The List: #3 – Downtime

This post forms part of The List. The List is where the worst parts of gaming belong: those errors that designers and publishers repeat, over and over again; those aspects of the hobby, and of the culture surrounding it, which embarrass and shame us.

Compiling the whole List would be impossible – no one person could ever hope to detail all that is rotten in the kingdom of board. But we can point to its lowest, most worrying points – a Worst Of Gaming compilation. Read on, dear gamer, and despair.

Fuck downtime.

Downtime has given us one, solitary thing to be thankful for, and that is the existence of the excellent Downtime Town. Other than that, it can sod right off.

What is downtime? Downtime is the time in a game when you are doing nothing. Not playing, not planning, not surveying the board or discussing the tactics. Just. Fucking. Waiting. Perhaps you’ll spend it chatting with someone else who is also experiencing downtime. Maybe you’ll idly survey your environment, scanning over the same tired walls and decorations. Maybe you’ll look at your friend’s collection of games. “We could be playing that”, you might longingly think to yourself, gazing at their copy of Space Hulk, or Battlestar Galactica, or even bloody Atmosfear. Most likely, however, is that you’ll be busy staring at Steve. Fucking Steve. Why does he always take so bloody long? Just SODDING MOVE already! Only, deep down, you know that come your turn you’re going to take just as long, if not longer, and everyone is going to be looking at you, willing you to hurry the fuck up, and you’ll feel the pressure to act without thinking, and you know what? This isn’t actually much fun.

Well, I guess it's better than nothing.

That is downtime. And some people will tell you it affects even the best games. These people are wrong. The best games avoid downtime, and they do it in one of several ways. You look a little slow, so I’ll explain them to you.

  • Have a quick turnover. This is the most obvious one. Having short turns minimises downtime, and stops people getting bored. This is easiest with 2-man games, but games like Carcassonne show that it can work with larger games too, simply by minimising the amount of actions a player can take, and by keeping the core mechanics simple. You just don’t have time to get bored in a game of Carcassonne.
  • Make downtime a core aspect of the game. This isn’t as stupid as it sounds. Anyone who’s played Diplomacy can tell you that. Never played Diplomacy? That shit is 95% downtime, but it’s alright, because the downtime is secretly uptime, where the meat of the game is played. If anything, the bit where you move people around a board and roll dice is the downtime, as you wait to see the results of your politicking. Basically, any game which involves heavy player interaction manages this: co-operative games, where your downtime is spent arguing about what to do next; trading games, where you plead with each other for aid. Give us things to do in our downtime, and we’re happy. Which brings us to:
  • Give us things to do in our downtime, and we’re happy. This can be as simple as making us always plan ahead: Mr Bell gives us an example of this in his review of Puerto Rico, and it’s hardly unique to that game. Scrabble is surprisingly good for this, simply because you spend your downtime thinking up words and swearing to yourself as Rebecca blocks them again, the mind-reading tosser. Alternatively, you could take this further, and end up with:
  • Remove downtime altogether. As in, don’t ever have a point where a player isn’t directly involved in the proceedings. Space Hulk’s overwatch mechanic is a good example of this, but it’s Infinity which really nails it with its use of an active and a reactive turn. On your active turn you have a set number of orders to move and attack enemies. On your reactive turn, you can react to enemies moving and attacking you – by firing back, diving to cover, throwing smoke grenades or even popping out of hiding. It means that both players are involved in every action of every turn, and it’s masterful.

War of the Ring: encouraging players to ruin their opponent's plans by acting out of turn since 2009

Any one of these techniques works wonders, making sure that players don’t spend the majority of each game wishing death upon the other players and themselves. Some games even opt for a combination of the above – so it is that Games Workshop’s War of the Ring mixes a quick turnover (splitting turns into separate phases – I move, you move, I shoot, you shoot etc.) andthe ability to act in your opponent’s turn (through heroic actions and special rules), and in so doing becomes the best, and most misunderstood, collectible strategy game that they sell.

