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Six is a Crowd

March 10, 2009

Five is perfect, six is a crowd. Youíve got a great night planned with El Grande, Wallenstein, and Santiago on tap, but then that dreaded sixth person shows up and your plans are dashed. Whatís a game group organizer to do? Six is the dreaded number of people. There are countless threads in the forums on BoardGameGeek inquiring desperately for recommendations of board games that work well with six players. People inevitably respond with their best efforts, with games that work with six, with games that are okay with six. Thatís a disservice to the people and to the games. The only real answer when you have six people is to play two three-player games.

Itís sad to say because there are so many amazing five-player games (e.g., El Grande, Princes of Florence, A Game of Thrones, Liberte, Wallenstein, Santiago, Oasis, Amun-Re, Traders of Genoa, Die Macher, Maharaja). There are a plethora of games that work best with their maximum number of players, but unfortunately that maximum is five more often than not. And when the maximum is six or seven, itís more often a case of the publishers deluding themselves. Iím a stickler for finding the optimal number of players for each game and have discussed my thoughts on the subject before in The More the Merrier? Iíve found myriad great games for two, three, four, and five players, but the well runs dry at six. Sure there are a small handful of good six-player games, and I might as well get those out of the way up front.

The best six-player game is Dune. Itís really an incredible game that many trot out to disprove my theory about the lack of good six-player games. I admit its brilliance and dismiss its relevancy in a single breath. Dune is fantastic. It wonderfully merges theme and mechanics. It is incredibly different each time you play. It implements variable player powers more effectively than any game. Iíve covered my favorable impressions in The Many Faces of the Desert Planet. The fatal flaw is that a game of Dune might last an hour or it might last seven hours. Thereís no way to know. You have to plan an entire game day revolving around Dune with exactly six people, but it may be cut short by a clever alliance and the perfect Treachery cards or movement of the Coriolis storm. Itís not a normal game that you can pick-up and play any time, but rather a special game for a special game day.

That leaves a small handful of games that work well with six players, including Atlantic Star (originally published as Showmanager), Wits & Wagers, TransAmerica, and RoboRally. Wits & Wagers is a great party game that excels with six or seven players, but itís a party game, and thereís a time and a place for party games. If you were hoping to play Amun-Re or Liberte, then Wits & Wagers just wonít do. That leaves Atlantic Star, TransAmerica (with the Vexation expansion), and RoboRally. Thereís no easy way to dismiss this remainder of solid games, except to shake your head at the sorry lot as it compares to the impressive line-up of five-player games listed above. Regardless of whether youíd rather negotiate in A Game of Thrones or Traders of Genoa, or whether you prefer the simultaneous action selection of Wallenstein or Maharaja, itís hard to deny that your options are far more varied and impressive when selecting a game for five.

All that is preface to the ultimate point of this article. Splitting into two groups for simultaneous three-player games is ideal. Many protest that they want to all play together so theyíll settle for a suboptimal game of Citadels, Power Grid, or Elfenland, but I contend that all you need to do is match up three-player games of similar length and switch up the groupings between games. That way you get the best of both worlds. You get to play games with everyone there and you get the best experience possible out of your collection of games. Thus, I endeavor to recommend pairs of fabulous three-player games of similar length. These games shine with three players and theyíre sure to be more satisfying than cramming another player into your game just because the publisher took the liberty of writing 2-6 on the box.

Standard Fare: Egyptian Auctions and Asian Area Control

The themes for these games may be tired and stale, but the games themselves are the cream of the crop, and the perfect three-player games for 45 minutes. Iím talking about Reiner Kniziaís Ra and Michael Schachtís China. Both claim to work with 3 to 5 players, but we all know how much you can trust the outside of the box when it comes to player counts. Whether youíre auctioning off monuments or sending emissaries to the Far East, three people vying for dominance is the way to go.

Most importantly for the thesis of this article is that these two games take approximately the same amount of time to play (and they shine with three players). So donít fret when you divide your group of 6 in half because youíll be back together mixing it up in about 45 minutes. Then you can swap players and move along to the next game with some fresh faces.

