About a year and a half ago I became acquainted with Korean reality television show The Genius, which quickly became my favorite TV show of all time. I had already enjoyed elimination-based shows like The Amazing Race (which I’ve written about before) as a guilty pleasure, but The Genius cut out all the unnecessary gristle – the drama, the discomfort, the weirdly personal grudges – and replaced them with juicy strategy.
The games on each episode varied in quality, some of them trivially solvable and some of them incredibly deep. (One of them was literally just the game No Thanks). My favorite of them all was a social deduction game called “Food Chain,” where players draw the roles of different animals, each with their own powers, habitats, and win conditions, and do their best to make it to the end of the game without dying.
I’ve wanted to run Food Chain myself, but getting exactly 13 people to play it would be prohibitive. So why not scale it down?
Well, “why not” is because Food Chain’s interlocking roles make it almost impossible to scale it down without unbalancing it. This article explores this issue in depth.
If you aren’t familiar with Food Chain, I’ve prepared a companion article that goes over the rules. You may want to keep it open in a separate window.
Much like a real ecosystem, if you remove one species from the ecosystem of Food Chain, the whole thing collapses. Some of the roles, like the Crow, seem extraneous to the main puzzle of predators and prey each trying to survive, but secretly represent key resources to other roles. Here’s some of the issues lurking beneath the surface of Food Chain that make it so hard to rescale:
- For predator roles like the Lion, player count is a resource. If there are fewer players, it will be less likely for a predator to be able to meet their feeding requirements, so life will be significantly harder for them.
- The Sky represents an asymmetric benefit on behalf of the Eagle and similar bird roles. If a bird is removed, it makes life significantly harder for the Eagle, who now has to leave the Sky more often and dodge the Lion and Crocodile.
- Every role cares about every other role, both for predator/prey reasons and for more nuanced ones like habitat or opposing victory conditions.
Here’s some approaches to scaling Food Chain down to a manageable 8 or 9 players, in roughly the order I thought of them.
Trim extraneous roles
As mentioned, some of the roles just sort of…exist on the fringes. The Crow doesn’t really have much to do with the game, the Mouse and Plover are “nice to haves” instead of “have to haves”, and the Chameleon’s only purpose, on its face, is to mix things up a bit.
But as soon as I thought about a Food Chain without these roles, I realized: there are no extraneous roles! Cutting the Plover would make life significantly harder for both the Crocodile and the Eagle (who can eat the Plover if it goes to the Sky), removing the Chameleon would make it trivial for predators to avoid the Snake, and removing any prey animal makes the Four Stooges (otter/deer/rabbit/mallard) more likely to die, making starvation at the end of the round due to indestructible prey animals exponentially more of a concern.
Remove predator/prey roles symmetrically
This approach focuses on maintaining the predator:prey ratio by taking out both roles at roughly the same rate. The current ratio is 4:9, so if I were to remove, say, the hyena, I’d also want to remove two prey, perhaps the chameleon and the crow.
The issue with this is that every predator except the Lion also counts as prey to animals further up on the food chain, so if we remove the Eagle and some other roles, the Crocodile and Lion are significantly more disadvantaged than the prey animals, who know have fewer adversaries and a higher chance to make them starve to death.
Remove prey and make predators less hongry
You can avoid some of the issues of the game becoming too difficult for predators if you change their win condition requirements while removing some of the extraneous prey animals like the Crow. For example, the Lion only has to eat 3 out of 4 rounds instead of every round.
While this is more likely to create a lower player count game with roughly the same balance than simply chopping away roles, the “knobs” that you have to adjust are pretty meager. You can change predators’ eating requirements, but getting a whole extra round where you don’t need to eat can make the game less stressful and therefore less fun on the whole, and there’s no granularity to this adjustment. (The game’s complex enough so that’s fine.)
Change the roles entirely
What if the food pyramid was entirely different? Different roles would be used in different player counts, and maybe even different habitats. Instead of the current Lion-Mouse-Hyena triangle we have now, we could have a different apex predator with different needs, powers, and adversaries. We could also eliminate the Sky entirely, or make it so that animals can access it more easily (by jumping really high?). We could even change the number of rounds.
But at what point does this game stop being Food Chain and start being Food Chain 2? If the attack mechanic is the only thing that stays the same from player count to player count, Food Chain with 8 players and Food Chain with 13 are as much the same game as Clueand Parcheesi.
Here is my galaxy brain solution to solving the scalability issues of Food Chain: Maybe there isn’t a perfect way. Does a game need to have the same balance and gameplay experience for every player count?
At some level, you want to know that when you bring a game to the table, you’re going to roughly know what you’re getting into. Some games, like Gloomhavenand Sentinels of the Multiverse, put a lot of effort into making the lowest player count feel as challenging as the highest player count.
But with others, you’re going to have a wildly different time depending on how many people you’re playing with. Libertaliaand 6 Nimmt!are tense mechanisms of risk and bluffing at 3-4 players and gradually become more of a lunatic circus where nothing matters as more people arrive to complicate things. Roll for the Galaxy at 2 players involves hard-reading your opponent’s plans and jamming your hand into them, while at 5 players it mostly involves doing your own thing and occasionally benefitting from your opponent choosing to develop technology.
And frankly, social deduction games are both the most likely to feel different at different counts and the most likely to have a huge range of player counts, topping off at 8-10 players. With some of these, it can become trivial for one side or the other to win – in A Fake Artist Goes to New York, for example, the fake artist is extremely likely to win at high player counts, but players still get a lot of fun out of the game’s base mechanic of one-stroke-at-a-time drawing.