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.
What is Pacing?
Because the topic of pacing is so large we’re going to have to narrow it down so for this article we’re going to describe pacing as the rate of progression players experience in the game. Let’s look at an example with everyone’s favorite neighborhood plumber, Mario:
- Mario faces obstacles and enemies of gradually increasing difficulty over the course of the game.
- Mario periodically uses new power-ups and special abilities (shooting fireballs and flying with the cape).
- Mario progresses through changing environments from haunted houses to water levels to lava pits.
- Mario teams up with friendly characters like Yoshi and we see teamwork take Mario to new areas.
- Eventually Mario battles his old nemesis Bowser and the story develops in the rescue of Princess Peach.
These are just a few ways we can think about using pacing to tell a bigger story. We see similar story progression used in television, theater, books, movies and self-referential game design blog posts. I’m going to elicit the help of one of the ideas we’ll talk about throughout this article to help bring structure to the enormous topic of pacing.
Game design is as much about telling stories as it about creating a game. We create an intended experience and we’re share that experience with an audience. We integrate theme. We institute balance to satisfy expectations then we question the status quo to create a plot twist. We already use frameworks for mechanics, objectives and thematic appeal, so how about a framework that ties the experience together?
The history of dramatic structure has nearly as many twists and turns as the stories it has told. Dramatic structure evolved in the earliest days of storytelling to allow playwrights and authors a template with which to create their work. During the mid-1800s, a German playwright named Gustav Freytag studied the 5-act structure and produced the foundation for studying Greek and Shakespearean drama.
This framework is called Freytag’s Pyramid and it laid out the 5-act structure commonly taught in literature or writing as the dramatic arc.
Exposition – Base Camp
The very best games have the ability to take us on a journey and that is where we’ll begin. The exposition of Freytag’s Pyramid is an opportunity to prepare your audience with everything they need to know before the upcoming story. It’s purpose is to set the scene, introduce characters, provide background information and establish the main plot.
In game design this is our chance to establish the variables; what is the context of the game, what actions can players take, what do the actions actually do and what are players trying to achieve. This is not unlike our series on Approachability earlier in the year as this directly relates to our axioms of purpose, clarity & navigation.
Planning the Destination
A great game knows both what it is and where its going. This often comes across in game play as players should finish the game in a different position than they begin. Perhaps that means embarking on a race across the Louisiana Purchase in Lewis & Clark, gaining the experience of circumnavigating the globe in Around the World in 80 Days or building a kingdom piece by piece in Castles of Burgundy. Players who encounter a transformation and achieve a goal through a game want to come back. This is a key to creating replay value; if every game leaves players feeling about the same after an hour or two they won’t need to play again. The primary objective of pacing is to create a sense of progression.
A sense of progression has always been a key element in RPGs where players have the ability to level-up, advance skills and gain items. Gaining power can be incredibly rewarding as a sense of personal progression in a game. It can be equally as rewarding to observe your metropolis at the end of a city-builder or your empire when you’ve conquered a game of territory control.
One approach that can assist in helping give players the impression of a journey is by changing the environment around them. Ideally the range of options and difficulty of decisions fluctuates over the course of the game. This can create the appearance of progression.
Many games succeed because they follow a formula from beginning to end. Trick-taking games are one example as players select a card and play it on their turn. Sure, the cards played provide new information, but players are (at the risk of oversimplifying it) making the same decisions. It works because trick-taking games usually play quickly and fit into a shorter time frame.
Now let’s compare this to a game like Concordia where the decisions available on your turn fluctuate heavily. It is sort of a “hand-building” game where you start with seven cards, playing one card from your hand each turn until you eventually reset and bring all your cards back into your hand. As Matt addressed in our article about downtime, deciding between cards can get easier as you begin to deplete your hand from seven down to one. You’ll tend to accumulate new cards over the course of the game and when you reset your hand, suddenly have more to choose from than ever before.
