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.

The same qualifier exists in Q.E. as High Society – the player who spends (prints) the most money loses, but maybe the most interesting thing Q.E. does as a game is to restrict the public knowledge of the winning bid. The game uses a blind bidding action system and the auctioneer keeps those bids secret even after giving the high bidder their new prize, so player’s don’t know the value of the winning bid and they also have to speculate on the current “going rate” of winning an auction.

One game I remember most fondly for its use of a qualifier was the original 2006 Days of Wonder edition of Cleopatra and the Society of Architects. In the game, player are awarded points for converting resource cards like stone and marble into monuments like sphinxes and obelisks. Some cards in the game allow players to get an advantage their competition by using the more efficient corrupt resources to build more monuments more quickly. If player gives into the thematic temptation of this corruption, the user must also acquire “corruption amulets”. At the end of the game the player with the highest number of corruption amulets is fed to the crocodiles and, understandably, also eliminated from the game.

Perhaps the most visceral attribute of qualifiers is the level of tension and excitement surrounding the risk of elimination. In many of these games, the qualifier really becomes the game and players must factor it into every decision or else none of their decisions may matter when they get are eventually eaten by Cleopatra’s crocodiles. Asking players to manage an extra resource like corruption is a wonderful way to insert more thoughtfulness into actions just as the implicit bidding war strategies of “spend to win” and “spend wisely” tug players back and forth as they decide how to value their bid in High Society or Q.E.

Player elimination frequently has a negative reputation in games, but eliminating precisely one player at the very end of the game just prior to final scoring is a solution that usually creates acceptably high stakes in modern games. The risk of the single “most corrupt” player at the table being eliminated turns a game-long tension into a dramatic final reveal that almost everyone has interest in by the end of the game.

In terms of creating games with emotional highs and lows, I probably don’t remember when I finished 4th in Power Grid or who even won that game of Concordia six months ago, but I definitely remember games of Cleopatra & TSOA from more than a decade ago when I got a bit too greedy and I was served to the crocodiles.

Pictured: A graphical attempt at “Hidden yet trackable”

One of the drawbacks of qualifiers that we’ll continue to see in one game after another, is that these games often introduce a “hidden yet trackable” mechanism. For long time readers of Games Precipice, you may remember “hidden yet trackable” is our least favorite concept in games as it assumes everyone is playing the game the same way and its presence doesn’t always convey what the spirit of the game is meant to be. Is this a memory game? Is it meant to prevent an interesting set of game mechanisms from boiling down to “bash the leader?” Is the game design intending to open the door for information gathering and creative negotiations?

The good news is that designers are usually just as aware of the problems with “hidden yet trackable” and these games have a few different solutions to try to either (1) shake-up the transparency of the game at any given moment, or (2) obfuscate the clarity surrounding the information being gathered.

Corruption amulets in Cleopatra & TSOA are entirely trackable during the game but it has two ideas to help shake up the situation. First, by the way of an unconventional draft system players will end up with corruption cards whether they want to or not and if they are in a player’s hand at the end of the game, the player takes corruption amulets anyway. There aren’t really any methods to discard these corruption cards without still taking on a small amount of corruption anyway, so it is reasonable to assume most players will take on an unpredictable amount of corruption at the end of the game. Second, about once or twice a game there is an offering where players may secretly bid points to the gods. The player who bid the most gets to discard corruption amulets while other players are forced to take corruption amulets relative to how much they contributed compared to each other.

A lesser known game that struggles with this information tracking issue is Livingstone; a dice drafting game where players score points for exploring Africa. Money in the game is used to pay for many of the actions tied to scoring points, but players also use money to pay tribute back to Queen Victoria by placing that money into an adorable little treasure chest in front of them.

The Livingstone rulebook is pretty clear about making these donations; you must announce how much you are donating, and you can do so on any of your turns. The issue I remember having with the game years ago was there didn’t seem to be any reason to donate early; money had so much value early in the game to help you score points, and only the player with the lowest contribution was eliminated. As a result, players tended to gradually accumulate money to make one large donation on their final turn to minimize the risk of giving away information early. Strategically it seemed like the right play, but it certainly didn’t seem to be the intention of the designer.

A game that came out a year before Livingstone actually had a better handle on the frequency of donations. Hab & Gut is a stock holding game where players are also expected to donate some of their investments to charity and of course the “Skroogiest” player(s) who contributed the least back to society is eliminated.

