The Death Penalty: Player elimination in King of Tokyo

I am not the first person to think that King of Tokyo would be a better game without a player elimination mechanic. Elimination sucks and no player elimination is one of those unwritten rules of modern boardgames. One of those unwritten rules that game designers love to break. So, let’s start with the designer, Dr. Richard Garfield. He’s responsible not just for this kaiju slugfest but a myriad of other games including Magic the Gathering, Netrunner and RoboRally. Dr. Garfield is a pretty smart guy with a PhD in mathematics and one of the few game designer who’s able to make a comfortable living off his work. If game design was cage fighting, there are very few designers who could hold their own with Richard for more than 30 seconds. So, Richard included player elimination in King of Tokyo and he probably did so for a reason, but let’s be punks and fight Richard to fix his broken game. This is going to end well!

This article doesn’t explain much about the game itself, if you haven’t played and want to know what I’m talking about, watch the start of the Tabletop episode for a pretty great overview.

Rule Change 1: Back Up Again

kingoftokyo-2The first rule change is simple. If you get knocked out, you get back up again. We’ll go with the exact same rules from a card in the game, which is you start the game again with full health but no points. Now, in addition to straight-out player elimination there’s a secret, unwritten type of elimination in most board games, which is logical elimination. If a player’s logically eliminated, she’s still in the game but has no realistic chance of winning. So, if you get your points reduced to 0 and lose all your cool cards more than halfway through the game, then there’s very little chance of you catching up. You’re logically eliminated from winning on points, so you’re playing a game with no chance of winning.

Rule Change 1b: Last One Standing

Ok, but if player’s can still be eliminated somehow, then there’s still a chance you can win through player elimination after getting back up, so let’s make that still viable but harder. New rule: whenever you’re KO’d, you knock your monster over to show that you’re down. You put back up again on your turn, but if any player is the only one standing, then they win. Seems okay at first but let’s consider a fairly likely situation. It’s been a hard day of monster battling, players are below 3 health including you, but the next player has 5 health. You’re currently King. If you decide to try and roll as many claws as possible and kill everyone except the next player then you’re more or less handing the next player the win, as all they need to do is kill you. No real change here from normal rules, but let’s say the player with 5 health is the next player plus one. If you kill everyone except that player, than the next player gets back up, kills you take Tokyo with no real chance of being killed. You’ve just doubled the game time.

Rule 1b-2: Last One without a token

Ok, so the standing is the problem. Revised rule: If you’re eliminated, you get an elimination token. A player wins if they are the only player without an elimination token. This means the game won’t ever reset and still makes the concept behind player elimination a viable strategy, as you can still win by KOing all other players. That is, unless you’ve already been eliminated, because then killing other players increases any non-eliminated player’s chance of winning and therefore reduces your own, and as we’ve discussed, you reset to 0 points, so you’ve got no real chance of winning there. You’ve mean logically eliminated again.

Rule Change 2: Take A Breather

So, the point reset doesn’t work. New new rule: when you’re KO’d, you can only claim hearts and energy on the next turn. This means there’s a price to pay for dying but it’s not being out of the game. And we’ll add the Last One Standing rule back in as well. All players stay in the game until a player is able to win by beating all the other monsters down or wins on points. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, the dice hate you and you’re only able to get 2 hearts on your turn after being KO’d. Now someone in Tokyo just has to roll 2 damage, and you’ll essentially have multiple turns in the row with little decisions, until you’re able to outroll the King. You’re essentially skipping a turn each time, but you still need to go through the motions of rolling dice. Sounds very unfun.

Rule Change 2abc

You know what, I think we can make this line of thinking work. We just need to work out what’s a logical heal point that would make it unlikely to get 2 semi-skipped turns in a row, and you heal that and skip a turn. But, skipping turns is even worse than player elimination. Scrap that, let’s inject some choice back into it. If you’re KO’d you can start use rolled hearts and stored energy to heal. We’ll fiddle around with the energy to health conversion ratios so it’s a viable strategy to risk being KO’d with good energy stores but not a dominant one. You still have limited choice right after you’re KO’d but you’re unlikely to get KO’d twice in a row. Ok, now let’s back to the game. I’m going to introduce it to a friend.

Epic Monster Battle

Me: You’re monsters fighting over Tokyo. You win the game by getting the most points (points are a loose metaphor for destruction) or by being the last one standing.
You: Cool, so most points or kill everyone. Got it.
Me: No, kill everyone at the same time. After you’re reduced to zero health, you get to heal on your next turn by rolling hearts or spending energy at a 2:1 ratio to recover health.
You: So, points then.
Me: No, it’s still possible to win through KO.
You: With 6 players?
Me: Maybe not with 6 but definitely with 3.
You: We’re playing with 6.
Me: Oh, yeah. Then if you’re in Tokyo, you can’t KO the other monster in Tokyo. Points then. Also, this might take a while.


kingoftokyo-3Now, we could try and iterate out the player elimination mechanic but not without changing the game and creating a disconnect from the theme of big monsters fighting each other. I’ve played King of Tokyo at a dinner party, at a pub and at a game night (where it’s considered a very light game compared to the usual fare), and it went worse at the game night. It works fine as a final game of the night, allowing eliminated players to leave but not as a warm-up game as it traps players into the game timeframe regardless of whether or not they’ve been eliminated. It went best at the pub, giving us a chance to order drinks and answer nature’s calls. The dinner party was somewhere in between.