As players begin to play cards they eliminate options available on their following turn. The peaks on the graph to the left occur as players reset their hand or acquire new cards. There is certainly a rhythm and flow in and between turns in Concordia as players don’t get stuck making the same decisions over and over, and this is important because turns shouldn’t seem repetitive in games that last more than an hour.
There is a wonderful benefit if the occasional turn is straightforward and simpler to make. Players gain the juxtaposition of difficult turns to simple turns so they can observe the range of difficulty in a game.
One last consideration for planning pacing is to introduce new variables gradually. There is a reason games work best when the initial game state is simple. Well, actually three reasons:
- It allows players to observe significant change over the course of the game. If a game shows all its cards (figuratively or literally) at the beginning it has nothing to grow into. Players enjoy the intrinsic reward provided by unlocking new opportunities in a game. The first turn shouldn’t seem exactly like the seventeenth turn.
- Approachability. A game that starts with less complexity is a far more friendly experience on new players.
- A perceptibly higher depth-to-complexity ratio. Any game that allows players to start with just the essentials is an ideal incubator for emergent game play. A game is often evaluated by how much complexity is thrown at a player in a single moment and this can benefit players looking back on their experience later. Starting small is often a good guideline throughout game design.
Rising Action – The Climb
In dramatic structure, rising action is all about building tension as the audience moves toward the most interesting parts of the story. A story or game that executes it poorly will leave some players with indifference at the end of the game and others completely lost on the side of the mountain.
The big idea here is that anyone can appreciate the scenic view from the top of a mountain but your perspective and appreciation for the view is often quite different depending on whether you hiked to the top or took a cable car to the observation deck. The difference is investment; if you spent an hour hiking you can gain the personal satisfaction of “earning” the spectacular view from the top. Players want this personal investment and the very best games deliver it.
When it comes to rising action there are six approaches that can be used to create the sense of progression players are seeking. We’re focusing on adjustments to the game that captivate the interest of players, drive strategic decision-making and maximize replay value.
One of my favorite observations is when a game gains steam as it goes on. We usually experience the baseline pace: perform X number of actions per turn and as the game progresses we get more actions or actions become more powerful. Spending one turn to receive one resource early on might be expected but when you can accumulate more resources per action, perform more actions on a turn and advance toward the final objective at a quicker pace you can’t help but feel the game become more tense and exciting.
Lewis & Clark is a recent example that uses acceleration as an effective tool. In your first few turns of the game you’ll gradually collect a few resources on a turn, but as you acquire more powerful action cards you begin to create more useful combos and generate significantly more resources (sometimes even more than you might want). Resource inflation is one method of increasing efficiency in the game but the real acceleration in Lewis & Clark happens when you begin to use all these new cards and accumulated resources to move further along the river toward the Pacific coast. Many games of Lewis & Clark begin with players moving forward very slowly or even backward for several turns until they invent an engine suitable for a 19th century speed boat and never look back. The game feels like its is moving faster in the last few turns in comparison to the first few turns and since players are racing it would seem to be an appropriate way to finish.
The actual presence of acceleration is a wonderful quality in games because as I discussed in an article earlier this year, it can “raise the stakes” by making later turns feel more important than earlier turns. It can have a similar feeling to the last few minutes of a sporting event; players are doing the same thing they’ve been doing all game but everything somehow feels more exciting. We want games to conclude on a high note as that is the final interaction we have with a game. Players should feel their actions are important and acceleration is a wonderful way to elicit a sense of urgency in a game.
Acceleration usually helps to place emphasis on turns later in the game; players can overcome early mistakes and point deficits and the game seemingly finishes in fewer turns than the initial pace would suggest. But acceleration can also exist in games of a fixed length. Most games with a fixed number of turns don’t revolve around acceleration but the presence of scoring inflation in Russian Railroads is one of the most interesting examples I’ve seen yet.
