Best for any Crowd

“What’s your favorite game?”  This is the question that people invariably ask when you tell them that your hobby is board games, once it becomes apparent that you’re not talking about the standard fare with which they’re familiar.  More often than not, this question seems like the natural next step, probably because it would serve as a good avenue for moving from a vague discussion of the abstract concept of the hobby into a more detailed discussion centered around the features of a specific, tangible game.  There’s just one tiny problem, I don’t have a favorite game, as I imagine is the case with many folks.  I have many favorite games.  My unsatisfying answer is always that it depends on how many people are present and how much time is available.  To be clearer, I have a favorite three-player game if we have 45 minutes, and a favorite two-player game if we have 2 hours, and a favorite five-player game if we have 90 minutes, etc.  The goal, at least with my collection, is to have the perfect game for any number of people and any amount of time, in any combination of the two variables.  That’s really the whole point of having several hundred games in my mind.

I started down this path when I created this chart about five years ago, aiming to sort a handful of favorites by their average duration and optimal number of players.  Before that, I began developing my overly restrictive and narrow views of optimal player counts in The More the Merrier?  And now I’ll try tackling the issue from a different direction.  Let’s forget about duration for the time being.  I’m finding more and more that I’d be happy to play fewer, longer games than more, shorter games.  Whereas I used to lean more towards the 60-90 minute benchmark, I’ve been slipping ever towards favoring the 3+ hour games.  But there’s still a time and a place for games of all lengths as evidenced by my selections below.  What there’s never a time and a place for is playing a game with an inferior player count.  I’m as much of a stickler as ever about trying to find the best player count for any given game and then aiming to play that game when the right number of people are available.

So this is my answer to the question.  These are my favorite games when there are two, three, four, or five people around.  I suppose that means these are my four favorites (or 44 as the case may be, as you’ll see).  Yes, many of these games work with a larger or smaller number of players, many even work well, but they hit their sweet spot for me with this number, and why play a game outside the sweet spot when there are so many others available that would be sure to work great with however many people are in fact available?  If you’ve got some folks gathered around and can’t figure out what to play, then just count off and cross-check below.

Two: Pairing Up

1) Through the Ages
2) Antiquity
3) Twilight Struggle
4) War of the Ring
5) Carcassonne
6) Caylus
7) Louis XIV
8) Through the Desert
9) Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit
10) Ghost Stories –or– Mr. Jack

I think if I was stuck on a desert island with one other person, the first four games on this list would tide me over for a very long while.  The game-to-game variability of these four titles is truly astounding and cycling among them gives you a great taste of different types of games and play experiences.  But the real virtue is that they all build a narrative arc over several hours, such that the players jointly shape the telling of a story that makes for an actually memorable game with highs and lows that you find yourself recalling long after the game is packed up.  Plus these are all games that can take a while to grow on you, so a desert island is the perfect place to settle in and get in plenty of repeat plays.

For some quicker fare, I’d gladly turn to the likes of Through the Desert, Carcassonne, or Mr. Jack, all of which pack quite a punch into 30-45 minutes.  Then there’s Caylus, which still stands strong at the base of the prolific and flowering Attia Family Tree.  Finally, for a more peaceful, cooperative time, there is 2008’s best Ghost Stories.  Alright, so it’s not that peaceful when you’re surrounded by twelve vicious ghosts and you’re down to one measly Qi, but it is the best cooperative game out there and perfect when sharing the planning with one partner in arms.

All of these great two-player games tell me one important thing, if just one other person shows up, we’re still in for a good time, no matter how much time that happens to be.  Summoner Wars and Neuroshima Hex are the newer contenders that have recently been getting two-player table time and may ultimately contend for a spot on the list if they continue to hold up.

Three: The Fun of Having a Third Wheel

1) San Marco
2) Java
3) La Citta
4) Age of Steam
5) Dominant Species
6) Extrablatt
7) Ra
8) Reef Encounter
9) Stephensons Rocket
10) Notre Dame –or– Byzantium

There seems to be a myth that good three-player games are hard to come by, but this category was as hard as any to narrow down to just ten games, even with two still vying for that last spot.  Three player games are so great in fact that I’d advocate manufacturing groups of three by splitting in half anytime you’ve got six people around.  Worried about not getting to play games with everyone there?  Then just make sure each group of three plays games of approximately equal length so you can mix it up between games.  Like any good sommelier, I’ve already identified your ideal pairings for you.