Interestingly, Hab & Gut uses a single currency (stock certificates) to determine both who is eliminated and who wins, the difference being which of your two accounts you allocate your earnings (to philanthropy or to your pocket). The interesting decision here is pacing your donations appropriately in the group you’re playing with. You can only donate a single stock certificate each round and there are only four rounds in the game, so there isn’t the opportunity to make catch-up contributions if you act a little too self-interested early in the game. In an ideal world, you want to barely avoid the qualifier so that all of your remaining capital gains can count toward a victory.

Hab & Gut single currency system is a relatively uncommon approach to qualifiers. We’ll be looking at a few other approaches, but the conventional formula for qualifiers consists of measuring players on two separate criteria: have the most of one (to win), and avoid having the least of the other (to avoid elimination). Games with qualifiers also tend to be longer than an hour to allow the tension to build, but Dungeon Raiders plays in about twenty minutes.

In Dungeon Raiders players move room to room through a dungeon collecting treasures while avoiding traps and defeating monsters. In a sort of auction bidding style of card play, players need to play high numbered cards to claim the treasure in a room, but also need those high numbered cards for other rooms to avoid taking damage. The player(s) who has taken the most damage by the end of the game doesn’t survive the dungeon, while the winner is the surviving player with the largest amassed fortune.

Council of Blackthorn is a game of political intrigue where you win through victory points but players are also passing around treason cards to one another throughout the game and at the end of the game the player with the most treason points is beheaded. It is an interesting use of positional balance in the game as a group can keep a scoring leader in check by passing them treason cards to force them to shift their goals from scoring additional points to finding ways to rid themselves of treason cards.

The corruption mechanism in Council of Blackthorn works well in practice but I don’t think it would be broadly applicable in game design as it doesn’t elicit the sense of “fairness” many games might be expected to have. The relatively free-flowing nature of treason cards in the game can certainly feel a little unfair in the moment; players can gang up on a leader and sometimes they gang up on the wrong person, leading to an unjust beheading. But given the thematic nature of the political whispering in the game, isn’t being the puppet master behind the curtain the best seat in the house?

The idea of fairness might be the most interesting take away from Council of Blackthorn. Games that use qualifiers tend to be Euro style games and therefore have a comparatively low amount of interaction between players. Because of this, the game lends itself to a sense of “internal validity” when a player gets eliminated for spending too much money in Q.E. or taking on too much corruption in Cleopatra & TSOA. After all, qualifiers are based on taking a calculated risk in order to get ahead, and if because of that risk I was eliminated, I have no one to blame but myself. It’s all the thrill of a gamified version of Russian roulette; get ahead and only sometimes get beheaded. The closest game I’ve seen to the atmosphere of desperation to avoid elimination in Council of Blackthorn is Hunger Games: District 12.

In Hunger Games: District 12 players are desperate for resources and every few rounds they have to survive by consuming these resources and discarding cards that depict food, medicine, fuel or clothing. For each required resource card they can’t or don’t wish to discard, they add a special card of their player color to a central “Glass Ball”. At the end of the game the players shuffle the “Glass Ball” deck and draw a card at random, the player color depicted is selected as the next tribute and cannot win the game. The rest of the players score all the points shown on the resource cards remaining in their hand and the winner is the player with the highest score.

Hunger Games: District 12 has a really good basic risk/reward dynamic as the resources in hand at the end of the game help you win, but if you consume resources along the way, you lower your personal risk of being eliminated. One glaring concern is that everyone starts with one of their cards in the Glass Ball, so you could potentially avoid adding any additional cards and still have tremendously bad luck when your initial starting card is drawn at the end of the game. It isn’t a fair premise but neither is the atmosphere of the Hunger Games.

So it is a thematically appropriate measure of risk and reward, but I think we could also say that the one reason this format works is because everyone already begins with that initial single card chance of elimination. From there, players are incentivized to take risks, holding on to resources to score at the end of the game while gradually increasing the portion of the deck that might render those same resources worthless. The whole idea wouldn’t work if the Glass Ball was empty to begin the game, because the potential risk between a 0% risk of elimination and having even 1 card in the Glass Ball would be enormously important to how you play the rest of the game.

The Single Comparative Qualifier

Every game we’ve talked about so far has two things in common:

  • Players are compared on a qualifying metric (money spent, corruption) at the end of the game.
  • Exactly one player gets eliminated before the winner is revealed.

The comparative qualifier is probably the most common type of qualifier we see in games, but there is another big category called “absolute qualifiers” which I’ve split into its own follow-up article and will include just about every meaningful example we didn’t include here. Most qualifiers also eliminate a single participant but now I want to get into several games that make it a point to eliminate multiple players – sometimes using the same qualifier, sometimes using separate qualifiers. Let’s talk about multiple comparative qualifiers.

