I’ve long been focused on (some might say obsessed with) figuring out my favorite number of players for each game that I own. My goal is to own games that are good at every player count and for every duration, so that I have the perfect game for any opportunity. This goes all the way back to my HTML spreadsheet creating days in 2007, when I wrote about Picking the Perfect Game. At the time, I tried to categorize most of my games along a “player count” X-axis and a “duration” Y-axis. A couple years later, I doubled down when I wrote Six is a Crowd, in which I infuriated many by declaring that you should just about always split your group of six into two tables to play three-player games of approximately the same length. I proposed game pairs that could be played side-by-side for this endeavor, but many folks still prefer to cram six players into a single game. De gustibus non disputandum est. The height of my focus on ideal player counts was in 2012 when I put together Best for any Crowd, in which I decided it was impossible to have a favorite game without first dividing games by player count.
But then in 2020, I moved into a larger apartment, and I was able to organize and display my board games in an all-new approach… by player count! The famous Ikea Kallax shelves have worked perfectly for accomplishing my goal of designing and organizing “Player Count Cubes” that embody the pinnacle of two-player, three-player, four-player, and five-player gaming. Here, I’ll share some of my favorite parts of this new organization scheme, and you’ll get an even fuller picture of my idiosyncrasies in the process.
Two-Player Perfection: Pairing Up
There are so many games that can theoretically accommodate four or five players, but that I think really shine with only two players. I’m looking at you Through the Desert, Hansa, Samurai, and Caylus! The extra players in many such games introduce downtime, chaos, unpredictability, and left-right binding issues, without any material benefit. By contrast, there are some games discussed below that truly benefit from having four or five players. And I think it’s important to figure out which 2-5 player games are best with just 2 and which 2-5 players games are really best with a full complement of 5 people. I’ve always thought that Bohnanza and Citadels are two of the worst offenders at stretching the theoretical player count to the point of actually harming the game experience, but Power Grid, Elfenland, Caylus, and El Grande make the same grievous mistake. I bought and played Bohnanza very early on in the late 1990s, but only with two players, and for years I thought the game was abysmal, until I eventually realized that it only really functioned with more people. And if you’ve similarly struggled to enjoy Citadels with a full 7 or El Grande with just 3, then you get the idea. These publishers fundamentally undermine the game experience by prioritizing the largest possible audience for their games.
These six cubes represent two-player perfection to me! This includes some of my favorite epic games like War of the Ring and Twilight Struggle, which really had to grow on me over time but eventually inspired my own design (which will not pretend to work well with five players even though it could theoretically do so). This also includes some of the very best in short games designed exclusively for two players, such as Mr. Jack, StreetSoccer, 7 Wonders Duel, Mandala, Fox in the Forest Duet, and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. You’ll also see the best card game ever there – Netrunner. And then there are all of the aforementioned games that excel when facing off against a single opponent… Through the Desert, Caylus, Biblios, Louis XIV, Tournay, and Hansa (which is the only game that I’ve ever dared to write a strategy article about, and which is truly warped by adding a third or fourth player). While you can theoretically play these games with four people… why? Why ruin a perfectly great game? You’ll just make the experience worse by adding downtime to Caylus, chaos to Through the Desert, left-right binding to Hansa, and imbalance to Louis XIV. The decisions in each of these carefully crafted game systems are most interesting, meaningful, and impactful when you embrace the fully zero-sum nature of a two-player experience. I implore you not to ever judge any of them on a larger player count experience!
Three-Player Heaven: The Fun of Having a Third Wheel
I love these four cubes a truly unreasonable amount! There’s long been a common trope in board gaming that quality three-player games are hard to come by, but I think these four cubes readily disprove that misconception. These cubes include some of my absolute favorite games to play, such as Stephensons Rocket, Dominant Species, Hansa Teutonica, San Marco, and Before the Wind. And each of those is at its best with a perfect complement of three players. It’s hard to pin down exactly what makes two players too few and four players too many, but I suppose that I’ll try to put this ineffable characteristic into words.
These games manage to find a perfect balance, like the three legs of a stool, when there are three players in the competition. Try to play with just two players and you’ll end up with warped rules, insufficient head-to-head action, and lack of sufficient tension. Try to play with four players and you’ll end up with too much unpredictability, chaos, and downtime. The way that three opponents interact and play off of each other is just ideal in these games as the perceived leader regularly changes and as the players seek to advance their own interests while keeping two others in check. This forces you to make challenging decisions about how much to prioritize your own position against inhibiting your opponents’ advancement (such as deploying your stock portfolio during Stephensons Rocket, maximizing your worker placement in Dominant Species, or bidding efficiently in Ra).
