Gaming Unplugged: Kill Doctor Lucky

August 22, 2007

In 1997, game designer James Ernest unleashed the very first of his quirky, budget-conscious creations under the banner of Cheapass Games (not to be confused with CheapAssGamer). The company’s mission statement was simple (great games at bargain prices) and facilitated by the realization that, at some level, all board games are the same; anyone who’s ever substituted a Sorry! pawn, Scrabble tile, or even a Hot Wheels© car for a missing Monopoly piece understands this. By assuming any gamer worth his or her dice has an abundance of pawns, money, and indeed dice at his or her disposal, Ernest’s Cheapass Games provides the only unique elements to each of his titles: the board, the cards, and the rules. The first Cheapass Game was a sort of warped, reverse Clue, in which the players’ mission was to Kill Doctor Lucky (which was also the title).

Since then, Cheapass Games has turned out dozens of acclaimed titles, and even if you pick up one that doesn’t quite suit your fancy, you’re only out about six or seven bucks after shipping and handling, so what did you really lose? The original Kill Doctor Lucky has gone on to become one of the most-loved “geek” board games around, and has spawned one expansion and a spin-off (Save Doctor Lucky, which also had its own expansion). Sadly, I had never been able to play the game, as it was frequently out of print.

Imagine, then, my delight and surprise when one of my gaming group showed up at the store Tuesday night with a brown box bearing the words Kill Doctor Lucky

…a box that included a real board, eight wooden pawns, a couple of dozen wooden tokens, and cards in color? Made by someone called Titanic Games? The hell?

As it turns out, this is the official “Deluxe Edition”, packaged like a non-Cheapass Game. It obviously can’t bear the Cheapass name, but it contains all of the trademark James Ernest humor and design. Needless to say, I was so in to play.

KDL supports up to seven players, which was conveniently how many we had. Or, as it turned out, inconveniently.

You see, in order for you to make an attempt to achieve your objective of killing the good (and lucky) doctor, you first have to be alone in a room with him; he moves at the end of each turn, so you sort of have to plan ahead. You also have to be unobserved, which means that none of the other players have you in their line of sight. With six other players, you might be able to imagine how difficult this is. On top of everything else, assuming you manage to corner Dr. Lucky in some dark corner of the mansion, you have to overcome his eponymous luck, which comes in the form of Fortune Cards played by other players. Should you manage to hurdle all of these obstacles, you succeed in killing Dr. Lucky and win the game. Fortunately for you and the other would-be assassins, used Fortune Cards are not reshuffled into the deck when it is exhausted, meaning the old boy has to run out of luck sometime.

Were that the entirety of the rules, it might not be so difficult, but there are of course a couple of additional wrinkles. The most infuriating is the fact that if the Doctor moves into a room inhabited by another player, it immediately becomes that player’s turn. This can set up an inconvenient series of moves that enable one player to receive multiple turns in a row, or have the turn order cycle between the same handful of players, leaving the others to wait impotently until fate finally looks their way. The Deluxe version includes a rule that prevents this from happening until every player has had one turn, but that’s really just delaying the inevitable.

The other inconvenience, which I believe is unique to the Deluxe Edition, is spite tokens. Every time your assassination attempt is foiled, you receive one token. These increase all of your subsequent attempts’ values, and can also be spent to thwart the attempts of others, who then receive all of the tokens spent this way plus the additional one for a foiled attempt.

Here’s the problem: by the time all of the Fortune Cards had been used in our game, we had each amassed a decent pile of tokens. All seven of us. It quickly became apparent that our game was only going to end in one of two ways: 1) one person accumulates a majority of the tokens and then makes an uncounterable attempt; or 2) someone decides that we’ve been playing long enough and declines to spend tokens to thwart an attempt. Eventually, we took the latter option; we probably could have been there all night just passing tokens around the table.

But despite the dual complications of having a full compliment of players and the somewhat obtrusive dual nature of the spite tokens, it was still a very fun time. The “dynamic turns” nonsense is a realistic reflection of what would happen (why wouldn’t you act immediately as your prey entered the room?) and, while frustrating, was also largely forgivable. If you find yourself with the opportunity to play any version of this game, do not hesitate to do so — although you might want to either abandon the tokens or decide that they can’t be spent as Fortune, just to speed things up.