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Still Dead, And Still Playing

March 11, 2008

One of my posts, You’re Dead, or I Wish You Were, has been enjoying some traffic and commentary recently, and got me thinking more about the concept of death in games – non-digital games.

When a player “dies” in non-digital games, usually it means that they are forced into one of the following camps:

  • Watching others play
  • Going to spend time with the people who didn’t want to play at all
  • Playing vicariously through others still playing by offering unsolicited (or solicited) advice

Considering board games are a social medium, breaking the party up doesn’t seem like an optimum play or design strategy. While some games require us to jettison defeated players, the social nature of the medium suggests that it might be truly receptive to a game where the losers are still players, too.

So, if there has to be a winner, and therefore, there also have to be losers, how does one go about creating a game where that can happen while keeping the dead ones entertained? The obvious answer (that wouldn’t work for every game) – let them play. The not so obvious answer – when one player loses/wins, the game ends and no one is out until that time. Scotland Yard does this. When it’s over for you, it’s over for me, too.

Death has the possibility to transfer the player to a different type of player – a zombie, a loan shark in a game based on money, a bad guy in a game about good. However, it doesn’t need to be as black and white as this. I’ve not designed a game yet that allowed players to keep playing when they died (rather, I did almost all the things in the above-mentioned post). I have seen something similar tried in a couple indie games, usually using a ghost mechanic, with moderate effect.

Anyone try something like this in a non-digital format or know of games that have?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2008 9:10 pm

    Most Eurogames I’ve played are more along the lines of your first suggestion — there is no player elimination, people stay in until someone reaches the win condition, at which point the game is over and we’re all done at the same time.

    Note that this doesn’t automatically solve all of the problems. If I’m way behind everyone else and have no hope of winning, it can actually be WORSE than if I’m eliminated, because for me I’m effectively out of the game but I can’t leave the table out of respect for my fellow players. Typically, these games either include some negative feedback so that the players who are behind feel they can still “catch up”, or else some positive feedback so that the game ends mercifully quickly once you’ve reached a point where anyone would feel “too behind”. Some games do neither, but keep scoring information hidden so that it’s never clear who is “winning” or “losing”.

    The party game “Werewolf” is an interesting (if unique?) case, where the eliminated players typically stay around because it’s just as fun to watch the remaining players flail around, cooking up crazy theories as to who needs to be killed next. You don’t make any decisions once you’re dead, but you do get to watch an entertaining improv show.

    There are some games that allow eliminated players to keep playing in a new role. I know that the recent boardgame “War On Terror” has this mechanic, where any eliminated player becomes part of the team of terrorists with its own victory condition (and the interesting design choice that players can *voluntarily* eliminate themselves and join the terrorists, even on the first turn). If the terrorists win, it’s a shared victory among all of the eliminated players.

    Cosmic Encounter is normally a game for up to 6 players, but one of the older versions had rules for adding a 7th and 8th player (it’s been awhile, but I believe one of them had the ability to switch positions with another player under specific conditions, and the other was able to look at all hidden information in the game and freely tell this information to anyone at their discretion, and they won a shared victory if they could correctly predict the winner of the main game, or something like that). Both of these abilities exist outside of the primary game, so you could play with the house rule that any eliminated player could keep playing by taking on one of those powers. Of course, player elimination in Cosmic Encounter is exceedingly rare, so this would not come into play often.

    When playing the board game WizWar (where players CAN be eliminated but it’s not necessary), we played with the house rule that eliminated players could control the monsters on the board. It gave them something to do, and also allowed for them to take revenge on the bastard who killed them 🙂

    The card game Nuclear War had player elimination, but allowed a “retaliatory strike” — whenever you died, you got to do some serious damage to other players, often causing one or more opponents to die as well… which then in turn caused THEM to fire their own retaliatory strikes. This brought the game to an end more quickly, and gave you the satisfaction of at least causing some pain to your opponents on the way out.

    The board game Duel Of Ages has an interesting system where the entire game is played between two teams, but each team can support any number of players (the team consists of several “characters” on the board, but you can have one player controlling all of the characters, or several of them, or just one character). This allows for free entry and exit from the game (“I have to leave, someone take my character” / “Hey, come and join us, have a character”), and also means that if all of your characters “die” someone else on your team can just hand you one of theirs. Or, an “eliminated” player could just sit around and offer advice and coordinate between their teammates.

    The digital game Gauntlet IV had a battle mode that offered an interesting solution to the eliminated-player problem: once any of the four players was eliminated from a round, a 60-second countdown timer started, causing the round to end in a partial tie if none of the remaining players could pull off an exclusive victory. This could be translated to non-digital games: e.g. in RISK, after the first player is eliminated, play one more round and then whoever has the most territories wins. This adds an interesting dynamic in that the players who aren’t winning may be trying to keep weaker players alive!

    The card game Hearts takes this to its logical extreme: players can be eliminated, but as soon as one player loses the game ends immediately, with the best score winning.