Another plus is that these two games are so different, which means that people who are looking for an auction game can go with Ra and people hoping for some area control can pick China. Theyíre both fairly simple and straightforward games that play quickly but provide some interesting decision-making opportunities, but otherwise theyíre as different as night and day. Now you may have a problem if 4 people want to join in the auctions or the area majority, but hopefully people will be flexible enough to accommodate three in each.

The real beauty of Ra is that it grows on you with more and more plays. Learning the rules is simple, but the valuation of the tiles up for auction is the tough part that takes a dash of experience, a dash of intuition, and a dash of luck. Whatís most enjoyable about Ra besides its clever discrete bidding units, is the fact that everyoneís interests diverge shortly after the game begins (in stark contrast to Modern Art). So the pharaohs, floods, and catastrophes for example will be worth vastly different amounts to each person depending on the tiles theyíve already won. This keeps you from focusing just on your own holdings, forcing you to evaluate your competitorsí interests and anticipate what theyíll do.

China is one of the best quick area control games. It doesnít measure up to the king El Grande for when you have 5 people, but when you just have 3 and want something that plays fast then China is a great choice. Itís a refreshing German-style game because it provides not only the opportunity for short-term tactical decision-making, but also the opportunity for long-term strategic decision-making, which many other games lack. Youíve got to use the right cards from turn to turn so you can replenish your hand and keep your options open, but youíve also got to plan far ahead for whether youíre going to pursue emissaries or not. It also of course has the fortification tile (which is an addition that the original Web of Power did not include), which requires patience and precision to use just right, but remember not too much patienceÖ

If youíre looking for an alternate to substitute into this pairing then look no further than King of Siam. You can use it either in place of Ra if everyone wants to get in on the area majority fun, or in place of China if people want a change of pace to satisfy their area control needs. King of Siam is a wonderfully distilled area control game designed by Peer Sylvester and published in 2007. It fits perfectly into the 45 minute timeframe so will match up well with either Ra or China in terms of game length. Itís a very clever design because it gives you 8 actions to use during 8 rounds but you can spread those actions out however you please. Spending as many or as few actions in each round, using them all up early, saving them until later, or spreading them evenly throughout if you can muster the self control. Itís also a clever twist on area control because none of the players start with a vested interest in any of the colors of cubes, but rather gain an interest by removing the corresponding color from the board, thereby weakening the color in which youíre becoming invested. As you might imagine, it makes for some painstaking decisions where youíre constantly stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Little Italy: From Cake Cutting to Civ Building

If youíre looking for something a bit longer or looking for a pair of games set in Italy then look no further than San Marco and La Citta. This is the second pair of games that excel with three players and take approximately the same amount of time to play. Both clock in at around 80 minutes. Other than those similarities, these are another two games that are as different as can be.

San Marco is an area majority game designed by Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum back in 2001. Itís out of print at the moment, but not too difficult to track down a used copy, which I strongly recommend doing as it is the king of three-player games. San Marco is most well known and most distinguishable for its ďcake cuttingĒ mechanic (which incidentally has since been employed by Jeffrey Allers in a game that is actually about cake cutting called Aber Bitte Mit Sahn). This mechanic takes its name from the venerable tradition of sharing a delectable dessert with a friend or sibling by allowing one person to divide the dessert and the other person to pick which half to take. A genius way of encouraging as even a division as possible. San Marco does the same thing except with cards. Players take turns being the ďsplitterĒ whose job it is to take 10 cards and divide them into three groups. Every group must have at least one card, but other than that the splitter has free reign to divide the cards as symmetrically or asymmetrically as he or she pleases. Then the other two players take turns selecting a group of cards before the splitter is eventually stuck with whatever group remains unselected. This encourages the splitter to make sure no single group is inferior because he or she will inevitably be stuck with the inferior set of cards. The cards themselves are fairly simple, allowing players to do things like add cubes to the board, remove opponent cubes from the board, or score one of the six regions. Thatís it. The game doesnít sound like much, but the ďcake cuttingĒ mechanic makes it deliciously agonizing. Youíre faced with a world of possibilities as to how to go about grouping the cards and, depending on the people you play with, you may have your opponents serving as angels or devils on your shoulder kibitzing to their hearts content. I actually think the kibitzing is an integral and fun part of the game as long as it isnít allowed to make the process drag on for too long, as it keeps the other players actively involved during the splitting process.