What doesn’t work is ignoring the problem and hoping it’ll go away. So it is that the self-same Mr Bell who fell in love with Puerto Rico a few paragraphs back found himself bored silly by Tikal, at least during his opponents’ turns. It’s why we avoid playing board games with certain players after we discover their tendency to spend eons agonising over every decision, or to wander off mid-game for a chat and not come back for ten minutes – why would we want to play a game that simulates that same pleasure without even the need for an awful player?

The simple rule is this, game designers: if, in testing your game, you find yourself looking at your watch, staring at the ceiling, or wishing painful death on your opponents* as you wait for your turn, then something is very wrong with your game. Do something about it before your players have to suffer the consequences.

Downtime. Just say no.

*for reasons not relating to them flattening you.

Author: Yann Best

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8 Comments

  1. Thinking about Tikal again. The solution is to engage with your opponents’ decisions. Discuss their options with them. You can do that in an honest, straightforward manner, or you can try and mislead them into doing what you want.

    Of course, that’s only possible if the player who’s turn it is is willing to engage. If they disappear into a little decision-making mind space of their own, this plan fails. So I’ll add that when it’s your turn it’s your *responsibility* to make your decision making a chat.

    The opposite of this is a fast-paced game with hardly any downtime, in which you have no reason to talk to your opponents whatsoever. You might as well play against a computer.

  2. Do computers break down in tears when you beat them after a fast-paced game? I think not! Your point is invalid 😉

    I’ve never played Tikal before, so can’t directly comment on it, but the fact is that there’s only so much time you can fill with discussions of tactics. It’s a large part of the reason that I tend to avoid wargames that don’t have some sort of simultaneous action component – with games like Warmachine and the Warhammers there’s just far too much waiting as your opponent trundles his little men around (40k especially, with every infantryman having to be spaced just right to avoid template weapons/be in cover). Similarly, in any games which involve a large number of players there’s only so much you can do – nobody’s going to get anywhere if every person at the board decides to chip in on a player’s decisions, after all!

  3. That’s true, John. A faster game still needs interaction. Odds are other problems would be introduced that would need fixing. The above seems more like things to think about in order to strike balance.

    A rule I’ve always had in games, no matter what decisions you make … a crap game is a crap game.

  4. Hmm, Diplomacy demonstrates that with the right game, you can quite easily discuss other people’s moves for a week or longer!

    Although with Diplomacy their turn is also your turn… But you’re spending the time talking, not thinking alone.

  5. Well yes – that’s even a game I mentioned in this piece, as you may have noticed! But this is where the game’s agency comes in – Diplomacy’s “downtime” is the game; it’s designed around it, and brilliant for it.

    The problem comes in games where downtime is incidental to the experience – where there’s limited player interaction outside of the actual game,* so the only way to fill downtime is by non-game related means, e.g. spacing out, wandering off, chatting or other activities which would be better served without the framing of a board game.

    *or at all, but then I hate those sorts of games for that alone

  6. Mmm, and the question becomes – if you play a game wrong, is it the game’s fault or the players’?

    For example, you can play a game of Settlers without ever looking your opponent in the eye and bartering properly for a trade. Everyone can do all their trading with the bank, and have a rotten time.

    You could play D&D without ever, you know, *roleplaying*, and have a rotten time.

    Lots of examples where you’d just be doing it wrong.

    Frivolous example: if you ignore the theme in Chrononauts and say “I’m flipping this card to that these other cards get flipped” instead of “I’m preventing the invention of the atom bomb so that the Allies lose WWII” it’s a LOT less fun.

  7. I meant decisions from a game designer point of view.

    On more of what you mention, John…if players are playing a game wrong then it is kind of the game’s fault. If you’re missing important things that makes the game fun and succeeding in your efforts then the game is at fault.

    D&D is all about the session, from what I’ve been hearing recently, but I would lump the GM as game designer in this case.

  8. A aller voir qu’il n’y a rien à voir, on voit quand même des choses et des gens, que tu nous donnes à vo0eo#823i;Rendrz-v&us à la prochaine étape!Christine

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