Games that SHINE with 3 players - Part II
Joshua Miller
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The first GeekList I ever created was "Games that SHINE with 3 players," and it has been my most popular in terms of number of views. It can be found here:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist.php3?action=view&listi...

That list is more than two years old, and many other three-player lists have appeared between then and now. Some are good, and some are not as good, but I still think my original list is the best set of recommendations for a three-player table. However, it's a bit out of date now, and there are many more games that deserve to be mentioned. Many of these games are new within the last couple of years, some of these were new to me over that period, and still others just didn't find their way onto the first list for whatever reason. So here's a whole new set of recommendations to put beside those from the original list.

I'll start things off with 17 games, and I expect to update the list as I find more shine-worthy 3-player games. I'm not going to attempt a ranking of these games, so I've organized the first batch alphabetically.
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1. Board Game: Age of Steam Expansion #1: England & Ireland [Average Rating:8.06 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.06 Unranked]
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Age of Steam is a terrific game, but it really was only at its best with 4 or 5 players. I played it once with 3, and the game just didn't work very well. The board was too open, and there was little need to fight over the turn order since everyone will always get one of the three prime actions (generally locomotive, urbanization, and engineer are better than the rest in the early game). Well, I'm here to tell you that the Ireland map changes all of that! It's a brilliant reconception of the game that's specifically designed for 3 or 4 players. The map is smaller and tighter, goods are scarcer, and there are extensive rule changes including a weakening of the locomotive and urbanization actions. The result of the changes is a whole new game that is finely honed for 3 or 4 players.
 
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2. Board Game: Alhambra [Average Rating:7.03 Overall Rank:392]
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This Spiel des Jahres winner is a pleasant light-middleweight game for those who don't mind quite a lot of luck. The biggest problem I see is that it's advertised for 2-6 players. I would never want to play Alhambra with more than four. There's nothing to do while you wait for the turn to get back around to you, and the buildings on offer probably won't last until your next turn - making planning all but impossible. Even the 4-player game shows some of these weaknesses, although I do think it's decent for 4. Three players is probably the sweet spot for Alhambra. The pace is quick and you can actually plan ahead a little bit. The two-player game has these same advantages, but the battles for majorities aren't as interesting as they are with 3.
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3. Board Game: Attika [Average Rating:7.02 Overall Rank:563]
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I'm sure to catch some flak for listing Attika here. Some people think this game works only with two players because of what has been called the "Kill Dr. Lucky problem," which is: Situations arise in which a certain player will win a connection victory if she is not stopped. Stopping her will drain resources from the blocking player, and it's not always clear whose duty it is to defend against the win. This feature doesn't bother me at all, and I think Attika is fantastic with either 2 or 3 players (and pretty good with 4). The 3-player game in particular presents some interesting challenges due to the three-way fight for lebensraum. Attika is my current favorite among 2-player games, and I think it's just as good, possibly better, with 3. If the Kill Dr. Lucky issue is a deal-breaker for you, then I still highly recommend the game as a 2-player affair.
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4. Board Game: Cartagena [Average Rating:6.70 Overall Rank:845]
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Cartagena arrived at about the same time as Carcassonne, and I think it suffered because its superficial similarities caused people to compare it to Carcassonne. Both were small-box German games in the same price range. Both were quick-playing light/mid-weight games. Both had little painted wooden people that were placed on a "board" made up of tiles. And most people preferred Carcassonne. I probably do, too, but Cartagena has really grown on me. I prefer to play cards-up (Tortuga) style, and I think it's at its best with 3 players. The 2-player game is not bad, but it doesn't feel like there's enough action on the board. With 4, I'd choose something else: there are so many guys on the board that players will be forced to set each other up for huge jumps, you can sometimes be screwed just because of the turn order, it's too difficult to plan ahead, and the whole thing ends too quickly. Three, though, is the happy medium that is more dynamic than the 2-player game while avoiding the flaws of the 4-player game.
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5. Board Game: La Città [Average Rating:7.09 Overall Rank:554]
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I've played La Citta with 2, 3, and 4 players (never with 5), and it's one of those rare games that's great with any of those configurations. The size of the board scales to perfectly fit the number of players, in a fashion not unlike Through the Desert. I wish more games used this concept. I'm enthusiastic about La Citta as a 3-player game because it does such a great job at avoiding the two most common problems of 3-player games of conflict. Many such games either (1) develop into unfair 2-vs-1 configurations, or (2) two players beat each other up while the third preys on the leftovers and cruises to victory. La Citta doesn't fall into those patterns because the players each control multiple cities, and each of those cities are (often) competing with multiple other cities at the same time. Consequently, balance is maintained without resorting to bash-the-leader tactics.
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6. Board Game: Clans [Average Rating:6.56 Overall Rank:1137]
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I enjoy Clans quite a bit with 3 players. The 4-player game is not worth playing because chaos overtakes the game. The 2-player game affords the most control, but is marred slightly by the Nim-like (a.k.a Dots & Boxes) standoff situations that arise. The 3-player game lets you have a significant influence on the directions things are taking, but the game always feels like it's on the verge of spinning out of your control. I think that's just the right balance of control against drama for this hidden-identity game of tactics and psychology. Bad with 4, good with 2, very good with 3.
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7. Board Game: I Go! [Average Rating:6.42 Overall Rank:2441]
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I don't consider Leo Colovini to be among my favorite game designers, yet he has no less than four games on parts I and II of this list - Cartagena, Clans, Corsari, and Carolus Magnus. He seems to have a knack for balancing games for 3 players, at least when their titles begin with a 'C.' I suspect that some of his other games are also geared for 3 players, but I either haven't played them yet (Submarine, Doge, Alexandros, Meridian), or haven't played them enough to figure out whether they're best with 3 (Magna Grecia, Bridges of Shangri-La). Colovini designs simple, clean games in the light and middleweight categories. Corsari is definitely on the lightweight end of his range. It's a riff on gin rummy that teaches you to fear your opponents' hands, pay attention to their draws and discards, and sniff out the proper time to make your move. Compared with gin rummy, Corsari is a faster game, and it presents players with more interesting decisions while managing to keep things very simple. Three players gives a richer game experience than two players because you have to consider the positions of two opponents. I've never tried it with 4, but I suspect it might start to drag at that number.
 