The newest game on the list and in fact in this entire discussion is Dominant Species, but in just a year and a half since its release Chad Jensen’s design has proved to be a worthy new entrant among these more established games.  I have every confidence that its place in the pantheon of excellent three-player games will be borne out over the long haul.

San Marco has been a favorite for many years, and has consistently remained the pinnacle of three-player gaming with its agonizing decisions, intuitive framework, and flexible, open-ended game play.  The many maps of Age of Steam have kept it fresh through countless plays, particularly with such interesting and well-designed maps as Soul Train, Japan, and Scandinavia.  After over 60 plays of Ra you’d think I’d have learned to embrace the 13 and avoid excessive patience, but it’s still a challenge all these years later.  And Extrablatt, what is there to say about poor, underappreciated, overlooked Extrablatt but that it deserves its long overdue reprint more than just about any other out of print game and will hopefully one day find a home on many a gamer’s shelves.

Four: Time to Square Off

1) Imperial
2) Galaxy Trucker
3) Tigris & Euphrates
4) Nexus Ops
5) Crokinole
6) Goa
7) Settlers of Catan
8) Kreta
9) Survive!
10) In the Shadow of the Emperor –or– Before the Wind

This was obviously a difficult category to whittle down to just those games listed above, but the top few spots were easy.  Imperial, Galaxy Trucky, and Tigris are such quintessentially excellent four-player games and each scratch such different itches that they make up a trio of top designs in this category.  While Imperial can be a bit fragile, it truly excels when it works, and while Galaxy Trucker and Tigris both particularly reward experience and punish new players, all three have the potential to be truly great in the right setting.

The next couple are examples of great team games for when you want to split into two teams of two against each other.  Both Nexus Ops and Crokinole work with just two people, but the games really shine when you’ve got a partner to work with and a team of two working against you.  Then there are some obvious classics, followed by a few underappreciated gems, like Kreta and Before the Wind, which I heartily recommend investigating if you have not checked them out.

All told, this list makes me wish for more four-player game nights so that I could get this bunch to the table even more than I already do.  There are even a couple four-player trick taking games that didn’t quite make the cut, like Was Sticht and Njet, which excel with four players when what you’re in the mood for is a card game.

Five: Games That Love Crowds

1) Die Macher
2) El Grande
3) Princes of Florence
4) Descent: Journeys in the Dark
5) Wallenstein
6) Santiago
7) Battlestar Galactica
8) Maharaja
9) Puerto Rico
10) Liberte –or– A Game of Thrones

When you’ve got a real crowd of five people, rather than try to cram a fifth player into your excellent four-player game, why not seek out a game that actually benefits from having a robust five participants instead?  It takes a special game to really thrive with five, which is why this was one of the easiest lists to come up with as the pickings are a bit slimmer.

But that’s not to say there aren’t some excellent possibilities when your group is bursting at the seams.  There are shorter classics like El Grande, Princes of Florence, Santiago, Puerto Rico, and Maharaja for you to enjoy.  Then there are longer and more thematic games like Battlestar Galactica, Descent, Liberte, and A Game of Thrones.  The key is that all of these games actually benefit from the extra players at the table, rather than simply being able to accommodate them.  The dynamics and balance of games like Princes of Florence, Battlestar Galactica, El Grande, and Santiago feed off the presence of five players.

Or you could double down and go with the king of games, Die Macher, the longest and best of them all.  If you’ve got five people and four hours then you really can’t do better than Karl-Heinz’s Die Macher.

*               *               *

Those would be my selections to answer the question of what’s your favorite game.  I couldn’t possibly pick one game because it would depend far too much on how many people and how much time is available.  I’d much rather tailor the game selection to those variables than try to make a game fit into a situation where it’s not best suited.  If you’ve got a player count that you’re not used to then perhaps this would be useful for discovering a new favorite with that new number of opponents.  Or let me know which of your favorites I’ve left out above as there are bound to be many that get left behind in the struggle to cut these down to just ten games, or I suppose eleven as the case may be.  Getting it down to just 44 was difficult enough, let alone ever having to pick a single favorite.

