Time is a strange thing. It comes up in many aspects of a board game. There is the actual time it takes to learn, teach, setup, play, and clean up your game. But there is also the more nebulous feeling of time. There is no target time that a game needs to be to achieve elegance. The feeling of time is very important though. This is largely connected to engagement and excitement.
Downtime is generally regarded as a bad thing in a game. Downtime is when players are not doing anything, usually on another player’s turn. You must sit and wait for your turn, while someone else has all the fun. There are a few ways to lessen or remove downtime.
Non-real time simultaneous play allows all players to be acting at the same time. You can still run into downtime issues if one player takes longer to finish in any given turn or round. If players don’t need to interact with each other much, this can be a big time saver. The use of simultaneous play in 7 Wonders allows a 7 player game to take about as long as a 3 player game. However, if players must pay attention to other players actions or those actions interact in ways that need to be performed in an order, simultaneous play can be a problem.
Real time play can be done simultaneously or in turns. It either has a timer or ends at a predetermined event. Real time games tend to be more hectic and can bother some players. For this reason they are usually short, light games. A real time phase in a game can force players to act quickly during an action that could otherwise drag the game down. For example, open trading could take all night if players keep haggling. If you give them a 3 minute limit, it will only take 3 minutes. Be aware that this will fundamentally change the feeling of your game.
If your game has individual turns that are not time limited you can keep the interest of non-active players by giving them something to do when it’s not their turn. If they have any ability to interact with the active player it makes it worthwhile to pay attention and stay engaged. Perhaps they will gain a benefit if another player performs a certain action or they can spend resources to follow the action of the active player. You should be careful with these off turn abilities though. If a player has too many things to pay attention to when it’s not their turn, it can be overwhelming. With multiple players you can also run into issues with the order of actions and risk slowing the game down.
Another option is to just make everyone’s turn short. If each player’s turn is only one action, things will move more quickly than if they have to perform 3 actions. This will affect the amount of control a player has though. One action per turn allows other players a chance to interfere with a plan that takes multiple actions.
While it’s important to be aware of your game’s downtime, not all downtime is bad. It’s nice for a player to be able to relax a little after thinking through a complex turn. And in longer games, having a moment to step away from the game, without slowing it down, can be helpful. Your goal for downtime should be that a player’s downtime ends right when they are ready to start playing again. So no one is left waiting impatiently and no one is unprepared for their turn.
Beyond maximizing the value of every movement you should also consider when things happen. If you have to pause the game to go through a lot of game upkeep, it can disengage players and ruin the flow of play. If everything happens during a player’s turn this can increase the downtime for other players. First, determine if an upkeep action is really necessary. If it is, can it be incorporated into some other action? If not, when can it be performed to minimize interruption of the game?
In Scythe, every player action spot is split into two sections. The top portion is interactive and affects other players, but the bottom portion is not interactive. This was intentionally designed so players could do the bottom actions after the next player has already started their turn. Splitting actions up this way significantly reduces downtime and overall game length.
Any game upkeep should also require the minimum amount of thought from the players. If any upkeep information changes over the game, it is helpful to have a clear tracker for that information, even if it is available elsewhere. Players should not have to count things every round or remember how many of something was out last upkeep.
Control of Game Time
With the exception of strictly timed games, you do not have complete control over the time it takes to play your game. Things like analysis paralysis and stopping for conversations are dependent on the players. You can work to manage this though.
Don’t give players too much to think about at once. Start your game with a limited number of options. You can then add options as the game proceeds so players only need to learn a few new options at a time. You can also remove older options so the total number of options doesn’t become overwhelming.
If you do have multiple strategies players could use, it is helpful to have some setup to help direct players. This doesn’t have to be a restriction, but an obvious short term goal will make those early turns less daunting.
Start at the Beginning and Stop at the End
This may seem obvious, but many times games miss the mark. If the first play of the game is so obvious that players always make the same move, the game should start after that. If each player goes and grabs the 2 wheat, just start the game with each player having 2 wheat. This can also be an issue even if players choose different actions, but there is an ideal action based on play order. The same thing is true for the end of the game. If the last round becomes a series of obvious moves each player must take, the game should end before that.
This can sometimes get overlooked in a design through multiple iterations. At one point it was a really strategic choice, but one option was removed to fix something else and now the first turn is boring.
While an unnecessary first turn can be boring, eventually players will get into the fun of the game, an unnecessary ending can really have a negative effect on how your game is perceived. If your game ends with the exciting part, players will be excited to play again and have positive feelings of the overall game experience. If the exciting part passes and players still have to do a bunch of work, they will be tired of it and remember how tedious it was.
If you are writing your rules and see yourself using the word “except”, you may just be wasting people’s time. An exception is a rule that doesn’t usually come up in your game. Learning and remembering a rule that likely will not be used is unnecessary. Often, exceptions are used to patch up corner cases in a game. It is much better to remove the corner case. If everything works consistently there is less to learn and less of a chance of messing something up. This helps created a smoother more engaging game.
What are some games that you feel manage time to increase their elegance? What are some ways you have increased the elegance of a design by managing time? What are some examples of time making a game less elegant?
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I’d like to thank Phoebos Stergiou from Hercules Game Studios, Odin Phong, C.M. Perry, and Rick Lorenzon for their feedback on this article.