The simplest type of multiple qualifier is on display in Dread Curse which is a fun little pirate shakedown where players select roles and use the role abilities to accumulate gold coins and/or steal them from the other players. The gold tokens have a secret value of 1-5 points, but among the coins are two black spots which are cursed and will eliminate any player(s) holding them from the final scoring. It is a short game where luck plays a factor but these black spots are part of the thrill as players try to track and avoid them while gold coins change hands and move around the table with great frequency.

The game of Dread Curse ends when the supply of coins runs out but at the end of every round players can opt to “Cut N’ Run” with the treasure they’ve accumulated if they think it will be enough to win. By doing so, a player is effectively withdrawing from future actions in the game and grabbing a good ale while they wait around for final scoring. Of course, a player can’t Cut N’ Run if they are holding a black spot and that might be alarming to you when you see the very wealthy captain “deciding” to continue playing as it may not be their decision at all. At the end of the game, any players holding a black spot earn the fate of an imminent death and the surviving pirates count up their treasure.

The real twist of Dread Curse is the inclusion of not one, but two black spots regardless of the player count. One black spot would be relatively easy to follow around the table for a while, but a second black spot is bound to be lost by most treasure seekers at the table. Two black spots also leads to some surprise endings, as both black spots might end up with the same player at the end of the game and allow the group to narrowly avoid losing two players overboard prior to final scoring.

In Bruno Faidutti’s Dragons, he uses a scaling solution based on player count. It is a card drafting game for 3-6 players where the players play the role of dragons collecting treasure and looking for sets of valuables to maximize their score.

Image use courtesy of Alice87

Along the way players will collect food cards depicting cows and sheep, and in 3 or 4 player games, the player with the fewest number of food cards is eliminated before final scoring. In 5 or 6 player games, the player with the fewest cows and the player with the fewest sheep are each eliminated.

Most games that use qualifiers eliminate one or more players and then the survivors tally up their scores. Functionally, a three player game shouldn’t eliminate more than a single player or else the qualifying condition also decides the winner. At the other end of the scale, the stakes are too low if only one player is eliminated in a game of six or more people. I really like a scaling solution that doesn’t involve having to add or remove cards during setup and Dragons is probably the most elegant approach for games that need to scale between a wide range of player counts.

One of the original inspirations for this topic was Himalaya which was later re-imagined as Lords of Xidit. The latter is probably the most well-known multiple comparative qualifier and the system it uses to find the winner is probably the defining feature of the game.

Lords of Xidit is an action programming game where players move around the Kingdom of Xidit recruiting followers and earning rewards for defeating monsters. When players defeat a monster they must choose their reward by picking from between two of the three scoring resource types: Wealth, Influence and Reputation.

Image use courtesy of Henk Rolleman

The unique nature of both Himalaya and Lords of Xidit are these games are better described as winning by not losing. The final scoring criteria is randomly determined at the beginning of the game and is known by players throughout, but the first criteria might be Wealth, so players count up their gold and are ranked accordingly, and the player with the fewest is eliminated. The remaining players then move on to the second criteria which might be Influence, and players would again rank themselves according to the amount of influence (Sorcerer’s Guilds) they have on the board. The lowest player is again eliminated and the remaining players are compared and the highest reputation score wins the game.

Image use courtesy of @UpliftAndrew

The most charming element of these games is the sequential eliminations and finding out who could last all three rounds. It tends to leave everyone feeling like “I could have won if I had only gotten 3 more coins” and is incredibly interesting to see play out even if you get eliminated in the first round way too often.

These games have all of the problems that games with qualifiers tend to have; all three scoring criteria (Wealth, Influence, Reputation) either are open information or have elements of hidden yet trackable information. The concern for analysis paralysis here is surprisingly low as the scoring system encourages a balanced approach across all three criteria and players can’t be overly concerned with how they stack up with a particular opponent on the final scoring criteria, since the theoretical opponent might not make it that far, and the player might not make it there either.

Aside from the retheming from Himalaya to Lords of Xidit, one of the differences is that Himalaya plays 3-6 (with an expansion) and LoX plays 3-5 and the major hurdle these games run into is that they are relatively weak at 3 players. With multiple qualifiers it makes sense that both games struggle to deliver the same experience to three as they would with more players. Himalaya gets around this by opting out of the sequential qualifiers system entirely with three players while LoX opts to include a dummy player as a fourth player. Neither option is ideal, and both games lose a considerable amount of their charm with fewer than four players.

Qualifiers – Where Could They Exist?

