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.
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.
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.
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.