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8. Board Game: Domaine [Average Rating:7.02 Overall Rank:647]
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Lowenherz was strictly a four-player game because the crux of its tension arose from four players competing for just three actions. Domaine replaces the haggling with cards, making for a lighter, friendlier, more streamlined game - and one that works just as well with 3 as it does with 4. I'm not sure whether Domaine belongs on this list, though, because I haven't decided whether I like it. I've played maybe three times, and two of those were runaway victories. I need another play or two before I decide whether Domaine is a keeper. So for now, this entry means, "Fans of Lowenherz, when there are only three of you, pull out Domaine instead." And judging from my gaming group, you might have a hard time finding even three fans of Lowenherz!
 
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9. Board Game: Feurio! [Average Rating:6.14 Overall Rank:3824]
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By far best with 3. Why? With two players, it's too easy. You place half the tiles, meaning that you can usually maneuver your chain of firemen wherever you want, and the game becomes a tile-drawing contest. Four players works better, but has the opposite problem. You draw only a quarter of the tiles, which doesn't leave you much opportunity to place firefighters. Your guys can become isolated almost as soon as you place them merely through luck of the draw. The 3-player game depends a little less on the tile draw, and the game is neither too easy nor too hard - you'll have to weigh some tradeoff decisions along the way. Also, in the 3-player game there's the added element of a fourth, neutral color of firefighters that can be played to the board by anyone. Good with 3, decent with 4.
 
