This month we have been exploring Dimensions of Gaming, which are criteria such as player count and game complexity frequently used before a purchase to determine if a game is right for you. This week we are looking at game length, the time commitment needed in order to reach completion.
Games are frequently categorized by their length. Short games are sometimes considered fillers and sandwiched between two longer and more immersive games. Every game carries with it an expectation as game designers have a responsibility to maximize the experience of their players. This includes prioritizing an investment with true value: a player’s time.
Game design should focus less on the duration of a game and more on how much a person gains from playing it, better described as time value. All things considered, if a game can deliver the same experience in a shorter amount of time it will be played more often, receive more attention and garner greater commercial success.
The Perception of Game Length
The length of a game is frequently a deciding factor for consumers in determining whether a new game is something for them. Games with a shorter listed playing time may have fewer components and expectations of a lower price point. Games that require several hours to play will eliminate a group of gamers strained for time. The midpoint which divides these segments seems to be right around 90 minutes. There are a multitude of reasons which contribute to this threshold, but lets look at three reasons why the current market may favor shorter games:
Time Constraints: People are always becoming more and more restrained for time. Technology has increased our expectation for immediate gratification when we use free time. In recent years board games have had a resurgence, but the expectation remains in which people want more value for their time. A 3 hour activity may or may not be a significant investment for someone but a 30 minute game will always appear to carry less risk of dissatisfaction.
Attention Spans: Many studies have evaluated the attention span of humans to find the optimal duration for activities. The range most often cited is about 40 to 50 minutes for sustained attention: the amount of time a person can spend continuously on a task before becoming more susceptible to distractions. This range will increase if the participants are active (such as playing board games) or intrinsically motivated by the activity (players who find board games enjoyable). The longer a game lasts the more difficult it will be for the game to maintain the focus level of a group.
Alternatives Options: Hundreds of new titles are being published every year that cater to a myriad of preferences. Gathering a group of friends for a board game night will bring together a diverse set of interests. Few games will elicit unanimous enthusiasm and gaming groups may be better served by compromising and playing three or four games rather than a single game for 4-hours.
While short games have grown in popularity, they also carry design drawbacks as we will discuss later in this article. The role of game design is to maximize the experience of players by using their time efficiently. To do this we must first identify our target audience.
Know Your Audience:
There are many demands placed on game designers in the midst of a creative endeavor. Finding your audience and remaining cognizant of their needs is an important idea, as the competitive realm of board games is only raising the bar each year. The most important concept here is to keep in mind who your game is intended for:
- A family Eurogame probably needs to remain in the range of around 60 minutes or less. These games need the ability to fit into a busy schedule and have a predictable playing time.
- A children’s game should have a length relative to the intended age group. Attention span increases with age so an opportunity exists to have a very short basic game and slightly longer advanced game.
- A heavier title catered to “Alphagamers” may want to aim for enough substance and complexity to warrant several hours. These games carry the highest expectations and players want strategic depth in every decision.
This is a very simple introduction and these are just a few potential target segments but it can get you started. Identifying your target audience is a cornerstone of professional marketing: if you attempt to effectively target everyone with your product you will effectively get no one. Publishers must consider market viability and how well a game fits a target market segment.
Considerations for Game Length:
Advantages of shorter games:
- Life is less likely to get in the way: It is easier to find time for a game that lasts 30 minutes rather than one that is 90 minutes. More players will have the opportunity to play your game as exposure to a wider audience is greater when you can pitch “It only takes 15 minutes”. The network effects of acquiring new players are favorable to short playing times.
- A fresh start: The learning curve of a game can leave players with the feeling of “I’ve learned so much I wish I could restart”. Quicker games allow a greater flexibility for an encore and give those players a chance at redemption.
Disadvantages of shorter games:
- Risk of Repetition: Game length is an indicator of irreducible complexity. It demonstrates that a game design has eliminated unnecessary elements and has a target playing time for the desired experience. When shorter games provide fewer key decisions they also offer fewer potential gameplay permutations. A 30 minute game runs a much greater risk of burning out a regular group of players than a 120 minute game.
- Strategic Restrictiveness: Pacing elements have a unique role in game design but are commonly absent or play a reduced role in games with a short playing time. A quick game will lose the impact of a decision which weighs forgoing early gains against later benefits. Early risks don’t hold the same weight when you can try again in a few minutes. The excitement of a rush or speed strategy in a long game may be standard procedure in a shorter game.
Advantages of longer games:
- A grand scale: Games can use length as a method to immerse players into the gaming experience. Protracted playing times can allow a game to deliver a grandiose story and be more fulfilling to ambitious players. The purchase of a multi-hour epic can be more enticing to bring people together for a game night than a 30 minute filler.
