December 07, 2011

Gaming with Kids: The 4-Player Threshhold

As the old idiom goes, "Three's a crowd."  Well in the board gaming hobby, five must be also, while four is just right!  One of my minor rants with the industry is the number of games that will not accommodate more than four players.  I have four children and have had to apply the brakes on several likely buys that are a perfect family fit - except for the fact it doesn't include our entire family of five gamers.  We are not unique in this, nor certainly even a minority.  Personally, we know more families of five and more than we do with four and less.  And beyond family gaming, most gaming clubs and groups include more than four members.  So why do such a vast number of games stop with four?

Perhaps price is one aspect?  Adding components for 5-6 players would mean additional production costs.  Realistically, though, hobby gamers understand that.  Though we sometimes like to whine and complain about value (like any other hobby market), we are still willing to pay a little extra for a title that accommodates a little extra.  Believe it or not, families are willing to, also.  So then maybe game length is a consideration?  It is possible that adding that 5th and 6th person will extend playing time beyond a title's welcome.  Yet hardcore gamers are well adjusted in dealing with the added time, and family-oriented games are generally elegant enough to keep game length under control despite a couple more players.  Finally, perhaps balance is a major factor?  Before ever hitting the market, designers and volunteers playtest games to work out the flaws and kinks.  It is likely that everyone involved in this prototype-to-production process discovered that four players created a "sweet spot."  Or at most, to add mechanics and components for an additional opponent would derail the entire experience so severely, they don't even include them as an option.  That sounds like a logical explanation, yet it is weakened by the existence of a number of expansions that add additional players to a base game which originally accommodated only four, such as Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, and Stone Age, to name but a few.

Scaling a game so that it plays smoothly regardless of 2, 3, 4, 5, or more players is not always easy.  It can be an art and a science.  I get that.  But that balance, as well as value and playing time, is a subjective concept.  I would not argue that every single game must accommodate 5 or more players.  But there seem to be a great many titles that would benefit by providing at least the option to the gaming consumer.  Games on our wishlist that we may never buy because they don't accommodate more than four include: Trollhalla, Forbidden Island, Rattus, Tobago, Defenders of the Realm, Sobek, Roll Through the Ages, and Stone Age.  Going that little bit extra would include another demographic of potential buyers.  Families and gaming groups who are willing can add a player or two, while at the same time, those who prefer keeping at four (or even less) have that option.  In a world where it's impossible to please everyone all the time, providing that choice is the next best thing.  Let's call it crowd control.


  1. I think play time is the biggest consideration. Even Dominion, which does expand, can get a little unbearable with six players.

    And any game with area control is fairly sensitive to player issues. Small World includes different boards for different numbers of players to address that issue. So adding a fifth player to area games (even games like Tobago where area control isn't a mechanic but spreading out and into different locations is important are impacted).

    That said, I too wish that five was the standard rather than four. Quite often I have a group of five folks and that nixes a lot of good four player games.

  2. I wish for five all the time! But even though Dominion goes up to five with the expansion, the rules explain that this is a concession, not ideal. (I agree with that.)

    There are, however, some EXCELLENT five-player games that might work well with your family, chief among them being Ticket to Ride. (I don't know if you have it, but I haven't seen you talk about it.) Even though play is not simultaneous, since each player can only do one thing per turn, it moves briskly and is simple enough that anyone can play, but fun enough that I haven't met someone who doesn't like it. It also plays well with two, three, or four players. Ra is also a good game for five players(despite @Futurewolfie's hatred for it), though the scoring can be a bit tough to grasp. And then there are the shorter games from the Gryphon Bookshelf Series like Money, Incan Gold, and For Sale, each of which accommodates five players well, is easy to learn, and is a lot of fun to play.

  3. Yeah, both of you make pertinent points, thanks! Down time between turns is different than merely adding overall length to the game. We are more casual gamers, I'd say (as most family gaming I think will be), so that's probably why it flew over my head as an emphasis. For gaming groups, it's a consideration, I can understand.

    However, giving gaming consumers the choice to take or leave the 5th player would increase sales maybe?

    Incan Gold is on our wish list - probably even for the next buy (whenever that is). I've got Ticket to Ride on the wish list, too (and had a chance to look at it on one of those iPad things or something) but the kids don't seem excited about it. Think it's the theme?

  4. I really enjoyed reading your affirms the design direction that I am taking with the game of Crossbones...The Swashbuckling Pirate Adventure Game. A pirate's life board game designed for 2 to 5 players...ages X to Adult.

  5. Thanks, Tom - I believe that 5th player can make a lot of difference in sales. Sure, not the most important thing, but a big one. If playing with 5 proves too long for some, they can always stick with 3-4.