More than Four Players (and the Gaming Sweet Spot)

Ever notice how some games are great, until you try them with a different number of players? Maybe this game works best with three while another one only works really well with more than four players, despite what it says on the box about supporting two to six.

I’ll take a look at the sweet spot for a few games and why I think these games work well (or don’t work at all) with more players, plus some suggestions on how they might be improved to scale for a larger group.

Recently I’ve had the opportunity not just to play a bunch of games again after a gaming drought, but to play several games with five players, thanks to a new member being added to our gaming group. We brought out some games I remembered fondly, a few of which didn’t work as well as I hoped.

Castle

Castle by Serge Laget and Bruno Faidutti is an empty-your-hand card game about placing characters in and around a castle grid. Lots of cards have abilities which return a previously played card to an opponent’s hand, enabling much back and forth which I feel embodies the game’s main conflict and fun.

Castle “supports” five in theory but in practice I don’t think that’s actually the case. The problem is that dividing the deck among five players leaves too few cards to each player. People go out very quickly, there’s just not enough opportunities for sending cards back before someone clears out their hand and deck. The game feels like it ends too quickly, without a whole lot of conflict and challenge.

My recommendation would be to play with three or four. If you must play with five you could try decreasing the size of the exchange, giving each player one more card. That’s probably not enough to make a significant difference though, and it might limit the usefulness of the exchange. What’s really needed is more cards, which would require a larger castle and ramparts on which to play additional cards, which in turn require an expansion if not a whole new version of the game to do it properly.

Market of Alturien

When I wrote my review of Market of Alturien I enjoyed playing it, and generally still do. It turns Monopoly on its head by allowing players to build businesses on any spaces they choose, but take turns moving gold, silver, and copper customers (and a thief) around the board to land on those businesses.

The result is an unpredictable emergence of customer flow through the city’s streets and alleys making both business location and movement dice rolls (which can be enhanced through investments) important.

Market supports up to six players. While playing with five didn’t break the game it did change the dynamics considerably. More players means each person has less control over the customers and a smaller slice of the real estate around the city where those customers can land. Hence less income.

As the game went on it seemed that a couple players were doomed to kingmaker positions; unable to secure enough income for themselves and frequently having to choose which of their opponents to enrich. I like this game more with three or four players, when each person has stronger influence on their own standing in the game. It’s playable with five, as long as you’re prepared for the chance that by mid-game you stand the chance of landing in poor position with little chance of recovery.

The idea of a second city guard card in games of more than four players occurred to me, to protect the two poorest players (or two last hit by the thief), but I’m not sure it would work well. My recommendation is to play with three or four for a game that’s more enjoyable the length of the game for most players.

Dominion

Donald X. Vaccarino’s Dominion is a great game that worked just fine with five players, despite stating support only for two to four players. Sure provinces run out a bit faster but it was just as much fun as always. No changes needed to enjoy with five, I recommend it highly!

Race for the Galaxy

Race for the Galaxy by Tom Lehmann is another game that I would highly recommend for five players, assuming you have the first expansion which adds the necessary cards. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and the pace hardly slowed with the extra player.

Citadels

Citadels by Bruno Faidutti is a card game I haven’t played recently with five, but did play with four. While it supports two to seven players, I found four to be rather underwhelming compared to the three player games of Citadels I have enjoyed.

With three players each person chooses two characters, thus generally getting two turns in a round and filling the majority of the roles. Switching to four players where each person gets a single character, and half the roles going unused, it was a lot less fun. Much of the game’s dynamics center around guessing which character(s) other players will choose and trying to grab an appropriate counter, or just avoiding characters which are likely to be targets of nastiness (assassination, thievery, etc.). With so many idle characters each round the four player game felt hollow and dull.

My recommendation: aim for three players. Or possibly six, though I suspect at that size the game might drag, as many games tend to do when five players wait for the sixth to finish his or her turn.

Robo Rally

Richard Garfield’s Robo Rally is the rare game that gets better with more players. Since players program, and move, their robots simultaneously it isn’t as prone to significant slowdowns (though consistently slow programmers might affect it), and more robots on the factory floor means more chance for collisions, laser hits, and the kind of havoc that makes a game of Robo Rally so much fun.

The re-released version of the game is, in my opinion, a nice upgrade from the original (which I own), and cleans up a few features like virtual bots which were probably more confusing than useful as well as adding a spiffy starting block.

One recommendation: give players more than the rules-specified three lives (I seem to recall the original version specified more). Even one additional life (for a total of four per player) might do it; the reason for this recommendation is that it’s no fun to sit out the end of the game just because messed up or were pushed into a pit too many times. And it makes things more interesting for the other players to have you around, providing an additional challenge (and moving target). There’s almost no reason someone needs to sit out at all, you could even play with unlimited lives and probably not regret it, having more robots moving around the board just makes things more fun for everyone.

Have any thoughts on the sweet spot for any particular game? Let me know in the comments!