We’ve been talking about qualifiers recently which are mechanisms and requirements in games that players must satisfy in order to have a chance to win. In part one of this series we covered the category of comparative qualifiers which included games like High Society, where the player who has spent the most money is eliminated just before final scoring, and Cleopatra and the Society of Architects, where the player who has the most corruption is thrown to the crocodiles.
In this article we’re going to talk about the other major category called “Absolute Qualifiers”. When we previously covered games that use comparative qualifiers, we looked at how players are actively compared on a criteria such as corruption or money spent and one or more players are guaranteed to be eliminated each game.
By comparison, absolute qualifiers don’t tether the players together and everyone gets to run their own race and succeed or fail the expectations set before them. As a result, in these games it is sometimes possible for any number of players to be eliminated for failing to achieve their individual goals. Because of their independent nature, absolute qualifiers may not come into effect every game, but they still carry the thrill and risk of being eliminated.
Absolute Qualifiers – The Ultimatum
Our first group of absolute qualifiers are those that tell players “you must do this to be eligible to win“.
We opened part one of this series with High Society. Not only is High Society probably a prototypical example of a game with a qualifier, but Reiner Knizia may be the original M. Night Shyamalan because as we’re going to find this series, Dr. Knizia uses qualifiers as rules twists in games more often than you’d think, and never in the same way twice. We started part one of qualifiers with a classic Knizia game with simple rules and a simple qualifier and it seems appropriate to do it again with Quo Vadis.
Quo Vadis? is a pure negotiation game set in Rome where each player takes control of eight senator pawns and spends most turns advancing them through committees while earning laurels at various progress points along the way. The qualifier is that only players who have at least one Senator in the Inner Sanctum by the end of the game may compare the number of laurels they have collected – anyone else is eliminated. The player who has collected the most laurels is declared the winner.
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.