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The challenges of big-group games


In my previous two posts, I talked about the differences between designing two-player games and multiplayer games. Although I referred to games for three or four players in the latter’s title, everything I said there holds equally true in games for larger groups. However, I decided to create a separate post for big group games, because they have their own challenges on top of those of smaller multiplayer games. But whereas there’s binary division between two-player and multiplayer games, with fundamental differences between the two, here we see the problems appear and grow more gradually, as we increase the number of players. They may be minor, easy-to-deal-with issues in the case of a game for five, but become exponentially more serious as you add more – one of the main reasons there are few games on the market that can handle seven or more players.

The first problem is a pragmatic one: that of physical components. For most game designs, a certain amount of stuff is required for each player. Many games require each player to have their own set of pieces, for instance, which leads to the dual problem of manufacturing costs, and eventually (beyond about 10 players), running out of easily-differentiated colors to use. Even if this is not the case, game components such as a communal deck of cards or a supply of counters tend to run out if too many players are involved. From a publisher’s point of view, meanwhile, there is a problem of diminishing returns; assuming a game plays equally well with any number of players, providing enough components to play with five or six players instead of the usual four may sell more units… but moving from six to seven or eight may not. As such, decisions about the quantity of components to include are generally made based more on manufacturing practicalities; what will fit in that publisher’s standard box size, or how many cards can fit on a single press sheet.

If this were the only issue, however, players wishing to play a game in a bigger group could just buy two copies of it, or create their own makeshift pieces. The fact is, however, that most games have an ideal number of players and tend to deteriorate in enjoyability quite quickly when more players are added. There are a few reasons for this.

One of these is one of the same issues that was mentioned in the post about three- and four-player games, namely the gang-up-on-the-leader phenomenon. In a game with a smaller number of players, a combination of luck, skill and/or momentum can be enough for a player to overcome the combined efforts of his two or three opponents, it would be almost impossible for a player to maintain a lead against the combined efforts of, say, six others.

Simply being conservative in the degree of damage one allows players to deal to one another is unlikely to be enough when we’re talking about a game for a big group. Rather, the most common solutions are either to eliminate negativistic mechanics altogether, creating a game in which players move only towards victory at varying rates, never stopping or being moved backwards… or else to restrict players not so much in how much they can hurt other players, but in terms of who they can hurt, thus preventing everyone from ganging up on the leader at once. Examples of this include King of Tokyo, in which players can generally only hurt each other if either they or their target is “in Tokyo,” Vampire: the Eternal Struggle, in which players’ seating order determines their predator/prey relationship, with each player only able to attack one other player directly, and 7 Wonders, in which players’ military buildup only affects those sitting next to them, while the impact of their drafting decisions has the greatest effect on the one or two players to their left.

There is also one other solution, which is uncommon and generally only appears in war games of various sorts, which is to allow joint victories. For instance, Fief requires players to obtain 3 Victory Points to win alone, but a combined total of only 4 Victory Points to win with another player, provided that they have forged an alliance by marrying two of their nobles.

The other major problems for big group games are playtime and downtime, which I will lump together because they share similar solutions. Most games require a certain minimum number of decisions to be made by each player in order to the game to feel meaningful; a game of Carcassonne would not be much fun if each player only got to play two or three tiles, for example. Thus, as the number of players increases, the total number of decisions to be made must also increase. Decisions take time, thus the game takes longer.

Likewise, for games played in a standard ’round-the-table fashion, more players means more other people who need to make decisions before one’s next turn comes around. For these sorts of games, downtime increases as more players are included, with the possible result of boredom and disengagement if it becomes too great.

Both problems can only be solved by finding an alternative to the normal paradigm of one player at a time making one or more complex decisions. Fortunately, there are numerous options:

Simultaneous actions: Players make their moves simultaneously, often by playing cards secretly from their hands, and revealing once all cards are down. Other methods could include writing moves down (a la Diplomacy), holding out a closed handful of tokens, or using pieces of some sort to indicate moves behind a screen.

A series of little decisions: Although it doesn’t necessarily bring down the total playtime, making each individual turn shorter decreases downtime. This means that a player’s entire turn would consist of e.g. making a bid in an auction, moving a single piece, choosing a single card from a tableau, or some other such unitary decision from a restricted number of choices.

Out-of-turn play: Players have some ability to make decisions outside of the normal clockwise order of play, perhaps interrupting another player’s turn to intervene, to negotiate trades with other players during someone else’s turn, or to seize the initiative at some kind of cost and take their own turn ahead of schedule. Again, this does not necessarily bring down the playtime, but helps to keep players engaged when it is not currently their turn.

Group decisions: Rather than players making decisions for themselves, a game’s state could be controlled by one or more votes by all players (or sub-groups of players) each turn, such that everyone is involved in every decision.

Putting all this together, we see that games for big groups often need to break away from conventional gaming tropes if they are to work. Designers need to find creative ways to make a game that either doesn’t require too many components or allows them to be shared between a large number of players without running out, to avoid letting players gang up freely on whoever is leading, and to minimize downtime and excessive game length. To solve all these problems requires a deliberate effort, which is why many games only work with up to four, a few can handle five or six, and we very rarely see games for any more than that. Most game designs begin with either a thematic or a mechanical concept and develop from there; if decisions about the number of players are made later in the process, the natural outcome is for the game to end up being either for two, or for a small group.

Although it’s undoubtedly possible to stumble across a design for a large-group game by accident, I suspect that most such games come about because the decision to make a large-group game was the very first decision the author made. Certainly, my own Sultans of Karaya came about that way.

Related: The challenges of two-player games
Related: The challenges of three- and four-player games

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