experience less frustration and may not mind that they do not have choice to win.

Some players have told me that they would rather be free to walk away and find another game when effectively eliminated. I think play environment probably shapes how detrimental player elimination is as well. At a convention or game day, where another game might easily be joined, elimination may not be viewed as negatively as playing with a small group of players. Player elimination with a small group means waiting until everyone else is done before rejoining the magic circle.

Reputation

Player elimination can create such bad player experiences that there is significant stigma attached to the mechanic. A percentage of the gaming market will not buy a game with player elimination because of that stigma or personal experience.

There is also a perception that player elimination is an older or more primitive mechanic that modern board games have out grown. However, we still draw cards and we still roll dice, so I think that is a simplistic view of player elimination.

In games such as Risk, player elimination is strongly thematic. A color is removed from play, so the player is also removed from the game. Often this is the case, such as with Liar's Dice. The loss of all your dice removes you from play.

However, in Ankh, players who are too low on the VP track are eliminated at a certain time in the game. This is less thematic, but speeds up the remaining game play.

Justification

There are some famous games with player elimination that can be interesting to take a closer look. Monopoly is an American cultural touchstone and it still maintains the mechanic. If you look at what the mechanic is to be achieving game play-wise, you can see the issues introduced by the aversion to that mechanic.

Many players will play with the home rule that landing on Free Parking gives the player 500 dollars or all the previous fines that would be paid to the bank, creating a jackpot sort of mechanic. This single mechanic is at odds with player elimination, even though it may have been inspired by it.

The jackpot home rule undoubtedly lengthens a game of Monopoly, while the player elimination mechanic shortens the game. When a player is eliminated, it results in giving more territory and money to another player, which is an escalation mechanic. It becomes more likely that other players will have to pay them money and possibly go bankrupt.

However, many players will try to 'fix' the issues that Monopoly was meant to highlight. All these efforts prolong the game, such as ensuring everyone has a set of properties, or trying to make the game 'fair'.

Monopoly is supposed to show how the rich get richer and that money is a huge advantage in life, a 'runaway leader' mechanic if you will. Efforts to try to make the game 'fair' simply prolong it, but do not change the ultimate outcome (which we see in our lifetime, Disney is currently one of the winning players).

Risk is a another classic game that uses player elimination to shorten the game. As players are eliminated, they will pass on their country cards to the victory, with a high likelihood of giving them the ability to get more army units. However, acquiring new territory and the lack of units makes it harder to defend all the territory well, allowing other players to grab territory.

There is a natural see-saw pattern that emerges as the remaining players take over the now vast stretches of poorly defended territories, until a tipping point is reached the game ends.

While the dice can prematurely determine the winner, the tipping point is often a player turning in a set of cards for more army units (the number of units claimed grows arithmetically). Since taking a territory gives a player a card, the two players are essentially drawing cards until one gets a set.

Turtling and Mercy

While I don't know of house rules for Risk that shorten the game, player specific behaviors do add time to the game. Turtling always prolongs a game as player resources are spent on defense, which take time to overcome. Defense itself doesn't move the game closer to finishing.

Mercy is a similar issue. By sparing a player, the game is being prolonged. This could be the biggest issue with Player Elimination, particularly depending on how elimination is triggered. In Monopoly, a player essentially sets traps (almost an inverse roulette), and other players fall victim to them, not through direct action, but by a chance roll of the dice.

Or a more recent game, Ankh has player elimination. If a player is far enough behind, at a certain point in the game, they are eliminated. This can end the game early depending on how many players are removed. This speeds up the last few rounds of the game.

Again, a player isn't directly removed from play by another, but rather, by being blocked by other players (or by not advancing themselves). The resources needed to stay in the game are not wholly limited. While some are up for grabs among all players, a large portion of advancement is generated by abilities chosen and tactics used in battle.

Risk is a well known example of direct player elimination. One player directly causes another to be removed from the game. Often there is social pressure not to attack a player who would be eliminated, either from other players or the player being eliminated. Eliminating a player can feel 'mean', which is in direct contrast with the object of the game, to have fun. A player may be accused of 'ruining' someone's fun.

While games can be a way to explore emotions or various situations in a safe way (such as aggression), taking a direct aggressive action against another player can be fraught with emotions. Even when players are in the spirit of the game, if a player is repeatedly attacked, they can feel singled out. Diplomacy is infamous as a friendship killer and that is in no little part, due to direct aggression/attacks.

