Idle Hands: Are Your Players Getting Bored Between Turns?

What do players do when waiting for their turn? If you're testing your game on a group like mine, your players will end up chatting and socializing socializing. But if the turns begin to take too long, people will start getting impatient. Take even longer still, and the game will be put away -- never to be played again.

Downtime can be harmful. I can count off the top of my head a dozen good games that my players abandoned because they felt like it took too long between their turns, including Masters of Orion, Anachrony, Viticulture, and Terraforming Mars. You'll notice these games don't have a lot in common with each other except for worker placement. 

Every game has downtime. Chess has downtime. But limiting this downtime is often key to creating a successful game, especially if your game is a longer one.

The "Twilight Imperium" Effect

Twilight Imperium is, as many know, a very long game. But one of the reasons it doesn't feel as long is that there's essentially no idle time. Whenever someone else is taking their turn, there are still actions that you are able to take. The entire table is engaged, constantly. Now, not every developer is making a "Twilight Imperium," but this doesn't have to be complex. By introducing ways in which a player can interfere with or benefit from another player's turn (such as action cards, or counter-attack mechanics), you ensure active, participating players.

Making sure there are a lot of cross-interactions is also key to making turns enjoyable. If players are able to play cards on others during their turn (and have these cards countered), everything becomes radically more dynamic. This is why you see downtime more frequently in worker placement games, where (for the most part) players don't actually interact with each other.

Avoiding Indecision

Indecisive players can contribute significantly to downtime. Masters of Orion is actually a very fast-paced game -- but because one player kept hesitating before their turn, the game was slowed down for everyone. Though no game developer can eliminate analysis paralysis on their own, they can make it easier for players to analyze their decisions.

This can be done by ensuring that players  have all the data they need at the end of their turn. In other words, have them draw up after their turn rather than before their turn, so they don't have to radically change their own strategy. If there is something that happens that alters their course of action during another player's turn, that's actually a good thing -- it keeps them engaged. But few things should happen during their own turn to make them rethink their strategy.

The more a player needs to analyze during their turn, the longer it will take for everyone. 

Play Around With Length

In an action-based game, is it better that players have three actions or four? Should they start with two actions and be able to upgrade all the way up to five? Or should they start with three actions but only be able to upgrade to four? Depending on your game, a certain number of actions may be ideal -- but the most important thing to remember is that each action added to a player can radically increase the amount of downtime for each single player. In a five player game, adding one extra turn means that one player will need to wait four extra turns every single round. It may be better to have a shorter sequence of actions, but more rounds.

Introduce an Artificial Component

Finally, if you are trying to create a fast-paced game, it's not always a bad thing to include a timer. A timer has to be used correctly (as it can simply be frustrating on a game that doesn't require it), but it does dramatically reduce the chances of a single slow person hijacking a game. Though players may still have idle time, they are going to have far less of it. 

In an ideal world, players will often be able to make decisions about their upcoming turn before their turn comes -- and they will be able to interact with each other throughout the turn order in some way or another so that everyone has to be at attention. Naturally, these mechanics aren't going to work in every game, but they are very effective ways of countering player downtime and boredom.