Today I’m working from home in preparation for doing an interview with BluePegPinkPeg, who look at games from the perspective of couples and families. That’s got me thinking about how different games handle player counts, a lot of games seem to display player counts that they can’t really handle. I’ve got plenty of games in my collection listed as “2-6 players” that are totally unplayable with two, so I wanted to take a minute to talk about how different games deal with varying player counts.
There are a lot of ways that games fail to deal with low or high player counts, any game that has diplomacy as a core aspect of the game will tend to break down with less than four players. Games with long turns and not much interaction tend to break down with more than four players. I can think of dozens of examples of games that fail here, but I prefer to talk in positive terms, so let’s focus on ones that succeed.
The low hanging fruit here is stuff like 7 wonders, which scale fairly elegantly through most of their player count. Only interacting with your neighbours solves a lot of the issues that can come from having to balance a game in which a player might have one or six opponents and simultaneous turns go a long way towards mitigating the issues that crop up with high player counts. However some types of game inherently can’t use this sort of solution, so how do games that require global interaction account for differing player counts?
Area control games, for instance, will typically require that everyone has the opportunity to interact and so need to do something different to bring the experiences at the upper and lower bounds of their player counts closer to the core game that they’re developing. Most of the ones that I play seem to resort to one of two solutions: Reduce the area or increase the goal.
Area control games thrive when the areas are sufficiently limited that players are forced into conflict for necessary resources, therefore one approach to deal with a different player count is to change the size of the area available. If this is a primary issue then it can do a good job, something like cutting down the number of tracks in Ticket to Ride seems effective. However games with more conflict can come unstuck with this solution, for instance while the second edition of Game of Thrones eliminates some key areas from the board (well gives them infinite defence, which amounts to the same thing) it still struggles at small player counts due to other game elements – for instance the difference between a bid of 0 providing no special order counters and one special order counter is hugely significant.
The alternative solution is to change the victory conditions such that each player requires a larger area in order to be successful. For instance in Discworld each player has a hidden objective and those that require controlling a certain number of areas change depending on the player count. Additionally the capacity to take areas is also made proportional to the number of players, as players share a draw deck and a smaller number of players will draw more cards over the course of the game. It’s critical that a solution based around increasing objectives also provide players the resources to obtain these objectives such that they’re able to come into conflict over them – rather than all simply failing to fill the (proportionally) larger area available to them.
Another genre that can have trouble with varying player counts is worker placement games. The majority of worker placement games create some of their tension by limiting the available spaces, if the number of players change balancing the ratio of workers to extra-worker cost to spaces becomes much harder. There are a whole bunch of solutions to this issue, but I’d like to contrast those of two games developed by the same designer: Viticulture and Euphoria.
Viticulture takes what I think of as the traditional approach to balancing worker placement games for variable numbers of players: The number of available spaces to place workers varies by the number of players, so as you have more players there’s more available space – so that no matter how many players you have the number of available spaces is always “Not quite enough for everyone to do what they want”.
Having played Viticulture I’d expected Euphoria might take a similar approach and spent a fair portion of the rules explanation waiting for the “And these spaces don’t exist because there are only two of us playing today.” which didn’t happen. When we played our first game I found that I won by a wide margin, by selecting characters and approaches that were undervalued by the more experienced player that had taught me – she’d previously only played with larger groups. We had a good game with two and (apparently) it’s great with six too – but it plays completely differently!
Digging into this it appears to be an emergent property of the baseline component gathering mechanic. Typically you need basic resources to obtain advanced resources or cards that you use to do everything else. The basic resources are gathered from spaces that can take any number of workers, but the effect of the space varies based on the number of workers already there. At low worker counts you lose knowledge by playing there, at high counts you gain knowledge.
Knowledge is bad, in this case, because your workers are in a dystopia and you don’t want them to recognise that. If you have too many workers and too much knowledge then one of your workers leaves and you must continue without them. This reduces the worker count in the game, but also changes core strategies, because there are different ways to mitigate (or exacerbate for your opponents) the impact of knowledge. The little lesson here is that you can change the function of an space by player count rather than by changing the number of spaces in order to deal with player counts, but I feel that the big lesson is that you don’t need to make the 2 player game feel like the 6 player game. If both can be made into interesting balanced experiences – of different types – then that probably offers more value than a game which manages to feel the same for any number of players.
Since I’m launching a kickstarter in a week this post wouldn’t be complete without my relating these ideas back to my own game. At the start of development, some years ago, I made a decision that I’d hoped would make Wizard’s Academy easy to balance by player count: There would be so such thing as a ’round’. Each turn a player is forced to do something that sabotages the groups efforts and can do something to further their objectives. As the number of positive actions will always match the number of disaster cards player, whatever else I do the game will play the same for any player count. Or so I believed.
This started to fall apart once playtesting revealed that players hate losing a game because they drew the wrong card at the wrong time – it too often felt like defeat wasn’t a result of the players strategy so much as luck and that’s an awful feelings. So I started testing with more dangerous cards, but that the players could see a turn in advance and so be able to plan effectively for and immediately the experience improved dramatically!
However, as each player drew their card for next turn in advance the number of players started affecting how far the group could collectively see ahead and player count started to matter. Directly solving this problem – by having players draw when the player X turns away from them took their turn – created a fiddly overhead job that nobody really liked. At the same time other things started to have an impact: A player needs a combination of glyphs to cast spells, as such the number of spells that can be cast has a nonlinear relationship to the number of glyphs a player has. So smaller player counts got an advantage out of concentrating their resources between fewer characters.
As the game developed pros and cons to having different player counts emerged and I moved away from playing whack-a-mole with each factor that changed with player count and instead focused on balancing them against each other. A large group can still see further ahead. A small group can still concentrate their resources more effectively. Over the last year playtesting has developed the game to the point that the win rate is broadly the same for groups of different sizes and more important the level of playtester satisfaction was high throughout.
So I’d say that the conclusion to draw is that dealing with different player counts need not always be about eliminating factors that vary by player count. Instead try embracing that different numbers of players might have a different experience and see if there are ways to tool those experiences such that all of the versions of the game are enjoyable in their own way.