Does every game need to work for every player count? A Cardboard Manifesto

15 December 2022
Safety in numbers

Words by Chris Marling

Remember the days before Kickstarter? It was all fields, you could leave your front door open and not get burgled, and you played a game – or read some genuine reviews – before you bought it. A game was for life, not just for the minis (or for flipping after two plays). Sure, there was a lot less choice. But at least you didn’t spend half of each game session learning the rules to that week’s shiny.

But crowdfunding is here to stay. As are a trendy beard-load of craft publishers, pumping out a game each year to keep the home fires burning. But how on earth can they grab your attention in such as crowded market?

One tactic seems to be player count. As a designer who has seen a 3-4 player game struggle in the market, I have first hand experience of seeing how limiting your audience can make your sales suffer. Perhaps that makes me more bitter? But it certainly makes me aware of the industry very much going in the other direction of late.

I brought around 20 games home from Essen to review last year. And never have so many of them read ‘1-4’ or ‘1-5’ players on the box. Half of me was cynical about this. But the other half embraced it. There’s COVID, after all. A lot of players – and designers – are stuck at home, unable to access their usual friend or prototype groups. It was the perfect conditions from which the solo scene could flourish. And then I started playing them.

What’s that? You have a highly competitive euro game, all about positioning and denial? So, 3-5 players then? No? 1-5? Wow. How did you achieve that? Ah. By covering up a few spaces and rolling a d6 to simulate a human being’s response to a complex strategic situation. Awesome.

Well, hello there. Ooh, you have a puzzley euro game with zero interaction and you’ve included a solo mode? I’m excited! I can picture it now: a Power Grid-esque robot AI player that simulates a differing play style of opponent, depending on setup, perhaps? Oh. I play as normal but have to beat the score I got last time? You must’ve had some sleepless seconds in the design lab coming up with that.

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It can be as bad at the other end of the scale. Roll-and-writes typically list the player count as one-to-the number of sheets in the box – usually 1-100. Why stop there? Most of us have a scanner/printer, so can make as many sheets as we like. Why not one to a million, or a billion? Or one-to-the current adult population of the planet? Alternatively, how about this? Give us, your customers, an actual steer towards how many players will really work. You’ve tested it, right?

Even at lower player counts, numbers can be problematic. I’ve played games listed as five or six players where game length equals the number of players – say, 30 or even 45 minutes each. But where it’s largely heads-down and you can’t plan anything between turns due to resource turnover. That’s a four-player game at best. But as a publisher, technically it could go more, right? Wrong.

But let’s not forget what makes this so jarring: the brilliant solo versions and multiplayer marvels that make the heart sing. The recent Concordia Solitaria solo expansion, for example. Or the genuinely fun six-player experience of dice heist race game Bad Company. What’s that? Oh, yes. Bad Company also has a truly forgettable one-player experience. I guess every silver lining does have a cloud…  

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