Player counts are a tricky thing sometimes, for gamers and for publishers. As a gamer, you may not be able to play a game you want because you have one too many or one too few players. Publishers, on the other hand, want to make sure their game appeals to as wide an audience as possible, even going so far as to include solo variants or player AI for lower player counts in their games. But what if there was a better way to accommodate for different player counts?
These days, games typically fall into about 3 price categories. Small, "filler" games are about $15-$25. Middleweight games fall between $50 and $70, and the heaviest games cost about $90-120. Say you pick up a $60 that plays up to 6 players. Some of that cost goes to the components to support that many players.
But what if you know you'll never get that game to the table with more than 4 players? Many games that can play five or more players are still recommended with just 3 or 4 by reviewers or other gamers. Or maybe it's a game that you know you'll only play head-to-head with one other person. You don't get to pay 4/6 or 2/6 the price just because you have a smaller player count, because it ultimately costs the publisher just as much money to make every copy of the game, whether it gets played by 1 person or by 100.
Games like Star Realms and Imperial Harvest have avoided this issue in a clever way. Instead of building each game for 4 or 6 or more players, each individual box plays 2 players, but those boxes can be combined for multiple players. That means, if you want to play a 6-player game of Imperial Harvest, you'll need to spend $60 on copies of the game, but if you only want to play with 2 players, you only need to spend $20 (MSRP, though you can currently get it for $5 less on Kickstarter).
For publishers, it means they aren't losing a sale due to a higher price point or a player count that doesn't work for a particular gamer. Instead, they're selling exactly to their demand, which is a better experience for all.
Dividing and Conquering
Likewise, say a gamer only has $20 for a game, and her friend has $20 as well. They could split the money on a game, but who ultimately gets to keep it? Where will it live? What if one person wants to play it, but doesn't have it at the time? Someone ends up losing out on the bargain. With a combinable game, both get their own copy of the game which they can keep, play together or play separately as they wish. It adds flexibility of both playtime and ownership for maximum satisfaction.
By the Numbers
Most games are designed with a certain player count in mind. It might be 2, it might be 4 or any other number you can count to. Some games scale well from that initial number, others really only shine at a certain count. Inevitably, there will be some player count where a game falters. Two player games can get shaky at higher numbers. Multiplayer games tend to feel flat with only 2 players. Three player games always introduce a complicated dynamic unless a game is specifically designed for 3. Single player games are their own beast entirely in most cases.
Designing a combinable game does not solve this dilemma inherently, but it gives designers a new tool to work with. Instead of adjusting a game for additional or fewer players, the game space is simply doubled or tripled. This isn't strictly a 1:1 transition, but it mechanics tend to work better when multiplied by a whole number rather than adding 67% more players to the table. And when designing with a combinable game in mind, you're already thinking about scale versus looking at the rules in the vacuum of one player count.
In short, the concept of combining games for more players isn't just a fad or gimmick, it's a good practice that gives players the exact size game they want, gives flexibility to publishers to meet demand wherever it exists, and gives designers a new way to solve for multiple player counts.