A board game can take a while to play. Sometimes it can feel a little like a line, waiting until it’s your turn to have some fun, only to return to the end of the line and wait again. The rules of the game compel you to play every so often; but once your turn is over, you’re released from the rules, free to talk, observe your opponent’s moves, grab a drink—or in most painful moments, walk around the block.
I call this “free time.” It’s in almost every single board game, and is often what you do more than actually playing a game. So what’s the design intent of free time?
It exists mostly because players need time to think, and games need a natural mechanism for orderly resolution of events between players. Free time seems to be important in doses; it’s also a natural tension mechanism to build anticipation and excitement. A player’s turn usually consists of a few important choices; they wouldn’t feel very important if you didn’t space them out.
Good board games will narrow your focus down into a few interesting and important decisions every so often. But what happens between them? Beyond fiddling thumbs, game design often ignores the idea of free time and assumes other players will sit content as they patiently wait for their turn.
Speaking broadly, game design seems to have left players to decide what they want to do with their free time. But is that good design? What should players be doing when they aren’t playing?
I think that game design should look more seriously at what players do with free time. To explore this idea, I’ve broken up games into some general categories to act as case studies, wrapping up with my own thoughts on how free time can be utilized in future game design.
The traditional game (patience, my son)
A lot of traditional games rely on the excitement of the next turn in order to keep the game interesting during non-play periods. I think this has fallen out of favor for new games looking to experiment with the turn structure, but this remains the most popular method of dealing with free time.
And in some ways it makes sense. After a turn, a player often needs time to reorder their cards, rethink their strategy, or get a drink. Games of Scrabble require time for prolonged thought so it’s often to a game’s benefit to have extended thinking sessions.
This method can also be ruined by pacing issues from players or by overly complicated turns which result in long waits. This brings to mind games like Tikal, in which a player must expend 10 action points, allowing for a variety of complicated maneuvers, but ultimately a huge wait for those not playing. It may not be an issue with experienced Tikal players, but I don’t think good game design should predicate a positive game experience on player skill—Tikal’s free time experience is heavily dependent on a player’s ability to think quickly, which is a burden that should be minimized with a game’s design.
Other games such as Ticket to Ride are able to minimize the wait by having each player turn be very minimal, resulting in compelling—but small—choices. This option of small, frequent plays eliminates unnecessary downtime, while keeping the pacing exciting because players are still slowing building to an overall strategy (completing a line over several turns, for example).
Many contemporary games have taken greater control over free time while still following the standard turn structure. Settlers of Catan is good example of a light hook mechanic. The resource trade, and to a lesser extent the robber, require players to maintain vigilance over the board at all times. Still, these are reactive mechanisms and don’t allow people to be proactive unless they’re the current player. So it’s not guaranteed interaction every turn, but counting and paying attention to your resources is important during free time, encourages social interaction, strategic thinking, and attention to the game when they’re not playing.
Some newer games have moved toward varying degrees of simultaneous play, building their game around non-conflicting, non-movement mechanics which allow for multiple people to play at the same time. Race for the Galaxy is a great example: players don’t really have much free time at all with this method and spend most of their time playing the game.
The result is a fascinating inversion of many traditional games in which social activity like talking and drinking is a key (though informal) component. Games like Race for the Galaxy often play like solitaire, creating an environment in which a player is busy managing their own little universe which has little interaction with the rest of the game. Because simultaneous turn play requires game mechanics that avoid conflicting interaction (like moving pawns to the same spot), these games tend to be insular.
Whether that’s good or not is neither here nor there, but I would say that good game design should encourage some interesting interaction between players. Simultaneous turn games eliminate the frustration of free time, but often create solitary bubbles instead.
Often times, a game’s design creates an environment which encourages player attention during downtime despite having no specific rules. I find these to be the most successful in dealing with player downtime. When you create a game that has interesting decision-making mechanics, compelling choices, and a captivating theme, then players will naturally utilize their downtime to further their investment in the game.
Sometimes small hooks in the rules encourage this kind of environment. Despite being a complicated and highly procedural game, Power Grid manages to minimize free time by creating turns within turns, splitting up player decision-making into smaller chunks and allowing all players to play more often. Within those turns, players are highly affected by the choices other players make because of shared resource markets and movement. Games that chunk a turn into large blocks often suffer from overly-long player downtime and less social interaction. Nothing is worse than a slow Scrabble player and there’s little designed within the game to alleviate the boredom.