- Storied experiences: Memorable experiences and outcomes are more likely to become stories in a longer game. Longer games are played less frequently by the average player and have more decisions and opportunities to overcome the odds. I remember the wild outcomes of particular games of Risk! from many years ago better than any of the hundreds of games I’ve played since. The distinctiveness of an experience will make it more memorable and an easier story to tell.
- Concentrated enthusiasm: Word of mouth is the most influential advertising that takes place in the gaming industry. A shorter game will be played by many but also evaluated by more players. Depending on how much you value ranking systems like Boardgamegeek, the top 200 is more favorable to longer and more complex games as they will most often be played and rated by their core audience. Well-designed games with a longer playing time don’t face as much standard criticism as players who prefer shorter games are able to avoid them.
Disadvantages of longer games:
- Captive Players: It can be an awful experience for players when they realize a mistake they made on turn two effectively removed them from contention for the next twenty turns. Additionally, a runaway leader problem can lead to a loss of player engagement as trailing players become trapped in a downward spiral for the duration of the game. The importance of positional balance increases as a game increases in length.
Maximizing Time Value:
Games are measured in minutes or hours but game design is measured in the value of time. Game design can consider time value as the density of enjoyment, or how much player value can be placed into that playing time of a game. The application of this idea adheres well to games of any length. Time value aims for efficiency so let’s look at some ways we can improve the time value for players using game design:
Set-up & Instruction time:
Preparation for games is frequently an afterthought in game design, a last minute realization as the rulebook is being written. In all the time I’ve been gaming I’ve never heard anyone say “That was really great game but it was just too quick to set-up”. A short set-up time is always better. If a game takes too long to set-up, that thought will spring to mind every time that game is suggested. Budget the time of players so they spend time playing the game rather than setting up the game.
Considerations for set-up time:
- A good rule of thumb for set-up time is to aim for less than 10% of the total playing time.
- What is necessary to set-up before the game begins? Can the set-up process be incorporated into gameplay as in Stratego?
- Can components be returned to the box once their purpose has been served to improve and speed the clean-up process at the end of the game?
- If a design uses an elaborate deck set-up or requires a large amount of card sorting, consider if it can be simplified. These procedures have become more common but don’t always add a great benefit.
- A well-organized box insert can aid in clean-up, and cut down on the set-up process of future games.
The longer a game takes to play the longer it takes to teach new players. Finding ways to ease players into the game and increase approachability should be a priority for games that are difficult to teach.
Space Alert uses an introductory scenario book in order to gradually teach some of the finer points of the game. Using this idea may benefit a group that can get together regularly so they can efficiently play each scenario rather than learn the entirety of the game before embarking on an intergalactic journey.
Considerations for instruction time:
- Games can feature too much innovation and each new idea will make it more difficult to learn. Consider whether additional gameplay complexity can be introduced in expansions to make the base game easier to learn.
Gameplay & Downtime:
The application of time value to standard gameplay primarily looks at how meaningful turns can be and how they can be performed more efficiently. If the first few turns play out in the same way, cut them out and start the game from that point. Give players more resources to begin. If a game requires you to get specific resources the first few turns, find a way to make the the start less predictable.
It is generally understood that the first play of a game takes longer to play but if the first game takes significantly longer than the second game that can be still be troublesome. Every game will be played once but not every game will be played twice. If players are guaranteed to struggle with the first play of a game, attempt to make it short enough so that they are willing to try it again.
Panic on Wallstreet uses timed rounds to heighten the tension and synchronize players on the same task. Usually deals and offers involve only two participants but in Panic on Wallstreet everyone is engaged in the same task.
Considerations for Gameplay:
- Mechanics like negotiation and trading can add wonderful player interaction but can stretch out the intended game length. Consider if a timing restraint or a limited number of offers for each player would be a useful benefit move the game toward a consistent playing time.
- Eliminate the desire for a player to perform bookkeeping during an active turn by establishing the structure of a turn. Have players end their turn by discarding down to a number of cards or updating their character attributes rather than perform these tasks as others are waiting.
- Consider if a game design would benefit from a tear-down phase when a region is scored or a conflict has been resolved. The phase could help with clean-up prior to the end of the game.
Downtime is a period of inactivity a player experiences when it isn’t their turn. While downtime is generally a pejorative term when used by players, it also has several benefits. Games should generally offer a comfortable amount of time between player turns so participants can evaluate their next move.
