Downtime Isn’t a Four-Letter word

One of the most impressive feats of televised commentating I can remember was during the famous Go matches between Lee Sedol and the AlphaGo computer programming. While Lee sat in silence, sometimes for many minutes, the expert commentators would dissect the position and hypothesize future lines of play. It was absolutely engrossing. I had to actively tell myself to not watch it so I could get work done. It was a small peek into an incredible mind, one trained over years of practice and hard work. It was also watching downtime as entertainment.

Among designers and publishers the idea of downtime is often seen as a challenge to overcome. As a result, I’m seeing more and more games that utilize very short turns in order to minimize downtime. I don’t think this is always the best approach.

First we have to understand what’s bad about downtime, because it’s not always a bad thing. Most famously, The Mind incorporates downtime as a game mechanism. Except it’s not downtime at all, but active playtime. It’s just silent. Silence can be good. It can be great! Board games don’t have to inspire noise to be exhilarating. All of that excitement can happen internally, in the quiet contemplation of one’s options, or the forever moment between the offering of a gambit and its acceptance.

Downtime fails when you’re pulled out of the game. Chaotic games often demand little downtime because you can’t really understand what your options are before your turn begins. It’s the worst part of Five Tribes. I sometimes have to stand up and look away from the board in between my turns because I know any line of play I discover is likely to be disfigured by the time I’m able to act on it.

Downtime excels in sufficiently complex games where you need that time to properly think through your actions and appreciate the design. Time spent strategizing during other people’s turns carries no social cost; you don’t get the added pressure of not acting quickly enough while the spotlight shines on you. 

But more and more I’m seeing designs that seem to optimize for needlessly brief turns. I’ve no evidence for this other than its general popularity, but I suspect Scythe has been a major influence on these design decisions. The problem is that games often have natural segmentations: the broad plan of winning gets divided down into intermediary goals, and those are often split into even smaller goals which are split into individual impulses. Perhaps there’s one fewer layer than that. It doesn’t matter much. The point is that if the structure of a turn only allows for a single implulse it creates an uneven rhythm to the game, because players will be planning around intermediary goals. 

For example, let’s suppose we have a game where contract-fulfillment plays a big part. One of the primary ways to score points and advance the game is to gather, on average, 4 resources and fulfill a contract. Players will naturally plan their actions around fulfilling those contracts. They’ll survey the options and chart a series of moves that result in accomplishing that intermediary task. But if the game only allows you to collect about one resource at a time as your turn, you’ll fall into the rhythm of 4 turns where you effectively make no decisions followed by one turn in which you decide on your next sequence. If everyone else is doing the same thing but slightly off-rhythm it creates an annoying game experience where you know exactly what you’re going to do the next three turns while you wait for the person across the table to plan.

Allowing four actions per turn would technically create a longer gap between any given player’s turn, but it would also create more active downtime. Every single turn would require decision-making instead of every fourth turn. It’s more time between each turn, but less time wasted overall.

So instead of trying to shorten turns, try to minimize downtime not spent thinking about the game. That’s the killer downtime, the poison that turns the mood of the evening. I’ll take the deliberate, contemplative pace of Through the Ages over the uneven staccato of Scythe any day. Silence can be envigorating.

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4 thoughts on “Downtime Isn’t a Four-Letter word”

  1. The disturbance of downtime depends heavy on the game and the players. If you have 4 actions to play, depending on game and player this can be 2 minutes up to 10 minutes.
    Usually, when we have games which are heavy on the downtime side, we use a chess clock and limit the time for a player. This minimizes downtime and create an interessting kind of pressure.

    1. Yeah I’ve been tempted to get a chess clock for certain games to see how it changes the experience. I’ve heard of people playing 18xx games that way to force people to play by the gut rather than calculating out everything and it sounds fascinating.

      1. We played 51st state recently this way. 30 seconds.
        If you don’t make it in time, your turn is over.
        Very tense game. You must plan your turn during the other player doing their turn.
        We tried this for longer strategy games also. A game usually takes 120 – 150 minutes, we finished in 70 minutes. Pro : We made 2 ganes of it in the same time. And it is a lot of fun too.

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