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The More the Merrier?

February 6, 2007

I should warn you now that this column is going to be even more subjective than most, which is saying something considering how unfounded my opinions generally are. Most people can probably agree that the number of players that a game should be played with doesn't always (maybe even often) line up with the number of players that the game says it can be played with on the box. Itís not hard to realize that the publishers want a game to appeal to as broad an audience as possible (even for such a niche market as German-style board games, or designer games as Alan Moon advocates), so itís not a hard logical step to realize that games that claim to allow two to six players should generally sell better than games that only claim to allow three to four players. Why Settlers didnít disabuse everyone of this notion is beyond me, but I digress. What everyone doesnít agree on is what the optimal number of players for each game actually is, assuming it doesnít match what the publisher claims. Sometimes its easy to find out what the designer thinks is the optimal number of players, as is the case with Age of Steam because Martin Wallace said in an interview by Tom Vasel that the game works best with four or five players, with only certain variant maps working best with three or six players, despite the fact that the base game says three to six players on the box. The game clearly ďworksĒ with three players, and also with six players, but this is about what number of players the game works best with. However, most of the time itís harder to discern what the optimal number of players for a game really is because the designer doesnít tell you and the publisher expands the range (which I recognize is a rational business decision).

This isnít a topic that I used to care much about at all. Only a couple years ago my collection of board games could be counted on my fingers and I was happy to play Settlers of Catan with six players (alright that's an exaggeration, I don't think I've ever been happy to do that). Then I discovered BoardGameGeek through a Funagain link, and my collection exploded to over 100 games (if you count expansions, which I donít when I tell people who already think Iím crazy how many games I own). I think publishers broadening the range of players for games is not necessarily a bad thing for people just starting out in the hobby, but once youíve built yourself a decent sized collection, I think itís only natural to want to avoid forcing a game into being played in circumstances where it wonít shine. Youíre not going to break out Traders of Genoa or Bohnanza for a group of really analytical, soft-spoken, and shy people, and youíre not going to want to bring Caylus to a family reunion. Thatís the whole point of having a large collection, at least in my mind, itís useful for having the perfect game for every situation. You can have the perfect 30-minute game for when you have six people, and the perfect 90-minute game for when thereís only one opponent in the room. You can have the perfect game for when youíre in the mood to roll lots of dice, and the perfect strategy game to follow that one up after the luck doesnít go your way. Hence, I have become interested in discovering the optimal number of players for each game so that I know what niche each game is best suited to fill.

This is not an easy task. Many games advertise the fact that they play with three to five players, and even two to seven players (which is one range that always seemed a bit over the top), and thereís nothing but searching on BGG or trying out the game a number of times to figure out each gameís sweet spot. Well, there was nothing but those two options until this article came along! Now Iím here to break down as many games as possible into three different categories. First, the More the Merrier category includes games that play best with the maximum number of players. Second, the Threeís a Crowd category is my deceptively confusing name for games that play best with the minimum number of players (which is sometimes three, rather than two, hence the confusion, but Iím happy to sacrifice clarity for the opportunity to use a clichť). Third, the Middle of the Road category includes games that are best with a number of players right in the middle of the publisherís suggested range. Finally, Iíll list a bunch of games for which my fancy categorization system broke down because I wasnít able to classify them at all. I think of them as the exceptions that prove the rule, but you may think of them as the exceptions that prove Iím completely full of it.