La Citta is also nominally set in Italy, similarly shines with three players, and takes about the same amount of time to play, but is otherwise a completely different experience. La Citta could be categorized as a ďciv liteĒ game although thatís nebulous nomenclature that doesnít really shed much light on the game itself. La Citta reminds me of a simpler version of Antiquity even though there isnít the same sort of resource production. Both games involve founding cities and building different types of buildings in those cities that give you various benefits. They also both involve a constant pressure to feed the citizens of your cities by farming to collect food, and harsh negative ramifications of failing to feed your people. Theyíre also both Survival Games, which is to say, games where you fight not only against your human opponents but also against the game system itself. La Citta is a brutal game that severely punishes players who miss a step. In addition to struggling to collect enough food each round, you also have to contend with your opponentsí neighboring cities attempting to steal citizens from you. If successful, then you may be forced to burn down buildings in your city since you need one citizen to occupy each building and canít have more buildings than citizens. The only consolation is that you wonít need to feed the citizen after heís been stolen away by your neighbor. Except the principal component of your score at the end of the game is the number of citizens that youíve managed to accumulate throughout the game. Itís a delicate balancing act of rushing to grow your population, but not so fast that your food production doesnít keep up.

These two games are perfect partners. The only downside is that if Iím one of your six, Iíd have a terrible time trying to decide whether to play San Marco or La Citta since theyíre both so enjoyable. While this is a match made in heaven, if youíre looking for an alternate to substitute into this pair then Trias is a possible candidate. Itís another game that shines with three players and takes about 80 minutes to play. The box claims that Trias works with 2 to 5 players, but Iíve found that there is far too much downtime in the five-player version and too many rules tweaks in the two-player version for it to stay true to the game. Three-player Trias is your best bet. Itís a 2002 game by Ralf Lehmkuhl that could be described as an area majority game since youíre trying to have the most dinosaurs on the various continents as they break off from Pangaea, but itís a different sort of game because youíre forming the areas during the game (actually vaguely reminiscent of Mexica in that respect) and breeding and moving your dinosaurs to occupy the newly formed continents. Trias may be a bit shorter than La Citta, but never fear, Iíll get to solving that potential dilemma towards the end of this article.

Weird and Weirder: From Terracing Rice Fields to Feeding Parrot Fish

You say that all of the themes of the games discussed up until now have been too tame for you? Then Iíve got the answer for you in this next pair of games. Both of these games also excel with three players and both take about 100 minutes to play so youíll be able to finish around the same time and mix up the groups among your six players. Satisfying your urge for strange themes, I give you Java by Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling and Reef Encounter by Richard Breese. The former will have you terracing rice fields, while the latter will have you feeding polyp tiles to your parrot fish, both of which will give you a welcome break from traditional Renaissance or Egyptian games.

If you like the wide open feeling that you get from the world of possibilities when splitting a group of cards in San Marco, then youíll love the flexibility and incredible range of options available in Java. Yes, many people lament the analysis-paralysis that can result in Java when players become paralyzed by the overwhelming variety of possibilities. However, if you can make sure to play with a group of people that manage to make decisions in a reasonable amount of time, then this is a gem of a game. Unlike many modern board games that give you a couple different things to choose between on your turn, so youíre often just pondering whether to take option A, B, or C, Java gives you almost an infinite array of options. Like the other Kramer-Kiesling action point games (i.e., Tikal, Mexica, Torres), Java gives you a set number of action points per turn and a menu of actions that cost various numbers of points. How you spend your action points is entirely up to you, and the plethora of ways in which you can mix-and-match the actions is incredible. I love the wide open feeling of Java, but some people canít stand it, so pick your opponents carefully for this one.

