The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Timetag: The Duration of Games

Will M. Baker

May, 2004

The question of game length can be comical at times, when the actual time to play (especially during a first playing) differs drastically from the advertised length. A two-hour game of You're Bluffing! (30 min.)? A three-hour game of Bosworth (20-60 min.)? Ultimately, the duration of a game depends on the players, but here is an examination of many aspects of how a game's time elapses.

To Play or Not to Play

So many games and so little time; so it is unfortunate to find oneself wasting that time in a game that turns out to be a dud. However, trying out a new game is less of a risk if the game will be brief. A gamer talked into a quick game of Blink (2 min.) might quickly discover that games of speed and dexterity are not their cup of tea, but the newcomer will just as quickly find that the game has already ended. However, if the game is more lengthy, the experience of disliking it can be magnified. The player unlucky enough to find himself disliking Puerto Rico is in for 90-150 minutes of watching the colonist supply decrease very slowly. Since it is often difficult to fully enjoy a game if another player is dissatisfied, longer games can be more risky for the experienced player as well.

The question "How long will it take?" is the hallmark of a skeptical gamer, reluctant to invest time in a potentially painful play. The response "Ten minutes, tops" (Light Speed) could be enough to entice an otherwise flighty player. Replying with "An hour and a half to two hours" (Settlers of the Stone Age), however, might not close the deal. Saying "Anywhere from two to thirty minutes" (Fluxx) should be enough to make anyone suspicious ("Well, which is it? Two or thirty? I'm hungry, you know."). When time really is of the essence, it is perhaps best to either select a guaranteed, low-risk short game, or to engineer some way for the unhappy player to bow out of a more lengthy one (such as the rules teacher abstaining from play until needed as a pitch hitter, or the newcomer merely playing through a few rounds to see if the game suits their taste).

For initial playings, when there is at least one new gamer present, or when experienced gamers just need a refresher course, learning the rules must be factored into play time. In the case of Falling (2 min.), explaining the rules will most likely take longer than playing the game, with the entire start-to-finish clocking in at about five minutes. Othello (30 min.), with it's often-imitated slogan "A minute to learn; a lifetime to master", prides itself on a player's ability to quickly parse the rules and get on with the game, as does any title from Out of the Box Publishing. Games like Tikal (90 min.) and Merchants of Amsterdam (90 min.) seem to have rule lengths commensurate with their game length. But players of Rette Sich wer Kann, lured in by a fairly quick and simple rules explanation, might be surprised at the ninety minute timetag. (For more on rules explanation, see The Finer Points of Teaching Rules.)

Lifespan of a Strategy

The length of a game affects the strategic options of players. The more lengthy a game, in many cases, the more time players have to develop strategy, to plan and realize long-term goals. Longer games can have arcs, with beginnings, ends, and phases in between. There can be enough time to notice that a particular player is pulling ahead, and to combat that player's lead, or that a particular strategy isn't working, and to implement a new one. I'm the Boss can see huge shifts of power, both actual and perceived, in its sixty minutes, as players include/exclude others in/from the bargaining, based partly on their perceived standing. In San Marco's seventy-five minutes there is ample time for a district to be controlled first by one player, then by another, and then by the first again. Even the middle-length Carcassonne (30-45 min.) gives players enough time to invade each other's castles, pastures, and roads.

At the briefer end, 10 Days in the USA (20-30 min.) leaves little room for long-term planning, and a game of Loco (5-10 min.) can be half over before a player realizes they should have been watching the red chips a bit more closely.

Opportunity for Forgiveness

Game sessions are punctuated by moments of regret, when players, whether through simple hindsight or because of newly revealed information, wish they had played a particular move differently. Pico 2 cards In a game of Pico 2 (5 min.), a mere groan can properly discharge one's feeling of regret, as the game will soon end anyway. In longer games, if the game doesn't have a built-in correcting mechanism, the remainder of the game can become torturous. In The Settlers of Catan (60-120 min.), players have plenty of time to figure out how they will obtain sufficient resources to upgrade a particular settlement, but it is extremely difficult to recover from poor initial placement. The player who mistakenly invests all their cash in a soon-to-be-safe corporation is in for a very long, very dull game of Acquire (75 min.).

