Meaningful Decisions: Matt Grosso on Design Choices in Dead Last

In our Meaningful Decisions series, we ask designers about the design choices they made while creating their games, and what lessons other designers can take away from those decisions.

In this edition, we talk with Matt Grosso, co-designer with Andy Patton of Dead Last, about player elimination, minimal rules, the “prisoner’s dilemma” and more.

Players in Dead Last can get eliminated for portions of the game. Player elimination is generally avoided in most games these days, so what makes it work in Dead Last?

Player elimination usually is something that I try to avoid. No one likes watching other people play a game. I think that the elimination in Dead Last works for two reasons. The first is that the rounds are very fast. You are rarely out of the voting for more than about two minutes. But the second is really why I was OK with having elimination in the game. Just because you are dead in this round does not mean you can't participate in the game. In fact, I find that most of the really effective scheming and communication takes place among the players who are “dead.” While the other players are still focused on the current round, the best players are working with the other dead to plan the next few rounds in advance. The play really never stops.

What are some ways that designers can implement player elimination in a way that is acceptable to modern audiences?

I think that the speed and the weight of the game really factor into the acceptability of player elimination in modern games. People will tolerate being eliminated if they laugh on the way out and are back in in short order. But I think games with elimination need to consider ways to have the “eliminated” players still able to participate. Just because you are out of the running now doesn't mean that you are out of the game for good.

The Ambush card makes it hard for the group to gang up against any one player effectively. Was this its intended effect, and how did it become part of the game?

Sure, it can be hard to gang up on someone too obviously but I think that's the crux of the game. The goal is to effectively gang up on someone without letting them know you are coming for them. One thing that tends to happen is that people who have collected some gold in previous rounds become obvious targets. But the Ambush card puts the wrinkle in the game. A group doesn't need to waste their votes on the leader if they can just get the leader to believe they are the target. Let them eliminate themselves with a misplayed Ambush and then take out a second target. In the end, the best players are those that can consistently see the attacks coming and there's no better feeling than correctly ambushing your enemies.

Being unable to counter other players who want to gang up against you is generally a bad experience in a game. Is this something more game designers should consider? 

Of course, any game design is trying to maximize the enjoyment of the players. I think some games miss the mark when only the winners had a good time. I can always tell a great game when I lose but I want to play again right away.

The lines between rounds in Dead Last--and even between what's in-game and what's out-of-game--are often blurry. Was there ever more structure to the game during its development?

Absolutely, the very first iteration of Dead Last had a complicated scheme involving white boards and passing information in an awkward and structured way but before we even playtested it the first time we thought, "Would this work if instead of lots of structure we had no structure?" So we tested it and it turned out it worked great. All along the way there were times where we would try adding something in to fix some issue or another and, like is almost always true, simpler choices were always better designs.

Are fewer rules always better? Are there limits to how much "game" can be shifted from the rulebook to the players?

Writing rules is hard. I think that generally speaking fewer rules is better but you can't take it too far or else there won't be any game left. I think the goal is to establish enough rules that the game works and leads the players into fun choices. After that, just get out of the way and let the players have fun with it.

The final two players in a round of Dead Last face off in a variation on the classic “prisoner's dilemma.” How did you settle on your variant?

Yeah, the genesis of the final showdown came from a British game show called Golden Balls. That game had participants working together to build up a pool of cash and then had them do a pure prisoner's dilemma to see if they could share the money. It's a great premise but it didn't work in its purest form in Dead Last because we play over several rounds. If we didn't include the “Grab One & Go” option, it would have been possible to guarantee that your opponent didn't get any money. So if the person with the most gold is within striking distance of winning the game you would always just steal from them. If you take that out to its logical conclusion you end up with a game where everyone gets within striking distance every time and then two people just decide to duke it out. In short, not fun. So, we added the Grab One & Go variation so that someone can always move forward.

What did you learn about what works--or doesn't--when coming up with variations on the Prisoner's Dilemma?

As with anything else, don't over-design once you've got a good thing. The prisoner's dilemma is super fun; we just needed to solve for our peculiar issue with multiple rounds.

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ADVISERS: 421 Creations, Peter C. Hayward, Aaron Vanderbeek

SENIOR INVENTORS: Steven Cole, John du Bois, Chris and Kathy Keane (The Drs. Keane), Joshua J. Mills, Marcel Perro, Behrooz Shahriari, Shoot Again Games

JUNIOR INVENTORS: Ryan Abrams, Joshua Buergel, Luis Lara, Aidan Short, Jay Treat

ASSOCIATES: Robert Booth, Stephen B Davies, Scot Duvall, James Griffin, Doug Levandowski, Aaron Lim, Nathan Miller, Mike Sette, Kasper Esven Skovgaard, Isaias Vallejo, Matt Wolfe

APPRENTICES: Darren Broad, Kiva Fecteau, Scott Gottreu, Knight Works, Scott Martel Jr., The Nerd Nighters, Marcus Ross, Sean Rumble