A Word on Complexity, Agency and Playtime in Board Games

Hypothesis: The level of complexity and player agency in a board game’s design should be reflected by it’s playtime. Simply put: random games should be shorter than games where players make more complicated decisions.

One of the obvious proofs we could state for the assumption above is that games with more complex mechanics will inevitably take longer to explain. After years of teaching game rules and playing games, I have seen that when players invest a certain amount of time learning a game’s rules, they expect a certain payout from the experience of playing the game. One could imagine a situation where explaining the rules to a game would take longer than actually playing the game. This would only be acceptable if the game had high replayability and player’s wanted to immediately play again.

If our hypothesis is correct, than game designers need to be wary of making two errors in their designs: making complex games too short and making simple games too long. Through personal experience I would say that the former situation is less likely. Designers tend to design to much and rarely make games too short. Looking at my shelf of games I see only one game that might apply, the deck-building game Eminent Domain. I distinctly recall my first few playthroughs and the group complaining that the game seemed to end too suddenly. That once players finally earned the better tech cards that the game was over in another round or so. We even house ruled extending the length of the game.

The latter error on the other hand, that of making simple games too long, is a very common mistake made in the board game world. Most gamers need only recall the horribly long games of Risk and Monopoly from their youth as proof. One could even argue that shortening the average game’s playtime along with simpler rules and more player agency was the very cause of the board game revolution of the 1990’s. Even newer versions of Risk, where the game is limited to five rounds of play, and the card game Monopoly Deal reflect this trend. When a game’s playtime is shortened to match it’s relative complexity and randomness, it is simply a better experience.

As a player of games, I found this rule over time and learned to seek out shorter games, only investing in longer games if I had heard really good reviews about them. But in the last few years I have gotten more into board game design, so I find myself thinking about the reason why this relationship creates a better experience. So let’s flesh out two of the gaming terms I think can shed some light on this property of modern gaming: fluff and fiddliness.

Fluff refers to a mechanic or system of mechanics that do little to change a game’s state or bring a player closer to victory. Fluff is not always a negative term, as games with narrative elements or humour may use fluff to enhance player’s overall experience. An example of positive fluff is the encounter book in Ryan Laukat’s Above and Below. In the game, players are building a town and can build more powerful buildings underground, but only if they explore first. When exploring a neighbour reads a passage from a book and the player makes some nearly arbitrary decision to gain a small reward or be punished. Sometimes literally nothing happens during the encounter, but it adds story and humour to the game. An extreme version of this is the ‘game’ Arabian Nights, where all players do is have a series of encounters that provide no more than very arbitrary decisions. I think most gamers would agree that Arabian Nights is less of a game and more of an experience. The game is almost 100% fluff and randomness with no player agency. And I would say it is too long for what it is.

Fiddliness refers to game having too many components, small special case rules that players need to remember, as well as upkeep actions required to maintain the games state. A perfect example of a fiddly game is Arkham Horror. In this epic co-op game set in the H.P. Lovecraft mythos, player’s need to remember all their items, special abilities, how each monster moves, what the elder gods special effect is, etc. Any game where players go several rounds forgetting some small rule or game-state update, is fiddly. It results in players feeling as if they played a tainted version, because they didn’t play the game right. In my own efforts, a general design goal: if player’s repeatedly forget a rule or component during playtesting, I workshop ways of removing or streamlining that element of the game.

Finally, let’s compare two games that I think have relative levels of complexity and player agency, yet have extremely different playtimes. Monopoly is unfortunately the most famous board game in North America, but it is a game that gives players only two decisions; to buy or not to buy (and it should be noted that buying is usually the better choice). Owning property in the game is how players slowly interact by draining their opponents’ money until they are hopefully eliminated. In the game players will pay an opponent who’s property they land on, but then later that same player will land on the first player’s property and pay them back. This interaction is the ultimate example of fluff in a board game. It does nothing to further the progress of the game, it simply adds playtime. What’s worse, this back and forth draining and gaining of the same resource makes the play time unpredictable and potentially endless. The game also includes two decks of cards that are total fluff, arbitrary narratives that randomly affect the players in minuscule ways (I suppose they provide some narrative consolation, as when a player loses a four hour game of hotel tycoons they can at least take solace in having point won a beauty pageant!).

Another game that has players try to eliminate each other is Love Letter. The game has only a small deck of character cards and it also provides the players with very limited choices. On a players turn they only have two choices of cards to play. The most common card has players try to guess another players card, if they are correct that player is eliminated. We can see that the game already has more player agency than Monopoly, because players can at least choose who they are effecting, whereas in Monopoly players simply hope other players randomly land on their properties. In fact, if we boiled the two games down to the most basic mechanic that moves the game forward, player elimination, they are basically the same game. Monopoly just adds all the fluff and fiddliness of managing properties and randomly gaining or losing money. Love Letter is a far superior version of the mechanic, and it takes about 5 minutes to play.

So in conclusion, I hope I have elucidated some reasons to be aware of the playtime of board games. As game designers we need to ask ourselves important questions: Is my game too long because of fluff or fiddliness? Do the players have enough control over the outcome? How can the playtime be adjusted to suit the reward of the game experience? Certainly the above elements are not the only factors in making a game an appropriate length. Another major design element is the progress of the game’s mechanics. A common complaint I have heard players express about games that felt too long was that it felt like they were doing the same thing through the whole game. But that is another topic for a future article.

Until next time, good luck and have fun!

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