The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Number of Players?

Nicholas J. Sauer

October, 2001

One of my pet peeves as a gamer, for quite some time now, has always been the "number of players" statements that appear on game boxes. It seems that the standard thought amongst game companies is to say that the game will accommodate the largest number of players possible, regardless of whether this is actually the case or not. I would guess that the reason for doing this is that game companies believe that a wider option on number of players will increase sales of a game. Unfortunately, this falls a little too close to false advertising for my taste. As a result, for a number of years now I have been warning game purchasers to not take the advertised number of player listed on a game box too seriously.

The first reason I noticed this at all was because of my interest in good two-player games. Most games seem to advertise themselves as being for 2 to X players (where X is some number like 6). The problem is that a good multi-player game is usually quite a different animal than a good two player game. As soon as I realized this I began to warn prospective game buyers that if a game advertises itself as being for 2-X players, the 2 is usually a lie. This is, of course, not always the case and their are some noteworthy exceptions like Entdecker, for example. There are also the occasional games that specifically tailor rules to handle two-players like Acquire or Samurai. Actually, Samurai's rules modify the game for each number of players you may have. Of course, some games are designed specifically as two-player games from the start like abstract games and wargames.

Having been aware of the above for awhile, it had also occurred to me that there was probably other number of player boundaries on games at the multi-player end of the scale as well. It wasn't until I started entering my game collection on the Boardgamegeek website that I noticed a trend on the higher end of things. Actually, it was a dreadful six player game of Das Amulett that really made me realize it. When I went back and looked over the games where I had recommended numbers of players, the multi-player games fell into two rough categories. Games that handled 3 or 4 players (with the occasional dip or jump into the 2 or 5 regions) and those that handle 4 to 6 players. A large number of German style games seem to fall into the 3 or 4 player category. Some, like Twilight or Was Sticht?, even fall into the 4 player only category. Inkognito has rules for 3-players that are serviceable but, it really is a 4 player game first. Also, any game that features some sort of direct conflict between players will probably collapse with three players due to the 2 on 1 effect (where two-players tend to gang up on one player to eliminate them and, as a result, convert the game into a two-player game).

Number of players listed
      on Ricochet RobotOf course, as in the two-player discussion earlier, there are exceptions. El Grande seems to handle 3 to 5 players equally well. Looking at the full player range, Take it Easy (Hextension) and Ricochet Robot are games that both handle handle 2-X players just fine. In the case of Ricochet Robot, the X on the box is listed as infinity which is a clever bit of advertising that is not completely unfair. These games are definitely more of the exception than the rule in my experience, however.

A curious recent trend is that labeling a game as being good for 2-X players may finally be changing. Kosmos created the Settlers of Catan Card Game to create a two-player version of the popular board game. Its success provided a springboard for Kosmos to launch a very successful line of two-player only games. Even more recently, Kosmos has launched a four-player game line as well. It will be interesting to see whether this idea of using a specific number of players as an advertising approach for a game will work. I, as one consumer, appreciate the candor on Kosmos part to hope that this method of selling games does succeed. Ultimately, time will tell.

So, given that Kosmos is only one of a large number of manufacturers out there, what is the game buyer to do with all of the rest of the games out there? Well, I would first assume that most gamers can easily differentiate between two-player and multi-player games. This still leaves us with the dilemma of figuring out whether a multi-player game is better as a 3 to 4 player game or as a 4 to 6 player game (or maybe something that handles a little of both). Looking at the two ranges of players gives us an obvious solution to the problem. Since four is the overlap point of the two ranges, we should always try a new multi-player game with four players to give it the fairest first trial. After the first playing it should be fairly straightforward to determine whether the game can handle more or less players. This will hopefully avoid situations like I described earlier with Das Amulett where players walk away with a bad impression of what might be an otherwise fine game.

- Nicholas J Sauer

GGA - As with Nick the number of players that a game lists has often been a cause of some concern to me. The biggest problem I have is that often too many players are listed and while in very few cases does this actually ruin the game, in many it makes for a worse experience than if it had been played with a lesser number. The most obvious pitfall with too many players is the increase in "downtime". That is, the time in which other player's are taking their turn and you have little to do. One of the strengths of many German games is that they involve all players during each turn. Trading games such as The Settlers of Catan or Bohnanza are prime examples of this. Others are less accommodating. The main complaint that detractors of Tikal have is that there's nothing to do when its not your turn and interest wanes. Certainly this would not be helped if you had to wait through five others players' turns rather than three.

Easily the worst offender in this regard is Cheapass Games. I've played a number of their games that quite simply do not work well with the numbers indicated. In at least one case (The Big Cheese) the game is, quite simply, broken when played with the maximum number of players listed. What gets me really upset is that often a poor first playing can cloud players' judgment of the game and influence desire to ever play again. Since no one really knows what the game is like until after a first play you've little way of knowing that it is best with fewer rather than more players. I've taken to reducing the maximum players rating on all Cheapass games by at least two and sticking to it steadfastly.

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