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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Monday, January 09, 2006

It Takes Two

A common question asked in online boardgaming communities (most recently seen in Mark Haberman’s survey) is "what is the preferred number of players for a gaming session?". “4” is unsurprisingly the most common answer (as it seems most multi-player (MP) Euros play best with this number), but “5” is actually not far behind. My answer has always been “2”. The reasons for this:
  • MP games add elements of collaboration and manipulation, which I like as a change of pace, but not the norm. Similarly, in 2-player (2P) gaming, you don’t have to worry about a third player being “responsible” for you losing to the eventual victor (although, in these circumstances, I primarily blame myself for failing to effectively collaborate with or manipulate this other player).
  • I won’t lie – I like to win. One would expect to win more often in 2P matches on average. However, I think that my ability to collaborate and manipulate is better than my ability to analyze; in fact, in the first half of 2004 (when I last tracked games played), my winning percentage for MP games was actually higher than for 2P games by a few percentage points! I’m not sure why, but I usually get more satisfaction out of winning 2P games. I guess it just feels more “honest”.
  • Less downtime. ‘Nuf said.
  • The fewer the players, the easier it is to find games that all players are enthusiastic about playing. I would expound on this, but it is deserving of its own article. Given the current mix of players in our gaming group, this is no small matter.
  • I prefer the more intimate social setting of 2P gaming. Adding even just a third player to the mix drastically changes the interpersonal dynamics. I don’t observe this as much in other social settings (e.g., eating lunch with colleagues); I think that the competitive setting of MP gaming, with its shifting, fragile alliances, forces a layer of reservedness and/or dishonesty even in the casual conversations.
In 2005, I probably did as much 2P gaming as I did MP gaming (if I don’t count my time at conventions). Note that my wife rarely plays games with me these days. The vast majority of my 2P sessions are with one specific person. While the MP gaming in our group draws from a large repertoire in a given year, I usually stick to a much smaller set of games for my 2P gaming, focusing on revisiting games so as to master them. There are plenty of other games that will get played on occasion; in particular, Babel, Battleline, and Settlers of Catan Card Game always make an appearance a couple of times a year. Below is the set of games that will make up my 2006 list. “Keepers” are those games I played a lot in 2005 that will carry forward; “Adds” are new games (in some cases, sampled once in 2005) that will be included in the rotation; “Drops” are games that got a lot of play in 2005 but will be kept stored in the closet for now.

  • Magic: the Gathering: We like opening our sessions with 1 or 2 matches using the pre-constructed theme decks. With two more Ravnica sets being released this year (the next set’s guilds are B/W and R/G and R/U – I’m in heaven!), we will get plenty of play out of this most enjoyable block.
  • Roma: For now, it has become the standard “closer” for our sessions.
  • 7th Sea: I used to play this a lot with my wife, and supported the game up to the point when they changed the graphic design (soon after which the game died). My friend recently bought a ton of cards on eBay, and we’ll continue to throw decks at each other. Not sure this game would get played if it had a different theme…
  • Dungeon Twister: My Game of the Year for 2005 would continue to get a lot of play even if there weren’t several expansions in the works, including a Dungeon Twister card game. Speaking of, I see that the local game store now has the Paladins & Dragons set in stock!


  • Crusader Rex & Twilight Struggle: I’m usually not a fan of block games and card-driven wargames, but my first play of both of these was a real blast, and they played well under 3 hours each. It probably helped that I played the “favored” faction in each instance, but, in any case, I found the designs extremely accessible.
  • Empire of the Sun & Pacific Victory: Because, y’know, now I have to achieve my resolutions.
  • City of Heroes CCG: We have been playing the demo decks, and we like what we see so far. I do have some concerns about the rock-paper-scissors aspects of the matchups; after all, the City of Heroes MMORPG is built around teams of heroes working together, not one-on-one fights. I plan on reactivating my account for 1 month just to capture screenshots of all of my heroes and make custom tournament-legal cards out of them.


  • Spycraft CCG: Putting our trust in AEG, we bought a modest amount of cards and gave this a try in 2005. It seemed promising during deck-building, but playing out the game was literally headache-inducing for both players.
  • A Game of Thrones CCG: My most-played game for 2005 is likely headed for retirement (especially if the final version of City of Heroes CCG turns out to be a winner), what with the local tournament scene ending as of last summer. That’s just as well; I wasn’t very pleased with the direction the game was going in the new Winter Edition.
  • Jambo: Replaced as filler du jour by Roma. Will see play once or twice a year for the foreseeable future.

Now, as much as I love 2P gaming, I still very much cherish having the larger group. To prove my dedication to MP gaming, I will start a monthly series which profiles a gaming group (inspired by the reading group profiles that appear in bookmarks magazine). I hope to have my first article appear next week or the week after that. I don’t think anyone else is doing this – please let me know if I am wrong about that – and I best get moving on the idea before Tom Vasel beats me to it. If you are interested in having your group profiled, please send me an e-mail at ripcitygamer@comcast.net.


  • At 2:01 PM, Blogger Dug said…

    "I think that the competitive setting of MP gaming, with its shifting, fragile alliances, forces a layer of reservedness and/or dishonesty even in the casual conversations."

    Have you played with our group? Aside from a couple of shifty characters, we're about as stupid at revealing position as you can get with a bunch of college graduates. The extent of our screwage is usually "He's the Leader! Get 'em!"


  • At 1:52 PM, Blogger Wes M said…

    Optimal number of players? Seven. Always. What, you don't want to play Diplomacy? Hrmph.

  • At 11:03 PM, Blogger Eric said…

    Well if you don't want to play Diplomacy, there's Junta... or 6 Nimmt!... or Frank's Zoo...

    Okay, I'm reaching. 7 is a hard number for a single game. If it's not Diplomacy, of course.


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