Optima Player Count: Part Three - Tabletop Games Article
Quadropolis is a wonderful tile laying game that utilises a great drafting mechanic. The tiles that players can draft for the turn are placed on a 5 x 5 grid. Players take turns drafting from the grid by using architect tiles which have a number from 1-4 on them. By placing their architect on one of the rows or columns they can take the tile of their choice so long as it corresponds to the number on the architect tile. So if I want the tile fourth along the top row from left to right I either have to place my architect with a 4â beside the top row on the left hand side, the architect with the number 1 on the top of the fourth column, or the tile with a 2 on it on the right top row. This blocks off that end of the column or row. In a four player game 16 Architects hitting the table means there is high probability that at least one of the tiles you want will be taken or blocked. Because of this players have to be flexible and constantly planning contingencies. This tension and restrictive access to resources was what appealed to me about the game. I loved the challenge of having to think creatively to use what resources were available to gain a better score than my opponents. Unfortunately there is a down side. The drafting board size does not change and so when you have two players the issue of scarcity or being blocked is not such an issue. In fact you may go a whole round and not have any interference while drafting the exact tiles you want. The point of tension is lost entirely with a lower player count.
Quadropolis an awesome game.
The last couple of weeks I have been musing over what an optimal player count means. When reviewers or gamers state that any particular game is best at (insert player count) it is worth questioning what that means. In the last article we focused specifically on how time impacts the optimal player count. Yet time is only one factor to consider. Quadropolis is a great example of how richness in decision making impacts what makes an optimal player count.
Every game has a point of tension that intrigues the brain and stimulates it. Games that are light in decision making tend to have greater randomness. The fun then is in the uncertainty and tension found in watching how the dice fall or what card will be drawn next. Most games have an element of this, but the more strategy and tactics added to a game the greater the need to control randomness. I do not mind a little randomness, but I also enjoy knowing that my strategy and tactics outplayed my opponents, not just the luck of die. With games that require planning, strategy and/or tactics the the optimal number of players will depend on how the number of players diminishes or bolster the decision making.
We usually speak about scalability of game when we are trying to describe how well a game balances changes in the player count with the richness of gaming experience. I often refer to Small World as a highly scalable game. The tension of Small World is that there is not enough room on the map for everyone to get their tribe in point scoring areas without hindering the other players. The game scales with the player count by using different sized maps. But imagine if two players played a game with the four player map. It would be likely that both players could get their entire tribe on the map without any interaction and sit there for ten turns scoring points. Not a very interesting game. Quadropolis does not have scalability like Small World. Two player diminishes the tension and interest of the game. I want the decision making to be tough and to have to think my way out of difficult situations.
My point here is somewhat subjective as it may not be the case that what I like in a given game is what others enjoy. But this is the main reason we need to question when people make these recommendations. When I play Sushi Go against my friend Nic this point is evidenced to me perfectly. In Sushi Go I am counting cards and trying to determine the probability of getting certain cards back to me, what strategies other players are using, and so forth. Nic is trying to collect all the cute cards. We both enjoy the game, but for completely different reasons. In this way I want to play Sushi Go at the four-five player mark. With four-five players I can follow what strategies others are using, I can speculate what cards will come back to me, and I enjoy the challenge of working around the card choices of other players. Any fewer and the game is not as complex, lacking a little interest for me. With Nic, however, any player count works so long as she can collect the cute cards. I should mention that Nic also wins the game more than me and I should consider her strategy as viable.
Just collect the cute cards? Well it is one strategy.
But it is not always fewer numbers that hinder the success of a game. I love to play Ultimate Werewolf and often teach it to students at school. I like having larger numbers, but there is a point where the game becomes too onerous, unruly, and unnecessarily complicated. Perhaps the age of the students is also a factor here, yet I do not enjoy groups much more than 20 when it comes to a good game of Ultimate Werewolf. My reason being that while social deduction is core to winning the game, the process is vital to aiding this. It is the process of discussion, accusing, building suspicion and deflecting suspicion that makes the game fun. With a high player count this becomes increasingly difficult. People shy away from jumping in, group think can take over far more easily and people stop listening to each other. The core of the game is lost and so is the fun.
When suggesting an optimal player count we need to discuss what elements of the game offer richness. The number of players may impact the type of decision making and the complexity of the game, or even just the fun. When considering my optimal player count I am trying to find the right number of people that stimulates a meaningful tensions that motivates better and smarter play. I also want a number of people that promotes fun and stimulating interaction with players. There are games where scalability has been done well enough that changing the number of players may not impact the experience that much. Yet that is more the exception than the rule. Finding the optimal player count needs to be clearly expressed what occurs when the number of players change, or how the desirable number of players generates the best experience of the game. For me this will usually involve a number of players that generates good mounting tension in the game and forces me to out think my opponents to win. I wonder what factors matter most to you when deciding how many people are best to play with.