Whereas Settlers might prolong the agony of a player with ill-placed settlements, a shorter game like Bohnanza (45 min.) allows players, at any time, to wipe clean the slate of their mistakes, and start fresh with new fields of crops. One may flub the first half of Mexica (60-75 min.), but the second half finds them with new temples to build and half the game board still undeveloped. And one may have missed all the easy deliveries in Logistico (60 min.), but the later deliveries are more valuable, thus allowing some chance for a comeback.

Chances of Winning

One's prospects for victory are a lens through which the remaining duration of a game is filtered. If it is clear to the player of King's Breakfast (15 min.) that they have collected all the wrong sorts of cards, and are destined for defeat, they need not fear, for they shall meet a swift and merciful end. Likewise for the player of Clans (30 min.) who has been an early victim of strife and unfavorable territory: even with a slim chance of winning, at least the game will soon be over.

Not so for the player of Risk (90 min.) or Monopoly (120 min.), who might be in the unfortunate position of losing continuously for more than an hour, as their forces or funds are slowly and agonizingly depleted.

Games of elimination also run the risk of eliminating a player too soon. King Me! (20-30 min.) doesn't fit this bill, as even if all of a player's candidates to the throne are eliminated in one round, the rounds are brief. But in a game of 1313 Dead End Drive (60-90 min.), the game might last another hour after all of one's heirs have been offed. And in a large game of Werewolf, the werewolves' first unfortunate victim might have to wait thirty minutes before the game is finally resolved, and the player is able to begin again in a new game.

The Learning Curve

Often, despite a thorough rules explanation, one needs to see the end-game condition before one truly understands the goal of the game, and how to achieve it. Thus, the first play of a game might be a wash. It can be the case that shorter games are less affected by this unsatisfactory first play, because a shorter game can easily be played numerous times in one sitting, allowing players to immediately apply the knowledge they gleaned from the previous go.

Auction games easily fall into the category of "need to see it to understand it," because in one's first playing it is difficult to gauge the value of auctioned items, and thus know how much to bid. Money! (20-30 min.) is brief enough that several games can be played back to back, and a player can begin to refine their sense of worth. Medici (30-60 min.), though longer than Money!, benefits from its division into three rounds, allowing a player to adjust their valuation mid-game.

Princes of Florence (75-100 min.), however, can run rather long, especially when one or more players are new to the game. If players are unable to play it twice in one session, and thus reinforce what they've learned, first timers might come to their second playing much the same as to their first, having forgotten the subtle nuances of value more obvious to repeat players. The same is true of New England (60-90 min.) and Adel Verpflichtet (60 min.), where the first playing is really about figuring the game out, and determining value, rather than competing.

Taking Risks

As the length of a game can influence how often and how repeatedly (that is, in one session) the game is played, it can also influence how players play the game. Shorter games encourage innovation: there is greater incentive to take risks, because if the risk doesn't pan out, and the player finds herself in an abysmal situation, at least the game will soon be over.

Experimenting with always targeting the poultry yards with the most valuable corn in Pick Picknic (15-20 min.), or targeting the most valuable merchant vessels in Korsar (20 min.) might turn out to be losing strategies; but with quick game turnaround, a new strategy can be implemented in the following play.

It's slightly riskier to always bid big in Where's Bob's Hat (30-45 min.), or to constantly pull new tickets in Ticket to Ride (45 min.), as these games' medium-lengths might restrict how many strategies can be explored in one session. Does a player really want to risk ruining the week's one game of Evo (60-120 min.) by trying an all-horn strategy? Or ruin the one outing of El Grande (90 min.) by focusing solely on the Castillo?