Richard Breese has designed a number of great games, but Reef Encounter is truly his masterpiece in my opinion. Itís a very thematic board game that Richard says was inspired by a television documentary on the BBC about coral reefs called The Blue Planet, but itís secretly a stock market game. Reef Encounter actually works decently well with the entire player range from 2 to 4, but in my 46 games of it, Iíve found 3 players to provide the perfect amount of confrontation and chaos. Itís a tile laying game that is vaguely reminiscent of Kniziaís classic Tigris & Euphrates because players are attempting to build strong tile groupings that can attack neighboring tile groupings. However, a major difference is that players must equally invest in all tile colors in Tigris, whereas players can and probably should focus on certain colors in Reef Encounter. The tile colors start off being worth the same amount in Reef Encounter, but players can manipulate the market over the course of the game so when the scores are tallied at the end, some colors could be worth five times as much as others. If youíve invested wisely, then youíre sure to reap the rewards even if your parrot fishís belly isnít as full as the next guyís. Iíll note that this is another game where players have been known to suffer from analysis-paralysis, although your options arenít nearly as diverse as in Java. For some reason people agonize over the ten possible actions on their turn, even when only a few of them usually ever make sense at any given time. I suppose quickly eliminating options is something people hesitate to do because closing doors is difficult. Lastly, Iíll also note that Iíve played the expansion Ė Reef Encounters of the Second Kind Ė twice and highly recommend it. Iím looking forward to Z-Man eventually publishing the expansion with second edition artwork so that I can purchase a copy. Itís not an expansion to introduce to new players, but for people who have played Reef Encounter many times, the expansion is a very nice breath of fresh air, adding some interesting new tiles and cards to the game.

While itís not a personal favorite of mine, I should mention Agricola as an alternate here since itís best with 3 players in my opinion and takes about the same amount of time to play as Java and Reef Encounter. When dividing your group of six in half, any games that excel with three and take the same amount of time to play are good to have on your short list so this is worthwhile for that purpose. I actually enjoy the game with the drafting variant where you start the game by spending 10 to 15 minutes drafting the Occupation and Minor Improvement cards (i.e., keep 1, pass 6, then keep 1, pass remaining 5, etc.) but most people seem opposed to taking the time to do this, and I donít enjoy the game very much when youíre simply dealt a hand of 14 cards. People complain about wasting time before the game to draft the cards, but I say that itís not wasting time before the game because drafting is part of the game. Itís an extra part of the game thatís fun and provides an important opportunity for strategic decision-making. Donít think of it as wasted time setting up, think of it as a great new piece of playing the game. I also enjoy the Through the Seasons expansion since it adds a nice extra layer of long-term planning. However, with new players, both drafting and Through the Seasons are not exactly viable, so the game unfortunately suffers. People also seem eager to cram the full 5 players into this game more often than not, and I think the experience suffers as a result. Itís like when Caylus was released back in 2005 and everyone complained about the playing time and downtime, but neglected to try the game with a reasonable number of players. Games need to be designed a certain way to work with a large group; they need to give you something to think about when itís not your turn and they need to take advantage of the larger group dynamics. When they fail to do those things then they should be played with fewer people. Lastly, Iíve only played Uwe Rosenbergís follow-up to Agricola Ė Le Havre Ė three times so far, but Iím enjoying it more and thinking that it may be another alternate for this pairing (although maybe too long and needing to be bumped to the next longer pairing). I like the more relaxed approach to feeding your people in Le Havre, which puts less pressure on your decisions and gives you more leeway in deciding what to do. I need to play it a few more times to really judge, but it certainly has promise. If you want the tried and true though, then stick to Java and Reef Encounter.

