The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Shortening Long Games

Anthony Simons

August, 2003

There have been many fabulous games over the decades; many of us "mature" gamers probably played many an exciting game in our youth. Often these games would take an entire day up without us even noticing as the hours fell away.

These days few people have the time to engage in such lengthy pleasures. The beauty of the modern designer game is that all the chrome, all the unnecessary complexities and the time-consuming simulations have been trimmed off in the design stage. We are left with wholesome games that play within an acceptable period, usually two hours or less.

Despite the myriad of modern games to slake my thirst for fun, I still find myself on occasion yearning for those long and often laborious titles of old; and I think how nice it might be to squeeze one into a couple of spare hours. Recently I took my thinking a stage further and thought how this could be done. The first conclusion I reached was that as each game is different it would be difficult to come up with a general method for all games, however as there are games I don't know too much about that others might want to treat in a similar way I thought that was the way to go about this task.

What follows is the result of several ponderous days after this thought crossed my mind, and I thought about how I could speed things up or cut things out to get a good game out in less time than it normally takes. Some of you have probably thought of this sort of thing before; I'm not teaching you to suck eggs, just sharing my thoughts.

Moving the Goalposts

Most games have some sort of object or goal, and often the reason a game takes such a long time is because the conditions of victory are difficult to achieve. The answer in some cases is to move the goalposts.

In Warrior Knights victory goes to the player who controls more than half the towns; and during the course of the game, towns are razed. The obvious way to shorten playing time here is to raze a few towns before the game starts (indeed this is one method suggested in the "official" shortened version of the game prepared by its designer, Derek Carver).

A similar method might have some effect in Kingmaker, removing an heir or two from both families, though arguably it would have little effect on shortening this one.

With many of the monetary objectives so prominent in games of old, reducing (or introducing, even) the target profits, capital or cash can significantly shorten the game.

The Last Turn

In games where the number of turns is limited, a shorter game can be devised by altering this total. This would be done by both setting up a balanced mid-game situation and starting the game nearer the last turn, or by moving the last turn closer to the mid-game.

Naturally, the option chosen depends on the game to be played; games in which the overall effect becomes evident only after the total number of turns have been played would do best under the first suggested set-up, while everything else would probably suffer very little under the second.

Take Age of Steam for example; a fairly recent game but one which some feel goes on a little too long. The number of turns is limited according to the number of players, but if you want to reduce them even further it might be a good idea to build some neutral links (that anybody uses but nobody gains income for) at the start of the game. If you don't, you might find the game will end before any significant infrastructure is built.

Space and Time

In the cases where physical area has a lot to do with how long the game will last, one could try altering the available space. Railways could have fewer towns to visit, generals less objectives to capture and prospectors less land to dig. In a way, the Warrior Knights shortcut mentioned above has a lot to do with this one; the area available in terms of the objective is being restricted.

Shortened Risk boardHowever, the manipulation of the playing area is not quite the same as restricting the objective. In this case, the actual available space is cut away so that the game is forced to end sooner than it would normally. This could entail playing crayon rail games on half the available map, restricting the theatre of war to the old world in Supremacy or Risk, or completely ignoring South America in Games Workshop's Super Power.

This idea can be extended to include tile-laying and card-laying games; older ones like The Sorcerer's Cave still have a lot of appeal and by design lend themselves to various forms of manipulation and scenario design. Cut down the number of large cards or play them into a set layout and the game can be restricted into a more acceptable time scale.

Half Way There

Akin to the method used for games with a turn limit, one can cut out the initial phase of a game where something must be accumulated before moving on to victory. In games such as Monopoly, where property is bought and sold, the players could each be dealt so many properties at the beginning (perhaps with the restriction that any sets dealt must be discarded or at least broken up). The game of Monopoly is especially suited to this kind of game shortening, as what often happens is that players reach a point of deadlock where deals have to be made because nobody has a set. It can take time to get there, so why not cut out the middleman and start the game at that point? After all, that's when the game really starts; so it makes sense for a shortened version.

A similar method could be applied to other games; for example, Waddington's Campaign could be shortened if all neutral towns are dealt out at the start of the game; this means of course that each general has fewer towns to capture at the beginning of the game. Of course, each general would also receive any extra units on appropriate towns.

Streamlining

Some games employ lengthy mechanisms, which could otherwise be ignored if it were not for their crucial effect on the game. Often these can be trimmed off to save time, and in many cases it can be seen they are not so crucial as they first appeared.

Combat rules are one major consideration; many players like a detailed combat system which attempts to emulate the battlefield, but often it's merely a diversion in the gameplay. Consulting two or three charts to see who won and if the loser was annihilated or just ran away can be fun, but it can also be time consuming. Where the results of such combat is absolutely crucial to the game outcome, one would do it no justice by trimming it away too much; but three charts can easily be combined into one, giving a single roll result. Believe me, game speed will increase dramatically if just one chart is referred to.

Lengthy auctions to purchase something can be reduced to a single closed bid. Instead of bidding going to and fro, why not take a leaf out of the book of modern designers, and simplify it? A single bid auction is over almost as soon as it begins; and there is less indecisiveness because nobody has to decide whether or not they are going to outbid another player.

Take Care

You don't want to totally destroy the game, so be careful what restrictions you place on it. At least try to keep most of the game elements intact, so that the game doesn't stray too far from what it was originally intended to be.

For example, shortening a game of Rail Baron by reducing the amount of money required to win is all well and good; but if a player is going to achieve this in just two journeys perhaps a little more thought is required.

Likewise, if you raze all but one town on the Warrior Knights board, then don't be surprised if whomever takes the first turn wins the game. Not a lot of fun.

I know both are extreme examples, but they demonstrate how easy the balance can be upset by careless dismissal or rework of crucial elements.

In Conclusion

There are many ways a game's playing time can be reduced, as I indicated it could depend a lot on the game in question. You should always be careful that games are not destroyed by this kind of rules manipulation, but it really doesn't matter if you end up with a different game as long as it is fun and you are playing it within the time constraint you require.

I always look back on the older games with nostalgia, but never seem to play them because time is at a premium. I would be happy (as I am sure many others would) to hear of any suggestions you might have for trimming down your favourite long games into something playable in a short time (0.5 1.5 hours, perhaps), so your input is always welcome.

- Anthony Simons

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