The Case Study: Playing with 2-4

Armed with a rule from The Succession Wars, I feel we’re ready to figure out what happens when you want to play Over the Next Dune with a group of two to four. It’s a tricky problem that this past weekend really threw into sharp relief. A few people had schedule changes that left fewer players for testing than expected–and not having confronted this issue, I wasn’t ready with a plan. Clearly, it’s time to work this through.

Facts: OtND has five player tokens. When playing solo, a single player controls all of them. When playing with five players, each player controls one. Currently, the rules do not address what happens when playing with two to four players.

As an additional wrinkle, previous testing has demonstrated that not all of the player tokens have the same options. The tokens on the far left and right can move up the sides of the board; in some configurations of terrain and searchers this is very safe (and, therefore, not especially interesting). By contrast, the token in the center is generally in the thick of things from the beginning.

Issue: How should player tokens be allocated among the players when there are two to four players? (Technically, this is really three issues: what to do when there are two players, when there are three players, and when there are four players. Since much of the reasoning will apply to all three, it seems OK to collapse them into one for most of the discussion.)

Rules:

1. Decisions players make should be interesting throughout the game.
2. When one player needs to “sub in” for others, controlling multiple players’ pieces, the rules must ensure that the player cannot combine those pieces to become more powerful than the other players in the game.

Thinking it through: Rule (1) means that a single player should never control only the pieces on the far left and the far right. Although it’s unlikely that both sides of the board will be safe, it could happen that way. If it does, a player in charge of the two far pieces is liable to end up playing a boring game as both pieces just rush straight up the flanks. It’s OK if a player has one token making the safe “end run” and another token that’s doing interesting stuff, but if both are safe the player is apt to be bored.

Rule (2) means that a single player should not control tokens that start out next to each other. Such tokens are likely to be in a position to help each other out; as a result, that player will be able to keep his or her tokens safe without having to confront the rules limiting communication with other players. Giving one player total coordination to make saves, while everyone else has to struggle to work together, is clearly giving that one player a great deal of extra power..

With three players, the rules allow this configuration:

(player 1) (player 2) (player 3) (player 1) (player 2)

In other words, player 1 controls the tokens starting at (1,2) and (1,14); player 2 controls the tokens starting at (1,6) and (1,18); and player 3 controls the token starting in the center. This arrangement gives each player a relatively central token and avoids anyone controlling tokens that are next to each other. Player 3 only gets one token, but it’s the one in the center which presumably has the most options. He or she will get to make fewer decisions, but they’ll be interesting ones.

For four players we have to substitute player 4 in for one of player 1’s or player 2’s tokens. This is a little awkward, because we either have to give player 4 one of the end tokens (which will sometimes mean an easy game) or leave player 1 or 2 with only an end token (saddling them with the same problem).

Lacking a really satisfactory option here, I’m going to assign player 4 to the far right token at (1,18). It’s slightly closer to the center than the far left token, and in theory should therefore have a slightly greater chance of getting into the mix early. The arrangement is:

(player 1) (player 2) (player 3) (player 1) (player 4)

When there are two players I think this arrangement works:

(player 1) (player 2) (player 1) (player 2) (player 1)

Player 1 has the two tokens that might have unexciting games, but also has the center token that has a lot to do. Neither player has adjacent pieces, so even though there are few players they will still have to coordinate.

That solves the problem we started out with: there are now rules for playing with two to four players. However, working this through has emphasized a new issue. The far left and right tokens aren’t working as well as they need to. It’s awful that there are tokens whose positioning can lead to uninteresting games for their players. I’m going to put some thought into what should be done about them, and we’ll discuss it more next time.

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