Transcript of the podcast published on May 1st, 2011.
One of the biggest challenges in game design is the creation of speed. Each game has its own sweet spot of length. 10-16 hours of playtime might be the ideal length for an immersive and narrative game like “Here I Stand”, but it would kill a game like Carcassonne if it was that long. It would just fall flat.
Most Euro gamers perceive 2 hours as the maximum ideal length for a game – and this includes explaining the game! I know many German gamers who will – no matter how much you coax them – flatly refuse to play anything even 1 minute longer. 2-3 hour Euro games like Agricola are actually extremely rare. I would compare it to the ideal length for a film – many people think that 1½-2 hours is the best length for a film, and anything beyond that is either Lord of the Rings or boring. Or both!
It’s interesting to note that films longer than 2 hours are usually sprawling sagas with more complex narrative or boosting amazing special effects to keep you entertained – this can be compared to the much longer American style games, which usually fall in the 3 hour or more range. Think of games like Arkham Horror or Talisman – even hardcore fans would immediately admit that these games take a lot of time, not to speak of war games, which are the kings of the hill when it comes to length!
The speed of a game has two aspects, though. It is a mixture of two conflicting perceptions: the length of the game as a whole and the length of downtime that you experience while it is not your move. Some early war game designs featured a lot of downtime as your opponent pondered moving his hundreds of counters over a cluttered board. Games like ASL with their more complicated turn structure made sure that this downtime was separated into little chunks, but still, as an opponent you were mostly rolling dice while your opponent had something to do.
Even though the game is actually one of my personal favorites, History of the World in its old versions is a good example of bad downtime. If you ended up first in one epoch and last in the next one you theoretically could look at up to an hour waiting, with no meaningful decisions at all and some dice rolling at the best. A game like Cosmic Encounter was actually not only deemed revolutionary in its time because of the changing player powers but also because it attempted to keep everybody constantly involved by giving them the ability to ally with attacking or defending players. This involvement outside your turn was actually a very fresh idea at the time, people tend to forget this.
Nowadays most game designers try to create a mix of interactive elements to keep players involved who are not active at the moment. Classical basic strategies for this can be easily named: bidding, negotiation or trading. This always involves all players and is mostly easy to pull off design wise. Newer interactive strategies would be card drafting (like in 7 Wonders) or role selection, where players in turn select roles that then affect all players, like in Puerto Rico. All these game design strategies are usually perceived as giving the possibility of interaction. An additional strategy which is more difficult to pin down could be called “reaction window”. What this means is that a player has the possibility out of turn order to insert an action into the flow. A good example for this is for example having a “bomb” in the card game “Tichu”. With a “bomb” you can interrupt the card play anytime, but it also involves the risk of other players having bombs as well. Or take “Cosmic Zap” in Cosmic Encounter – any card that can be played out of turn order gives players a reactive game element. But of course there are also real ”reaction” moves, when players react to each other’s actions. But there is a difference between meaningful and a “lucky reaction”: Let’s say a player attacks a space you occupy with troops in a war game. Usually you would roll dice to determine the outcome. Even though rolling dice can be fun it is not what I would call a meaningful decision. If all you do as a reactive action in a game is rolling dice it can become dangerous for the game experience. But now imagine this dice rolling results in a retreat of your troops, and you now have the decision to retreat them to hex A, B or C. This usually would be a meaningful decision, as this will set things for your next turn.
Don’t worry, most war games involve this kind of decisions, and newer designs like “Combat Commander” go to great pains to make the game flow as interactive as possible, with both players constantly being involved in meaningful decisions. But in a way the worst game possible would involve a convoluted and long turn order which only involves one single player. But luckily the time of these games seems to have passed.