The unwritten rule of player elimination is itself being eliminated. If you look at the list of games with player elimination as a mechanic on BGG (and sort them by by rank), you don’t see a list of outdated games, you see modern games mostly released within the past decade. Get Bit, Coup, Shadow Hunters and many other games use player elimination as a core concept, that’s both thematically and mechanically appropriate. The player interaction in these games is meaningful because your proverbial life is on the line. Removing player elimination would not just be unthematic, it would remove the tension of life and death that makes these games so enjoyable.

So, I’m tapping out. It really sucks to be eliminated in the first 10 minutes of a half hour game, but it’s a lot longer than I’d last with Garfield in a metaphorical, game design cage-fight.

Post-Script Thoughts

I talked to Reddit about this post, and had some people who were okay with player elimination in KOT and some people who weren’t. A few people thought there was more of a timing issue with player elimination. If a player’s eliminated towards the end of the game, there’s generally no hurt feelings, but if a player’s eliminated towards the start then they excluded for most of the game. The fickle swing of luck so crucial to King of Tokyo may also be one of its most alienating factors (especially for gamers who would like to control their own destiny).

I also realised that the expansion rather sneakily encouraged the player towards healing more often. The evolutions introduced in the expansion are unlocked by rolling 3 hears. The evolutions add some much requested variability to the monsters but also nudges the players away from early elimination. A great object lesson in giving players positive feedback in order to encourage the game to head in a particular direction.


15 thoughts on The Death Penalty: Player elimination in King of Tokyo

  1. Henry Audubon says:

    King of Tokyo is a tough case to extract player elimination from because it resonates so well with the theme. One alternative that I’d like to see more games use is to give “eliminated” players a limited set of minor action to keep them somewhat involved. Example of this include Sentinels of the Multiverse, where defeated heroes can choose one of a few simple actions to use during their turn, and to bring in an example from the video game world, Spelunky, where dead players turn into ghosts and can fly around until they are revived.

    Admittedly the two cited examples are cooperative games and in a competitive setting there are complications (such as king making). Still I think there is some open design space to explore alternatives of this kind.

    In the case of King of Tokyo, it might be a good fit thematically if after your monster died you assumed the role of the army, firing tank shells to defend Tokyo, making Tokyo even more dangerous and hastening the conclusion of the game.

    1. kotzur says:

      Hi Henry. I’d say it’s tough because it’s such a well-designed game. Player-elimination resonates with the theme and makes the gameplay more dynamic. A player who’s having no luck with points can still win the game, but most variants cut that out, in order to make the gameplay a bit nicer.

      The army idea sounds fun. Reminds me of the old Bomberman games where you get to throw bombs from the edge once you get eliminated. There’d have to be a solution that allows and encourages killing all monsters at once, otherwise you’ve just introduced a king-making mechanic.

      1. Henry Audubon says:

        I would argue that it doesn’t have to be all monsters at once, but rather which monster gets attacked can’t be decided by the eliminated player. Luckily King of Tokyo already solved that problem: force people to attack the monster in Tokyo. This sidesteps the king-making problem, and it’s what the army would be doing anyways.

        It could be that during the army turns they roll the 6 dice as usual (with 2 rerolls) and they do 1 damage to the monster in Tokyo for each energy + claw pair that they roll (the army needs energy to fire its tank shells).

  2. Stephen says:

    How about: player rejoins with a new monster at full health. Same victory points as last monster, but no energy cubes, and no power cards, and monster has a special turn trudging toward the city. During that turn the monster is out of range to take or receive damage. The player can’t roll for victory points – and health is useless to a monster at full health. But the monster can roll for energy cubes (and could buy a card that turn if enough energy is rolled). After the special turn the monster is in range (just outside Tokyo) and back to normal play. The theme is preserved; there is a cost to dying; the player still has a chance.

    1. kotzur says:

      Hi Stephen, thanks for the comment. I’d have an inkling that this might make rolling for points a more viable strategy, and encouraging turtling, but certain groups might prefer that to player elimination. One of my favourite things about the game is building up a monster to tear the other monsters down. I go a bit hot and cold on King of Tokyo, but it’s honestly not the player elimination the problem, it’s the randomness of the dice. Interestingly enough, Garfield’s kept in player elimination from King of New York so it seems he thinks it’s pretty integral to the core of the game.

      1. Stephen says:

        I think it would alter the balance away from conservation of health and toward points… a little. I’m going to try this with my game group and see if they prefer this to player elimination. I’ll let you know if we spot any balance issues and how they like it.

