Recently we’ve been looking at several impact areas of game design we like to call “dimensions of games”. One of the critically underdeveloped topics in tabletop is the concept of Pacing. In the context of our greater framework, pacing is driven by the complexity and structure of a game and the intended length of a game. As we’ll discuss, the opportunities to implement pacing increase as games increase in complexity and game length.
The Value of Pacing
One of my favorite things about hobbies and outlets for creativity is learning a new vernacular. Every hobby creates its own buzzwords and phrases, and once you understand them the hobby can seem a bit more inclusive; you’ve experienced the rite of passage. Board games and tabletop game design share this same trait; we discuss games in terms of mechanics, components and strategies.
A few of these phrases are common when describing the player experience in games: gamers and reviewers often describe the “feel” of a game and game designers frequently use expressions like “structuring the narrative of a game” as a design goal. These phrases do have value – after all, we probably understand the intent of the speaker even if we never get to find out their exact interpretation. “Narrative” and “immersion” are terms that usually get brought up early in the discussion of theme and we touched on their value during the topic several months ago.
Pacing is a topic that doesn’t get brought up often in tabletop but it is a contributing factor to the definition of the “feel” or “narrative” of games. Pacing has the ability to build focus and motivation in a gaming experience so that the next turn feels more important than the last turn. Pacing can help lay the foundation for Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s psychological theory of flow. The theory of flow is a state of mind in which a person is completely absorbed in an activity.
By designing a game that encourages increasing levels of interest, focus and motivation, pacing is one of many opportunities to create this sense of immersion we’re always trying to create. Two key ideas to consider before we break down the topic of pacing:
The value of Pacing is weighted heavily toward longer games
Since pacing has a tendency to play out over the timeline of a game, a shorter playing time can preclude the effectiveness of many interesting approaches to pacing. The longer a game lasts the more options it can potentially employ to implement pacing.
Pacing is usually more influential in games of less complexity and more interesting in games of greater complexity
Pacing is largely determined by what players are doing, how efficiently they do it and how they approach the end of a game. In less complex games there usually isn’t much to be distracted by; you target the end objective. In games with more complexity, there is more time to create interesting secondary objectives, plot twists, new variables and unorthodox mechanics that can create pacing.