The veto rounds in three-player Stephensons Rocket work so well, as does the board presence in Hansa Teutonica, the splitting mechanism in San Marco, the tense auctions in Ra, the trick-taking in Stick Em and Bottle Imp, and so much more. I love the variety of these cubes, from the brain-burning Martin Wallace gems, to the light Bull in a China Shop, to the puzzle goodness in Factory Fun, Uluru, and Ubongo. You’ve also got the brilliant and unique three-player mode in Ta Yu! I could really rave about these cubes indefinitely. The only thing that could make these cubes better is if Java could fit in them, rather than resting on top of the bookcase.
Four-Player Nirvana: Time to Square Off
As you’ve seen in the photo at the top, there are several cubes between the three-player and the four-player games that includes various games that I greatly enjoy, but that I think are flexible on player count. Those cubes include such excellent games as Notre Dame, Luna, Konig von Siam, Extrablatt, and Ginkgopolis. But here we have the games that are truly perfect with exactly four players. The top cube feels entirely self-evident to me. Of course you play In the Shadow of the Emperor, team Nexus Ops, Teuber’s clear-cut best Lowenherz, Dorra’s masterpiece Kreta, and Montage when you have four people at the table. Those seem like the quintessential choices to me. And you’ve got plenty of trick-taking games in the mix, including Was Sticht, Njet, Tichu, and Die Crew, along with team Fairy Tale.
And then there are the newer kids on the block, Root and Decrypto. I’ve written plenty about my love of team games as well as my love of Root, and there’s my “strategy guide” to Tier auf Tier that can of course be played with two or three players, but sometimes you just need to fit games on the shelf!
Games like In the Shadow of the Emperor, Lowenherz, and Kreta perfectly exemplify games that benefit from a full player count, as opposed to the games discussed above in which additional players are simply a detriment. These four-player classics showcase the competition for scarce resources, extensive player interaction, utility of planning on other players’ turns, and shifting alliances that shine with a larger four-person group. You really need a full complement of players to make the region crowding function in Kreta, the intrigue of emperor elections shine in In the Shadow of the Emperor, the rubium mine placement balanced in team Nexus Ops, and the double-edged nature of wall building excel in Lowenherz.
Five-Player Bliss: Games That Love Crowds
I adore that top cube there. Putting those five games together was a big part of the initial inspiration for this new organization scheme. Until this year, I had always organized my board games by box shape and size. But I love the ease of being able to count my opponents and then go to the right shelf.
If you have five people gathered, then you simply cannot do better than to pull out El Grande, Santiago, Princes of Florence, Maharaja, and Amun-Re. Or better yet, all five of them for a full day of wonderful gaming! If you have the time, then you go for Die Macher; if you have the inclination and group familiarity with the show, then you go for Battlestar Galactica; if you want something light, then you go for Hollywood Blockbuster or Trapwords. And then Dune snuck in because that’s what you play if you have six people and all day to explore The Many Faces of the Desert Planet.
The brilliance of five-player El Grande, Santiago, and the rest is hard to pin down. There is something about the nature of the interaction in each of these games that thrives on a full complement of five players. In stark contrast to Caylus or Through the Desert, which suffer when played with five people, these cubes excel. The social nature of these five-player games, along with their relatively quick turns, and their ability to spark engaging dialogue even when it’s not your turn, keep everyone thoroughly engaged for the full game. The kibitzing during Princes of Florence auctions and Santiago bidding shines with five people, and of course the region apportionment in Amun-Re as well as the 3-2 division of players in Battlestar Galactica, where paranoia is at its finest.
There are of course all sorts of gems that are included in the full picture, but that didn’t make it into the quintessential player count cubes. You’ve got games like Antiquity and Galaxy Trucker Anniversary Edition that are just too big for the Kallax cubes. You’ve got games like Terraforming Mars, Roll for the Galaxy, and Scythe that I have trouble categorizing… I’ve played them so often as two-player games, which is why they’re near the left-hand side of the picture, but I don’t mind them with more. Then you’ve got some wonderful children’s games on the far right, and the “chopping block” games in the bottom row that may be sold to make room in the future, such as Cartagena, Arboretum, Last Will, and a dozen more. Those drawers in the middle are where you’ll find bagged games like Jungle Speed and Hive, as well as pocket games like Tussie Mussie. And throughout you’ll find cooperative games like the Pandemic and the Forbidden series (plus Ghost Stories, Red November, and Yggdrasil) that really depend more on the type of people, rather than the number of people.
Organizing by player count is not a perfect approach, but designing these cubes has proven to be a remarkably fun and rewarding experience for me. And I particularly enjoy elevating games to the top row of cubes when they thrive with a particular player count or are my top tier games!
What do your perfect cubes of two-player, three-player, four-player, and five-player games look like? Which of your favorite games for a particular player count are missing from the above discussion? And which games have I horribly miscategorized based on your preference for playing them with more or fewer people?