The Terrible 2s: When “2 or More” Player Games Should Just be “or More”





Last year there was some research that revealed that the average American has only 2.03 good friends despite having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook (see article HERE).  While I don’t know why they it felt necessary to include the .03, what I do know is that 2 is not a very big number.  What this research indicated was that our circle of good friends has been dwindling over the past decades despite the increased online connectivity.  Sure, we play Words With Friends with all sorts of “friends” online, but how many of these people would hang out at your home and play a board game?  Outside of designated “game nights” it can be hard for most adults to wrangle more than a player or two. 

In gaming one may be the loneliest number, but two doesn’t feel much better.  Sure there are classics like chess and backgammon and a handful of great new games like City Square Off (Gamewright) that are intended for 2 players, but how many times have you and a friend played a game that said it was for 2 or more players and found the game was a dud?  There are many games that say “2-X players” but really what they mean is “it’s playable with 2 players, but you need at least 3 to really enjoy it.” 

Most seasoned inventors know that 2 player versions of a game can greatly differ from the 3 or more player version of the same game. A great example is the classic card game UNO.  I’ve spent many happy hours playing UNO with family and friends, but most people know that it doesn’t play as well with 2 players.  Skips and Reverses have the same effect on play, and a player with a hand-full of non-number cards can win without much effort.  Whereas, if you have 3 or more players, Reverse and Skip cards no longer give the same result and can be strategically played.  And UNO is not the only one.  Through my experience as game reviewer, I’ve seen games where just about every 5th card is unusable with 2 players, where special rounds need to be omitted, and like UNO, specific portions of the game do not have the same effect on play as it would in a 3+ player game.  In all of these instances I end up recommending that people don’t play particular games unless they have a minimum of 3 players.  But if they don’t have the guidance of a reviewer, will they revisit the game with more players if they have a negative experience with 2?   

UnoNow before I end up with a list of great 2 player games in the comments section below, I’d like to reiterate that I’m not saying that all 2-X games are guilty of having sub-par 2-player experiences.  I’m just saying that it’s surprisingly more common than one would think.  Which really makes me wonder why so many boxes say “2-X players” when it’s obvious that playing with 2 and not 3+ diminishes the quality of play.  I’m going to speculate that it’s more appealing to the consumer to know that they are going to buy a game that can be played with 2 players – although they will find out soon enough that just because they can, doesn’t mean they’ll want to. 

Going back to the study that shows our average of 2.03 good friends and shrinking circle of friends, does this trend indicate that it’s time for game companies to revisit the playability of the 2-player versions of their “2 or more player” games?  Could more companies consider including alternative directions for more a satisfying 2-player experience?  Whatever the solution, I’d like to be able to say more often “It’s playable and enjoyable with 2 players just as much as it is with 3 or more!”



6 thoughts

  1. Rick. I haven’t played your game so I can’t say whether it would be fun or not for most.
    But I can say for me personally… (insert sarcasm) Ooohh a math game, that seems fun. Like running is fun.

  2. Kim, Great article (as usual). My game, Albert’s Insomnia, can be played with one player; maybe for the folks not facebook missing the 1.03 friends the average person has now. It does play just as well (fun) with any number of players though. Would love a review while this article is fresh in your mind ( very subtle hint hint there):)

  3. I’ve noticed a newish trend in games geared for the hobby market: careful alterations to gameplay to make the two-player experience worth trying. When done right, the two-player version is a similar game that produces a different play experience.
    Three games come to mind for this:
    Bohnanza by Uwe Rosenberg (published in the US by Rio Grande), which has a different mode of player interaction in the two-player game that replaces the trading that characterizes the standard multiplayer game.
    Race for the Galaxy by Thomas Lehmann (also published by Rio Grande) uses a clever mechanic for the multiplayer game whereby players decide what actions happen in each round. In the two-player game, each player has extra action choices, including double actions, which gives a different (and I think preferable) series of tactical choices.
    More family-friendly, my own Wizard’s Museum Construction Kit from Flatland Games scales from a more tactical to more party-oriented game as you increase the number of players.
    The problem you write about is one that’s dear to my heart, so I’m excited to see game designers addressing the issue of two-player fun in games.

  4. Kim.
    Great insight on this issue. So many games are better with more than 2 players. Which is sad. Most of the time it’s just me and the wife. And we just want to play a game just for two.
    Of course there are some good 2-player games around. And some co-operative ones. But certainly a lot of games are better with more.
    Hopefully publishers will continue to make more games for 2 players and even 1 players. Not every game needs to be a party game.

  5. Every game has a sweet spot.
    I’ve certainly played games that support more than 2 players that I enjoy the most with just 2. Many card games, especially the new deck-building games, are much more enjoyable with few players rather than a crowd.
    Its particularly hard to find games that play well with 3 people, as many 3 player competitive games will wind up with 2 players teaming up (intentionally or otherwise) to take down the third.
    However, to the point of your article, I think that there isn’t much point to advertising a mode of play that will not provide an enjoyable experience to the players though. Set expectations appropriately. If you don’t like it as a 2-player, and others don’t like it as a 2-player, don’t sell it as a 2-player. People coming away from the table with a positive experience is your ultimate goal, it improves the odds they’ll share your game with others.

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