So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Games of Grief: How many players does this support?


Most of us have been caught in a game that we cannot win, cannot end, and cannot leave.  It’s the Triangle of Torment, and it’s too late!  Sometimes, we can avoid this because we know the game lends itself to this particular type of torture. Risk and Monopoly are the best known perpetrators, but there are far more.  At other times, it happens because a game is outside its “sweet spot”.  This is the number of players the game reallysupports, really produces a great experience, not what is on the box.  Sure, you can play Monopoly with six, but do you really want to?  Every game is lengthened by adding players.  At a minimum, more decisions are being made, and that will slow things down.  Yet, some games are relatively unaffected by the number of players.  They scale well.  This post will identify some of the signs of a game stretched too thin, or a game that can tolerate a wider range in the number of players. 

Rule 1:  If the number of players supported has a wide range, the game probably doesn’t play well at the upper limit.  The most obvious hint for how many players can play a game is the number of players listed on the box.  That’s useful information, just not perfect.  Generally, a game cannot be stretched past the top number of players due to the components included.  The number of pawns, player mats or something other piece is the limiting factor.  If someone wants to play Scrabble with five, there aren’t enough tile racks.  It would probably be a good idea to politely say “no”.  After all, there is a reason the game says 2-4 players.  Beyond that, many games are not great when played at the upper limit of their player count.  If the box says it plays 2-6 players, there is a pretty good chance it isn’t very good at six players.  This is particularly true when the spread of players supported is four or more.  Games where the spread is one are generally safe; Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries says 2-3 players, and that’s accurate.

Rule 2:  Sometimes a game has a number of rolesthat define the best number of players.  War of the Ring is a 2-4 player game where victory is achieved by good overcoming evil or vice versa.  There are two sides: good and evil.  Only two people need play.  In fact, unless you like the role of Igor, it is going to be a bad game with more than two.  This is true in so many games, which can be generalized this way: don’t count the number of players, count the number of roles.  Most historical wargames have two sides: North vs. South, Axis vs. Allies,  Romans vs. Carthaginians.  An exception is Diplomacy, which, like Risk, has multiple roles.  This is exactly the reason why Axis and Allies is great with two or five, but not with three or four.  The game is either played with two roles (Axis / Allies), or five roles (Germany / Japan / United States / Soviet Union / Great Britain).

Rule 3:  The conditions that determine the end of the game indicate how additional players impact the play.  Many end game conditions are actually similarly structured, with a few defining characteristics.  The first thing to look for is whether or not the game uses a common pool of resources that directly impact the endgame, or if resources are separate or immaterial to the end game.  Take Scrabblefor instance.  The game essentially ends when the 100 tiles run out, plus a turn or two.  It is a common pool of tiles, so whether two people or four people are playing, they have to play 100 tiles.  Game length doesn’t overly suffer.  In Pandemic, there are three ways to lose: run out of disease cubes in any one of the four colors, run out of player cards, or have too many outbreaks.  The number of each is fixed, regardless of the number of players.  The game will end in roughly the same period of time – sooner if you manage a win!   On the other hand, resources have nothing to do with the end game in Monopoly or Risk, they are essentially infinite, and therefore more players will definitely increase the game length.

Rule 4:  How much confrontation a game has, along with how it is structured, have a big impact on game length with respect to the number of players.  Non-cooperative games without confrontation tend to last longer in direct proportion to the number of players involved.  If each person is trying to get to ten points, and the score of an average loser is 8, then a game with an extra player will have 8 extra points scored – more time.  If there is confrontation, the next question is does the game play with replacement or without replacement.  If I am playing a game where my ninja heals if not killed, then each attack, no matter how many players, has to kill me from full strength. (This game could go on forever!)  However, if there is no replacement, each attack weakens me, regardless of the source of the attack.  If I am playing 4-way chess, with the goal of eliminating everyone else, there are more pieces playing, but Player A taking a rook benefits Players B and C just as much, and the damage is cumulative.  The game is less impacted by the number of players.

Armed with this, you can avoid that never-ending game – you will see it coming.  Maybe you can redirect to a game that is better suited to the number of people sitting around.  After all,

It’s Your Move!

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