Kill Doctor Lucky – Why a Binary Win Condition Fails

Recently I had the opportunity to play a newer version of Kill Doctor Lucky (thanks Dan, for having one of those birthday things) and find out how it compares against the original. There are a few important differences, which I’ll run through before describing their ultimate impact on gameplay.

Kill Doctor Lucky – Game Overview

Imagine Clue (the game, though the movie was great). Now imagine that instead of each player trying to uncover the identity of the killer, each player is out to be the killer but only when nobody is looking. Oh, and change Mr. Body’s name to Dr. Lucky, because he’s, well, extremely lucky and uncannily avoids numerous attempts on his life.

I have in the past described Kill Doctor Lucky as the opposite of Clue, the UnClue if you will, but that’s not quite right. It is in fact the prelude to a game of Clue; at the end of a game of Kill Doctor Lucky we find a house full of suspicious characters, traces of violence, and a body; from here the sleuthing may ensue.

Doctor Lucky is a tricky old duck to do in, not only on account of his luck but his constant meandering through the house. After each player’s turn he steps into another room along a numbered sequence. Cards may also be played to move the doctor extra spaces or even send him clear across the property to a named room.

While the doctor maintains his brisk pace, the players move through the house collecting cards and looking for the perfect opportunity to put an end to their host. There are two goals at work; as a player you want to be out of sight of the others when Doctor Lucky crosses your path, but you also want to be in line of sight when he enters a room where an opponent lurks, thus depriving the opponent of a chance for a murder attempt (murdering Doctor Lucky is only possible when unobserved by other players).

The remaining elements include cards: weapons (to make the killing even easier), extra movement, movement directly to named rooms, and failure (dodges and missteps to prevent others from killing the doctor). Plus spite tokens, which are earned with each failed murder attempt you make and add points to your subsequent attempts, or can be spent to foil the attempts of others (but when spent they are given to the player making the attempt).

Cheapass vs. Titanic Games editions of Kill Doctor Lucky

The pictures here are all from the newer Titanic Games edition, which features a very nice presentation. Full color board and cards, nice box art, and quality wooden playing pieces all help sell the experience.

Contrast this with small black and white paper cards and board pieces of the Cheapass Games version, and it’s clear that the new version from Titanic looks and feels a whole lot nicer.

There’s room for an entire post about the pros and cons of the Cheapass Games approach, which I (or Josh, whom I know also has strong feelings on the topic) may eventually write. All I’ll say for now is that I can appreciate the mood and tone which the nicer presentation of the newer version help set up, and at this stage of my life I’m probably willing to pay the higher pricetag (acknowledging that it’s easily tripled or quadrupled) to get it.

Another difference is the addition of the spite tokens, which (if memory serves) were not a part of the original Cheapass edition. More on those in a minute.

Where I Think Kill Doctor Lucky’s Game Design Fails

As I’ve already stated, I enjoyed the richer presentation afforded by the newer version. Yet while I was playing, and the game was dragging, I remembered the main flaw of the original game, and saw that it was still present here.

Killing Doctor Lucky is the only way to win, and it is a binary condition; either he’s still alive, and nobody is “winning,” or he’s dead, and the game’s over.

Unlike some games where money or victory points accrue and players can take the lead (and lose it), here everyone is essentially doing equally well until someone suddenly finishes off the old coot and takes the win. Cards and spite tokens form a small well of currency but not enough to demonstrate a significant lead.

This results in gameplay that is fun at first, as players fan out across the house, collecting cards, stepping into the doctor’s path, and making initial attempts to kill him (which are doomed to failure). Then fun fades to tedium as more murder attempts are made, more failure cards are played, and still no one is any closer to victory than anyone else.

Eventually the failure cards run out (the sole card type not recycled), at which point their function is generally replaced by an exchange of spite tokens, circulation of which practically ensures that the doctor can only be taken out with consecutive murder attempts by the same player. As this is not an easy feat, the game is sure to continue to the point at which most players have stopped caring.

Game Theory

Central to the problem is the mechanism for murder, where the attempting player has a murder value (murder weapon or bare hands, plus spite) and the other players proceed in rounds to play failure cards (or spend spite) until the value is reduced to zero.

A strategy is encouraged of holding your failure cards and forcing other players to use theirs, if they fall later in the playing order. Thereby preserving your failure cards while also drawing out those of your opponents.

This has the seeming effect of allowing the game to end early, if too few players chip in with failure cards to block a murder attempt, relying on the last player(s) to bear the burden only to find out they aren’t up to task.

In practice this result is unlikely, as each player is also making the choice, “do I hope the next player(s) have enough points, and risk the game ending if they don’t? Or do I spend at least one card, to make sure I get a chance to win later?” Not spending cards may create a small advantage, or bring dire consequences (end of the game). Assuming players each realize this, there are rarely situations in which a win comes about when players have the ability to prevent it.

Lack of Spite is Better for a Body

Interestingly, the first version of the game lacked spite tokens. Thus when the failure cards ran out there was at least a fairly quick avenue to a reasonable (if not truly satisfactory) end, as players strove to be the next would-be murderer (and hoped the failure cards were indeed all spent). This still had the effect of making the first portion of the game, where failure cards were available, “count for naught” as it were.