The More the Merrier

This is a category of 12 games that I think are best with the maximum number of players in the publisherís range. I used to play a number of these games with less players, and only now that I have a large enough collection to always try to pick the best game for each situation, have I begun to relegate them to circumstances where I have a sizeable crowd on my hands. I should say that this category is smaller than it might be for other people because I generally tend to prefer games with fewer players for some reason. It takes a special kind of game for me to enjoy it with a large number of players, one that was probably designed with that large group specifically in mind (although I canít peer behind the designing curtain and say for sure what the wizard looks like). So whatís on this exclusive list of crowd pleasing favorites, in alphabetical order it includes: Amun-Re, Die Macher, Diplomacy, El Grande, Lowenherz, Oasis, Princes of Florence, Reef Encounter, Santiago, Tikal, Traders of Genoa, and Wallenstein. I donít think that any of these are going to come as a huge surprise to anyone (and I certainly donít claim to be coming up with something shockingly new here), although I gather that many people do enjoy some of these (like Reef Encounter and Tikal) with only two players, rather than the full complement of four. The real question Iím wondering about (which means it should probably come earlier in the article) is why. Why are these games on this list rather than either of the other lists? Why do these games excel with large groups of people? Unfortunately thereís no one easy answer as far as I can tell, despite pondering it for a while now, although Iíd be happy to hear what readers think. The best that I can come up with is that these games involve a kind of interaction that requires players to interact with multiple opponents in order to make the gameplay interesting, but thatís essentially a tautology. Itís easier if I just come up with a reason for games individually rather than try to explain all twelve at once, but it also defeats the underlying purpose of my endeavor. Traders of Genoa needs five players in my opinion because itís a negotiation game that requires players to make various offers to the person whose turn it is so they will let them take actions on their turn. If you have fewer players then there will be fewer offers so the process of bidding against each other is much shorter and less involved, and the process of selecting which bid to accept is much easier and therefore more boring. Santiago needs five players for a very similar reason in my opinion, which is that you need to maximize the amount of competition for water so that plantations run dry with some regularity. You also need enough players for there to be some overlap as to where certain players want the canal to go each turn, so players can work out whether to team up and combine their bids to convince the overseer to build their proposed canal. Two down, ten to go. No, Iím not going to go through them all, but I suppose this exercise has illuminated a piece of the answer. Perhaps games in this category require players to interact with each other more than interacting with the game itself. Rather than running an efficiency engine (a la Caylus), these games stress the role of table talk. El Grande requires convincing your opponents to move other peopleís caballeros rather than yours, Wallenstein requires players to make that crucial decision between building another palace for victory points or just stealing your neighborís palace, Princes of Florence requires jockeying for the right landscape tile or jester token in the auction phase, and Lowenherz requires convincing your opponents not to select the action youíve chosen and that they definitely donít need another knight in the region bordering yours. These are rough-and-tumble games that donít shy away from forcing players to bump up against each other and compete head-to-head-to-head. I enjoy them when Iíve got the right crowd of people, and I suggest that you give them a try the next time youíve got a room full of friends.

Threeís a Crowd

This is a category of 11 games that could very well be played with a crowd of people, but youíre unlikely to see me in that crowd if I can avoid it. These games are all best with the fewest number of players possible in my opinion, whether that be two or three players depending on the particular game. This category includes a number of games that others may enjoy playing with a larger group of players (but I admitted up front that this was going to be particularly subjective) because for some reason I tend to like playing games with only two players even when they could accommodate anywhere from two to five players. It may be that I just like squaring off one-on-one against an opponent, or that Iím not good at playing opponents off against each other (that canít be it, I think thatís my specialty), or it may just be an inherent trait of these games that makes me consider them perfect for smaller occasions. The list includes the following games: Carcassonne, Caylus, China, Hansa, Hey That's My Fish, Louis XIV, Ra, Samurai, San Marco, Through the Desert, and Torres. All but three of these (China, Ra, and San Marco) are games that I think excel in a two-player duel, with those three being best with the three-player minimum in the publisherís range (although even the two-player variant for Ra is surprisingly good). Once again I return to the primary question: why? For some reason I think the question is easier to answer for this category. It all has to do with chaos. Itís not that Iím too impatient to sit through the downtime of waiting for my turn to come around, but rather that each of these games is simply too chaotic with any more players. In contrast to the first list of games, these games tend to be more about playing the system, rather than playing your opponents. This is not to say that theyíre not interactive, many of them are very interactive, but itís interaction to see who can maximize their efficiency and work the system best, not who can work their opponents best. Caylus is an easy one to explain because I think of it as a game that requires a lot of advance planning, and you canít do that advance planning of where you want to put your workers and in what order if there are four other people placing workers between each of your turns. The game is still interactive because you have to think about where your single opponent is likely to place his or her next worker, but that is something you can account for in your effort to maximize your efficiency. Hansa is very similar in that you are trying to work the system the best, and in doing so you need to be able to anticipate what your opponent is likely to do, so that you can leave the boat in a bad position for him, and try to make it difficult for him to reciprocate. Each of these games thrives when chaos is minimized and suffers when chaos and unpredictability are increased, and the surest way to mess this up is to introduce more players into the mix (i.e., more variables for which you cannot account). Hey Thatís My Fish and Through the Desert both require anticipating your opponent's moves in order to capture as much territory as possible, but even the best laid plans can be thwarted by an unpredictable move, which is far more likely to occur if you have multiple opponents. Some people may enjoy the chaos and unpredictability of seeing people's plans go down in flames, and I encourage those people to play these games with a crowd, but personally I'll stick to breaking them out for smaller occasions.

