I love having plenty of little game devices and utilities at hand, you never know when you might need plastic bags, spare dice or writing pads. One of the more difficult items to find was a simple countdown timer. What I wanted was something that could be quickly set to a specific time and then repeatedly used over and over again. Nothing I found was perfect. Sand timers were the most obvious choice and I did acquire a small collection of them. However, they're somewhat inaccurate and the range of times available was limited to say the least. Going a little more high tech, I sought out a few eggtimers. There were mechanical, rotary dial types and these were pretty good as you could set almost any time very quickly. However, it was usually very hard to ensure that you were setting them to exactly two minutes, for example. Also, usually they couldn't be set for very short periods of time, say 30 seconds. Digital timers were better but you would usually have to set the time required every time you used it. Not a big problem but not perfect either. All of these also had the limitation that they didn't give a warning alarm as time was running out, only once it had expired. This all makes sense as most of these items are designed for cooking, not game playing.
So it was with some interest that I discovered the G8 GameTimer. Digital Chess clocks have been available for a long time but they're limited to a pretty specific use and didn't really address the needs of non two-player games. The G8 bills itself as a multi-player timer with lots of programming options and so my interest was certainly piqued.
The unit itself is pretty compact, about the size of a standard PDA. In fact, you're likely to mistake it for one on first appearance. It comes with a reversible plastic case that slides over the unit when it's not in use. A brief summary of its functions is also listed on this case, very convenient. Operating the timer is fairly simple once you understand how it's organized. There are ten different "modes", the first nine are for setting up the particulars of how the timer will operate and mode 0 is for actually playing a game. It may be easiest if I quickly describe each mode:
- Mode 1 - Lets you enter the number of players, from 1 to 8.
- Mode 2 - Sets the maximum time for each player to complete all his/her turns in the entire game.
- Mode 3 - This lets you override the mode 2 settings for individual players. So if you wanted to handicap a player by giving him/her more or less time you'd use this mode to do so.
- Mode 4 - This is the amount of time each player has for each individual turn. If you don't care to have a time limit on turns then you can ignore this mode.
- Mode 5 - Identical to the handicapping of mode 3 but for individual turn times.
- Mode 6 - A cumulative total playing time for the whole game.
- Mode 7 - This lets you adjust the warning sound and duration for when a player's time is about to run out.
- Mode 8 - This lets you save and restore games in progress.
- Mode 9 - Lets you set a delay time between turns. This is useful if you need to hand the dice to another player or do some sort of bookkeeping.
- Mode 0 - Play the game!
It's not necessary to set all of these modes in order to use the timer. In fact, it's quite likely that you won't set most of these every game. (Modes 1 and 2 are the only ones that require a setting.) Of course this all depends on how you intend to use it. Once the timer is actually running there are options to toggle between elapsed time and time remaining. Also, if you set a limit on turn time, you can toggle the large display to show either turn time remaining/elapsed or total time remaining/elapsed.
The Countdown Timer
So my first test with the timer was to see how well it would work as a 30-second countdown timer. I used the following settings:
- Mode 1: 1 player
- Mode 2: 9:59:59
- Mode 4: 30 seconds
- Mode 7: 5 seconds
All other mode settings were ignored. (In fact the mode 1 and mode 2 values are not really needed for this but the unit requires that you enter something. Since I'm not concerned about keeping track of individual player times I set mode 1 to 1. For mode 2, I entered the maximum allowable value.)
|Pressing the "-" button toggles remaining turn time between the large and small displays.|
After entering mode 0 (the "run" mode), I press the "-" button so that the turn time remaining is shown on the large display. Hitting the central button starts the timer. If I need to quickly reset the clock to 30 seconds I can press the "pause" button twice to do so. (The first press pauses the game as one might expect. I can continue the countdown by pressing the central button but pressing the pause button a second time rests the timer to the full 30 seconds.) I must say that this worked pretty flawlessly and satisfies all the criteria I listed at the start of this review for a simple, easy to use countdown timer. I'll be very glad to have this around anytime a party game is played. I also used it during the trading round of Civilization and it proved its worth here again. This did reveal one problem though: we had a time limit of 10 minutes but setting the remaining turn time to display in large digits only showed the number of minutes remaining rather than both the number of minutes and seconds. Only when the time fell below one minute did it display the seconds remaining. Not a big problem but a little aggravating.
Programming the Timer
As for the actual functionality of the timer, the biggest difficulty I had was in realizing that once you started a game (by selecting mode 0 and pressing the Start button) there was no way of actually stopping or restarting the game short of turning it off and then on again. At first this was extremely troubling as I'd enter some settings, try it out and then attempt to adjust it. You are allowed to pause the game and adjust certain modes but not all of them. Specifically, you cannot adjust modes 2 and 4 once a game has begun. There's nothing in the manual clarifying this and so I was left fumbling with the thing for a while until I realized how it works. Turning it off and then on is no big deal but it's aggravating when you don't realize this is how it operates. A similar difficulty arose with mode 8 and its two memory slots. I found this initially very confusing as I'd enter some basic settings and then save them. At a later time I'd recall the settings and then try to modify them. However, this didn't always work, again I was unable to modify modes 2 & 4 (arguably the most important modes). It then dawned on me what the problem was. The two memories accessible in mode 8 are not for saving "settings", they're for saving actual games in progress. Even though I saved a game that hadn't actually started, by recalling it from memory, the G8 entered me into game mode. To be honest I think this could have been implemented much better but once you know how the machine works it's not too much of a problem.
