Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Doctor Lucky Meets His End

My brother-in-law introduced me to a game company several years ago that seemed to fit with the way I spent (read: didn't spend) my money, and which he pronounced Chee Apess. The company made their games to use interchangeable bits; the only thing they sold you was the parts unique to the game (the board and the cards, generally), which made their games, well, cheap. One of these games that I bought ages ago is Kill Doctor Lucky, and it has been a game collection hit ever since.

I bought the pawns separately, but
they work well with the game
I bought Kill Doctor Lucky: The Director's Cut for $7.50. The publisher has discontinued this version of the game, but there is a newer, fancier version available for $29.99. Parting ways from the earlier version, the new edition includes all the pieces necessary to play. (As you can see in the picture to the right, I had to buy my own pawns.) So what is Kill Doctor Lucky all about, and why does it deserve its new, more expensive treatment?

Kill Doctor Lucky is, essentially, Clue in reverse. In Clue, one of you has committed a murder, and the players try to discover who did it. In Kill Doctor Lucky, each player is trying to get alone with the old doctor just long enough to commit the murder. But Doctor Lucky is aptly named. He has a seemingly inexhaustible store of diversions, helpers, boring and distracting stories--in a word, luck--so that killing him is exceedingly difficult.

In Kill Doctor Lucky, players position themselves around the J. Robert Lucky Mansion with evil intent. Play passes clockwise, with one exception: when Doctor Lucky enters an occupied room in his mansion, it is automatically the player who is in that room's turn. You see, Doctor Lucky is a creature of habit, and he always follows a predictable path around his mansion. (The rooms on the game board are numbered for this purpose; see photo below.) When Lucky enters an occupied room, the player in that room can use the situation to maximum advantage. Because of this rule, turn order can jump around. Careful players can lead the old man around his house, taking turn after turn. Players who get themselves stuck in the lilac room may be waiting a while for their chance to do him in.

Players can only attempt to kill Doctor Lucky when there is no one around to see--that is, there is no one in any of the adjacent rooms or any other rooms that have a direct line of sight into the culprit's room. When the player determines he is alone with the doctor, he can make his murder attempt. All murder attempts have a base value of at least one (which the rules say is akin to poking the doctor in the eye). There are weapon cards mixed in with the other cards to increase the likelihood of success--weapons like a tight hat, a killing joke, a runcible spoon, a civil war cannon, and so on. Some weapons are worth more in certain rooms, so careful planning and luring of the doctor play a major role in the success of your plot.

There's the lonesome lilac room, and
you can see the numbers that indicate
Doctor Lucky's path. Also, I taped
the board together myself.
But the doctor is not named "lucky" for nothing. Once a murder attempt has been declared, the other players, in turn order, may play failure cards that represent the doctor's nonrenewable resource. The failure cards explain what fortunate turn of events protected the doctor this time: a wizened kung fu master intervening on his behalf, the doctor waxing rhapsodic on his recent polar expedition, an ill-placed banana peel. If the failure card total equals or surpasses the murder attempt's total, the attempt fails, the doctor moves on, and the next player gets his turn.

I mentioned that the doctor's luck is a nonrenewable resource. There are two discard piles in Kill Doctor Lucky: one for failure cards and one for everything else. The everything else pile recycles once the draw deck is depleted, but the failure cards do not. In other words, there will be a time when the doctor is killed...it just might not happen on your turn. When players try to foil a murder attempt, failure cards are played in turn order, and each player has the option to play as many cards as he wants or to pass, but once a player passes, he cannot play any more failure cards. Passing can be an effective strategy: drawing failure cards out of your opponents' hands could make your own murder attempt more successful. But I've seen many games end prematurely from stingy players overestimating the doctor's luck residing in the other players' hands.

With most of the games I've described so far on my blog, part of the fun of the game is the components themselves--they're nice to handle, and the tactile feel helps provide the atmosphere. Ticket to Ride, for example, has a beautiful board and bits, and even the simple Incan Gold holds up under close inspection. Kill Doctor Lucky, however, is not a game you buy for its components (at least the version I have). As I mentioned, I purchased the pawns to go with it, and I taped the game board together myself. These components may be a turn-off to those who enjoy the luxurious feel of expensive Euro games, but it doesn't bother me too much.

Despite its humble box and components, Kill Doctor Lucky packs quite a punch. It was the frequent choice at family game night in college, and it even drew in people who usually avoided board games. I have never played a game where I did not have a good time (and this is coming along with a low win/loss ratio), and most other people have enjoyed it too. Kill Doctor Lucky remains the only game that, when I teach it, I read the rules aloud rather than just explaining them because they are well written and set the mood for the game. The text on the failure cards, representing Lucky's luck, is worth the price of admission in itself. (My favorite: "This tastes like rat poison. I love rat poison!")

Also, for being a game with "lucky" in the title, there is a surprising amount of strategy involved. Players must be careful about luring Doctor Lucky into their traps, because if they fail, Lucky automatically escapes. The player who fails may not get another turn for a while (especially if he's in the lilac room). Also, while the doctor can dodge attacks through his luck, the other players are always in control of just how lucky he is. It is to their benefit, obviously, that you fail in your attempt...but they're also trying to flush the other players' hands of failure cards for when their own turn rolls around. One false step could spell premature demise for the old doctor and failure for the miserly player. The game demands a healthy balance of strategy, luck, and reading your fellow players.

If you're looking for a fun way to pass an evening and like a little dark humor, Kill Doctor Lucky is an excellent choice, and generally a crowd pleaser. As the introduction says, "Gather in the drawing room and get cracking. Somebody's going to kill Doctor Lucky tonight, and it might as well be you."


  1. I'm generally not a board game aficionado, but this one does sound like a lot of fun. Plus, dark humor always appeals to me. And for some reason, this game reminds me of the old movie "Murder by Death."

  2. It is. The dark humor really makes it. It also turns off some players, but I guess different strokes for...different people.

    I LOVE Murder by Death! "He's blind all right. Those were my funniest faces."