The Problem with Player Numbers

They appear so innocent, so unimportant — just a few digits hidden upon a game box amidst the pageantry of artwork and logos. Oh, surely, they’re given a bit of prominence. Perhaps they’re printed in a 24-point font, even bolded or blacked. But that doesn’t give respect to their importance, to how they can make or break a game.

I’m talking about player numbers, of course, those variables which tell us who can and can’t play a game.

Playing Group Size

Just as there are ideal player numbers for games, which I’ll get to in due course, there’s an ideal player number for gaming groups too, and I have my own opinion about exactly what that number is.

It’s 5.

With 5 regular, reliable players, you can count on having 5 people at your game night 50% of the time. And you’ll end up with a 4-player count that’s equally acceptable for gaming 30% of the time. Another 10% of the time you have 3 players, and I’m not very fond of that number, but it’s OK a few times a year. Thus you only end up gameless 5% of the time. And who wanted to play on Thanksgiving anyways, with meeples advancing through mountains of mashed potatos, past rivers of gravy?

So, 5 players is a great foundation for personal gaming groups, and that’s ultimately one of the bases I use to measure what player numbers I’d like to see in my games.

(And if you did the math, you’ll see I missed 5% in my group counting. That’s the time when an extra person shows up, because an old friend is in town, your wife/husband is getting pouty because they’re not seeing you enough, or the homeless Vietnam vet who lives out on the street insists on crashing your game night. Then you inevitably end up with 6 players, but at least there are a few Power Grids and Medicis that support that too.)

The Magic Numbers

With a gaming group base of 5, there’s no doubt that the magic player numbers for a game are 3-5.

But surely, you say, if 3-5 players is good, wouldn’t 2-5 be better? Or even 2-6? Not necessarily, my hypothetical friend. 3-5, you see, gives a designer some control over a game. Perhaps gameplay will vary as your group rises up from a triad to a pentium, but the designer can try to account for that. However, each additional player number is exponentially more difficult to account for. Designing a game just for 4 players might be somewhat difficult. But multiply that by 2x for 3-4, then 2x for 3-5, then 2x for 3-6 and you see the ever-increasing problem.

Beyond that, 2-player games are a totally different beast than multiplayer games. Auctions pretty much don’t work, nor does trading. Majority control loses a lot of its luster when it becomes an all-or-nothing proposition. Winners can more easily run away because there’s no third player to arbitrate and balance. There are plenty of good two-player games, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a very rare multiplayer game that can correctly arbitrate the nuances of two-player play, while at the same time managing great multiplayer play.

Of course to every rule there’s an exception, and Alhambra offers a good example of this. It manages its 2-player game by introducing a third, imaginary player who gets some share of the resources every turn. It’s a simple answer, and one I’ve seen repeated elsewhere but it doesn’t work for every game. (And Alhambra has player number problems of its own, as we’ll see at the top end of the scale.)

Other Weird Numbers

Player numbers of course come in many other forms. 3-4 has become my least favorite, my personal pet peeve. If I weren’t a gaming junkie who always has to try the newest and the best, I’d throw the boxes boldly branded with those numbers back on the game store shelves in disgust. I can’t play them with my wife, and I often can’t play them with my gaming group.

What a waste of cardboard.

2-4 is surprisingly a number that I’m willing to deal with, but I just figure that I’m picking up a 2-player game, and maybe I’ll get lucky and get to play it with an underattended gaming group some evening. I should know better than to like 2-4, because I’m often rudely surprised by these games; I often discover that their “2-player” gameplay is about as fascinating and strategic as playing Monopoly with one color of property, no houses, no hotels, and a one-space movement rather than a die roll. As I already said, designing 2-player games that work for multiplayers too is tough, but at least 2-4 is better than that pathetic 3-4.