In Russian Railroads players are (very appropriately) building their engine which will score points at the end of each round. As players invest deeper into their strategies, the number of points they can score increases dramatically. While in the first turn you may score three or four points, by the third turn you can score dozens of points and by the 7th round you are able to score into the hundreds. Although there are always seven rounds and the game can’t end any faster than that, the perception of acceleration exists as each turn is more impactful than the last and the game picks up steam as it approaches the end of the tracks.
A second method games can use to increase tension and intrigue is by presenting new options, tougher situations and bigger decisions to make. In short we’re looking at how difficulty can increase (gradually) over the course of the game.
Pandemic increases in difficulty naturally through the intensity of the epidemic card shuffling mechanic. The first few turns of the game don’t feel easy but the longer the game lasts the more challenging of a situation players can find themselves in. This can elicit the same urgency as acceleration since your next turn can be more crucial than your last.
In the Year of the Dragon lays out the hurdles players must face at the beginning of the game all at once. Under the wrong circumstances this can be information overload but it does manage to keep the difficulty changing as players adapt to the demands of the game. The difficulty here is planning ahead to juggle obligations and mitigate your losses. The first two turns of the game don’t carry an event and provide some breathing room in the game. Every turn thereafter presents another hurdle to jump.
There are plenty of methods that can be used to create new challenges as the game progresses. Another way to introduce additional variables is to introduce them early when they don’t come into effect until later in the game…
Weighing short-term versus long-term gains has always been a powerful centerpiece in games design as players consider risk, rewards and uncertainty. Since there are so many ways you can do this (and I’ve got to move on eventually – this is after all an article about strong pacing) I’m just going to touch on one interesting idea that can really bring light to the time frame of a game.
In keeping with our trend of gradually introducing new variables to players I wanted to look at Deferred options. These are decision variables that are available early in a game but generally not feasible for players to consider until later. This is not to be confused with false decisions which are decision variables that never have any merit.
In Small World players have two options at all times; take their turn and reallocate/expand/conquer new territories with their faction, or put their faction into decline. Initially players are focused on expanding their territory and identifying new threats so it isn’t actually a real choice; they have little to no incentive to go into decline on their earliest turns. Eventually the conquests of even the most ambitious players will slow down and suddenly that overlooked option becomes a strong consideration. For the remainder of the game players incorporate the interesting decision of when to decline into their decisions.
The hidden value of deferred options in regards to pacing is that they carry the realization of “look how far I’ve come, I’m able to finally use that”. The time-horizon of a game is also what can allow long-term and short-term strategic options to be so intriguing; weighing a payoff over many turns in the future can create a tense decision.
A few games use intermediate hurdles to create mid-game pacing elements. Le Havre requires players to meet food requirements in the harvest phase at the end of each round. This requires players to pace themselves because as they attempt to complete other aspects of the game, they periodically need to meet this ever-increasing tax throughout the game. This could also fulfill the increasing challenge approach since the juggle of achieving all your personal goals alongside an interim levy can be mentally taxing.
Scoring the maximum number of points on any turn is usually an expectation in every game. My favorite variation of the Carcassonne formula is Reiner Knizia’s Carcassonne: The Castle which has bonus tiles at certain scoring checkpoints. When a player scores and moves their score marker exactly to one of these scoring spaces they gain the bonus tile which can provide powerful benefits like double scoring in the future or a bonus turn. As a result players will often end up scoring sub-optimally just to pick up bonus tiles before an opponent is able to do so. This creates a really interesting game of pacing where a player can try to race ahead to get these bonus tiles while an opponent builds up a giant castle for a gigantic scoring turn. It’s a really fascinating example of players racing for something during the game even though the final score determines the winner.
Emotional Highs & Lows
Some games use the rounds of a game to create dramatic decisions. A scoring system that uses a “Best of X number of rounds” offers an opportunity to score a game several times and award small victories toward a larger campaign. In many ways that is what I enjoy most about Jaipur, a two player trading game. Players score points and the higher score wins the round. First player to win two rounds wins the game.
