Player Elimination

This article refers to competitive games of more than two sides where one player or side can be eliminated. I am not referring to cooperative or semicooperative games, or two sided games, or single player games. This is specifically about where one player or side is eliminated from the game and the game continues on without them.

Games that eliminate players are often regarded negatively with a knee jerk reaction. I believe it often sends people back to games of Risk or Monopoly where a player was eliminated and had to watch for hours as the game plodded on. Some of my favorite games eliminate players, and I have thought a lot about whether I like them despite their elimination of players or perhaps a bit more because of it. I have come to the conclusion, that for me, elimination of players is not inherently better or worse than leaving players in for the whole game, but each have their own risks.

If a player is eliminated there is a risk that player will grow bored and frustrated with their non-participant status. If a player is not eliminated there is a risk the player will find themselves in a position where they don’t believe they can win, and they may still grow bored or frustrated – and worse – they may use what influence they have in the game to disrupt the remaining players. This is what I like to call effective elimination, which is in many ways worse than simple elimination.

As an example, if a player falls too far behind in Settler’s of Catan, they may actually be worse off than eliminated – forced to continue playing a game which they no longer can win. But if they choose to, now they can actually help select the victor of the game even though they no longer have any stake in the game.

For a short game there is not much risk either way. A player sitting out for a brief time is not much of a cost and has the benefit of putting the other players briefly on a stage. Similarly playing a game you know you can’t win for a little while isn’t too bad.

For longer games the risks mount – the risks that a player will have to watch their friends continue playing without them, or that they will get disengaged from the game and not see why they have to continue playing. One nice thing about elimination is that it is so easy to understand, for the player and designer, for better or for worse. Keeping people in the game is trickier.

One way games keep players engaged is by making it so that there are mechanics in the design which prevent players from falling too far behind or getting too far ahead. This has its own risks for longer games, because carried too far players may ask themselves why they are playing the first 90% of the game when the game is decided in the last 10%. I am always a little wary sitting down to a game when I am told that the game is almost always close – it carries with it the implicit message that it doesn’t really matter so much how I play till the end.  Related are mechanics which allow players to engage in higher risk play when they are behind in an effort to come back. This is the “moonshot” in hearts, or the “shut out” in Mystery Rummy games. This can work quite well – although these features can be tricky to balance – too easy and they dominates game play, too hard and they don’t really give that sense of hope for the player who is far behind.

A player who has been effectively eliminated from winning the game can keep invested in the game – if they can be made to value things other than winning or losing. I am not talking about the fuzzy stuff – cameraderie and so forth, I am talking about valuing 2nd place over 5th place, or ending with 10 points as opposed to 3. This is culterally dependant and even varies from play group to play group – but it can make a game much more enjoyable when players value things other than simply getting first. As a player you can encourage this sort of play by tracking player’s score from game to game – perhaps adding it up with a goal to reach some total. If the game doesn’t have a score, but has places – you could give 100 points to first, 75 to second, and so forth.  Players often play this way anyway to some degree – in Settler’s of Catan, the player who falls very far behind might have a bad time as mentioned above, but they might have a fine time trying to earn 3rd place, or just trying to get as many points as they can even if it is 4th place. If your playgroup was tracking points over time that would certainly make that more likely.

So there are risks associated with keeping people in the game – the risks can be handled but they may change the game a lot. But it isn’t all mitigating risks – there are some positives to elimination. I don’t want all my food to be spicy. I don’t want all my games to be elimination games. But there is something exciting about the risk of elimination which makes a game or tournament spicier, and I like seeing that from time to time.


7 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Dre,

    Oh nice one. I know you’ve written about this topic before, and I think your specific example was of Monopoly, probably the game that is the worst offender of bad player elimination.

    One thing that can help player elimination, if it’s included as a mechanic, is to have a player still maintain stakes in the game. Specifically, the Emperor or Two-headed giant formats for Magic. (but maybe that’s because I just read an article of yours :P ) Even though a player’s life total can be knocked to 0 and kicks them out, they still have a stake in the game. The rest of their teammates are still fighting on in the game, and depending on the playgroup, any eliminated teammates might be able to give play advice at this point. (but it shouldn’t get to the point of taking away someone’s hand and just playing for them).

    What would be interesting is games with player elimination and player return, where at some point a player can jump back into the game. If it’s a CO-OP game, this is usually pretty good with a game like Descent: Journeys into the Dark, but more competitive games it can easily get kind of annoying.

  2. I’ve come to the position that games should be shorter in length anyway, since if you want more you can just play again. That solves this problem and a host of others, especially if the means of making them shorter is eliminating wait time.

