The Hard Six Problem in Gaming

Tennis is ruled by the Rule of Three and Five, which states that whenever you try to organize a game of tennis, you will inevitably have three or five people, ie the wrong number. American Doubles (2 vs 3) was invented to try and fix this problem but it’s one of those solutions that instead of solving anything just highlights how prevalent the problem is.

Whist, Bridge, 500 and other four-player card games have the same issue, and similar poor fixes. 3-handed and 5-handed 500 are terrible alternatives. Luckily, there are whole genres of 3 player games using a standard card deck (“solo” games, they are called), and alternatives for 5, too. Board games are much alike. If aliens found nothing of our culture but our board games (or their outside boxes) they would rapidly conclude we gathered in groups of 2-4 players. 2 CAN be problematic but whole genres and classic games exist for such times (the oldest games like draughts, chess, backgammon, go and mahjong are all 2 player). 5 too can be problematic but there are enough entries in that field to keep things going.

And by the time you get to 7, you engage the party game space. 7 is enough so team size difference no longer matters (4 vs 3 works much better than 2 vs 3), and is enough for their to be a good rabble of shouting. 3 people feels like a team, not a partnership. 7 is also enough to split into two games of 3 and 4 without feeling like two people have to play the less attractive 2 player game. 7 is enough for Arkham Horror to feel epic. 7 is enough so even though you probably don’t talk to the other people at the other end of the table, they have enough people to talk to on their own. 7 is a party game, 5 is a board game.

Which means whenever you get people together to play board games you will inevitably have six people. This is the rule of Hard Six.

I’ve spent the last few years gaming every two weeks and the number of times we have hit the Hard Six goes beyond the realms of statistical likelihood and into the suggestion of a cruel and malicious universe. I have moved between cities and states and countries and this issue follows me everywhere. I have, over the years, bought several games precisely because they go to six (and I hit 5 often enough to not buy most euros). Betrayal at House on the Hill, Seven Wonders and recently Colt Express, were all bought because they allow 6 easily without the game suffering, and they get played the most because they work like this. Shadowrift and Yggdrasil and Arabian Nights are also on my shelf not least because they allow six. We even play History of the World more than Clash of Cultures because the former allows 6. I’ve made my own rules adjustments and player materials for Dead of Winter to allow 6 (and for things like Suburbia to allow 5) and will always pick up the extra-player expansions for games that tap out at 4 or 5. I’m also the guy who will offer to “GM” the game for 5.

The Rule of Hard Six is not necessarily a flaw in game design; it is dealing with social and mechanical constraints that are difficult to work around. Human beings have limited abilities to communicate. We run out of social energy around about five other people. We can watch about four things before we run into multi-task issues. It’s difficult to build an engine that allows six players to interact, compete and share mechanical and social space in an equal and interesting way; soon enough somebody will get excluded, or lost in the shuffle, or it will turn into a race. And heck, we run into this limit in racing anyway – there’s a reason most track events only host 8 people – our brains just tap out at that point.

And maybe I’m the only person who runs into the Hard Six. I know many couples or buddies who run into the 2-player doldrums (and me and my gamer buddy do, and I need to marry someone who will fix this, ladies, call me) but I don’t see a lot of people complaining about the Hard Six. Maybe I am under a dark curse to always have five other players. Maybe I have too many friends. Maybe there’s a genre of gaming I don’t know about. Maybe all the Germans are laughing at me because they have 2.1 children or have the lovely couple next door over. Maybe personal devices will help by keeping the sixth person occupied. Maybe we need to get better at dealing with the still somewhat taboo idea of splitting the group up for two separate games. Maybe we should not have rooms with one big gaming table but two smaller tables, as with the old days of Bridge.

Let me know if you run into the Hard Six issue so I know I’m not alone, or what solutions you’ve found to deal with it. Or let me know I’m crazy. Or if you know anything about the dark curse.

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