Jaipur reminds me of what I like about Lost Cities. Both have great game play but there is something about a series that plays out over several rounds that makes it special. A single game of Lost Cities is good but its a game best played over three rounds with a sum of all three scores for each player. There is nothing more fulfilling than realizing you need to win by 50+ points in that final round, having to push a high-risk style of play, and then pulling it off. Underdog stories are a wonderful narrative and make for a great memory.
The best of five system in The Resistance also allows a story to play out over an effective period of time. The available information increases with each successive round and it all culminates in a decisive victory or defeat. With a willing group The Resistance never fails to deliver a compelling story.
Finally there is great value in combining these emotional high points with our earlier idea of turn variance to periodically bring players back down to normal before building towards another high-stress environment. Push your luck games like Incan Gold are probably leaders in this category as they rinse and repeat a cycle of emotional swings.
In Incan Gold players are moving deeper each turn into a ruined temple and collectively accumulating greater rewards. Each turn a card is revealed that either increases the amount of gold or reveals a disaster. Each player then determines if they wish to escape (taking their current share of gold and ending their round) or pressing forward for even greater rewards (as the gold revealed would be divided among fewer players still active). When enough disasters are revealed any players still pressing forward lose everything they’ve accumulated so it becomes a high-stress environment when deciding to go for one more card or walk away.
Following the end of a round there is sort of a cooling off period with the beginning of the next round as generally everyone will continue on for the first few turns until the risks become dire. This cycle of emotional highs followed by bringing players back down only to start upward again can exist in many forms as you might see in Ra, No Thanks!, Ca$h & Guns & Colt Express. Each one of these games manages to use this idea slightly differently with varying degrees of tension and intrigue.
Finally, tension can build as players observe how their actions influence the rest of the game. A quick example is in a game like San Juan where a player can set the pace of a game by building at every opportunity. As a result opponents may have to adjust by building even if it interferes with their long-term plans. We’ve crossing into this territory in greater detail in the next month so I’m only going to mention it briefly in this article but we’re essentially providing players power and control over the state of a game. Realizing your decisions have importance on the future of the game is a wonderful source of tension in decision-making.
Climax – The Summit
Seeing as it is the apex of the diagram, one might conclude the climax is the emotional high point, the moment of greatest tension, or perhaps even the most fun part of the game. In reality it could be any, all or none of these things. However the climax is always the major turning point that transitions games to the final stages of the game. In some games this is an observable condition while in others it may not be clear to players at all.
One trend we see often in games is early game resource accumulation followed by late game transition into achieving the final objective or victory condition.
The most popular and probably also the best example is Dominion, where players gradually build their deck with new cards that strengthen future turns. The pivot point in Dominion occurs once players transition into primarily buying green cards which generate victory points. Many games tend to play out in cycles of accumulation and spending but Dominion is a wonderful example because it has a definite turning point where players are only trying to maximize their score. Attempting to buy victory point cards too early dilutes the strength of your later turns while waiting too long can render a player victim to the scarcity of the cards.
One way to think of pivot points is a defined moment of switching from building your engine to starting your engine and utilizing its effectiveness.
A Point of No Return
A second means of transition can come in the form of predetermined events that push the story along. Some games can potentially have a problem with stalling tactics in which players may not wish to push the game along until they feel they have a definite advantage over their opponents.
Power Grid uses its “Step 2” and “Step 3” conditions as catalysts to transition players into the next phases of the game. Step 2 is tied to game progress when a player builds a certain number of cities. Players might have any number of reasons for delaying in-game progress by building new cities (due to how turn order is determined, the diminishing marginal returns of powering cities, the change in resource availability and the ability to expand into occupied cities) so having a defined threshold is useful to keep the game moving along. Step 3 in Power Grid is tied to an external condition of exhausting the power plant deck. The existence of the steps in Power Grid exist to press the game forward.