    Or at least the game session should be short; an MMORPG technically never ends, but hopefully you can spend X minutes and have a good experience in a finite time. I like how you described in the previous podcast how your kids play Monopoly with no sense of winners/losers. Not because winning or losing is bad, but because it avoids the time and elimination issues.

    Close to the topic, but perhaps worse, is another problem that Monopoly has – being in the game, but knowing you can’t win. I think that’s worse than being out, because you’re tempted to concede but that’s not a good feeling for you or your opponents, so you sit there trapped, a prisoner of the game. I like a game where people feel like they’re “in it” right up until they aren’t. Puerto Rico and Carcassonne are successful in part because they avoid this problem. You can be “winning” til the end, and then not. So not only do they avoid elmination, but doomed inevitability as well.

  3. Scurra,

    Positional uncertainty is a major help in this respect. A game in which it is unclear who is “winning” because the different routes make it harder to instinctively grasp are good: Agricola ends up with close scores because players typically finish with similar positions, but they all took radically different routes to get there (weird card combos excepted, of course!) And I don’t think anyone would argue that Agricola comes down to the last 10% of the game…

    And sometimes you can have player elimination but it’s because the game is about to end anyway – once one player is out, everyone else is liable to follow them out quite quickly (although I only know of an unpublished design that specifically does this.)

    Plus there’s always the approach taken by War on Terror, in which the eliminated players form a sort of rival team, but they also make it easier for a surviving player to actually win, which is a neat way to address it.

    Positional uncertainty helps a lot, and there are a lot of ways to achieve this. If this positional uncertainty doesn’t involve true hidden information and/or randomness there is a chance that as players become better at the game the veil can drop and they can realize very early that a particular player has won and the others can’t do anything about it. By true hidden information I mean a dealt card rather than a screen behind which you keep your victory points – which the other players can simply track if they pay attention to it. So, for example, I would predict the positional uncertainty in Puerto Rico would drop over time since it has low randomness and no hidden information, but for Agricola it could remain high, since it has hidden cards.

    Actually – one other thing comes to mind that can prolong uncertainty, and that is Politics. If the players can team up (knowingly or unknowingly) to bring down a leader then uncertainty could extended. This may come to play in Puerto Rico, I don’t know.

    I haven’t tried War on Terror – it sounds interesting.

  4. Robin Russell,

    Interesting, this topic in some ways could be seen as a major divide in types of games, and potentially their commercial market/marketability. Without doing a hard count it seems to me that mainstream multiplayer games (at least board games) of the last 20-30 years have gone out of their way to avoid outright player elimination at many times. With the notable exception of Monopoly, which of course dates to an earlier era. I wonder whether this is a result of player preference, or if player preferences (and comfort levels) regarding elimination games have been shaped by this seeming divide.

    I’m sure someone will let me know if my core assumption is way off base.

  5. Willi B,

    I like the concept of doing a game in rounds in which players score and can be eliminated, but come back in later rounds. This is essentially the same as tracking several games (as you mention, Mr. Garfield) and could offer several ‘shoot the moon’ possibilities inside a game perhaps with a weighted amount of downtime as a consequence.

    Also, the outside award happens quite frequently in organized play within the tournament format.

    My girlfriend was anxious to see if here 2nd place score of 53 at a Puerto Rico tournament would allow her to advance in the rounds a couple of years back. Likewise, in playoff tiebreakers in sports and sports fantasy leagues, there are many non-win conditions that can come to bear to determine advancement.

  6. I think one of the big determining factors in the value of player elimination is the level of casual-ness inherent in the game. Or to put it the other way, the more “serious” or “competitive” a game is intended to be, the better it tolerates elimination.

    One reason (though I suspect there are quite a few) is that competitive players will be more invested in watching the game once eliminated… probably for the same reasons I can’t stand Golf on TV, but lots of people love it. They want to see *how* the other players are doing it. They will often construct their own narrative (“weird… I would have played that differently”) or may even “pick a winner” to root for.

    Not many people want to watch monopoly. Seldom can one become a better Monopoly player by watching.

    The other reason I want to highlight, is that elimination fits well into the “ranking” mentality. We can identify the best poker/MtG/Starcraft players in the world. In fact, bracketed tournaments impose elimination on games that might not otherwise have them (Go, Chess, etc).

    But those are games where people try to up their skill. For people just wanting to blow off steam, that is seldom done while “riding the pine.”

  7. Dre,

    Player elimination is like dynamite… it is to be used sparingly and with pinpoint accuracy.

    If used too much or incorrectly, a lot of people are gonna get burned. :P


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