It’s game night and a good friend brought a guest. I’m excited! I get to play and teach games to a new potential gamer. I start having visions of 2 years from now playing Twilight Imperium with the new guy. However, let’s start slow and work from there. It is during this search for games to play that I realize we have 5 players. I check game after game only to find out that they only go to 4 players, or they are a party type game.

I know a number of people that this has frustrated. My family is part of that as I am 1 of 5 brothers. I want to share awesome games I play with my brothers but unfortunately many of them only go to 4 players.

As a board game designer and publisher, and working on a number of games, I now understand a whole lot more why this is the case.

Let me share a few ideas/thoughts on why:

#1) More Players = More Components = More Cost

This is the most obvious reason why going to higher player counts can be difficult for some games. This is especially true if the game provides a lot of components for players. The cost of additional dice, tokens, player boards can add a significant increase to the cost per unit. If you are trying to make a particular profit margin and get your game to meet a particular MSRP, cutting a player from 5 to 4 is one way to do it.

However, it’s not just the components themselves but also the potential for more artwork and graphic design to be done. These fixed costs can be very expensive for low print-run games, aka some Kickstarter and self-published games. That is less of an issue for companies with access to distribution.

#2) Weight and Space in Packaging

The 5th player requires more components as mentioned above. So, even if you are okay with the cost and the balance of the game design, it still has to fit into a package or board game box. This limitation can really put the kibosh on having 5 players.

  • That extra size or weight can increase shipping costs due to size and weight for packaging and add the need of additional pallets to ship via freight.
  • Those additional pallets will need to be stored, which some warehouses charge by the pallet or square foot.
  • The game box being bigger and heavier in order to handle more components and more weight will increase the game’s cost per unit.

#3) Balancing the Number of Rounds, Last Player

We actually had a playtest last night where this was a significant effect because the game only lasted 4 rounds. If you rotate the first player every round, the 5th and final player will never get a chance to go first. This can matter in some games and even if it doesn’t matter, the feeling and player experience is that they will never go first. A game will need to be able to overcome that issue successfully if it wants to have that 5th player. The incentive may not be there though since it takes more work and balancing to make it happen while also maintaining more components, cost, and time.

#4) Table Space

An aspect of game design that starts to become more important when you get out of alpha and into making beta prototypes of a game is table space. How much space is it taking up? Will it fit on smaller dinner tables? Does it require a full gaming table in order to make it work well?

Again, cutting the 5th player frees up so much space on the table, on scoring tracks, and on component needs. The effect can be compounding because not only is it one less player space around the table, but the other game boards may be able to be smaller, the card market may require less cards, and less coins and resources are needed so the piles are smaller. On a table, saving an inch or two is a big deal as it can make the difference between cramped and comfortable.

#5) Time Between Turns

In many games, the turns are not simultaneous, and each player in order is going to have to do an action or a series of actions. Each one of those turns is going to take time and you will have to wait until it is your turn again in order to do more actions. Time in between turns can be good, it allows a player to think and plan their moves. This is helping to keep the player engaged because they are thinking about what to do next in the game and engage in problem solving and strategizing. However, if it takes too much time in between turns it can lead to boredom and disengagement.

The 5th player will likely add more time in between turns so in many ways it is incentivized to cut the 5th player.

#6) Game Length

The overall game length will increase with 5 players. In today’s board game market, it feels like people want an experience that is snappy and no longer than 2 hours. As you can likely already guess, cutting a 5th player can significantly drop that time.


Why even try having a 5th player? It seems all of these reasons have a lot of validity and value to them. Adding a 5th player makes it so people can play a great game with 5 people instead of playing a lighter party game or venturing into the realm of social deduction. Many times, I want that Euro or more complex game and I am left unsatisfied without it.

The question becomes as a publisher, how important do you think it is to your game? How much does it cost? Do your customers want a 5th player?

Until next time…

Sam Stockton

2 thoughts on “Why Do Most Board Games Only Play Up To 4?

  1. Ofir Erlich says:

    Those are challenges – not reasons. Designers can and should consider confronting those challenges to help larger teams enjoy their game.
    You’re spot on with your analysis of high-player-count challenges. I’ll add balancing and playtesting to the list (you get a lot more gameplay permutations to test and balance with 5 players).
    We can come up with design principles to help designers overcome those challenges, and allow more players enjoy the experience together.
    For example, in addition to the obvious simultaneous-play effort, consider “splitting the players” – is it possible and fun to have 8 players control 2-men squads instead of 4 players controlling 4-men teams? Can 8 players do 1 meaningful action each turn instead of 4 players doing 2 actions each?
    Can you develop this as the topic for your next blogpost? 🙂

    • Sam Stockton says:

      True, these are all challenges that with design we try and overcome in order to make a game with a higher player count. We need to think a bit outside of the norm for 4 player count games in order to deal with the situation.

      I have had some excellent feedback so I am going to do some more research and do a part 2 to this topic. I am currently at the GAMA expo and then will be going to Adepticon a few days later. So the next few weeks will be blogs written by my brothers. I will definitely come back to this.

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