    And then, of course, there are the games that are just over so quickly that it doesn’t matter if you’re eliminated, much the same way that dying in an FPS means you just wait for a couple of minutes for the match to end and then you’re back in the action for the next round.

  2. March 11, 2008 11:07 pm

    In shooters, include a simple 2-D puzzle game and voice chat as well as the opportunity to change equipment. This might be a negative idea though as you don’t want the player to take their focus off the game really.

    Games that allow the dead to have an effect on the outcome of the match really plays toward killing the joy of winning.

    SOCOM 2: US Navy Seals(as well as all other SOCOM games), which is my favorite shooter, allows players to change equipment and talk to other dead teammates. This was personally enough for me to remain entertained and wait for the next round. They also allow you to view the other players that are alive and on your team. You still can’t talk to them but you have can see what they are doing and also see how they die so you can offer advice or whatever.

    Postmortem activity that doesn’t effect the current game is the best in my opinion. As a surviving player I feel cheated when dead players get the chance to change the outcome of the game. They are dead…. I killed them… they’ve lost already so why should they have any impact?

  3. March 11, 2008 11:13 pm

    @Tommy – in FPSs, yeah, I think that’s one of those genres where those who are down should stay down. In the non-digital world, I don’t want the dead to come back and screw with my plan for domination in Risk either. That would be terrible.

    I’m think it would be hip if that was part of a non-digital game design, tho, particularly if all players knew it going in. It would have an odd strategic effect too – when do you take that person out? Who takes them out? If it’s player A, might they try to get back at them when they’re dead? I could see it affecting strategy in interesting ways.

  4. March 11, 2008 11:14 pm

    @Ian – you keep your title as Master of Random Game Trivia. Btw, you’ve also added to my upcoming board game order. Thank you.

  5. March 11, 2008 11:24 pm

    Although I can’t come up with a game that uses the mechanic, it seems like defeated players could continue playing in a different role, maybe a role in opposition to the remaining players. Zombies come to mind. Just a thought.

  6. jamescaskey permalink
    March 12, 2008 2:11 am

    The game 13 Dead End Drive comes to mind. In this game, each player controls multiple characters, and tries to lure the other players’ characters into various traps. So players aren’t out of the game until all of their characters have died.

    It doesn’t solve the issue of players being disconnected from the game once they’ve lost, that issue still remains. But in a way it’s like giving a player “lives,” rather than just being in or out.

  7. March 12, 2008 5:23 pm

    In college, I played a game called Happyville, which is similar to Werewolf in that it pits an informed minority against an uninformed majority, but unlike Werewolf it’s a live-action game where players actually wander around and try to hit each other with toy weapons, rather than executing people by vote (the good guys are prevented from wholesale slaughter by the fact that if you kill another good guy by mistake, you’re forced to commit ritual suicide).

    There are a few different variants of this game, some of which do things to try to keep eliminated players more involved. In one variant, the bad guy is a necromancer, and everyone who dies comes back as a zombie, which places constraints on your speed and behavior, but also makes you invulnerable and lets you kill anyone you touch (except the necromancer). Shambling along and saying “brains” can get boring too, though, so some variants have more complicated undead (one has a tiered system where undead can be “upgraded” by the necromancer). Zombies have also been known to sing “99 bottles of brains on the wall…”

    Another variant, inspired by Eternal Darkness (GameCube), replaces the suicide mechanic by allowing someone who kills an ally to become an “insanity effect,” which basically lets you do whatever you want, except that if you do anything that would directly affect the game’s outcome (like attacking someone), you have to say “this can’t be happening!”, which negates the effect. So you get to confuse and distract the players, but can’t *directly* affect the gameplay.

    The game organizer also has the power to arbitrarily force the game into a sudden-death mode if he thinks things are taking too long. It’s used fairly frequently.

    My blog post on free-for-all games also touches on some of the issues discussed here:

  8. March 17, 2008 4:50 pm

    We attempted a ghost-like mechanic in “SpideRip” (obviously pronounced as fast as possible) where the player could still move webs after they died. All this did, however, was break the game. The first flaw was that the ghosts could potentially keep the game going for an infinite amount of time just by untrapping spiders, as a trapped player doesn’t lose until it’s his or her turn again. So we tried to fix it by saying that ghosts can’t break traps, but we were still left with one major flaw: the ghosts could break your strategy. Basically, if you had the board laid out as you wanted it for a winning move, by the time it was your turn again, the ghosts had completely changed the board, and you were left to rethink your move. This forced us to go with the “win or lose” route, as the game just felt broken with the ghosts.

    Obviously this won’t happen for every game, but for me, ghost mechanics sometimes feel like cop-outs in board games. A sort of “everyone is a winner” or “no one is a loser” approach. Yet one of the main points of games is to have a clear cut winner and loser. Chess has a winner and a loser, Poker has a winner and several losers, and sports are all about winning and losing, despite what they may tell you in elementary school. My theory is, if you lose, learn how to win.

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