Using theme to solve player elimination

Using theme as a powerful tool to address player elimination

One of the big recurring problems in board game design seems to be dealing with player elimination. That is, how do you allow players to interact with each other and set each other back without eliminating them from the game entirely? I don’t know anyone that doesn’t mind sitting out while everyone else finishes the previously-fun game without them.

In Vampire Game, I was having a huge problem with player elimination. Vampires normally attack humans to gain influence and their abilities, but when another player starts to get ahead, sometimes you need to attack their vampire instead.

Cosmic Encounter is balanced around the fact that players can take action against leaders, and Vampire Game is the same way. It’s critical. Without it, vampires can’t have incredible game-breaking powers. But allowing players to freely attack other players leads to negative feelings: it just feels bad to have everyone attacking you, even if it IS the rational thing to do. Once a player got too far ahead, the other players would immediately attack that person to take their blood and maybe eliminate them completely.

I tried changing the rules so a vampire that loses all their blood goes to “torpor” – a deep sleep where the vampire is out of the action for now, but is slowly regenerating. This seemed like a perfect solution: players can stop a player temporarily, but not permanently. As is often the case in economics and games, this lead to some serious unintended consequences.

Namely, a vampire that was low in blood due to being attacked, or due to recently being in torpor, was suddenly no longer attacked. You gain their blood after all, and if they have almost none to give, players didn’t want to waste their precious actions attacking. It also led to a lingering impotent state, where vampires could be sent to torpor, they heal a little, come back, then are immediately sent to torpor again, and they could never get back on their feet again. The problem was maddening. Every time I tried to fix it, the problem would appear in a new form.

Finally I decided to try to get some inspiration from the subject material. So I watched Interview with the Vampire instead. And therein was the solution, dropped in my lap with no more effort.

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The world changes, we do not, there lies the irony that finally kills us. -Armand

This quote is where I realized that the vampires were outsiders, to a constantly changing world. This is a theme that’s present throughout the film, and something that I realized could be used to elegantly solve the elimination problem.

Up until this point, the vampires had been battling over a pool of humans. There was no time or year represented, it was just one deck. In order to make humanity change while vampires stayed the same, I broke the game into three ages, three acts.

  1. The first age was the late 19th century, with cobblers, bottlers and stagecoach drivers.
  2. The second age was the early to mid 20th century, with the dawn of modern technology with scientists, schoolteachers and miners
  3. The third age was modern day, with SWAT members, drug addicts and DJs.

Now vampires could be sent to torpor if they lost all their blood, but they would be back to play in the next age, their blood restored. This actually makes sense with the theme, and it meant I could theme the humans much better to paint a picture of the world at that time through a small amount of text. It meant vampires wouldn’t be limping along after death, it just meant they missed out on some victory points in the meantime.

Finally, the addition of granting influence to vampires that were still surviving at the end of each age allowed them to “catch up” in a way that made sense. There were alive and active in the intervening years after all, of course they would gain some advantages in the meantime.

This was such a breakthrough that using theme to solve design problems has become one of the most potent design tools I know about.