As for the comparison of these two methods, pivot points tend to be player determined with no set boundary or event. As pivot points are more open-ended, they serve as a natural progression in the game as players will eventually accumulate enough currency to need to spend it on something that will carry value at the end of the game.
Points of no return serve as design functions that push the game forward at a desired rate. They serve as a checkpoint that can prevent the game from stalling tactics or a stagnating period of a game. They also serve as a nice indication to players that they are moving on to the next phase of a game. The same idea shows up in video games; as you move through a level you might observe a cut-scene and find that the door you just passed through is suddenly locked. It can indicate to players that they’ve reached the right place, there is no need to wander back there (potentially getting lost and turning a small level or dungeon into a sixty minute ordeal). There is no where to go but forward.
One final example is Navegador which uses an system of three phases to keep the game moving forward on schedule. In phase one players can move ships one space during the sailing action. Once a player sails into a specific region the game moves into phase two in which ships are able to move two spaces per action. Eventually phase three is triggered which allows ships to move three spaces per sailing action. This progression actually serves as a necessary method of acceleration we looked at earlier. Players who explore new regions will gradually lose their fleet of ships and otherwise the game would stagnate as players require a significant number of turns to continue exploring further.
Falling Action – The Decent
According to Freytag’s Pyramid this is the area of the story in which the conflict unravels. This is also a chance to discuss how players should be able to approach the end of a game.
Creating a strong conclusion
The best way to end any story is to bring closure; a satisfying ending. The end game doesn’t need to be the best part of your game or even the most interesting but it should be satisfying. Here are a few ideas to consider when playtesting and evaluating the end of your game design.
A foreseeable endgame. A game shouldn’t end abruptly and players should have a loose idea of when the game is in range of the finish line. Many of us have probably encountered the anti-climactic realization of “Wait..the game is over?” and it can be an especially sour note to end on. The key is visibility; a game with player elimination that awards victory to the last player standing is foreseeable; the end game condition is tied to what players are already attempting to do, eliminate one another.
Many games use a threshold victory condition to indicate the looming end game. Ticket to Ride ends shortly after a player has used up nearly all of their trains. This can be a wonderful element of pacing for experienced players as they can’t afford to fall too far behind or they will run out of turns to use their own trains. This idea is essential to Lost Cities where the game ends once the deck of cards runs out, so at the end of the game players are either drawing cards to pressure the game to end or picking up discarded cards to slow the depletion of the deck. A potential downside is that a new player will frequently have a rough time since they lack the experience to time the ending of the game.
A game that ends after a predetermined number of rounds or can signal the second half of a game with a pivot point can generally avoid abrupt endings.
A sense of finality. The conclusion of a game should be decisive and ideally satisfying. This is what can frustrate players about Munchkin and Settlers of Catan where the player who achieves ten points first wins. The vast majority of the game is spent building toward the goal but as one player approaches victory, his or her opponents have every incentive to stall the game. In a short game this may be a matter of an extra few minutes but if a game has the ability to drag on for ten more turns that is a pacing nightmare. The end of a game shouldn’t be relief because its finally over.
Don’t end too late. Just as with movies, an audience has will remember when a game runs too long. You don’t want to lose the goodwill your game has generated by creating a memorable experience for the wrong reasons. In the best case scenario a game that runs too long just feels repetitive and eliminates the need to be played again in the near future. At worst the game consistently demonstrates a problem with Positional Balance where the runaway winner is evident and the game still has six turns to go. Don’t let your game ruin the party by overstaying its welcome.
Interestingly a game that ends too quickly isn’t nearly as much of a problem. Sure, it can be frustrating if a game ends and you’re left saying “…but…but… I was just getting going” but games that seem to end too quickly can also be designed to offer other pacing opportunities…
Pacing the End Game Condition
Games that actively offer an ability to “end early” create powerful elements of pacing themselves. As I mentioned earlier, San Juan ends shortly after a player builds his twelfth building which opens up a “rush” strategy for a player which forces other players to adapt.