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10. Board Game: The Bottle Imp [Average Rating:6.75 Overall Rank:1087]
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Flaschenteufel has been one of our staples lately when 3 of us need a filler. It's a great little game that requires some acclimation to the bizarre suit numbering and the unique strategies. I've gotten pretty good at avoiding the bottle, but I don't always do as good a job of maximizing my score. Flaschenteufel is also the only trick-taking game I've played that has an authentic-feeling story arc incorporated into the gameplay. The 3-handed and 4-handed versions require such different strategies that they feel like two distinct games. Both are good, but I definitely prefer the 3-handed version, with its larger hand size and smaller chance of players being short-suited.
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11. Board Game: Die Fugger [Average Rating:6.46 Overall Rank:2726]
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Die Fugger is a compact economic game that reminds me of Flinke Pinke with some ideas from Die Händler and Modern Art. Your choices are tightly constrained, but there's opportunity for interesting tactical maneuvering, and timing your plays requires some finesse. I like the interaction between the two goals: influencing the commodity prices and scoring points. Sometimes you can do both at the same time, sometimes you must do one at the expense of the other. I've played Die Fugger with 2, 3, and 4 players - I think it's outstanding with 3, decent but a little out of control with 4, and interesting but very random with 2 due to all the cards played by the Rich Fugger. As far as 3-player games of speculation go, I would even choose this over Modern Art (and I think Modern Art is a fantastic game).
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12. Board Game: Goldland [Average Rating:6.69 Overall Rank:1677]
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Goldland has a square board, with players starting at one corner and racing to the opposite corner (while doing plenty of other stuff along the way). The two sides of the square next to the starting location have already been explored, and players will typically move quickly up one side or the other, then make their slow progress into the interior. This sounds like a recipe for disaster with 3 players, since you'll usually see two players starting their exploration from one side of the square and the third player starting by himself on the other side. But what tends to happen is that the two players who are close to one another help and hinder each other in approximately equal amounts, keeping the game balanced for all three players. The player by himself has the disadvantage of not being able to explore as quickly, but he has more opportunities to collect treasures and exploration chits, and no one is around to block his progress. If his route is not looking like it will reach the destination soon enough, he should have the extra resources necessary to attempt a jump to the section that the other players are exploring, and try to run them down. Or he can intentionally ignore the destination, and try to win on "other stuff" points. Not only does Goldland work with 3, I would argue that it's best with 3. The density of the board, the level of cooperation/competition, and the exploration chit trade-in ratio all seem to be just right with 3.
 
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13. Board Game: Katzenjammer Blues [Average Rating:5.88 Overall Rank:4991]
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I view Katzenjammer Blues as a 3-player-only game. If you first tried it with 5 or 6 players, you probably hated it, and I wouldn't blame you. It's much too short with that many players, and you never have a chance to get your hand working for you. I can't find the quotation, but I remember someone writing that Katzenjammer Blues starts in the middle and ends before you're ready. That's a perfect description of the pattern of the game, and playing with a larger number of players exacerbates the frustrating aspects of that pattern. With 3, it really does shine as an accelerated, cutthroat game of hand management, timing, and seizing initiative. I've heard that some gamers also enjoy it with 2 players, but I'll leave that recommendation to someone who has actually tried it with that number. Seems like it would work well head to head.
 
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14. Board Game: Sluff Off! [Average Rating:6.90 Overall Rank:1028]
 
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Die! Steven Seagal is a five-suited game of Oh Hell! in which the entire deck is used each hand and players must predict not only how many tricks they will take, but which colors those tricks will be. It takes a lot of skill to play well, yet it's not as brain-melty as some of the other card games fitting that description. Which is kind of a nice combination. Compared to a similar game like Wizard, this is geared more toward serious card game afficionados, and would be less suitable for casual players. It's also definitely better for 3 players. Wizard drags on interminably with 3, and by the end you're holding like 436.1 cards in your hand. In Die Sieben Siegel, your hand size is the same with any number of players, and three or six hands makes for a nice length, depending on whether you want an appetizer or an entree. The game is very good with any number from 3 to 5, but be warned that it becomes extremely unforgiving and cutthroat with 3! As suggested by the rules, the saboteur (a.k.a. Dancing Steven) should score 5 rather than 4 in 3-handed games. We haven't found any other adjustment necessary for the saboteur. In fact, we have tracked scores over several games, and the saboteur's average score is right in line with everyone else's average.
 
