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
The 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.
Now, 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.
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.