Let’s say you’re an engineer in charge of a widget factory. Suppose you want to scale up your operation. You want to increase widget production –but you don’t want to make any changes to the widgets themselves. Maybe you’d hire more workers, buy more machines, or expand the size of your factory. You’d also need to get more of the raw materials that your widgets were made from. And… yes, games are our widgets!
Scaling a game is similar. You want more (or fewer) players to play your game, but you don’t want the game experience to fundamentally change. Mathematically, scaling is an operation that enlarges or diminishes the dimensions of a shape or object while maintaining some sense of proportionality. For game design, we’ll use a slightly more straightforward definition: scaling is a game’s ability to retain a similar experience regardless of the number of players. It involves changing rules, numerical formulas, or other design elements based on player count to ensure that the game stays playable and balanced.
Several reasons for scaling exist. Scoring methods can get disproportionately influential or insignificant. Games can finish too quickly or drag on for too long. The opportunity cost of pursuing different strategies can rise or fall, depending on the number of players joining the games. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of how to scale games and solve those problems.
Change the physical scale.
The idea here is simple: as more players are added, the area of the board, the deck card count, or the number of any generic component can be increased to accommodate the increase in player count.
- La Citta, an area control game, has a base level of territory on its map that can be used with any number of players. It designates certain areas of territory as only accessible when there are 3, 4, or 5 players. The available area per player stays approximately constant, as does the average distance between players’ territories. The same goes for Steamwatchers: if you play with 2-3 players, the Easternmost areas are not available for you to roam.
- 7 Wonders and Bohnanza, both tableau-building card games, have central decks where more cards are added for more players, such that the number of cards per player is the same. More importantly, the deck’s composition does not change with player count: the percentage of cards corresponding to particular strategies is constant regardless of the number of cards. Enchanters also use this tool to preserve the game’s pacing and balance.
- Worker placement games such as Agricola and Last Will, for example, have modular board components that add additional places for workers as more players (and therefore more workers) are added to the game. This approach to scaling attempts to keep the value of each individual worker the same by keeping a constant ratio between the number of workers and the places the workers can occupy. Uwe Rosenberg’s latest title, Hallertau, turns this around with workers that are not tied to the players. Instead, the fewer players there are, the fewer workers you remove from the board between rounds!
Change the beginning or finishing conditions.
An end-game trigger that is appropriate for 3 players often comes far too quickly when there are 6 players, or an initial distribution of resources ideal for 4-5 players makes the 2-player game unplayable. Altering these conditions is a way of scaling via adjusting the game’s external balance.
Beginning location cards in Pandemic are allocated such that each player gets additional cards when there are fewer players. The total number of cards at the beginning of the game and the players’ initial resources change only slightly with different numbers of players. Ascension ends when a pool of victory points is depleted, and that pool is larger in games with more players. Ascension’s scaling method keeps the average score per player approximately constant over various player numbers.
- On the other hand, Small World ends after every player has taken a certain number of turns. The number of turns decreases as players are added. Although Ascension’s and Small World’s approaches seem like opposites, both scaling strategies keep the total duration of the game similar for different player numbers. Also, note that Small World scales the game with different boards according to the player count to provide the same level of tension throughout the game!
A third option is to change the relative value or availability of resources, points, or other objects within the game itself. Perhaps it always costs 3 Gold to build a Tower, but the Tower has a higher point value if there are more players, or maybe the Tower is always worth 6 points, but it costs more Gold to build when there are fewer players.
- In Castles of Burgundy, additional tiles are available to purchase each turn as players are added. . Like with the worker-placement mechanic, a turn in Castles of Burgundy has a constant average value across player numbers.
- Seasons uses variable-cost and variable-value cards extensively: one example is a card that steals points from other players that costs more resources when there are more players. Therefore, the points acquired (and stolen) per resource spent are always the same.
- In Steamwatchers’ Spark of Hope expansion, you use all the tech kits when 4-5 players are playing the game, and less so with 2-3 players, to preserve the idea that the tech kits are rare.
Alter the notion of a “player” or a “turn.”
Finally, when trying to break away from 3+ players to 2 players or to accommodate additional players. As a result, the game can be even more of a “brain-burning exercise” as players must focus on accomplishing their objectives amid player-driven chaos. In Samurai, players place their tiles next to cities to influence one or more resident factions – Samurai, Peasants, or Priests. The player who controls the most significant influence over these factions wins the game using an exciting scoring system.
- Change the physical scale: Samurai uses a modular board of Japan. New islands become available with each additional player so that each player can access the vast majority of their tiles.
- Adjust object availability: As new islands and regions become available on the board, so do the chances of winning the game.
The End of the Triumvirate
Scaling can help a game design work effectively across multiple player counts, but some games feature a specific number of players to a great extent throughout the game.
Games can also scale to become different flavors of the same game. RoboRally features the ability to support 2 to 8 players. At the lower end of this spectrum (2 to 4 players), the game is a hectic race game in which players are bumping opponents off course as they attempt to reach the flags first. At the upper end of this spectrum f(6 to 8 players), the game becomes a chaotic warzone of battle bots.
Ticket to Ride
In Ticket to Ride, in 4 to 5 player games, a player can often be blocked inadvertently by multiple players through normal gameplay.
Some games are functionally immune to the varying player counts, and gameplay is remarkably similar. Some versions of Scotland Yard pit fugitive-like Mr. X against five detectives regardless of the number of players.
Finally, the biggest concern of Scalability are games that feature a spectrum of players for whichever game isn’t nearly as effective. The downside to a 3-player game, the stock holding game Chicago Express is that two players who hold stock in the same company will work together to improve their investment. At the same time, the remaining player is half as effective and will fall behind. A game such as Bang! would lose its deductive element if it were played with 3-players. Le Havre warns of its 5-player offering in the rulebook as it is best played only by very experienced players.
A vital take-home message regarding scaling is that it always involves balancing one design element against another one. Let’s say you’re designing a turn-based worker placement g’skoknoame for 2-5 players, and you want the game to last no longer for five players than it does with 2. To accomplish your scaling, in the 5-player game, you’ll either need to reduce the number of turns (like Small World does) or reduce the length of each turn (possibly by reducing the number of workers each player controls).
Keep in mind the player scaling as you work on your design. It may be better for a game to perform more significantly exceptional well at a single player count or at one end of an intended scale than just good at a wide range. Playtest using multiple player counts and consider how changes in design will affect the extreme ends of the intended player scale. If 2-player support just isn’t sufficient, drop it in favor of a game that works effectively with greater numbers of players, as the 2-player market is its own niche, and has quite the offer already.
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