7 Wonders uses simultaneous gameplay in order to reduce downtime. Players begin each of three ages with a packet of cards from which they draft a single card and pass the remainder of the packet to their neighbor. Once everyone has selected, they all build their selected card, pick up the packet that was passed to them and repeat.
A problem called analysis paralysis can occur when a particularly analytical player may feel it necessary to thoroughly exhaust every potential option on their turn. There are methods to encourage players to take turns more quickly. If your game design has an issue with analysis paralysis, perhaps including a timer or introducing a hot potato mechanic may fit the style of the game and minimize downtime.
Designer Tom Jolly created an interesting solution with his “Lightning System” used in Camelot. In his system, two players take turns simultaneously as indicated by tokens. Once a player completes a turn, they pass the token to the next player around the table without a token. Players cannot take too long to make their decisions as the other token is rapidly advancing around the table to the active benefit of opponents.
Downtime is not always a flaw in game design if it can be used to benefit players. Yahtzee uses downtime to provide a social experience. Since there are no player obligations once you’ve passed the dice to the next player, players can socialize and enjoy the company of one another .
Considerations for Downtime:
- Review gameplay features that relegate multiple players to being spectators. Avoid mechanics that create elongated dueling situations between two players while other players are forced to observe.
- The order of operations in a turn can create or reduce downtime. In Lost Cities. a turn consists of playing a card and then drawing a card. Alternatively if players draw a card at the beginning of a turn that is an added variable they need to consider before taking their turn.
- Avoid forcing players to make decisions that remove them from gameplay for extended periods of time. Folding is a great option in Poker but it doesn’t contribute to player enjoyment in most games if they have to sit out most of the time in order to succeed.
Ending conditions & Final scoring:
When considering game length, games will often function best when they have a built-in limit that triggers the end of the game. The simplest method can be seen in Small World, where a specific number of turns is known before the game begins. After each player performs the last turn, the final scores are tallied.
Static ending conditions can also come in the form of spatial arrangements. In Othello, a player piece is added to the board each turn. Once the board fills up the game is over. Games will usually finish in a consistent number of turns.
Static game endings can also come in the form of a threshold. Munchkin ends when one player reaches level 10, however opponents can cause setbacks and roll back the clock on the game. Similarly, Citadels ends when one player builds eight district cards. Players have the ability to destroy opponent district cards which can prolong the game.
Variable game endings take place when a game can conclude during a range of turns. It can provide tension and an opportunity to swing the power balance in an exciting battle but it comes at the cost of uncertainty and additional game length.
Late in a game of Combat Commander: Europe, players roll 2d6 and compare to a target number on the turn track to see if the game ends. If the sum of the dice do not meet or exceed the target number an additional turn is played, which will conclude in the same fashion with a target number that gives greater odds of ending the game. In Starcraft, the event deck includes three cards titled “The End Draws Near“. These three cards are shuffled into the bottom portion of the deck and once two of these have been drawn the game ends.
Considerations for ending conditions:
- Avoid including mechanics that encourage a cycle of exchanging control over a limited number of variables that trigger victory conditions. Games function best when they can demonstrate a sense of finality.
- Including multiple victory conditions is an excellent way to decrease game length as players will attempt to seize victory at the earliest opportunity, whether that is capturing a number of cities, exhausting the draw deck of an opponent or achieving a set number of victory points.
- Allowing players to track early scoring progress can prevent a lengthy score tallying procedure at the conclusion of the game. It also benefits players to be able to evaluate their in-game progress.
Player experience is the most important takeaway from this article and a game should only take the amount of time necessary to deliver an intended experience. If players are willing to take your journey, ensure it is a worthwhile one. I wouldn’t enjoy a game like Through the Ages if it took less than an hour and I wouldn’t enjoy Liar’s Dice if it took more than an hour.
Board games will always be defined not merely by innovation but by time value. Infact, it may not even be amount of time a game takes but simply the perception of time it takes. I’ve played two hour games that felt like they dragged on for much longer and I’ve played two hour games where the time flew by.
A suggestion for your next playtest: ask your volunteers to put away any watches and phones during the game. Immediately after the conclusion and final scoring, have each player write down how long they felt the game lasted and compare these numbers to the actual duration. It may tell you a lot more than you expect.
- A game can potentially bridge the perception of long/short game length by offering a basic and advanced version of gameplay and allow players to decide what is best for their group.
- The impact of luck and randomness is usually less acceptable as the length of the game increases, players don’t wish to participate in a 4-hour lottery.
- Player elimination should usually be avoided. The longer a game lasts, the worse the experience can be for eliminated players.
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