Games for Three – Hurrah for the Third Wheel!

3 players has notoriously been a bit of a blind spot in board game design. A glut of great 2 player games get released every year, loads of games play best at 4 or more, but what about those times when you thought it was clear it was a date but they’ve brought a pal along? Or maybe a few people cancel on the big games night plan? 3 people? Awkward.

Well, not anymore! Grab precisely two of your friends, no more, no less, and try getting these games to the table.

 

THE KING IS DEAD


I don’t think I’ve ever seen this game on any other top three players games lists but to me, it’s one of the greats. I first time I played it was that weird lockdown Christmas when you were sort of allowed to see people for a day but not breathe near them. There were three of us. We watched Return of the Jedi and played about ten games, back to back of this modern classic.

This is a small, swift game with only eight action cards to be played by each player but with loads of good crunch. The board is a map of the UK divided into eight sections, with random combinations of cubes from three different factions, England, Scotland and Wales. You don’t play as any of these factions though. No no! You simply manipulate the board state and try and bet on the winning horse (or, winning cubes, to be precise.) When you play one of your eight action cards you will either add, move or subtract factions supports across the board, but crucially also remove one cube to place in front of you as to who you want to win. Removing the cube makes them weaker exactly as you are backing them! Such a great mechanic that makes for tough decisions in this simple premise.

It’s perfect for three players as you have some control over the back and forth of the factions, but inevitably will get drawn into clashing with opponents’ plans, or, might you just hide in the shadows as the other two waste their precious cards trying to free Essex from the Welsh? At two players you are in a bit too simple a tug of war, at four players you actually play in two teams of two like a game of Bridge, but at three, the balance of passing a turn or jumping to action to stop the French invading (yes the French can invade) is perfect.

MARIA


Okay, so a lot of these games are great for three players, but none of them are designed exactly for three. Until now! One of the few (only??) board games that can only be played with exactly three players, this a long, beloved wargame set in that classic board game setting, you guessed it, the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

A problem with three player wargames has often been, if two players start attacking each other, the third player will likely benefit the most. But here two of the players control a number of different armies, sometimes both allies AND enemies of the third player, Austria. Asymmetric strengths and win conditions mean alliances will come and go and a good deal can be as important as a good battle.

As long wargames go, (and it is long, at least four hours) this plays a lot more elegantly and simply than some of its rivals. Complex rules are replaced with negotiation, bluffing and a very satisfying card combat system using regular suited playing cards numbered 2-10. I’m a huge fan of playing cards instead of dice in combat, it’s so rarely used but gives so many great, difficult decisions on hand management. Do you throw a good card at this battle or save it for one that might be even more important down the line? After all, it’s only 1740 and as we all know, this war ran until 1748!

If you’re not into long historical wargames, you’ve probably stopped reading this already, but if you only play one dedicated three player wargame about the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748) then definitely make it this one!

ROOT


And speaking of ways to fix three player wargames, here’s another game that doesn’t appear on too many top three player lists but after many plays at different player counts, I think that’s the sweet spot for the beautiful but cutthroat woodland battle game, Root.

Perceived wisdom is this game is best at four, and the four wildly different factions that come in the base game are all designed to fit into the gaps left by the others; the cats start with armies everywhere but need to work out where to focus on defending, the birds start in one place but snowball into a huge wrecking ball and, the woodland alliance start… nowhere. They’re not even on the board until suddenly they are and now it might be too late to stop them. The balance of these three factions is so well done that I just never find myself wanting the fourth faction involved. The vagabond is a fun idea, not an army at all but one character wandering around doing quests, but in practice it just comes down to everyone saying “well one of us needs to hit the vagabond again” which is less fun than the negotiations of, say, cats and birds calling a truce to sort out the mice.

A fourth player also pushes the play time up to a level where there can be too much downtime, whereas with three players you can easily play two games in a night. If you simply must play at four and fancy getting an expansion, I’d recommend the otters (or riverfolk company) as a better fourth pick, they open up river transport and trading and okay they never win (not when I play them anyway) but are just good dumb fun.

But trust me, try it again at three players, do the right thing, hide the vagabond cards away, bury them if you must, and enjoy the perfectly balanced asymmetry of cats vs birds vs mice.

So there we have it, three games for three players, surely the perfect amount! Ah but  here’s two more quick ones for you (yes these might have turned up on other lists, but that’s because they’re good)

SET A WATCH

This fantasy monster fighting game is designed to be played with exactly four heroes, but because it’s a coop game and every round one character has to wait at camp whilst the other three go off to smash up some Goblins, it actually works great at three players! Everyone gets one hero and then we pick one work experience hero to share for whenever your main squeeze refuses to leave the lovely warm campfire. If you grew up loving things like Hero Quest and are keen to try a more modern, wizards and warriors vs monsters but with dice, this small box is definitely worth a look.

FURY OF DRACULA

All vs one hidden movement games, be it this or another favourite of mine, Beast, are a type of game I 100% prefer at three players. In both, at just two players the hunter team is just one person, so no discussing or arguing out loud which the player as the hidden monster really relies on and really helps bring the game to life. At more than three players, the hunters players don’t always get enough to do each turn. Ah, but at three players, the hunt across the map of Europe for where Dracula is having his nap is on!

Written by Tom Bell

If you want to pick up any of these games, check if they’re in stock at Zatu. Buying them there supports No Rolls Barred via our affiliate partnership. Read more here.