Sheriff of Nottingham is a bluffing and negotiation game where players act as merchants importing a variety of legal goods and possibly illegal contraband. One player acts as the sheriff and players can choose to bribe the sheriff in order to avoid having their goods searched for illegal contraband. Except if the sheriff finds only legal goods, they must pay the merchant in some sort of strange legal reparations. For what this rule lacks in logic, it makes up for in as a satisfying mechanism that adds stakes and risk to the Sheriff role.

The issue is that players using an “honest” strategy of only moving legal goods can often outperform their opponents: they don’t have to lie, they don’t lose money in acts of bribery and they’re never really at risk of losing anything. If the sheriff opens their bag, the honest merchant makes even more money, creating an odd power dynamic that doesn’t seem to be in the spirit of the showdown between a ruthless sheriff and his or her subjects.

One approach that would make sense is to place additional pressure on the merchants; the merchant who has smuggled the least valuable contraband into the kingdom is eliminated at the end of the game.

Qualifiers – Where Did They Go Wrong?

One of the most unusual games with a qualifier is the mostly cooperative game Alcatraz: The Scapegoat. 3-4 players take the role of prisoners on Alcatraz Island and they move around various prison locations collecting tools in order to complete parts of an escape plan. Periodically players vote to label someone “the scapegoat” who gains more actions but receives fewer benefits whenever the group completes parts of the escape plan.

The game has a cooperative goal in that the players escape Alcatraz if they complete all six parts of the escape plan but the group is required to leave someone behind as the ultimate scapegoat and that person does not share in the victory. It is a downright bizarre experience where players want to make themselves indispensable to the group to ensure they have a spot in the escape group, but there is a second social structure being laid over the game meant to sow discontent and resentment between players. 

Alcatraz: The Scapegoat seems to be in a strange middle ground where a purely cooperative version of the game wouldn’t be very compelling, so the game requires another form of antagonism. But the other mechanisms of the game lack the reasonable doubt necessary to support a proper traitor mechanism. You can’t accidentally drop a wrench into the group’s plans and there isn’t any sort of hidden information that might allow the group to point fingers at each other and make accusations.

The game ends up being a bit of a friend ranking exercise since the group has incentive to identify one person and keep kicking them repeatedly. The use of a qualifier is maybe the most unusual inclusion because eliminating a player at the last moment of the game robs the group of any sort of meaningful conclusion where players can move beyond the experience and say “Sorry for trying to stab you in there, but we all made it out here together.”

I think there is room for an interesting game with this theme it would have been far more interesting for the game to turn into a literal prisoner’s dilemma final decision for each person and allow them to turn on the group for their own self-interests. Instead, the game is about a group of prisoners who work together to break out except then one person gets to feel bad at the end after the group picked on each other throughout.

We’ve talked quite a bit about the original 2006 version of Cleopatra & The Society of Architects but we’ve ignored the 2020 reprint by Mojito Studios so far for one main reason: It doesn’t have a qualifier like the original. The new edition scales down from 3-5 to 2-4 players and there are a lot of positive changes to this; the original had a ton of meaningless downtime at 5 players and the best experience was at 3-4 players anyway.

The new edition replaces the qualifier with an endgame penalty: Everyone is ranked according to the amount of corruption amulets they have and the player with the most corruption takes a -15 point penalty and everyone else takes a smaller penalty relative to their ranking. The qualifier in the original version gave it some real stakes and an additional layer of thrill beyond a game of scoring victory points; you get to feed crocodiles.

Ultimately, Bruno Cathala and Ludovic Maublanc are tremendous designers, so I’ve got to respect their approach that these were necessary changes for the game they envision, even if these changes remove a defining trait of the original game.

I wanted to bring this up because there is an interesting thought exercise here for designers looking to include a qualifier in their game. Playtest a large scoring penalty like we see in the new version of Cleopatra and figure out how often the player taking the maximum penalty wins the game anyway. If a player can’t “lose the battle but win the war” after taking the -15 point penalty more than say 20% of the time, why not just eliminate them? Everyone else would get a sense of relief and an emotional high from dodging elimination, the eliminated player can identify why they lost the game (an important attribute of game design) and you can avoid some needless bookkeeping and the negative emotions that come from nearly everyone losing points at the end of the game.

Comparative Qualifiers and Flying Too Close to the Sun

There are thousands of games on the market that ask players one question: “Have you gone far enough to win?” and I think the single most interesting thing about the comparative qualifier is that it asks players “Have you gone too far?”. If game designers are storytellers, we should give the audience a memorable element in the story they are experiencing.

