PLAYER COUNTS (by Tom Russell)

Mary Russell

Late last year we released my weird train game The Soo Line. There are lots of things that are weird about it, but one of the weirdest and most notable is that the game only has three railroads for players to buy shares in. Only the majority shareholder makes decisions for each railroad, which means that when playing with four or five players, some players are playing what is purely an investment game. This is weird and this is counterintuitive and goes against what is probably sound and settled game design law, but one of the joys of course of Mary and I running our own company is that we can do whatever the heck we want, and so we did.

But the game also seats three, a count at which, at least potentially, each player would get the chance to run their own railroad, which removes one of the game's most obvious heterodox elements, and blunts the sometimes sharp divide between rail and mining interests. What took me a little by surprise however was a number of players who not only expressed a preference for playing at three, but said that they considered the game to only be viable at three. For me, three was never intended to be the primary player count for the game - it was always a four or five player game that you could play at three. I wouldn't say that three is necessarily a bad count for the game, or that three-player Soo Line isn't interesting - I just don't think it's as interesting as four-plus.

All that being said, I had no problem putting "3-5" on that box, and I have no problem with people who only want to play the game at three. Someone bought the game, and they and their friends are enjoying it? I've got no beef with that. I wouldn't have put "4-5" on the box, even if that protects the "what if there are fewer companies than players" question the game is interested in exploring; the game absolutely still works at three, it just works differently than it does at four or five.

I wouldn't have extended the player count to six, for the simple reason that I seem to be the only person on the planet who likes playing cube rail games at six. To me, Chicago Express/Wabash Cannonball at six is a hoot and a half, but many others find the lack of control to be a buzzkill. It didn't seem worth the time and trouble to thoroughly playtest my game at that count, as it probably wouldn't occur in the wild.

And I wouldn't have extended The Soo Line down to two, because shared incentive games don't really work at two. I played a 2P game of Chicago Express exactly once, and at that count it was pretty much the dullest thing you could imagine. You often hear complaints from gamers about the extremes of a player range - games that seat two to six are often best at three to five, and there soon comes the concomitant complaint of, why do game companies do this? If the game doesn't work at two or six, don't put two and six on the box!

And the reason of course is commercial. Games that support a wider range are more likely to sell more copies, and games with a narrower range are less likely to do so. For the same reason, an increasing number of wargames use bots to facilitate solo play for multiplayer (three-plus) games and two-player CDGs (where "traditional" solitaire "play both sides" is trickier), to the point where gamers sometimes even ask for dedicated solitaire modes for perfect information two player wargames! Sometimes this even works in reverse, with gamers asking for two-player modes for solitaire games.

And we're not necessarily immune to those considerations. Part of the reason why The Soo Line is three to five and not strictly my ideal player counts of four to five is that we didn't think four to five only would be commercially viable. The other part, again, is that the game is ludologically viable - it works as a play experience - at three. Maybe we could have sold more copies if the box said two to five - given the subject and market, I kinda doubt it - but the game wouldn't have been viable ludologically.

Then on the other hand you have something like my negotiation game Westphalia, which sits six. Six and only six: it doesn't scale at all. No bots, no workarounds. And if I had to pitch this game to any other publisher, it would not be commercially viable; the whole idea is nuts. How many people are going to buy a game that only sits six? How often are they going to actually be able to play it? Heck, I have trouble just organizing playtests for the darn thing. But, like I said up top, Mary and I can do whatever the heck we want. As I like to say, we can publish games with impunity, and pretty much everything we do is always guaranteed to break even or make a profit. What's the point of having that kind of freedom if you don't use it?

So, we're not immune to commercial considerations, but we can kind of ignore them once in a while, to do what we think is best for the game on a purely artistic level - to deliver what we think will be the best game experience. This experience of necessity will cut out certain player counts.

The very act of doing so will sometimes ruffle feathers. Some gamers even take it personally, and react in kind: what do you mean, there's no solo mode for this social deduction party game? They can feel excluded or snubbed: when you don't support my preferred player count, you're telling me that this game isn't for me.

And, you know, probably it isn't

And that's fine. Not every game is for every player or group. Even in our own catalogue, there are many different types of games on offer, and outside of Mary and myself, I seriously doubt there's anyone to whom every game we have on offer is a good fit. Part of creating these unique and idiosyncratic experiences is tailoring them to specific player counts and social dynamics.

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