The Kingmaker Problem
A kingmaker scenario is a situation in a game in which a player, having lost the potential to win for themselves, is able to decide which of the other players will win. This is undesirable, although almost unavoidable in competitive games involving more than 2 players or teams.
When this scenario arises it lessens the enjoyment of all players, with the possible exception of the kingmaker. The winner, chosen by the kingmaker, doesn’t get as much satisfaction for their victory. The losers may feel as though their performance was not accurately reflected in the outcome of the game.
I was concerned that this problem might be showing up in our game. So when the next playtest came around, I was watching for it.
On December 1st, after a fun filled day at the Museum of Natural History, we found a table at a nearby restaurant for some dinner and a game of Cult Leader. I was extremely pleased that we managed to play the game at our tiny table amidst our plates of food and drinks. I’d say we’re in great shape with our portability design goal. However, it became apparent to all of us that we had a problem akin to the kingmaker scenario. And more importantly, we knew why.
At that point in time, our game was played for a predetermined number of rounds. At the beginning of each round an Event card would be drawn. When there were no Events left, the game would be over.
The player who went last every round generally had a tactical advantage, especially at the end of the game. And since the game had a predetermined end, players could tell whether or not they could win. When a player knows they have no chance to win, they will be more likely to play the kingmaker.
Our first idea for fixing this problem was to modify the turn order every round based on the players current score. The player with the highest power would go first and the player with the lowest power would go last. This meant that the player who was doing the worst would gain a minor tactical advantage, which we felt would balance it out.
However, this would create a lot of overhead at the end of each round. Players would need to calculate their score every round and keep track of changing turn orders. This solution also didn’t really address the kingmaker problem, since the end of the game was still predetermined. It might even have made it worse, since player scores would become more apparent.
Our next set of ideas was to put the power of ending the game into the player’s hands. If the players didn’t know exactly when the game would end they may feel that they still have a chance to claim the victory, thus making it less likely that one of them will turn kingmaker. This also eliminates the last player advantage problem, since a player basically chooses to end the game when they feel they are in the lead. They still get an advantage, but it’s by their design rather than mere happenstance.
We experimented with a few different versions of this, but for now we’ve implemented it using a new card type called Prophecy. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun on the flavor for these. Our plan is to use extremely vague, Nostradamus style prophecies that could mean absolutely anything. They will poke fun at how prophecies will always come true given time and a flexible perception.
Overall, the changes to make this work were pretty minor. We eliminated the concept of rounds, but kept the Event deck largely unchanged. Events are now triggered when a player plays a Prophecy card. The Event triggers as normal, effecting all players equally. After that, the player who played the Prophecy card claims the Event and puts it into play under their control. Events increase the number of cards a player draws at the end of their turn by 1. We are still tweaking the reward for Events, but I feel this makes them appealing while not being to powerful.
The game will now end when the Event deck runs out or if 3 of the Follower and/or Shrine piles run out. The secondary condition gives players another way to end the game and will help prevent games from dragging on.
We will still be making minor tweaks to the cost, reward, and frequency of Prophecy cards, but I feel good about them. It has a strong and fun theme component and it does a lot to help mitigate the kingmaker problem.