Example of Play

Commentary on Games Design

Is your game going to waste my time?


The importance of designing a game for all the players, not just the one currently moving cardboard around.

My time is precious. I have a wife, a child and a dog. I play games one night a week with my gaming group and occasionally at weekends. Other than that it’s the odd game of GOSU and Jambo when time permits. When I play your game I have to think it has been a worthwhile use of one of my finite evenings dedicated to heavier-than-family games. Don’t waste my time: you won’t get a second chance.

I level this comment squarely at game designers who don’t design games for all the players- just the one taking the action. Compare Chess, where the inactive player stares in fixed concentration at the board when, totally engaged; to Snakes and Ladders where the inactive players sit, eyes slowly glazing, and wait for their turn to roll the dice. You would think designers would learn from this fairly obvious example? Alas not dear reader, the concept is still with us in different forms.

happy Don’t be fooled: two of these players and bored and miserable. 

An analysis of the problem

Any game that involves ‘miss a turn’ as an actual mechanism that can befall you fails is punishing players by wasting their time*. Games that have designed-in mechanisms that waste the players’ time are among my absolute most loathed- analysis paralysis is one thing, but tedium-by-design is quite another. If your game is prone to large decision trees, then give the other players something to do, allow them to think about their moves, to consider situations on the board- anything they would deem worthwhile. If my options are limited to:

1) glaring at the on-turn player
2) piling meeples
3) checking my email

I am not engaged and not experiencing your game…and this is bad for you.

Designers need to consider the players not actively shunting cardboard or collecting blocks. In play-testing, look at the inactive players: what are they doing? Staring intently at the board in rapt concentration or drumming their fingers and looking at the next table? Time is perceived to pass more slowly if you feel that what you are doing is a waste of time. I don’t think it’s too strong to suggest that players of any game come to play it thinking they are entitled to have a good time in the process**.

People don’t still do this do they?

Modern examples of games that ignore the inactive players are rondel games. I have had games of Antike, Hamburgium and Navegador where I could have written my next three moves down on a post-it note and gone for a 15 minute walk rather than sit at the table waiting for the inevitable to happen. I have a limited number of options anyway but on someone else’s turn I can do very little at all other than sit and watch. The idea of rondels is to script, to some extent, the actions of players and there are valid to do so: it opens up a few interesting design options. However, it also limits the amount of planning possible as an inactive player.

A modern example of a disguised ‘miss your turn’ mechanism is found in Vanuatu. This is a miserable, hateful, game where the object is to be in a position where other players waste less of your time than others. This action selection game is designed so that the player interaction results in your situation where your selections are rendered meaningless and just to rub it in, leaves you in a position where it can happen again on the next turn. Who play-tested this? Sociopaths? The winner is the person who actually gets to play the game the most, rather than being rendered a spectator.

Is it just impatience?

It’s easy to write this off as the ravings of a guy with a short attention span: not so. I will, willingly, play Britannia. And it’s not the boredom that gets my goat here either, it’s the frustration that the game doesn’t keep me engaged as an inactive player. A counter example of a game that I think gets it right would be German Railways. It’s a great game that keeps you involved even if you are not acting because you have a (financial) interest in other player’s actions. It’s designed to keep players engaged when they are not shifting pieces on the board. And that’s the crux:

Each player should be playing the game- whether it is their turn or not.

This situation can be seen in reviews. Players who haven’t actually been playing a game (20 minutes of actual decision making in a two hour game) often don’t give glowing reviews of it. And who can blame them? Ensuring players feel their investment (time, not necessarily money) in your game has been well spent is incredibly important to getting them to play it twice. If their take-home message was that they would have enjoyed themselves more if they had got a chance to play rather than watch, then you have to question if they have been playing at all.

* Or worse still, more than one turn. I saw a copy of Christian Endeavor in the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh a few years ago and that game is harsh, especially if you are unlucky enough to land on the ‘commit murder’ square.

** O’Brien, E.H., Anastasio, P.A., & Bushman, B.J. (2011) Time Crawls When You’re Not Having Fun: Feeling Entitled Makes Dull Tasks Drag On Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. http://psp.sagepub.com/content/early/2011/05/12/0146167211408922


5 thoughts on “Is your game going to waste my time?

  1. Your post hit the spot for me. My gaming mates and I are pretty tolerant amongst ourselves as we’ve known each other a long time and game/socialise at the same time, but I do get bored with some other players taking ages in games that allow this. Unsubtle moaning can follow.

    At the risk of self-publicising, which I am of course doing, my current design has addressed this by having alternative players actions not turns. This has been a great way of reducing downtime fidgeting and boredom.

    Have you played any games with this mechanism?

    Game is Magic Maelstrom
    BGG Entry: http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/128991/magic-maelstrom
    Blog: http://magic-maelstrom.blogspot.co.uk/

  2. Yep. Like VP cards in Doiminion suck. Waste of time. Horrible mechanism. 7 Blunders- must pass 3 good cards to others becuz you can only keep 1 card. Bad decisions.

  3. Completely agree – not having anything to do between turns is a serious turn-off. Unless a turn is only taking a few seconds it’s something to be avoided.

    Not sure I agree VPs are the same.. they clog your hand up sure – but isn’t that part of balancing your deck as you build it? What’s more frustrating are games when everyone gets a lot of extra action, extra cards and each persons go takes a lifetime.. even worse when all they can do at the end of it is afford yet another “Village” 😉

    I’ve only played 7-wonders once, but I thought it was a good way of balancing out cards and removing some of the luck-factor of being dealt a really good hand vs. a really bad one..

  4. Paul, Magic Maelstrom looks to play a little like Terra Mystica from my reading of the rules- have you played that? The MM board looks great BTW.

    Northsouth, I don’t really see where the Dominion and 7 Wonders examples fit here either, but I totally agree with the extra actions played at the end of a round when other players can’t act.

  5. mgreen02 – not played that, but will check it out. Thanks on the board.

    With MM, the idea is to minimise dice rolling (once per round) and have actions that are generally available to all. The only variance on actions is through cards or characters you draw.

    You discard resource cards at the end of your turn for VP’s, but can keep as many fate (event) cards as you wish for subsequent rounds.

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