Once I had figured out these two details it was much more straightforward to use. Setting up the timer for the desired number of players and times was pretty easy. While testing the timer I mainly used it to simply keep track of the total time a player took during the game. (I didn't want to include a limit on turn time yet for reasons that I'll detail in the next section.) The issue of user-friendliness is always a difficult one. When dealing with a complex item there will always be the issue of adding features that some will find useful at the expense of making it less straightforward. Standard Chess clocks are pretty darn easy to use but they don't have a lot of flexibility. I don't think this timer is something that people will be able to just pick up and use flawlessly. You will need to spend some time with it in order to properly set it up.
Why even use a timer?
This is perhaps the most important question. Obviously some games require a countdown timer as I've described above. But why would you need to keep track of time in a game of Scrabble? Furthermore, does it actually make sense to use a timer in a multi-player game? It's very easy to implement a timer in a two player game—you can set a time limit and if a player exceeds this time he/she loses. This isn't so straightforward in a multi-player game though. Sometimes it's not a problem; in Scrabble, for example, you could simply skip the turn of any player who had exceeded their allotted time. In Medina, however, it would be a great advantage to be able to skip your turn. If Al is eliminated from a game of Durch die Wüste, this is possible to be a far greater advantage to Fred than Julie. In short, it's much harder to prescribe a penalty for exceeding the agreed upon limits. I don't think this dooms the device though. There are many games that are prone to over-analysis. The game could be played quickly but often isn't as players take exceptionally long times trying to find the "best" move. Knowing that they're being timed, even without a penalty, is often enough incentive for players to "pick up the pace". It's very easy to get involved when taking your turn and forget that everyone else is sitting around with nothing to do. Knowing that the clock is ticking away brings this more to the forefront of the players mind. Bob Schwartz has told me that he used the timer to play Tikal recently. (A game he hasn't enjoyed due to the lengthy times that people can spend analyzing their moves, a common complaint about the game.) With the timer constantly reminding players that time was ticking away, the game moved much faster and he stated that it was the most enjoyable playing of the game he's had. Still, how well this works is going to be highly dependent on the group. Surely there will be some who are not hurried along by such pressure. Further, I think some groups might react negatively to this, even without a "real" penalty. Games are meant to be fun and if adding a time pressure reduces this then that would be a bad thing. I think it's important to keep this in mind when deciding whether or not to use it.
So, how did it operate in actual play?
Not too bad actually but there were problems that I hadn't foreseen. When I was initially using the unit I was the only one playing with it. As each player completed his turn I'd press the button. The problem was that I found it distracting to have to think about doing this rather than just concentrating on the game. There were plenty of times that I forgot about it and once I even missed a complete round of play! Needless to say this pretty much negates any usefulness that the timer might have. This isn't really a fault of the device but it needs to be noted. Certainly if you're able to always remember to hit the button it won't be an issue. The other, and perhaps best, solution is to treat it as part of the game. Put it in the middle of the table and have the players signal the end of their turn by pressing the button themselves. I suspect that this is how the designer intended it to be used in any case. This does raise the issue of how convenient it is for all players to be able to reach but I don't think this is too big a problem.
So when will I actually use this?
To be honest I'm not sure there are many games that the timer will come in all that handy. One of the hallmarks of many German-style strategy games is that they have very interactive turn sequences. Consider Modern Art—each player is taking part in all the other players' auctions. If Bob's turn takes longer than Carol's this doesn't mean that Bob is necessarily playing slower. The other players are doing things during Bob's turn so a timer doesn't feel appropriate. Another example is Volldampf in which players do not take complete turns all to themselves. Rather there are phases that sometimes involve no players at all and others that have the players performing short and very quick actions. Again, I really can't see a timer being anything more than a nuisance here. There's also the issue of irregular turn orders. While many games go in a clockwise fashion around the table others do not. For example in Ohne Furcht und Adel players take their turns based upon the character they've chosen. While the machine can handle this (you can press the "pause" button to switch between players) it's a little more awkward and prone to mistakes. ("Oops, I thought Al was player 3, I accidentally set it to player 4 for his last turn!") I used the device in a game of Drakon which has none of these qualities and it didn't work all that well there either. The problem was that the turns were so short that it was very easy to forget to press the button. Often it would take as long to do this as it did to take your turn!
To my mind the device only really works well when playing games in which the players take sequential, non-interactive turns of several minutes duration. While this might seem rather restrictive there are lots of games that do fall into this category. Also, it's precisely these games in which a timer is most useful. The aforementioned Tikal is one such example and Vinci is another with which it worked quite well. Ultimately, I can't really say whether I recommend this or not. Not because I don't think it's a worthy piece of game equipment, it is. Rather, because its usefulness will depend so much on the particular game and group that's using it. I'm certainly happy I've got one and I will be using it from time to time. Without question it will help some games with some players but you'll need to evaluate for yourself whether it's likely to be a help or a hindrance. As previously mentioned I find it excellent as a countdown timer and recommend it highly in that role.
- Greg Aleknevicus