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15. Board Game: Saint Petersburg [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:229]
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Saint Petersburg is a well-designed game of timing, staying flexible, and evaluating odds. Once everyone has learned the flow of the game and is able to avoid the common traps, the outcome will sometimes come down to luck of the draw. But in the meantime, interesting decisions present themselves, and there's much fun to be had. I'm puzzled that Saint Petersburg is often described as "light," since it requires detailed calculation, and since mastering the pace of the game requires some sophistication. Maybe some people simply mean "lots of luck" when they call a game "light." I'd say Saint Petersburg is a fast-playing gamer's game with a fairly high luck quotient. I have to say that I don't care for the game at all with 4 players; it's mostly just a card-flipping contest, with little you can do to affect the other players. But with 2 or 3 players, I really do think this is a good gamer's game. The 2-handed and 3-handed games have a very different feel, and I recommend trying both to see which you prefer.
 
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16. Board Game: Samarkand [Average Rating:6.48 Overall Rank:2555]
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I've discovered Samarkand only recently, and what I know about it so far is that it stinks with 2 players, but with 3 it's actually a very good, relaxing family-style game. I haven't played yet with 4 to compare. I'm very skeptical about 5 players, though. This is the kind of game I'd like to have in my collection because it's an easy, non-confrontational game that I can pull out for non-gamers, and we can all probably enjoy it.
 
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17. Board Game: Show Manager [Average Rating:7.05 Overall Rank:1034]
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Mechanically, Showmanager is almost exactly the same game as Atlantic Star, but I'm listing Showmanager because I strongly prefer it, and it's the one I own. Many (most?) people think of this as a game for 6 players because it moves quickly and generally does a better job than most games of accomodating that number. It is pretty good with 6, and gets played mostly in that situation since 6 is such a tough number, but I actually think it's a whole lot better with just 3 players. With 3, each player puts on each show twice. You don't have to use dummy shows like you do with 2, 4, or 5 players. Your turn comes around much more often than it does with 5-6 players, obviously, which means less boring dead time and more control over the proceedings. Defensive plays become viable choices. And I find that the decisions about hiring, timing, and borrowing money become much more difficult. In real life, I often prefer obvious choices, but in the realm of games, I think most people who would be reading this list, myself included, like the decisions to be difficult.
 
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18. Board Game: Goa [Average Rating:7.62 Overall Rank:107]
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This weekend, I played my first 3-player game of Goa. I wasn't sure it would work well with only 3 bidders for the auctions (and only two that will want to bid in most cases, since it's so costly to win your own auction). Well, it does work well. Extremely well. The auction phase is brutal with 3, and one mistake can lead to disaster. Because of the way money is passed among so few players, the costs of running low on cash at the wrong time are greatly magnified over the 4-player version! A bid that's reasonable in a 4-player match will sometimes be unreasonable with 3, since it can lead to an exploitable cash imbalance among the players. The extremely confining dynamics of the bidding focus the 3-player game much more sharply on manipulating the peculiarities of the auction system. I enjoyed exploring this shift of focus, but others may be disappointed that the auction is more "gamey" and tiles sometimes sell for substantially less than their market value. The non-auction parts of the game are basically unchanged with 3, except that there is a bit less competition for the one-time-bonus expedition cards, and about one more action card per player due to owning the flag more often. Our first game with 3 ended with all of us tied in victory points! Surely this is a sign that subtracting a player doesn't throw the game off balance, as it sometimes can in games designed for four players.
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19. Board Game: Ticket to Ride [Average Rating:7.46 Overall Rank:124] [Average Rating:7.46 Unranked]
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I foolishly neglected to add Ticket to Ride to the first batch of games on this list. What was I thinking? It must have just slipped my mind, because Ticket to Ride is fantastic with 3. Maybe even at its best with 3. It features a well-conceived method for tightening up play with fewer than four players: allowing only one passage on the double track routes. More designers should employ tricks like this that help keep an appropriate board density with different numbers of players. The rule about double track routes makes the 3-player game tenser and more unforgiving than the 4-player version - it can be brutal! You'll have to grab important routes as soon as possible, something that isn't always critically important with 4 players. Another bonus is the shorter playing time with just 3, perfect for a game that sometimes goes just a bit too long for its weight class when playing with 4 or 5. Great game, and great with three.
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20. Board Game: No Thanks! [Average Rating:7.04 Overall Rank:391]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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This game is about as simple as you can get in the hobby game market, but is it beatifully simple or painfully simple? I admit that I lean more toward the first description. And this is from someone who doesn't like games in which one's decisions are overwhelmed by luck. Geschenkt certainly seems to be that type of game, yet I like it. It's appropriately short, moves quickly, and the risk management aspects make for interesting decisions, even if they all pay off or fail based on the luck of the cards (specifically, whether certain cards have been removed from the deck at random). I like Geschenkt with 3 or 4 players, and am beginning to think that it's actually best with 3. Why? With fewer players, there's more incentive to take a card that an opponent wants, simply to mess with her. That in itself is a good thing, and it also has the desirable effect of making it more difficult to judge whether a card you want will go around "one more time." This adds a welcome dose of tension to the decisionmaking. I think Geschenkt will have some real staying power in spite of its lighter-than-air composition. I'm trying to think of a better "ridiculously quick" filler for three players, and I can't. I've recommended some other quick stuff on this list and its predecessor - including High Society, Katzenjammer Blues, Corsari, Clans, Feurio, Cartagena, and Web of Power - but none of these play as quickly as Geschenkt.
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21. Board Game: Tanz der Hornochsen! [Average Rating:6.53 Overall Rank:2616]
Joshua Miller
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Holland
Michigan
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Tanz der Hornochsen a.k.a "The 6 Nimmt Boardgame" hasn't garnered much attention here on BGG, but we've had a lot of fun with it. I enjoy 6 nimmt as a chaotic, quick and light game. Tanz der Hornochsen is longer than 6 nimmt and a bit less light, but probably even more chaotic than its older sibling. For a group of three, I would definitely choose Tanz der Hornochsen over 6 nimmt.