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13 Responses to Best for any Crowd

  1. Ben (chally) says:

    Nice article, Tom. I certainly agree with you that it is almost always more enjoyable to select a game based on player count and time available rather than to stretch a favorite game to accommodate a suboptimal number of players (or, worse, modify it to fit an impossible time window). I find it a little amusing that, in at least one notable instance, you and I disagree on player count: I prefer Dominant Species, one of my top 5 games, with exactly 4 while you prefer it with just 3. That disagreement raises the interesting question whether players like you or I, dogmatically adhering to player count preferences, miss out on playing our favorite games too often due to a simple lack of consensus. Perhaps this should be added to the reasons why I would like to see more single-player-count games. There is never a dispute over how many players are needed for Twilight Struggle or God’s Playground or Tichu; in theory, it should be easier to get these titles to the table within a group of gamers as persnickety about these matters as you or I.

    • huzonfirst says:

      I’m also a strong proponent of only playing a game with the “proper” number of players, Ben. But I disagree with the premise of your response here. There are lots of great games available to play, so why play a favorite under suboptimal conditions, when you can another one that’s almost as good under optimal ones? The extent to which I’ll hold out varies based on the game. For example, my favorite number for Puerto Rico is 5, but it’s almost as good with 4, so I’ll enthusiastically suggest it for either number. But it’s different with San Marco, probably the best example for me in this discussion. Unlike most of the gaming world, I greatly prefer SM with 4 players, not 3. Because I stick to my guns in this opinion, I play the game much less often than I’d like. But here’s the thing: with 3 players, I consider SM an okay game and would probably rate it as a 7 or so. But with 4, it’s an all-time classic for me, with a rating of around 8.5. Playing it with 3 players just to get it to the table doesn’t really work for me. It’s really no different than having a favorite game that you can’t get played because you’re the only one in your group who likes it. It isn’t San Marco I love, it’s San Marco WITH 4 PLAYERS that I love. So I play it when I can get those numbers and have no problem avoiding it in what I consider to be suboptimal conditions. There are a ton of games that play great with 3, so why not play one of them instead of San Marco?

      • Ben (chally) says:

        I was not as clear as I should have been, Larry. Sorry about that. In fact, some of what I was hoping to get at with my question is quite elegantly captured in your rebuttal.

        I tend to think about my player count preferences categorically. For example, in my mind Dominant Species is a four-player game. Full stop. Tom likewise presented his list in a categorical fashion: *These* are the three-player games; *those* are the four-player games. As a result, when Tom and I play, we might end up settling on a game that both of us like but neither of us love, just because it is the topmost point of overlap on our player-count-driven lists.

        Collectively, however, it might be worthwhile for Tom and I to make concessions. Rather than play a game that we both agree is best with three and that we both rate an 8, we could play Dominant Species with three (which I might nevertheless rate a 7.5 at that count) so that Tom gets to play one of his 10s. Because I tend to focus exclusively on what player count each game is best with, I never bother to quantify how much worse it is at other counts.

        I also notice that I am more picky about player counts with my favorite games and less so with middling titles. I don’t really care whether we play Bohnanza with three or with six, but I will never play Agricola with five. I think it is easier for me to “settle” on a suboptimal game than it is for me to play an otherwise great game at a suboptimal player count (because I am acutely aware of how fantastic the experience could have been). For that reason, I also wonder whether I would have come to love the three-player version of Dominant Species if it had been released as a three-player only title. Does the option to form player-count preferences in great games lead me to overemphasize the differences between counts, and to consequently play lesser games with more frequency? It is not unlike Tom’s obsession with Ra’s 13 Sun — am I doing myself a disservice by mentally reserving DS for that truly epic (and surprisingly rare) four-player session?

  2. David Brain says:

    It’s one of the more frustrating features of BGG that the rating system can’t offer the fine tuning needed to distinguish between a game that is only really great for 2, only really great for 5 or differently great for different numbers of players.

  3. Eric Brosius says:

    I rate a game based on how much I want to play it in its best format. So if it’s only good with 2, that’s how I rate it. If it’s a great game for children of a certain age, that’s how I rate it. If it’s only good as a serious game, or as a lighthearted game, that’s how I rate it. Like Tom, I have enough games that I can wait for the right time to play it.

  4. Scott Russell says:

    I used to not be able to answer this question (What is your favorite game) either for the same reasons, but after Race for the Galaxy came out (actually, it probably became my answer sometime after the first expansion), I have an answer. It works for 2-6. So I have a favorite for any group of six or less.
    I do understand your article and enjoyed it. While not as formalized, I have a very similar system, but one parameter that you do not consider that I have in mine is the actual members of the group of X size. If my daughter is playing, RftG is out. If I am playing with my friends that are AP-prone, other games are off the list.

