Why player elimination has become taboo in board games?

Player elimination as a game-ending mechanic was predominant in gaming until recently. It seems like at one point games with player elimination ceased to exist. For quite some time I wanted to revive this mechanic, as it seemed to me to be the most “real” victory condition. But, recently I realized what made designers avoid player elimination and why it’s a good move in most cases.

When I rediscovered board games in 2017, I was quite unaware of the changes that had come since I left the hobby. I remember playing Splendor and thinking “Wow, what a great resource-gathering system, I wonder how it could be implemented in a big game?“. I wanted that good-old game where you build your civilization, build an army… and then use it! But I quickly figured out that game designers had to a large extent abandoned that train of thought. I played several worker placement games and had the same thought “I can’t wait to use my resources to face the other players in battle” but when the game ended, I couldn’t help feeling a bit anti-climactic as we counted the points. An entire act of the games which I loved was gone. The final act, where one could demonstrate how well one’s engine works against the other players.

How I imagined victory in a strategic game

I felt like most games I played would end in counting points, and though I can’t say I didn’t enjoy them, I felt like there should be other methods of determining a winner. Then, I stumbled onto Scythe and my world-view changed. It was what I was looking for; a worker placement, engine-building, resource management, area control game. It had left out player elimination, but I didn’t think about it too much, I enjoyed the game and that was enough. Now that I’ve gotten deeper into designing games, I had to resolve the almost subconscious questions I had up to this point.

Player elimination can take away from that strategic uncertainty, which we all love in strategy games. There comes a point in most player elimination games, when the outcome is known. That point can be very punishing for the losing player and not all that strategic for the winning player. The game no longer feels like a puzzle, you are no longer making plans, but instead just doing the same thing over and over until the game ends. After downloading a civilization game on my phone and playing it on the highest difficulty, I realized how many times I would exit the game when the outcome became apparent(usually not in my favor).  So, I see now why many designer’s are choosing to “leave while the going’s good” and end their games at the peak. Here is a great video about strategic uncertainty in games like Civilization.

There is a time for player elimination. Unfortunately, that time is often too long. That final act, which I was so reminiscent of, inevitably gets repetitive and drags out. The points which should bring excitement, like when the losing player makes a comeback, instead only prolong the agony. The losing players “good” moves, are still only stalling for time. Let’s face it, you’re not playing games to starve out your opponent over a long period of time. On the other hand, long strategy games aren’t the only genre out there. I think plenty of short games implement player elimination perfectly. Having a last man standing in a 15 minute game can give you a really good survival feeling.

The final reason, and the one people are usually most critical of, is that players already eliminated are left twiddling their thumbs on the sidelines until the end of the game.

twiddling thumbs

Personally, I don’t think that this is the biggest problem, but I feel like I have to address it while on this subject. You can get creative and allow players to have different roles once they have been eliminated, perhaps with different mechanics. But, for the most part, as the designer you should make sure your players know what they are getting into. Allow them to plan for what to do if they drop out. Advertise the game for what it is and be okay with some people not liking it.

I still believe player elimination can work as a mechanic, if it is combined with several other victory conditions or in a shorter game. That being said, I’ve more or less abandoned the idea of making a strategic player elimination game. What are your thoughts on player elimination? What games have you played which feature it as a mechanic? 


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1 Comment

  1. Overlord Drakow

    I agree with you for the most part. A game I sometimes play which has player elimination is Twilight Imperium, though it is usually tricky to out rightly eliminate someone. Nevertheless it is theoretically very possible for 1 or multiple players to gang up on someone and ruin their game, to the point where they are essentially out of contention to win. I have had it happen to me many times and the feeling is not great. All the energy just drains away when you know you cannot win barring some crazy, slim string of miracles which 99% of the time just doesn’t happen.

    Interesting you mentioned Scythe as I have heard about the name of the game but never knew what kind of game it was. It sounds very similar to a game I am currently developing in terms of mechanics, but it seems they have beaten me to the punch. I had also bounced with the idea of including player elimination in my design but have decided to scrap it for many of the reasons you have mentioned above, although unfortunately just like TI, it is theoretically possible for multiple players to gang up on a single player and give them hell.

    Battle for Rokugan is a game which does what you mentioned regarding bypassing elimination, in that the player becomes a ronin for a round and can basically anywhere on the board while a ronin. It was a pretty cool concept though not one I have ever seen put into practice in an actual game.

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