Board Game Design Basics: It’s about Time

I know what you’re thinking. You’re going to have three boards. One will contain the map of the world. This is where you’ll place your armies. One will have a detailed economic simulation. The last one will contain all the random information necessary for the game, like the weather simulation and the relative power of the rival religions.

It’s going to be awesome.

Time: it's a big deal.

Time: it’s a big deal.

Or rather, it would be awesome, if anyone had the time to explore the detailed world you’ve created. You see, there’s a reason the play time is one of the few key pieces of information displayed on the front of every game box.

Time is one of those rare never-renewable resources. One’s time is constantly drifting away, and every second of your life is lost forever once it passes. While most people aren’t usually thinking about time in such dramatic terms, they do value their time highly, and wasting someone’s time is a sure fire way to at least annoy and at worst insult.

Admittedly, different people value time differently. Generally, young people have a lot more free time than older people, and can tolerate games that gobble up huge chunks of it. But realistically, even their time is limited… you can only play so many 4 hour games in a day.

In my view, thinking about how long your game should last (obviously considering your target audience and how much time they will likely be able to spend) is one of the most important things you should be considering when designing a game. From your very first playtest, estimate how long you expect your game will last and set a target for how long you want it to last, then time the playtest to see how accurate your prediction was. Keep time data for each playtest so you can see how stable the play time is for the game, and how changes to the rules affect it.

Time Management

There are some tried and true strategies for controlling play time you might want to consider for your game, and some potential pitfalls you might want to avoid. Generally, these all deal with how you end the game.

First and easiest is the turn limit, the equivalent of a time limit in a sport or digital game. Corporate America adopts this strategy, as does 7 Wonders. The basic idea is that at the beginning of the game, a set number of turns are established, and once players have made it through that number of turns, the game simply ends. To be slightly less blunt about it, you might have a deck of cards, and when the deck runs out, the game ends, like in Pandemic.

Honestly, this strategy can be a little too blatant, especially since knowing when a game ends will change the way people play a game. To add some uncertainty, consider shuffling an end-game card into the bottom 10% of the deck, or start rolling a die each turn towards the end of the game to determine if it will end (increasing the likelihood each turn to make sure the game definitely will end).

In Settlers, victory points are almost always gained and never lost, creating a stable count down to the end of the game. Image from the Board Game Geek.

In Settlers, victory points are almost always gained and never lost, creating a stable count down to the end of the game. Image from the Board Game Geek.

Another option is to have a count down (or count up) to determine when the game ends. For example, a game of Settlers ends when one player reaches 10 victory points, and each turn players are working towards gaining victory points. The big difference here is that the progress each player makes varies from one turn to another, so the count down really is points, not turns.

In Settlers, points are almost always ticking up, so there is a steady progression towards the end of a game. Other games allow the count down to reverse slightly, such as using the warlord’s ability in Citadels or gaining life in Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards. The important thing is that even if there are small local reverses, the overall trend is for the game to move towards completion. In Citadels, only at most one player can destroy a building each turn, and doing so usually comes at a cost. In Epic Spell Wars, life gain cards tend to be much weaker than cards that deal damage, and there are far fewer of them.

In the All or nothing game (top, like Monopoly), the game came close to ending twice but is nowhere near ending now. Game times can vary greatly. In the Fixed time game (bottom, like Corporate America), even though the game is currently close, it will definitely end soon.

In the All or nothing game (top, like Monopoly), the game came close to ending twice but is nowhere near ending now. Game times can vary greatly. In the Fixed time game (bottom, like Corporate America), even though the game is currently close, it will definitely end soon.

Many older games used very volatile end game conditions, such as gaining control of the whole world in Risk or bankrupting all other players in Monopoly. These are actually forms of the count down strategy, but they have the serious problem of not always moving towards a conclusion, since big swings occur between players that basically undo the progress that has already been made in the game. This tends to make the game drag on, and even when the winner is pretty obvious, games can linger way longer than most players would prefer as losing players struggle against the inevitable end.

Having back and forth swings in who is winning is a good thing to make the game more exciting, but make sure the swings do not slow down or reverse the progress of the game.

Short and Sweet

How long should your game be? The answer will be different for every game, since target audience and target play environment will vary from game to game. But one thing I feel confident in saying is that the game should probably be shorter than you initially want it to be.

While many classic games, such as Go, can take hours to complete (though note that Go effectively has a turn limit, since each turn one piece is added to the board and the game ends when the board fills up), more games than you’d expect are so fast that playing them usually involves many games in a single session. Poker is a great example, where a game is just a hand, but players will play dozens of hands in a night.

Magic is one of the most complex games in existence, with thousands of unique cards, but individual games often last only 5 or 10 minutes. Image from A Gathering of Magic.

Magic is one of the most complex games in existence, with thousands of unique cards, but individual games often last only 5 or 10 minutes. Image from A Gathering of Magic.

You might also be surprised that Magic: the Gathering was designed like this. Originally proposed as a portable way to kill time between Dungeons and Dragons sessions, Magic has become one of the most long running and complex games in existence.

If you’re concerned that you won’t be able to squeeze all the complexity into a short game that you want, keep in mind that shorter games are easier to repeat, so it’s ok if players don’t see all of the complexity in one game. Elegant designs often expose hidden complexity as players get more familiar with the game anyway. And changing the cards each game (like Dominion) or the board (like Settlers) are a great way to keep things fresh.

And if you’re still not convinced, you can always explore the possibility of persistence between games (like Risk Legacy, a game I have yet to play but which evolves with the players over time). Each game, players can carry over some of their resources or decisions from the last game… just make sure to carefully test to make sure this persistence is balanced.

Keep it Concise

Of course, play time is the sum of all turn time, and it’s worth keeping in mind what might make turns last a long time. Highly strategic games with lots of options and information (like Go and Chess), games with complex combos (like chaining cards in Dominion), negotiating (like forming alliances in Illuminati), and bartering (like trading resources in Settlers) all require a lot of time and can greatly lengthen a player’s turn. Ultimately, this will determine how many turns you should shoot for.

Time it Right

I started this post with a description of a game I made up, but it’s honestly not far off from some of my early designs, and I’d guess it’s not too far off from your early designs, either. Why do people come up with designs like that? They aren’t thinking about the player. They’re thinking about the systems and stories and worlds, which is understandable, but dangerous if you’re serious about creating games.

In this (and future) installments of Board Game Design Basics, I hope to raise issues you might overlook when designing games, and offer suggestions on how to handle those issues. Remember, ultimately, games are experience engines. You should be thinking about how your creation will impact those who play it, and the amount of time it takes has a surprisingly large impact on both experience and how often the game will actually get played.

You do want your game to get played, right?

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