The addition of spite tokens does seem to alleviate the abrupt randomness of the game’s end phase, when failure cards run out. However it fails to address the game’s chief weakness and afford players real progression toward victory, substituting instead a kind of forced plodding until one player gets extraordinarily lucky or the other players give in out of boredom.

Final Thoughts

The game is not all bad, the early stages can be fun as players learn how to maneuver themselves into Doctor Lucky’s path and make their first murder attempts (and gain their first spite tokens when they fail). Perhaps in a “family” environment or with some inexperienced players it could remain fun through an early end, yet such players (and experienced gamers too) are really better off with a game like Clue.

There are other examples of games which suffer some similar flaws, including Zombies!!! which I’ve recently played (2nd edition straight, no expansions), suggesting it’s an easy enough design flaw to introduce… though I always wonder why these things aren’t caught in playtesting? Then again it may be enough that such games make it to store shelves, where people (like me) buy them, hence reinforcing the trend.

For those who have played Kill Doctor Lucky, or similar games, feel free to chime in with comments! I’d also love to hear from anyone who can suggest why I might be wrong, or suggestions on fixing such flaws as I outline in this game. We love house rules around here.

Special thanks to Dan and Christa for kindly providing me with the Kill Doctor Lucky game photos!


    I haven’t played Kill Dr. Lucky in years but I do remember it dragging on after a bit. I also had Save Dr. Lucky but I don’t think I actually ever played it.

    I have seen this pretty new version at the local game shop and been tempted to pick it up but I think my gameing dollars will be better spent elsewhere.

    Joe Says:

    It is too bad about the design flaw. But I see what you mean and recognize it in ZOMBIES!!! as well.

    It does seem that althought I enjoy ZOMBIES!!!, it can degenerate into a game where I hope someone, anyone will win and put us (the players) out of our misery.
    It really takes some house rules to make some of these type of games playable beyond one game.


    Josh- yeah, you don’t need to bother with this one. Starbase Jeff getting the spiffy box treatment I’d go for, but this is one to pass.

    Joe- Zombies!!! does have a similar problem, but fares a bit better. When we played with the optional rule of shuffling the helipad randomly into the stack, instead of the lower half, that seemed to bring the end sooner. Plus for all I know they’ve made some moves to address the flaws with the expansions? There certainly are a lot (though not quite as many as for Munchkin, there’s a game that could really be called expanded).


    I never ended up getting any of the Zombies!!! expansions. The game seemed neat but it just wasn’t FUN. I honestly think that is where a lot of games fail, they forget that they are suppose to be fun and worry to much about the rules. Of course, some games forget that broken or unplayable rules also cause issues… I have a post coming soon about Scion that will likely talk about this a bit more.


    Incidentally, a nice new version of Starbase Jeff would appeal to me as well. We don’t play the game a ton but we do get it out once in a while.


    Yeah, there’s something to be said for games that are designed to actually be fun.

    Those games which do not contain fun in the initial release of the game are somewhat akin to computer games which get released while still full of bugs. They’re not ready yet! Kind of reminds me to steer clear of Zombies!!! expansions, for example, as any fixing that was going to happen should really have come during playtesting, design, and development of the main game, nevermind expansions (think: paid patches to make a computer game work? Eww.)


    True but I have played games that were okay but then became really good when I added a recommended expansion. Sometimes a game is tested enough but then benefits greatly from the “testing” that happens when the game is released.


    Got to agree with your review – of both Zombies!!! and Kill Dr. Lucky. I found both rather boring, but thankfully, Kill Dr. Lucky was much faster to finish than Zombies!!!

    Zombies!!! ended up being a kill fest most of the time, while Kill Dr. Lucky just seemed too random and drawn out. I’ll play them if I have to, but neither are games I’d ever clamour for.


    Josh- Yeah, I am sure there’s no absolute there, and I have (and surely will in the future) make exceptions for some games.

    Still, my meager economics knowledge notwithstanding, it seems like a game which gets it right the first time out would receive greater praise and attention and go on to cultivate a larger fan base, based on a successful foundation. From there selling expansions would seem easier.

    Not knowing whether the expansions do “fix” the game, I might attribute Zombies!!! apparent popularity more to clever packaging and its release around the resurgence of zombie movies a few years back.


    Tao- Heh, hopefully you don’t “have to play” either very much 🙂

    Though I’m sure either Josh or myself could write up an entire post on the topic of appeasing (or bending?) the will of the group when choosing games to play.


    As far as zombie games go, Last Night on Earth looks better than Zombies!!! Not that I have played it yet, but it seems more appealing and interesting from what I have read about it.


    I almost picked up that game a few months back. Nice looking pieces and packaging.

    Worth noting that it’s not a cooperative game in that one or more players play the zombies. Strictly speaking, Zombies!!! is not a co-op game either. Maybe I will just invest in some ink and good coated paper stock to print out the Army of Darkness board game, when I want to combine the all-important zombie and cooperative game genres.


    Yeah it isn’t co-op, but it still looks kind of cool.