Comparative qualifiers are ultimately the story of Icarus in a box. In Greek Mythology, Icarus’ father Daedalus gave to Icarus a pair of wings fashioned from wax and feathers but warned him to not fly too close to the sun nor too close to the sea. In his initial flight, Icarus became overconfident and too ambitious and he flew too high, melting the wax in his wings. As the feathers came loose from his wings, he eventually plunged from the sky only to drown in the sea below.

It’s easy to see how a player who spent too much money in High Society or took on too much corruption in Cleopatra & the Society of Architects might relate to our story. They may have flown just a bit higher than their opponents in an effort to win, and they ultimately fell from the sky just like Icarus. But we frequently overlook that Icarus was also told not to fly too low or else the seawater would ruin the lift of his wings. These games also test those who play too conservatively; players who avoid too much risk or focus too much on avoiding elimination only to lose the game anyway.

There is a balance to qualifiers, you have to also find opportunity and take risks, flying just below the “Icarus” in your game group and staying in their shadow. It isn’t without risk, but after all, fortune favors the bold.

For the brave souls that flew this far down the page – thanks for reading! Stay aloft for part II covering absolute qualifiers.

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8 comments on “Qualifiers in Games – Flying Too Close to the Sun

  1. Caleb Perry

    Wow! I didn’t expect there to be so much breadth for this subject. I like how you organized the categories and I look forward to reading more. Thanks

    1. Alex Harkey

      I appreciate you taking the time to comment, Caleb. I hope this blog can serve you well.

  2. Steven R.

    An enjoyable read! I’ve never heard of Alcatraz but as you covered it sounds like a good example of qualifiers gone wrong. What games here do you think benefit the most from having a qualifier?

    1. Alex Harkey

      It’s a good question, Steven. Particularly since it is a tool designers should probably incorporate into their design from the beginning for the best results. I’m not sure how many of these games can really be disassociated from their qualifier but I do think it is essential of High Society & Q.E. just because it is the only thing that keeps the bidding in check.

      I also think the qualifier is such a defining feature of Cleopatra and Lords of Xidit because they stand alone among games with similar mechanisms. There are a lot of games themed around ancient Egypt and scoring points for building monuments, but Cleopatra’s central focus on corruption feels a bit different than say Imhotep or Egizia, two other games with similar themes that have maybe a more conventional Euro feel in terms of scoring points. Similarly, there are a lot of pick-up and deliver games like Lords of Xidit, fewer that have a programming mechanism to drive player actions, and I think the qualifier puts it over the top as a unique gaming experience you don’t see any where else.

      I will say I’m not sure a qualifier made any difference to me on Hab & Gut. The game has some interesting ideas for stock holding. Sometimes the communal speculation and manipulation of stock prices in games can leave some people feeling like they have little to no control. I think the qualifier here might give those players a sense of something they can control over their game.

      Dread Curse is probably almost as fluid and chaotic without the black spots, but they do create some fun moments where everyone at the table suddenly realizes exactly where they are and what is going on in the game.

      Maybe all of this is to say – I’m not sure if there . I do tend to think qualifiers – and specifically the comparative qualifier we talked about here – benefit longer games that use them more than shorter games because the qualifier is an ongoing concern that links the beginning, middle and end of the game together. That should typically be a design goal for games that go over an hour and it isn’t as much of a concern for shorter games.

  3. Joseph Pilkus

    Alex,

    It’s great to see you out here again following a long respite. I enjoyed seeing the Hunger Games’ title,a s that’s a game that I managed to get to the table a few times years ago when my daughter was thoroughly engaged in the books, and subsequently, the movies.

    Cheers,
    Joe

    1. Alex Harkey

      Great to hear from you Joe! I think HG:D12 is a fascinating example that approaches qualifiers with its own unique feel. Hope all is well with you and your family this year. Thanks for the comment!

  4. David Satterfield

    I would love to mention Pendulum here as an example of an interesting take on qualifiers. The initial qualifier for winning is to get all four tracks into a certain range. After that, the person who collected the most movement into that range wins. Alternately, if no one manages to accomplish this, the winner is decided by whoever’s worst performing position is closest to having made it… in other words – whose worst failure failed the least?

    It is very possible for someone to get a much larger number of points earned, but to lose to someone who managed to balance things appropriately across fewer total points.

    1. Alex Harkey

      Great inclusion Dave, and I think this is a great lead in to the follow-up article on Absolute Qualifiers. Pendulum has a few modifications in that it plays out over 4 rounds and there is this “no one met all the requirements” scoring situation that will occasionally come in to play, but otherwise it has this perfect ultimatum-like qualifier – You gotta cross the finish line on all four tracks if you expect to win.

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