Something occurs to me after finishing these first two categories, and while this thought may belong earlier in this piece, Iíd argue that it makes more sense including it right here. Perhaps the answer to the question of why the games on the More the Merrier list belong there has to do with those games not suffering from the chaos introduced by additional players, but rather thriving on that chaos. Additional players in El Grande and Wallenstein certainly do make it harder to predict what all your opponents will do, but for some reason those game systems seem to rely on forcing players to cope with the unpredictability of their opponents. This doesnít make much sense in writing, but in my head it makes perfect sense. The More the Merrier games are chaotic by nature, whereas the Threeís a Crowd games are exactly the opposite.

Middle of the Road

So far it seems like publishers either stretch the range for the number of players down to pretend that a game works with less players than it actually does, or stretch it up to claim that a game works with more players than it really does, but surely there are times when a publisher stretches in both directions, right? Yes, indeed, which is why the third category is for Middle of the Road games, which are those that excel with a number of players that falls in the middle of the suggested publisher range. These games were not meant as two-player duels in my opinion, but also get bogged down when the crowd gets too big, so theyíre perfect with a medium-sized group. This category includes the following nine games: Acquire, Age of Steam, Bohnanza, Citadels, Elfenland, For Sale, Power Grid, RoboRally, and Taj Mahal. Four or five players seems to be the perfect number for most of these games, which may suggest that theyíre no different than the More the Merrier games (most of which topped out at five, and some even at only four players), except that the publishers of these games were even more ambitious at pitching their game to as wide an audience as possible. Age of Steam was even designed for four to five players, as mentioned in the Martin Wallace interview above. Iíve always thought that Acquire, Bohnanza, Citadels, Elfenland, For Sale, Power Grid, and RoboRally were all best with four or five players. Taj Mahal is a strange beast because I really only like it with four players, and Iíve wondered if Knizia has ever said whether he thinks this is the optimal number of players for the game or not. Many of these games claim to work with as few as two players, but Iím not buying it. Most of them have contrived work-around rules to make them function with only two players, like an artificial third player in Acquire, taking two roles in Citadels, or the plethora of rules modifications in Bohnanza. Would you believe the first time I played Bohnanza it was with only two players and I hated it, so I didnít try the game again for over a year? Iím glad I kept it because I definitely enjoyed it when I finally gave it another chance with more players. In addition to these games not working with the fewest number of players suggested by the publishers, they also donít work with the largest number of players suggested by the publishers. The reason for the latter isnít as obvious as the reason for the former because introducing more players doesnít generally involve introducing contrived rules like it does for adapting these games to one-on-one play. However, these games simply take too long for what they are when you add too many players to the mix. I certainly donít mind a long game (heck, I love an all-day game of Diplomacy or Die Macher), but Iím a big advocate of the notion that a game should only take as long as it ought to. For example, Hey Thatís My Fish is fantastic, but Iíd hate to play the game with an overly-analytical person who makes it take an hour. I have nothing against player an hour-long board game, but the game has to be an hour-long game. For instance, Bohnanza and Citadels should not be 90 minute-long games, thereís simply not enough game there to keep them interesting for so long, but they can easily take that long if you player with six or seven players, which is why I think they shine with four or five players.

Exceptions (that prove the rule or disprove my entire point)

In putting together the lists for these three categories, there was an enormous number of games that I could not categorize. Some of this was due to the fact that I simply had not played the game enough times to make up my mind where it belonged, but many of the games fell into this no-manís-land even though Iíd played them many times. When concocting this hair-brained scheme of categorization I thought that Iíd be able to categorize the majority of games that I was familiar with, but it turns out that there are just too many games that Iím unsure about. It could be that these games are great with any number of players, so there simply isnít an optimal number of players. Here are the 27 games that donít fit my system: Alhambra, Blokus, Canít Stop, Clans, Entdecker, Fifth Avenue, Gheos, Goa, Ingenious, Java, Keythedral, Maharaja, Mammoth Hunters, Mesopotamia, Mississippi Queen, Modern Art, New England, Nexus Ops, Niagara, Puerto Rico, San Juan, Settlers of Catan, Shear Panic, St. Petersburg, Thurn & Taxis, Ticket to Ride, and Tigris & Euphrates. These games are on this list for a wide variety of reasons, so thereís obviously no one answer to the question why. As I said, some of them I simply havenít played enough to determine, but others really are good with varying number of players (i.e., they scale well). For example, I think Blokus, Goa, Ingenious, Nexus Ops, Puerto Rico, and Tigris & Euphrates all scale particularly well. Iíve played each of them enough times to categorize them in the above tripartite system if they had a home where I thought they belonged. However, none of them do because theyíre great with a variety of group sizes, which is why they are either the exceptions to prove the rule or to prove that Iím full of it, depending on your point of view.

(See this Forum Thread for this article plus additional comments on it)