Optima Player Count – Part Two – A Timely Issue

How do you plan for an evening of gaming? Some people like to wait until everyone arrives and then make a choice. I am not built that way. While I am happy going with the flow at other people's homes, when I am hosting I invite people over for a specific game. I usually have a feature game for the evening that everyone knows we will be playing, and a few game options I would recommend to go with it.

The other night I invited my friend Ricky over to play The Others by Eric Lang. We were learning the rules so we could teach our gaming group. The game has a two player option and we were keen to crack it open. To ease us in I got out Circular Reasoning, an abstract game I recently acquired. The box states that it takes about 20-45 minutes. We played a two player game which went really well taking just under 15 minutes. We were keen to see what it was like at four players so we played a four player game with each of us using two different colours. This impacted our time exponentially to nearly an hour. Not that it mattered, we were up for the challenge and the game was interesting, yet that time variable was unpredictable and a constraining factor on the evening.

Circular Reasoning board game review Breaking Games review by Gameapalooza AustraliaCircular Reasoning … timed

As we have never played The Others we took the box recommended game play time and added half an hour for learning. We should have added an hour and a half for learning. Due to our hour long game of Circular Reasoning and the learning curve of The Others we were still up at 1am with a third of the game to go. We called it quits.

Time is a huge factor in games from a player perspective and design perspective. In my last article I raised the notion of optimal player count as a term used among reviewers and fans that lacks definition. I wanted to start exploring what this term means and how it can inform us as people who want to know more about games. One of the key areas that needs to be discussed is time. Time is a variable that is experienced in games from multiple perspectives. It can be used tactically or can simply be a consequence of tactics, it can be part of the design or simply a consideration of design. Time is a vital part of every gaming experience. We are going to look at time from the perspective of what time mechanics work in game and how these mechanics effect real world time for the player.

When organising game nights I consider time from the perspective of the number attending, and what games I think we can play within the time we have. Often playing only one game is unsatisfactory for me, so spending all 5 hours on Axis and Allies just does not appeal. For this reason my consideration of an optimal player count may be dependent on what time is available. Let's say my friend Sally preferred to get a group of people through a range of games in an evening. She would want games that play multiple players quickly. Sally might go with some fast party games like Cash 'n Guns, Coup, and Codenames. On the other hand I like games that last from 60-90 minutes and so I tend to only invite about 4 players and enjoy games like Mission Red Planet, Small World, and 7 Wonders. Now swap Sally and me around in this scenario. I like Sally's games, but for me I want larger groups. I like having more people play party games because it extends the length of time. Sally however would want few players for my selection so the games are quicker and she can get through more. So who will have the correct optimal player count? If we both chose Small World I would want 6 people for maximum mayhem and in depth decision making. Sally on the other hand would be happier with two or three players to speed the game up and move on to the next game. Both of us still not playing Axis and Allies, yet who is right?

axis and allies boxNo… just no! – image credit http://www.axisandallies.org

Spyfall raises an interesting consideration as it is a timed game. Timed games seem to avoid this scenario. In Spyfall it does not matter how many people are playing you only have eight minutes. The same is true for such games as One Night Ultimate Werewolf, Escape: The Curse of the Temple, and Boggle. Yet this does not mean timed games are excluded from the player count issue. More players often means more negotiation. In Spyfall the eight minutes time limit means moving from questioning to accusation with fewer turns around the group the more people are playing. This may impact the enjoyment for some. Other games like Escape: The Curse of the Temple increases the difficulty. meaning you need to get rid of more gems the more players you have. Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game utilises the Blessing’s Deck as its time mechanic. The Blessing's Deck has a set number of cards based on the number of players which means that groups of every size have a similar number of turns and opportunity to end the game successfully.

In each of these situations the ultimate decision has to fall on player experience. Does the player feel disadvantaged or hindered by there being more or fewer players? With Spyfall it may be a disadvantage to have more players as it means few turns, yet too few and it becomes overly easy to guess who the spy is. With Escape: The Curse of the Temple more players means an increased difficulty of task, but this challenge is shared between the group, so the impact may be negligible. With the Adventure Card Game the time pressure may be the same, and the number of turns may be the same, but now there is a disparity between time in game and time in the real world.

Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game presents a new issue of how time is used and perceived. So far we have spoken directly about in game time and real time as the same thing, but Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game has a designed mechanic that ensures the in game time mechanic balances out with an adjustment of numbers. This adjustment allows players a similar in game experience of mounting pressure that forces players to finish the game in a set number of turns. Yet while the in game time remains balanced, in real time this balance changes significantly. As a player I feel the game starts to drag with more players as it means more down time. Down time is a term that refers directly to real time experience of player between turns.

Games try to mitigate down time in different ways and games that fail to deal with it successfully are criticised for failing to do so. Escape: The Curse of the Temple has no down time as all players are rolling at once, Lanterns the Harvest Festival mitigates downtime by having a mechanic where each turn directly impacts all players. Pathfinder the Adventure Card Game relies on the shared adventure and story to maintain interest as well as some cards being able to offer support during other people's turn. Down time is a big factor for optimal player count as it is a universal issue. All players want to feel included in the game and anything that causes the experience of real time to drag is perceived as a disappointment. For this reason some games genuinely benefit from fewer players. Carcassonne is a perfectly good game, but with five, or more with some expansions, the time between turns can be a dull wait. The issue of down time is only exacerbated with players prone to analysis paralysis. For this reason I prefer a 2-3 player game with Carcassonne as it keeps turns coming around relatively quickly.

carcassonne board gameCarcassonne! A perfectly good game…. dependent on player count.

The subjective experience of time, via in game time mechanics and real time play, should not result in us determining that an optimal player count is all relative. Instead it should forces us to state specifically the factors we are using to determine what that optimal player count should be. We need to clearly articulate if the optimal player count is due real time game play, in game timing, or down time between turns. For me an optimal player count should allow for the game to meet my preferred real world time of 60-90 minutes while minimising down time. Adjustments that are made to in game time or real time should not diminish or unbalance player interaction or complexity of game play. What I am referring to here may be interpreted as scalability. Scalability, however, would encompass much more than I intend to cover in a discussion on time. What we can say is that should the player count result in adjustments to time in any form, and those adjustments are detrimental to the richness of gameplay, then there is an issue with that number of people. For me Mission Red Plant plays best with four people. The simultaneous role section and turn taking minimises down time. The real world game length of an hour is about optimal for my preference. Finally the richness of play is not diminished by any of the time considerations. For you these factors might be different. Next time we will discuss how player count can impact the richness of decision making. Until next time.

Found this interesting? Be sure and check out part one of The Optima Player Count.