See, there’s several kinds of downtime. I’ve always thought there was but one but in retrospect it’s easy to see that there’s always been two and, if one draws the analysis a step further, three, and I hate only one of them.
I’ve taken the liberty of naming them plan time, dead time and rest time.
Dead time is what most people think about when they think about downtime, a period of time that’s dead. You can’t do anything, you’re not engaged in the game and yet you can’t step away from the table either. Plan time is the positive aspect of dead time: you can’t do anything, you can’t step away from the table but you’re still engaged in the game. Rest time is the opposite: you can’t do anything but you can step away from the table (either physically or mentally).
Plan time exits when there’s a possibility of achieving something, or of planning for the future, or there’s a lot riding on what your opponent does. In dead time none of this exists. Imagine playing a game of Magic the Gathering Amazon between two unblockable, no interaction, non-optimized critter decks. Yeah, it’s not likely to happen but let’s pretend what would happen: the game would devolve into a solitaire race of who draws the best cards. You could just cycle through your deck, even begin your turn while your opponent was still doing his. But imagine that your opponent has a single critter that you can block. Let’s say it isn’t a no-brainer whether to block or not. Their action forces an action from you (whether to block or not). Now you have to sit and wait until they’ve decided whether to attack or not. You can’t start your turn because knowing what you’d draw would affect your choice. But at the same time you can’t walk away since you need to be on hand to decide. Now lets say that you’re playing someone with AP, so their turn takes longer than it should. That’s dead time. (Yeah, I admit that the example is bad and would never happen in real life.)
But lets assume that you’re playing Through the Ages, or even better, Tzolk’in Amazon . You can’t do anything if it isn’t your turn but you can, and need to, plan for what you’ll do. The complexity is such that if you don’t pre-plan you’ll be bogged down with possibilities on your turn. Or even if you could take a complete AP turn without anyone minding there’s a charm in looking at the board and thinking – it’s fun to imagine the possibilities and groan or cheer inwardly when your opponent does something that either blocks your plans or leaves them open. You’re not doing anything but you’re still engaged. That’s plan time.
But let’s say that you’re playing a monster wargame, like World in Flames Amazon. Your opponent is doing his (or perhaps their) move and you’re just waiting. You don’t need to be on hand, you don’t need to follow what chit’s they’ll draw from the replacement cup, you don’t need to do anything. You’re there so you can chat or munch down on something sweet while waiting. It’s a social occasion as much as a gaming one. That’s rest time.
There’s nothing saying that a game can’t have plan time, dead time and rest time all at once. Most do. Some based on phases – Settlers of Catan Amazon or Carcassonne Amazon has dead time while you’re about to get your move but hasn’t quite, plan time while you’re waiting to see what trades the acting player will propose or what tile they’ll play and rest time if you feel like it (you can take a toilet break and still not miss very much).
The trick is then to minimize the dead time and maximize the plan time and rest time. There’s a double dichotomy there, one between interesting/non-interesting and one between complexity and ease. Generally games with non-interesting choices (i.e. no-brainers or lack of impact from the choice) get dead time. Games with complexity often get plan time and games which are easy get rest time. (Of course my WiF example above negates all that – you get dead times with no-choice that are long enough and you’ve got rest time.) So when we’re designing we need to keep in mind how we break up our downtime. In some cases it might even be worth it to decrease interaction and increase downtime in order to turn dead time into rest time.
But that’s up to what goals you set as a designer.