In Firenze players have the ability to aim for quantity over quality by completing many lower scoring towers to raise the increase the tempo of the game. Placing additional pressure on opponents to adapt to your style of play is a wonderful way to create variety in game play.
Allowing players control over the end of the game can provide a tremendous level of open-ended story telling. Remember, designing a game may be a matter of you writing the story, but the players are acting it out. One of the best ways to do this is allowing players to collectively determine the end of the game. Often this is done with the depletion of a common resource as in Container, Through the Desert and Ascension.
An interesting recent example of this technique is in Brugge in which players draw up to five cards at the beginning of each round. Cards are drawn from two shuffled decks and if either deck is depleted, players have triggered the final round. The interesting thing here is that players can anticipate if they have just one or two more turns but cannot know for certain unless a player deliberately draws from a deck to end the game. No specific player has much control over the pace of the end game but collectively everyone influences it. An added benefit is that the game likely ends within a similar range of turns each time.
Even more interesting is when players try to actively position themselves to trigger the end of the game or prolong it for one more turn. In St. Petersburg players replenish a common queue of cards from four unique decks. Each deck is used to replenish empty spaces of the queue in one of the four phases of a round. If any deck is depleted during a round, the remainder of the round is played out and the game ends.
The interesting thing in St. Petersburg is that players will deliberately stall a game by avoiding the purchase of an useful card in one phase to ensure the following phase’s deck isn’t depleted. Players will also purchase cards they don’t really need in order to ensure in order to trigger the end of the game earlier than their opponents would like. This also has a tendency to tie in to the key strategies in the game. If you’re heavily pursuing a strategy based on buildings you may prefer to elongate the game and score over as many rounds as possible. Alternatively if your opponent is pushing for aristocrats you may wish to push and end the game earlier before they can capture large bonuses.
Seasons uses one of the best ideas as a group of dice are rolled and players draft dice for use during each season. There is always one final die after the drafting that determines how quickly the game moves. It can sometimes be worth it to take a slightly sub-optimal die during the drafting phase if you really need to speed up or slow down the pace of the game.
As we saw with the Munchkin and Settlers of Catan examples above, game designers should be extremely mindful of how players are able to affect opponent’s desires to end the game. Player actions should generally have the byproduct of progressing the game toward completion. If players do have the ability to regress the game state (moving everyone further away from the final turn), these actions should be rare, strategically powerful and situational (may not be necessary to use every game).
Resolution – The Destination (& Our Conclusion)
As we’ve reached our own conclusion I hope you can share my appreciation for pacing. The beauty of pacing is that every game does it differently and there is so much more we can explore. I’ve been keeping notes on hundreds of games and I wasn’t able to find a single one that uses even half of these ideas (let me know in the comments if you’ve played one that does).
Bringing us back to our Dimensions of Games framework, pacing relates to the complexity and length of a game. This article tends to gravitate toward examples of games that allow players to drive the end of the game, but this aspect of pacing isn’t always a good option.
Terra Mystica is a game I’ll argue is a better design for using a fixed limit of six turns rather than a variable number. Terra Mystica has enough interesting elements that it needs a semblance of structure and a predictable conclusion lessens the burden on players. It wouldn’t be nearly as good of a design if there were unique hidden victory conditions or ended once someone completed two towns. Imagine the nightmare we would have if you needed to time building your stronghold and sanctuary before your opponent built eight dwellings. How frustrating would it be for a player who gets blocked into a small area to witness their opponents expand all over the board as they are left passing first each turn. Terra Mystica ends at the perfect time as there is rarely anything I feel the need to do after turn six.
As you playtest your next design a good point to is to ask if playtesters find their interest growing as the game goes on. This can indicate whether a game has strong rising action. One way to observe this is by evaluating how interested players are in each other’s actions – a common source of tension in games. If players are frequently interested in what their opponents are doing you probably don’t need to do anything with pacing; your design has climbed this mountain.