Old Man at the Station

I hate downtime in games.  The times when you sit there waiting for your turn and there’s nothing you can do.  For various reasons you can’t plan what you will do on your turn until it actually gets to your turn, and I’m always afraid to strike up an interesting conversation with the other players at that point because it will most likely slow them down, which further increases the downtime!

You’re trapped in a tiny vortex of time, unable to do anything productive and unable to provide any relief.  One player I know actually brings a book with him to read during the downtime when playing certain games!  I could never quite bring myself to resort to that.  Why do some games seem to have much more downtime than others?  Is there anything that can be done about it?  Is it the fault of the game or the players?

Responsibility lies firmly with the designer.

Opinion seems to be divided on this matter, but personally I believe that responsibility lies firmly with the designer.  While it is undeniably true that some players can take significantly longer than others, a well-designed game can reduce downtime enormously.  Let’s take a look at what causes downtime and then we’ll see how you might go about reducing it in any games you design.

Many games have players taking turns and if the game has any strategy to it at all, you generally need to plan what you’re going to do on your turn if you want to stand a chance of winning.  The heavier the game, the more planning is required.  In theory, you should be able to do this planning while everyone else is taking their turn, so that when your turn arrives, you can just get on with it.

In practice, the other players will often affect your plan each time they take a turn.  Maybe you were hoping to invade Alberta, but now they’ve shored up their defences.  Maybe you were going to place your worker on the first player spot, but someone else has just nicked it.  Or maybe you were going to play a set of 4 cards and claim the tile for doing it first, but someone beat you to it.

You can find, in some games, that you keep having to re-evaluate your turn so often that you just give up.  You wait until it gets round to your turn so that you have all the information before making any plans.  And boy can the game slow down then!

So here are a few options for reducing downtime:

  • Reduce player interaction

If you remove (or substantially reduce) player interaction so that other players’ turns can’t affect yours, then you can plan safely and simply execute your plan when it’s your turn.  While there are plenty of games like this, it can feel a bit like playing multi-player solitaire.  If the other players really can’t affect you, what are they there for?  You may as well be playing against a computer.

  • Simultaneous turns

I definitely want players to interact with each other, but then how can you reduce the downtime?  One elegant option is for players to take their turns simultaneously.  7 Wonders is the classic example here.  Each player has a hand of cards and picks the best card for them before passing on the cards round the table.

Since everyone is making their selection at the same time, all the planning is done simultaneously.  You never have to wait for your turn and there is hardly any downtime – even with 7 players!  In practice, you end up waiting for the slowest player each time, but it’s rarely more than a 30 second delay.

  • Reduce hidden information

As much as I love the simultaneous action-selection mechanic, it isn’t always possible.  Some games need players to take separate turns.  One key thing to avoid here is when players reveal hidden information.

If you can see all (or at least most) of a player’s resources and units, you can usually work out roughly what they’re likely to do.  This makes it much easier to plan ahead and not be thwarted.

However, if players are fulfilling orders in a market, for example, and a new order tile is turned over after each player fulfils an order, you have no way of working out what you’ll need before the last player before you has fulfilled their order.  In light games, this isn’t much of an issue, but in heavier games, this can really slow things down.

  • Don’t extend the number of players

Many games, particularly heavy euros, have a natural limit of about 4 players.  This can be quite restrictive for groups of friends who want to play these games, but have 1 or 2 people too many.  This results in people requesting player expansions for their favourite games and the publishing companies naturally oblige if it will result in sales.

Don’t do it!  5th-player expansions are rarely a good idea.  The game will have been playtested and found to work well with up to 4 players.  Adding a 5th player often increases downtime to unbearable levels.  In my experience it leaves a sour taste in the mouth.  There’s nothing worse than playing a great game only to find you don’t enjoy it because it went on for an hour longer than it should have.

  • Make it co-operative

At the risk of facilitating alpha gamers, a co-op gives you something to do when it’s not your turn.  You can stand back, look at the big picture and try to work out what the group’s overall strategy should be.  Then you are in a position to provide helpful advice (should they request it!) on other player’s turns.  Just don’t tell everyone what they should be doing!

Mechs vs. Minions was originally designed as a competitive game, but on the advice of Tom Vasel, they decided to make it co-operative.  It was a great move I think.  There are often turns where one player has some difficult decisions to make about where to place their cards and how to execute their mech’s commands.  Being co-op allows other players to be involved and motivated to help.

This list is certainly not exhaustive.  Can you think of other ways to reduce downtime in games?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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