Time is the one resources one can never get more of. You can hire an army of maids to clean your house, a horde of accountants to run your business and any number of personal assistants to take care of your needs but you’ll still, never, ever, be able to get more than 25 hours in a day. Sorry, Freudian slip.
Time to play is rare for most people and there’s lots of things clamoring for it: media, friends, that unfinished project in the corner. So when players take the time to play your game they expect that time to be well spent. They expect to get a certain amount of enjoyment out of their invested time, whether social, intellectual or physical, and if we fail to deliver they’re likely to refuse to play the game again.
Thus we need to take care not to waste our players’ time. We need to make sure it’s well spent, that every moment in the game is engaging.
Common sense, isn’t it?
But the fact remains that in quite a lot of games there are elements of dead time, of players not having enough engaging things to fill their play with. And when that happens they grow bored. Don’t scoff at that boredom, or complain about lack of attention. Take it as a sign that there’s something wrong with your design, note where it appears so you can fix it and thank your players for showing it to you.
Here are some things to think about when analyzing time in your design:
Setup isn’t usually counted as part of game design but it certainly is part of both the game experience and the game product design. Look at your design and think about how it is to set up. Do players do the same moves in the beginning? Are there only a few positions on the board after the first round or two? If so, consider whether you could cut out the first turns and replace them with a limited amount of setup options.
For example: If the common moves for Yellow is to either expand or go to war in the first turn then the setup could be: Baron Yellow starts with a castle in Alberville and either a village in Bollby or a knight in Cesarea.
On the other hand you could be doing the opposite thing. If you’re laying out lots and lots of components beforehand, perhaps even having to wait for other players to lay out their’s first, then maybe you could incorporate that part of the setup into the game. Let players start small and expand. Does that give them meaningful decisions? If so then you might start the game earlier and make the setup smaller. The game will be longer but it will “waste” less time on setup, transforming that time into, a possibly large amount, of play time.
Cleanup is another aspect. Does the game end with millions of little pieces/cards/meeples that need to be sorted? Can you lower the amount of components in some way? Can you have a final turn mechanism that will let players remove components from the board (and into the respective piles) that would feel meaningful while lowering the amount of cleanup? In DropZone I’ve got a mechanism where players score by removing their units from the board (they do so throughout the game). In the final turn this means that the board is cleaned at the end of the game (as there’s little to no incentive to keep pieces there past the final scoring). Had I ended the game without a final scoring round I would be left with the same work, but it would now be a chore rather than an opportunity to see if you win.
Are there parts of the game that could be played in a simultaneous manner? Does building, resource collection or resource allocation need to be sequential? In some games it does (like Fire in the Sky: The Great Pacific War 1941-1945, which BTW is one of the most fun 2-player WWII high level sims I’ve ever played, where managing the oil and transportation resources for the Japanese is a major concern) but in others it doesn’t, or only matters in some parts of the game and not in others (like in Power Grid where buying resources is very important to do sequentially but spending them can almost always be done simultaneously).
Generally it’s good to ask oneself: how much does this part of the game affect other players? If the answer is “little” or “not at all” then it’s a prime candidate for simultaneous play.
On the other hand, simultaneous play induces a very large amount of randomness. For fun, try this:
Play simultaneous chess: both players write down their moves on a piece of paper and then the moves are carried out simultaneously. If both moves are to the same square then toss a coin to see who is captured. Small change, completely different game.
Do you have sub-games in your game? In Risk or Axis & Allies there’s a particular sub-game of attacking and rolling dice. Only two parties are normally engaged in that game, and all other parties have to wait for them.
This can be solved by either limiting the scope of the sub-game (i.e. only one set of die rolls then the territory is locked in combat until next turn) or adding something for the other players to do during the sub-game.
No talk about time in games is complete without talking about downtime and analysis paralysis, which are two sides of the same coin, or perhaps the same side of two coins glued together.
Downtime is generally considered to be bad but that’s far from a complete story. Tzolk’in, for example, has lots of downtime but that’s necessary in order to limit AP in the game as players will usually plan out their moves during their downtime. Try playing Tzolkin by having the game set up on another table while you eat dinner/watch a movie/play something else and have only the currently playing player be able to go and sit by the board. You’ll get a game that’s a lot longer than the original, and quite probably a lot less fun too.
That’s because downtime in Tzolkin isn’t static. Even if you’re finished planning out your move what your opponents do matters to your ability to carry out that plan – you’ll need to keep track of what happens and adjust your plans for everything they do. Thus you need to be on your toes all the time, keep your mind focused on the board and keep outguessing your opposition and building contingency plans.
In contrast Through the Ages has lots of downtime but only two things that matter when other players are phasing: card drafting and military strength. As these are but a small part (counting the real time spend performing those actions) that are observable by the other players, the downtime in TTA is a lot less exciting than in Tzolkin. Once you’ve counted out your resources for the next move you could conceivably watch a movie while playing TTA (at least if you were familiar with all the cards and the basic strategies).
One of the most effective ways to preserve player time is to include massively simultaneous games, such as free for all negotiation (Diplomacy, Advanced Civilization), simultaneous real time elements (Jungle speed, Ricochet Robots, Galaxy Trucker etc.). The problem is that such elements are often hard to balance so that you either have to make them the core of your game (e.g. Galaxy Trucker) or make them the core of a sub-game (e.g. Adv Civ). But when done well they increase tension and limit dead time.
It’s worth to note that short games don’t have as high a bar to clear when it comes to time. Therefore a 15 minute game can have a relatively large amount of downtime, as can a game with very fast turns (which disguise the fact that there’s lots of dead time). But even there it’s often better to consider if some aspects of how the game spends players’ time can’t be improved.
It will make for a tighter, tenser and in the end better game.