In 6 nimmt, the unpredictability that drives the game and gives it drama comes from the quantity of cards played each turn. You want to have the feeling that every turn is dangerous, and this requires a critical mass of players - probably about 4 at minimum. I like 6 nimmt best with 4, 5, or 6 players (too many, and you get the opposite problem: so much unpredictability that your decisions don't seem very meaningful). Tanz der Hornochsen is dramatic and unpredictable even with as few as three players. The game doesn't rely purely on the quantity of cards played to generate excitement and chaos. The board itself and the new rules produce their own chaos: the tracks of different lengths and values, the cowpies, the double-tile turns, the inversion of points (from bad to good) at unexpected times, the occasional sequential face-up turns, the continual depletion of players' hands, the choice of when to buy tiles and how many to buy, etc. The game's texture is more varied, there are more elements to consider, and more change in the game situation from turn to turn. Tanz der Hornochsen is actually better with fewer players because it's a more thought-filled game that requires more control over the various complications. Three or four players can rein in the game nicely, but things spin further and further out of control as you go above four players. The game only shines when the player-generated chaos is kept at a moderate level.
 
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22. Board Game: The Scepter of Zavandor [Average Rating:7.01 Overall Rank:841]
Joshua Miller
United States
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Michigan
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Das Zepter von Zavandor made my top ten list for 2004, and I've found that it works very well with three players. It's particularly malleable in terms of numbers of players because the heart of the game is a solo effort to build an efficient infrastructure and navigate an optimal path through the obstacles that the game design presents, independent of what the other players are doing. Player interaction comes in the form of bidding on artifacts and sentinels, timing when to offer them for auction, and manipulating the pace of scoring to jockey for turn order position (there are penalties for being ahead, much like Power Grid). Three players is enough to ensure that all of these points of interaction are interesting and competitive. I think the ideal number of players for a game of Zepter von Zavandor is four. The artifacts are in shorter supply, which means that the bidding is more interesting and the artifact deck cycles more quickly. But a three-player game would be a very close second choice. Playing with three has the benefit of being shorter, and that's an important consideration for a game with quite a bit of downtime. The three-player game takes a bit under two hours, compared with 2.5 for a four-player game.
 
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23. Board Game: Reef Encounter [Average Rating:7.16 Overall Rank:487]
Joshua Miller
United States
Holland
Michigan
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I'm still exploring Reef Encounter, having played three times so far. Each of these plays was with three players, and the game seems to be great with that number. I can't compare the three-handed and four-handed games for obvious reasons, but I'll update this entry once I have the opportunity to play a game or two with four players.
 
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