        1. kotzur says:

          Keep me posted!

  3. Stephen says:

    Our game group played several games with the “no elimination” house rule. We found that it did change the game quite a bit – run up victory points and come back at full health and win – became the dominant strategy. So we altered the house rule. When you die, you still lose your cards, energy, and have a turn walking toward Tokyo as described above. But if you had the most victory points before dying – you lose points down to one point below the player in second place. This seemed to make dying bad enough that the character of the original game remains, but getting killed doesn’t mean that you have no chance (being forced to stay in a game with no chance of winning is worse than being eliminated IMHO).

  4. JT Kamp says:

    My buddy and I had a discussion about this just tonight – what if you did something like this:

    – When you are knocked out, you lose a turn (put your token down). Your monster gains the “winded” condition (can also be “bloodied” or something else, signifying that they have been knocked down). When they stand, they retain all victory points, cards and energy and are restored to half health. However, if you are “winded” you may not win the game via K.O. The win condition changes so that if you are the last monster standing without a “winded” condition you are the winner.

    – There are two ways to remove a “winded” condition: if you successfully knock out another monster (one or more), your “winded” condition goes away. You may also remove the condition by rolling three hearts on a single turn. You still heal the hearts (other game rules withstanding) but you do NOT claim an evolution card – instead, you discard your “winded” condition. This gives both aggressive and defensive players a way to remove the condition and stay in the game.

    – Last stipulation: if you are knocked out while IN TOKYO (city or bay), you lose HALF your victory points rounded down. This discourages reckless camping of Tokyo.


    1. kotzur says:

      Could work for your group, but we’ve come to like the danger. As I said, it’s not something that’s right for every group, but we find that the games with the wild swings of early elimination are reasonably rare, especially with the Power Up expansion. Plus, I generally use King of Tokyo as a gateway game, so less rules is better.

      Have you tried out your changes yet? I’d be concerned that running on low health and high points becomes a dominant strategy, but attacking from Tokyo would probably still be quite strong. If all others are at low health, you might be able take them down without too much hassle, as you’ll be able to divide and conquer with the turn-skipping and once you take one down, you’re back in the running for the semi-elimination victory. Definitely seems viable!

    2. David says:

      Wow, I think this might be the most well-thought-out solution on the page. I’ll have to give this a try. It does, however, seem like somewhat of a challenge to explain to new players, especially the more casual gamer types that I tend to introduce to KOT.

      I haven’t tried out the following idea, but I’ve been brainstorming an alternative to the “Take a Breather” strategy above. What if a KO was more like a “Stunned” thing? Once Stunned, you can only roll for Hearts. (And maybe Energy which can be converted to health at a 2:1 ratio?) Once you get your health back up to at least 5 (number can be tweaked, but there’s something I like about 5), you’re “revived” and come back into the game as a full player. KO’s just become 1-3 turn penalties, and don’t have to change any of the end-game conditions. Naturally, if a player is the only one standing at any point, he/she wins.

      OR — and I just came up with this on the spot — what if, in my plan, instead of needing to hit a minimum of 5 health, the player gets to CHOOSE when to come back in. They can stay “dormant” for as long as they want, or until they hit full health. The obvious penalty is, the longer they recharge, the more turns they miss.

      Let me know what you think!

      1. David says:

        A few clarifications:

        – Upon KO, players KEEP their points and power-ups.
        – While stunned, the player is immune to all attacks, but cannot deal damage, win energy, buy cards, or earn points.

  5. socect says:

    Just got KoT to play with my kids. Great game but player elimination is a drag. The ideas above are good (thanks all for posting), but maybe overthinking the problem; and introducing undue complexity (esp for kids). I think the following might work: (A) Use a modified ‘it has a child’ – lose all cards and energy, half of your victory points (round up), restart at 5 hearts on your next turn (monster KO’d) and out of play until then). (B) Victory conditions: (a) 20 VP; (b) all others eliminated (KO’d) at any point (c) OR your monster has killed all other monsters at any point in the game (all their ‘children’ to scared to fight you!)
    Also, suggest when using this rule, to take out the It has a Child card and lay face up to indicate using the rule. Will try this next time and see how it goes.

    1. kotzur says:

      I’ve always considered it interesting that player elimination seemed to be present in a lot of family or kid games, especially those with high luck. I wonder if some game designers were trying to impart some object lessons about dealing with losing. Anyway, complexity is definitely a concern, and the simplicity is one of my favourite things about KoT. This seems like a good solution for kids, but not sure how it would work with petulant adults. Through playtesting and general game playing, I’ve found that (quite obviously) a situation where a player is almost entirely logically eliminated but still has a small chance to win, they will pursue this chance, even if it makes the game unpleasant for other players. It seems likely a player would get killed in late game, and then simply spend the rest of the game rolling as many claws to grief the other players. Don’t mention this to the kids, though!

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