While the merits of allowing direct actions against another player is outside the scope of this article, I think it is important to note that the mechanic puts the game into a distinct category, Direct Elimination, which not all players will find appealing. Similar to Player Elimination in genera, Direct Elimination will further limit the audience of a game.

Alternatives

The goal of player elimination is to remove a player from the game. This leads to what other designs could be used instead. There are some obvious alternatives.

Role Change

The first alternative is to change the role of the player. For example, in a zombie game, a player killed by zombies, could assume the role of the zombies and run them against the remaining players. This is still an elimination of the player from one game [space] and introduction to another, essentially new, but complementary game. This is a more complex design.

Another change, again to the role, is to join the eliminated player to another, creating a team. There are several games that do this, including Ankh.

There is also the aspect of shooting the moon, which keeps a player in the game but gives them a new goal, usually inverse to one of other players. While goals and roles are not identical, it can be viewed as a change in role.

Concede

Another alternative is to allow the player to self eliminate by conceding. Usually seen as part of a round, instead of the whole game, such as folding in a hand of poker. In chess players are allowed and even encouraged to concede rather than draw out a game that has an inevitable conclusion. This is less common in hobby games as an explicit mechanic and in many games, would actually cause issues for the remaining players. However, in two player games it would not cause any issues in casual play.

Challenging

There is also the option for an opponent to ask for a concession. A classic example is the doubling cube in Backgammon. In the game, a player may double the amount of points the match will be worth. The other player must either except this wager or immediately concede the game. This is an interesting mechanic that allows players to control the pace of the game to a degree. It also adds another layer of strategy in when to increase the points of the match.

Catch Up

Keeping a player in a game they cannot win, can be frustrating. So, if the player isn't eliminated, there is often a way for the player to win. This is achieved by either changing their win conditions or by giving them new abilities or powers, in other words with some sort of catch up mechanic. The catch up mechanic is often paired with a role change.

A major concern with catch-up mechanics is that the game can become a race to the bottom. If it is easier to win by doing poorly, the best strategy is to fail and gain new abilities. This is unlikely to be the goal of the game. Achieving balance with catch-up mechanics can be tricky.

There is a lot more to catch up mechanics than I will cover here, but suffice it to say, that an alternative to eliminating a player is to keep them in the game somehow, either with a new role, new abilities, or new goals (or a combination).

Hidden Winner

A final alternative keeps the elimination intact, but still allows them to win. If the end scoring or winner determination, still includes eliminated players, this could keep them invested in the game enough to avoid the negative experience of no longer participating. However, the eliminated player would need enough information to know they might win. Otherwise, they might still be frustrated at the elimination.

A classic game with this mechanic is Acquire. A player may run out of money and feel like they are effectively eliminated, in that there is no direct action they can take to gain more money. However, they may have enough of the winning stock in order to win the overall game.

Conclusion

Player Elimination is a mechanic that has a big impact on players and as such generates strong feelings. There are some more recent games, such as Liar's Dice, that utilize player elimination, particularly without the escalation effect (see clarification below).

I was originally critical of Risk because of the player elimination, but after playing hundreds of games on the computer (against non-human opponents), I really saw what effects player elimination created. I eventually developed an effective strategy which was to eliminate the player with the least amount of of units near me, gain their cards, and try to make more and more sets. Each set has a bigger Army payoff as more are created, thus accelerating game play and shortening the game. Ironically, a player with many units take longer turns, so when I speak of a shorter game, it is largely in respect to player turns until the end of the game.

Player elimination in a computer game creates a much different effect than a board game, as online gaming has bigger access to prevent boredom or waiting out for the original game to finish. Players have a variety of activities to occupy their downtime until the next game, from starting another game to just doing something else on the computer.

Ultimately, Player Elimination is just another mechanic. How the game utilizes it will create the biggest impact on the player experience. The shorter the time a player is out of the game, the smaller the impact on experience. If the elimination of a player speeds up play, this will achieve the goal of shorter out-of-play time and hopefully not reinforce stigmas against Player Elimination.

Liar's Dice

I call out Liar's Dice as a game that doesn't escalate game ending in that there isn't a bonus given to one player. Rather, all remaining players see a speed up as dice are removed from the game, which happens throughout the game, regardless of the number of players. As there are fewer dice in play, the practical bids become smaller, increasing the frequency of challenges, which results in loss of dice.

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