3-8 is bizarre, and usually a sign that I really shouldn’t try out the game unless I can’t see my dining room table through the haze of chips, crackers, and sodas that usually accompany gamers in greater attendance. And 5-12, who even thought up that number? I still have an unreviewed copy ofWord Jam because of that bizarre requirement. The times when I get 5 people in my house who are willing to play somewhat esoteric word games can pretty much be counted on zero hands.

As for games that support solitaire play, offering up numbers like 1-5, 1-6, or 1-8, I have to say, “Who cares?” Perhaps there was a day when this type of thing was exciting, but now I can get a much better solitaire gaming experience on the computer, so designers … don’t waste your time.

There’s of course one other perfect player number, right up there on the mantle with 3-5, and that’s 2. Not 2-4, and for Teuber’s sake, not 2-5, just 2. It’s the difference between Carcassonne: The Castle and Carcassonne. One is a half-broken all-or-nothing, pale imitation of multiplayer play when played with 2, while the other steps through its gears like clockwork.

The Problem with Variable Player Numbers

Of course if you asked any game designer, I bet they’d prefer to just release a game for a single ideal number of players. Because most games work well with one number of players and are weaker at all others. There are exceptions, surely. Better designers (and it won’t surprise you that I put Reiner Knizia into that category) can make games different at different player numbers, rather than just better or worse.

Ra offers a fine example, with items changing in value based on the number of players. A pharaoh is going to be differently valued in a 5-player game (than, say, 3-player) because it’s easier to stay out of last place in that race by grabbing just one or two ancient rulers. Meanwhile I think the monuments become less valued in higher player games because it’s harder to complete a full set with some much additional competition.

But there are some regular problems when you vary player numbers, and even Knizia succumbs to some (sometimes).

Game chaos is the worst, and here we’ll return to Alhambra. In that game you collect money in the hope of buying later tiles, and with just a few players in your game you can plan this strategically. You take money on one turn with the hope that a tile which could be purchased with that money will still be available the next time your turn rolls around. But with more and more players this grows less and less likely, ’til the point where, at six players, you might as well not bother taking anything but the highest value bills at any time.

You see chaos in Reiner Knizia’s Samurai as well (and that’s been made most obvious to me thanks to the computer game, while I’ll return to in a few weeks). The more players, the less control you have over winning any individual location, because the board situation can change so much before your next turn.

The other notable problem with varying player numbers is telescoping game length. I really didn’t understand the initial reports I heard back onRailroad Tycoon, where players were groaning about 4-5 hour marathons, or alternatively saying it took just 2 hours. But Railroad Tycoon was a game that wasn’t designed to moderate game length when more players joined in; as I wrote in my review, it runs at 30-45 minutes per player.

Now a great game can accommodate these telescoping games by lowering victory conditions as player numbers increase, but there’s problems there too. Eagle’s Attack was a game that tried that to its deficit; if you had too many players you didn’t get into the meat of the game.

And then there’s downtime. A 3-5 minute turn might be frustrating in a two-player game, but in a six-player game you could play something else between each of your game turns.

The Marketing Game

I do have to wonder how many player number problems are the fault of marketers. They’re a maligned class, I know, and I’ll admit to doing marketing work on my own from time to time. I write copy and I design ads, so perhaps I’m blaming myself as well.

But how many marketers insisted that rules be included for 2-player play, even when the designer protested otherwise? Or, contrariwise, how many beautiful 3-5 player games were crushed into a worthless 3-4 mold by a bean-counting marketer who said that a $10 higher price point couldn’t be supported, and thus the extra pieces couldn’t be manufactured?

But enough fault; let me instead offer some advice. Game companies and marketers alike, let me offer up my dearest wish, after which all else would be forgiven. Tell me the ideal player number for your games. I would have been a lot happier with San Marco if I’d known from the start that it really only worked for 3-player play. And for Santiago (and so many other auction games), they should really just say, “Don’t bother” if you just have three players around the table.

So give me real player numbers, ideal player numbers …

Or don’t. I guess.


Author’s Note: In retrospect I’m not as enamored with this article as I am with some of my earlier rants. —SA, 2/16/11

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