To Murder an Old Man: Twenty Years of Killing Doctor Lucky
In the fall of 1996, aspiring game inventor James Ernest launched his genre-defining company Cheapass Games with six black-and-white games. They were printed on his laser printer, trimmed by hand, and packaged in plain white envelopes. Foremost among these was CAG 001, Kill Doctor Lucky: a “pre-mystery” game about trying to murder a very lucky old man.
“Why do all mystery games start after the fun is over?”
Kill Doctor Lucky subverts the murder mystery genre by making everyone the killer. The game starts with the victim still alive, and players compete to do him in. But everyone thinks they are acting alone, so players must be stealthy and clever and try to murder the old man. And he’s not called “Doctor Lucky” for nothing.
“Like many early Cheapass Games, Kill Doctor Lucky started with a title,” says Ernest. “The name ‘Kill Doctor Lucky’ just appeared in my head one day. It’s a comedy scenario where the players are trying to kill someone who is magically hard to kill. Three weeks later, we had the bare bones of a game.”
Doctor Lucky has been through many editions, sequels, and expansions since then, and has garnered a few awards including the Origins Award for Best Abstract Board Game of 1997. It also appeared in that year’s GAMES 100. Respectable for a six-dollar game in a paper envelope.
Like many popular Cheapass Titles, Kill Doctor Lucky found a deluxe edition and another home (Paizo / Titanic Games) while Cheapass Games was in hibernation in the early 2000’s. When it was time to bring the game back to Cheapass, James Ernest gave the game a graphical and mechanical overhaul, creating the 19.5th Anniversary Edition in 2016.
Redesigning a Classic: The 19.5th Anniversary Edition
“The first edition of Kill Doctor Lucky was well-loved, but it had some problems,” says Ernest. “While the game was with Paizo, I let them know that I wanted to overhaul it for the 20th Anniversary.
“We rebooted Cheapass Games and brought the license back in-house, so I wound up making those changes for the new Cheapass edition.”
In all versions of Kill Doctor Lucky, the turn can skip around. This happens whenever Doctor Lucky moves into a room with a player in it, so players can “lie in wait” and be assured of a turn.
In the original, players could “ride the Lucky Train,” using this mechanic to move ahead of Doctor Lucky and draw a hand full of cards. This was fun for one player, but could be frustrating for everyone else, especially the newest players.
“Taking extra turns isn’t inherently bad, as long as everyone gets the same chance,” says Ernest. “We actually kept the Lucky Train, more or less, but you can no longer draw cards while Doctor Lucky is watching you. So it became just a long move, rather than a huge card advantage.”
To break up the Lucky Train, the original board had hallways that kept you from moving as fast as Doctor Lucky. But players could get “stuck” in those hallways, especially in games with a lot of players. Doctor Lucky never visits them, and in a bigger game sometimes the only way to get a turn is to get a visit from Doctor Lucky! Experienced players knew enough not to get stuck in the hallways, but new players often would.
“Move” cards used to affect Doctor Lucky, but no longer do. This feels bad for the game, but as Ernest explains, “Even if you were in a perfect place to intercept Doctor Lucky, someone could play a move card and drag him off course. Now he will absolutely visit every room in order, and hallways are free moves, so you just can’t be trapped forever.”
Keeping Doctor Lucky on course was a design improvement that James first made in the card game, Get Lucky, in 2013. “There isn’t a board in Get Lucky, but Doctor Lucky still follows the numbers, visiting each character in order. We learned that it was better for the game if players could not move the Doctor off course, and that informed the redesign of the board game.”
Murder, Foiling, and Building Power
How does Doctor Lucky escape nearly every attempt on his life? Instead of using a mechanic like a simple die roll, Ernest used a card-play mechanic that adds bluffing and deduction to the game. When a player tries to kill Doctor Lucky, everyone else gets a chance to discard cards that represent Doctor Lucky’s Luck.
In the original game, there was just one class of card (Failure Cards) that could foil a Murder attempt. These cards did nothing else, and when you were out of these cards, you could do nothing to prevent another player from murdering the old man.
“Another innovation from Get Lucky was putting Luck on every type of card,” says Ernest. “This way, you get a better idea of how strong someone’s hand is by watching which cards they throw away. If they have to pitch really good cards, they are probably running out of Luck.”
But with so much luck in the early game, what was the point of making early Murder attempts? “In the first edition there wasn’t a lot of incentive to make early murder attempts,” says Ernest. “Players tended to hang back and the game could easily stall. I tried to convince people that dragging Failure cards out of other players’ hands was important in all parts of the game, but it was a hard sell.”
The 2002 “Director’s Cut” introduced an optional “Spite” mechanic, using tokens to boost players’ attack each time they made a murder attempt. Paizo adopted versions of this rule in their editions, and Ernest adapted the mechanic in the new edition by using discards instead of tokens.
The deck has also been simplified: The “Move” and “Room” cards from the first edition are now a single card type, a concept first introduced in the 2000 prequel Save Doctor Lucky. And there used to be more rooms than Room Cards, and not every Room had a Weapon. Now the main board has 24 Rooms, and the deck contains exactly one Move and Weapon card for each.
“We didn’t change much, just everything,” says Ernest. “After unpacking and rebuilding the rules, Kill Doctor Lucky feels more like the game it was always supposed to be.”
Coming This Summer: The Island of Doctor Lucky!
The Island of Doctor Lucky is a new standalone board game in the Doctor Lucky family, coming in August 2018. You’re still trying to kill the old man, but now his island is also trying to kill you!
The Island of Doctor Lucky features all the joy of murdering a despicable old philanthropist in his home, combined with all the fun of dodging monsters and traps on a mysterious tropical island. New card types called “Hazards” let you harass other players or Doctor Lucky at a distance, and each one you play also adds a step to your basic move.
Learn more about Kill Doctor Lucky, its expansions, and Get Lucky at CheapassGames.com.