Heavy Hitters: Build a Railroad Empire or Crush the Persian Empire

Last but not least comes a pair of games for three players that clock in at around 120 minutes. These are for six people who donít mind not seeing the other three for a couple of hours. Martin Wallace is the king in this category. Youíll have a choice of which table to join but either way youíll be diving into a lovably complex and convoluted game that is Wallaceís signature style. These are a particularly nice substitute if you were hoping to play Wallaceís Liberte with five players before a sixth showed up at your game night. This way everyone can still enjoy puzzling over a Wallace game but with the perfect player count. Instead of battling it out in a bloody rendition of the French revolution, Age of Steam and Byzantium will let three people build railroad empires and the other three people tear down the Persian empire.

Age of Steam scales remarkably well to accommodate almost any number of players, but there are a number of particularly good maps for three players. Iím thinking of Scandinavia, Ireland, Japan, and Soul Train. None of these maps come with the game, but picking up any or all of them is definitely a worthwhile investment since they make the base game suddenly wonderful for three players. Scandinavia is probably my favorite of the bunch with itís tight map and Ferry action, but Iíd happily sit down to play any of them. Soul Train is especially interesting because it does away with the randomness of goods production by placing all of the cubes on the board at the start, and it divides the games into two halves, giving you the extra headache of trying to plan and set yourself up for the second half of the game while simply trying to survive during the first half. Ireland is ruthless with itís new role that allows removing a cube from the board to destroy an opponentís best laid plans. And Japan is a nice change of pace with itís significantly weakened Locomotive role, which changes the whole dynamic of bidding for turn order and role selection.

If you donít want to have to struggle to avoid bankruptcy and a vicious spiral of debt, then Iíd recommend choosing the Byzantium table in this pairing. Byzantium is an under-appreciated Wallace gem. Itís fantastic for three players and takes about the same amount of time to play as Age of Steam so you can shake things up and play against some new people in the next game, if youíre not too exhausted from this draining experience. Itís not a simple game, and the true-to-form horrendous rulebook doesnít help, with itís illogical description of the special rule-breaking actions before describing the normal rules in the first place. But if you can get past that then youíll find a very interesting and fairly unique game waiting for you. Each player controls two armies, one Byzantine army and one Arab army. So all three players control both sides of the conflict. You score points on two tracks, one Byzantine score track and one Arab score track. At the end of the game you add your two scores together, except the game encourages some balancing of your approach (like Tigris & Euphrates) because you only count your higher score if it ends up being more than twice as much as your lower score. Thus, youíll generally want to achieve some measure of success in waging war with both of your armies on opposite sides of the conflict. The game has a very clever system for managing your army and your resources in which you allocate cubes to different functions within your armies, but also can use those same cubes for various other possibilities in the game, such as claiming control of cities and selecting special ability actions. The cube is a universal resource and itís up to you how to allocate your limited resources. Thereís certainly luck in the dice rolling combat, but plenty of opportunity for meaningful decisions as well. The game lasts three rounds, which should pair up nicely with the 9 or 10 turns of the accompanying Age of Steam game.

Iíll mention here that short filler three-player games will be useful for when these pairings donít always perfectly match up. I think all of the pairs should roughly align in terms of game length, but sometimes one will run a little long or be cut a bit short, in which case a 15-minute three-player game is just what the doctor ordered. In this case I highly recommend the eBay Electronic Talking Auction Game. I know many of you are thinking that it sounds horrible. I had to be cajoled into trying it the first time because I was extremely skeptical of a licensed product like that and doubted that it could be any good. Well, Iím here to tell you that not only is it good, itís great. Itís actually a very clever fast-paced three-player auction game with a set collection mechanic. Itís not as deep or thoughtful as a game of Ra, but itís fun and well-designed. You really just have to give it a try to see for yourself. Fortunately, and ironically, itís easy to pick up a cheap copy on eBay.

Donít Dread the Sixth

Hopefully some of these suggestions will mean youíll no longer have to dread that sixth player showing up since it just means youíll get to play some great three-player games instead of the great five-player games that you might have otherwise played. Thereís no need to settle for cramming a sixth player into your games just because the rules technically permit you to do so. Instead just divide and conquer with two three-player games next time the predicament, nay opportunity, arises.

(See Boardgame News for an edited version of this article plus additional comments on it)