  5. Jason Gische says:

    Great article, but the one tidbit in there that I can’t let go is that you have Puerto Rico on your list for 5 players. I find Puerto Rico a genius game at 3 or 4 players, and completely unplayable at 5. The lack of control once you add the 5th player totally ruins this all-time great for me, and I’d choose to sit out and play on my phone rather than play a 5p game of it.

  6. Fraser says:

    Nice to see Santiago getting some love in your list Tom. A much neglected game. I should take it up to BorderCon this week, although I am already booked into Die Macher, Burgen Burgen Burgen Burgen Burgen and others. If there is room in the car, I should chuck it in though.

    Nice to see you moving to longer games too. In the next few years I hope to see Civilization, Diplomacy, World in Flames and Europe Engulfed make it on to your lists :-)

  7. Mark Johnson says:

    I think the myth about the lack of good 3-player games comes from the old days of American hobby gaming. Before the euro invasion, most (not all) hobby games involved zero-sum, direct confrontation competitions. There were any number of multiplayer, king-of-the-hill type games, whether the subject was space empires, fantasy kingdoms, or historical topics. With those sorts of games, three can be a very unstable number, since you have the pitfalls of 2-against-1 imbalance, or the unsatisfying situation where two players battle for the win, only to open the door for the opportunistic 3rd player who wasn’t reduced by the conflict.

  8. Tom Rosen says:

    Thanks for all the comments everyone.

    I guess I am a bit obsessed with Ra’s 13 sun, Ben. That comment really made me laugh out loud. And I think you’re totally right about being pickier concerning player counts with favorites, and less picky with mediocre games. But it’s definitely a spectrum depending on the title, because I think some favorites are more flexible like Tigris or Goa, while some are somewhat flexible like Dominant Species, and some are not really flexible much at all like San Marco (Larry’s opinion notwithstanding, as usual).

    David, it might be nice to be able to rate along that axis, but it might just be too much data. There are already polls for user suggested # of players, after all, which accomplish something along the same lines I think. I generally rate the way Eric does with a game getting a rating based on its ideal playing context, so for instance, Die Macher gets a 10 even though it would be horrible with certain players and not nearly as good with the wrong player count.

  9. Tom Rosen says:

    That’d make things easier Scott, if I had a game like Race for the Galaxy that I could just tell people is my favorite. At various times I’ve tried to pretend that game for me is Tigris, Through the Ages, El Grande, Antiquity, or Die Macher, but I’ve realized they’re all lies really, and thus this article resulted, which confesses that none of them really makes sense to be a single favorite, at least for me personally.

    Thanks Jason. It’s been too long since I went back and played Puerto Rico honestly, so perhaps you’re right, although I’m not sure PR would find a spot on the 3 or 4 player lists if I rediscovered it and learned that it needs to move.

    Santiago always gets love from me Fraser. A totally top tier 5 player game in my mind, especially in person and when people are cutthroat. Hope you have a great Die Macher game at BorderCon. And as for even longer games, Diplomacy would definitely be #1 if I made a seven-player game list, although it might be one through ten on that list. In fact, I’ve already declared Calhamer a genius (http://games.fooville.net/nycgamer-article-Diplomacy.html).

    That’s a good point Mark. Sounds like why Nexus Ops is fantastic with 4, and good with 2, but not so much with 3, because of that potential for 2-against-1 imbalance. I think the myth has stuck around a bit for some reason though, even though there are so many games that excel with 3 players out there now.

  10. Great article! Tom, I’d love to see your 6- and 7-player lists too!

    • Tom Rosen says:

      Thanks Jeffrey! I think this is my 6-player list:
      https://opinionatedgamers.com/2011/07/29/summer-reruns-3/
      ;-p

      As for a 7-player list, as Fraser brings up, Diplomacy would definitely be #1 on that list. I’m not sure what else would be there, although newly discovered Pix would probably be there, as well as Resistance and Wits & Wagers.

      As for a real 6-player list, off the top of my head, it might include Dune, Show Manager, Jungle Speed, Dixit, Game of Thrones (w/ expansion), and TransAmerica w/ Vexation.

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