And What's with the Range, Anyway?

Some games offer an attractive, definitive, flat-rate on their length. Take It Easy is a ten minute pastime. Nexus will only vex us for twenty minutes. Balloon Cup promises to bow out after half an hour. Moderne Zeiten ensures a clear finish after forty-five minutes. Although Diplomacy requests that you quit your job and divorce your spouse to better accommodate its three-hundred sixty minutes, at least it's not wishy-washy about time.

Some games seem to be unable to predict their demands on your time. Citadels could take twenty minutes, or three times that. Octiles might creep in under the radar at thirty minutes, or leave you exhausted an hour and a half later. And Entdecker could last anywhere from one to two hours (or three and a half hours, in a first playing).

If we examine the issue from the game's perspective, though, we see that we are being alerted that the length of play is really up to us. If negotiations are quick and to the point, Quo Vadis? could excuse us after thirty minutes; but if we insist on haggling over deals, demanding this laurel or that vote, well, the game can't be held responsible if an hour elapses before we elect five senators. If we play poorly in Drakon, allowing one player to quickly amass a pile of gold, the game could end in twenty minutes, but competitive play, with a much closer, exciting finish could require sixty minutes of our time.

When Will It End?

In a game of The Cities and Knights of Catan (60-120 min.), as in basic Settlers, there is an incentive to speed the game along, because whoever ends the game wins the game. This is the case in any "race" game, where the goal is to get to something first. Carolus Magnus (30-45 min.), Top Secret Spies (45 min.), and Babel (45-60 min.) also fall within this category, where at least the leading player is trying to bring the game to a rapid conclusion.

Such is not the case with San Juan (45-60 min.), where, as in Citadels, triggering the game's end does not ensure that one also has the most victory points; thus there is a reason to drag one's feet a bit, to use the Crane to build over an existing building rather than build a twelfth.

Some games end when a certain condition is met. If players have control over this condition being met, as in the depletion of the deck in Lost Cities (20-40 min.) or the exhaustion of a type of piece in Siesta (45-70 min.), the game can take on the same pacing as a race game, where a player in the lead pushes for a hasty ending, while others attempt to drag it out, in the hopes of improving their score.

However, when players have no control over the pacing of the game, such as in a game with a set number of rounds (Torres, 60 min.) or with a fixed number of moves (Metro, 45 min.), the players have ample encouragement to maximize the use of their turn. Therefore, though the game may be bound by a finite number of actions, its duration is still at the mercy of players' analysis. Trias warns us of this with its 30-75 minute range; even though there are nearly a constant number of turns, give or take a few, it is the players who determine the length of those turns. Likewise, Pueblo will only last as many rounds as there are pairs of blocks to place, but it might take players longer than sixty minutes to wrap their brains around Pueblo's three-dimensionality.

Some games, such as the deluxe version of Scrabble (60 min.), or any of a number of party games, such as Squint (20-30 min.), come with a timer to either encourage or require quick turn play. Other games might have built-in incentives to quicken the pace. This is true of any real-time game, such as Pit (30 min.) or Dots (20-30 min.), but also of some other games in more subtle ways. Lao Pengh (10-20), a memory-based game, might push players to play quickly, while their recall of particular cards is still fresh. Any trick-taking card game (e.g. Wizard, 45 min.) tends to move along at a good clip due to limited and often straight-forward choices. In games with open negotiation (e.g. Die Sieben Weisen, 60-90 min.), slow-acting players often find themselves with the less-desirable end of the bargain.

Experience

Excepting those cases where poor play in one's first time out in a game leads to a quick defeat, games tend to turn over faster with more playings, as players become more familiar with the rules, turn mechanics, and choices to be made. Thus, having played a game only once or twice might skew one's perception of its length.

Regardless, with games varying so much in length, either from one playing to the next, or in actuality versus the box's description, predicting game length can, after a while, become an amusing game in itself.

- Will M. Baker

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