Qualifiers in Games – Flying Too Close to the Sun

Written by Alex Harkey

Not long ago, in the days of board game conventions and shaking hands, I would seek out new friends and old and attempt to play literally as many board games as possible over the course of a weekend. For all the incredible games that have come out in recent years, I often find myself finishing a board game full of fascinating mechanics that ultimately told a dazzling story of tallying points on a scoring track and quickly cleaning up the components so we could move on to something else.

Storytelling is a challenging art form in any medium, and board games have made strides in a lot of areas from legacy games to escape room series to choose your own adventure games. But I still find many new games that fill shelves every year tell a story that players will be quick to forget. Today I want to look at a particular mechanism in games that can lead to dramatic outcomes and memorable moments for just about everyone, not just the winner of the game. It is ultimately the story of Icarus, but we’ll circle back to that in a moment. For now, let’s talk about qualifiers.

A classic example of using a qualifier in game design is Reiner Knizia’s High Society, a game where players begin with equal starting amounts of cash and through a series of auctions, bid on a series of lavish showings of wealth. It’s a game about “Keeping’ up with the Joneses” but one in which material wealth is actually worth something at the end of the game – victory points, and the player with the most victory points wins.

Oh yes, that’s right. There is one more rule – the player who spent the most money is eliminated before final scoring and never gets a chance to win the game.

This last rule is our qualifier and the topic of qualifiers deserves its own article in this modern era of game design because it’s one of the most fascinating psychological tools available to designers and we’re seeing it in games now more than ever before. Over the rest of this article, we’re going to identify where qualifiers can add value to games, observe what they don’t do well and look at a lot of interesting examples along the way.

A Mechanical Exploration of Qualifiers in Games

Over the years I’ve encountered several published games and more than a few prototypes that have re-imagined the magical formula of High Society. One of the recently published titles is Q.E., a game which adds the freedom of fiscal irresponsibility by letting players secretly bid any amount they wish during the auction.