The two player conundrum

Pirate Brawl! is a competitive game with many player interactions. Originally designed as a three to four player game, how can we turn it into an exciting two player experience?

Playtesting Pirate Brawl! at the Factory in 2017

Imagine this: You are sitting around the kitchen table with two (or more) of our friends playing a competitive game. You are clearly in the lead. Friend One turns over to friend Two: “You know what to do, right?”.

And your downfall begins …

In competitive games with player interaction an exciting layer of negotiation, treaties and betrayal emerges.

Player are faced with new interesting decision: Should I support Ania against Marcy because Marcy is in the lead? But what if Ania is not successful and Marcy strikes back at me? And what if Ania is indeed successful …

When executed well these social mechanics drive a game (when implemented poorly they lead to stalemates and king making).

Now imagine: Marcy decides not to play tonight. Welcome to the two player conundrum.

Pirate Brawl! was originally designed as a three to four player game. Player interaction (conflicts! stealing!) drives the gameplay.

But why making a two player version at all? You have something great going, don’t spoil it by slabbing on some half baked two player experience.

I tend to agree. But there are good arguments to include a version for two players.

One: It is easy to find one other player. Grab your roommate, your loved one, one friend, done. Accommodating a larger variety of player counts adds to the flexibility of the game and it will get played more often.

And two, a completely different and more personal reason: I enjoy the challenge. Here I have a game, which I tremendously enjoy playing with my friends. Is it possible to recreate the same experience for two players?

The answer could be no.

In some games the triangle of power is so deeply engrained in the mechanics that a two player version will be in the best case stale and in the worst case imbalanced.

Luckily, this is not the case for Pirate Brawl!.

Pirate Brawl! has a strong inherent symmetry: Each player receives the same set of starting items (cards/ships/ports/..) with only slight variations to mitigate a first player advantage.

Drawing cards from a stack (each player has their own) is the only mechanical randomiser. The draw stacks are small (twelve cards) and the card powers are balanced, so an individual draw does not lead to an overwhelming advantage.

Symmetries and low randomness result in a balanced gameplay.

So, good news everyone? We don’t have to worry that, if we take away the third party, the game will turn it into a boring the-first-round-decides-who-wins-and-the-remaing-twenty-we-still-have-to-play-out affair?

True, but …

Player actions in Pirate Brawl! often include, as a side-effect, drastic changes to the board state. The next player find themselves in front of a new (and often hilarious) puzzle. Solving these puzzles is the core of the game.

In a game with only two players these changes become much more predictable. Play Pirate Brawl! with two players without any rule changes and you end up with a balanced but not very exciting game.

Famous 18th century pirates Mary Read and Anne Bonne (A General History of Pyrates, East Carolina University, Digital Collection).

The solution for this problem turned out to be straight forward: Don’t play with only two players 😉 If the third player is crucial to the game, keep her!

For the two player game in Pirate Brawl! you set up a three player game with both player taking turns controlling the action of the second captain.

This might sound like a lazy solution. But lazy is good! Lazy means, you didn’t have to change much. Why change a great game if you don’t have to?

In addition to solving the issue of too much predictability keeping the third player adds a new layer of interesting decisions: If I play the extra player very aggressive, how will this affect me when the other player is controlling them?

It also adds a new “wavy” asymmetry: with every change of control over the extra player the balance of power shifts. As it turns out this makes for a great two player game.

The two player variant of Pirate Brawl! is currently my absolute favourite! Maybe we need to go back and see what can be improved in the three and four player versions 😉