Making a Game Shorter

I find that more games would benefit from being shorter, than from being longer. It’s very rare to hit the end of a game and think “I wish this’d go on for another dozen turns”. Sometimes “I wish this’d go on for one more turn” but I think that’s intentional on the part of a designer who’s hoping to transmute that into “lets play again.” So, since we’re more likely to want to make a game shorter rather than longer, let’s talk about how to do that!

As any surgeon will tell you, it’s best not to remove something unless you’ve got a really good idea of exactly what you’re trying to remove and why. So let’s look at how time is spent during the typical game and then see how we can cut down on different parts of it.

1 Agreeing what game to play
2 Learning or remembering the rules
3 Setting the game up
4 Waiting for the other players to finish their turns
5 Deciding what to do on my turn
6 Executing the decisions on my turn
7 Repeating steps 4-6 until someone wins
8 Either putting the game away or resetting for another game

I’ve never come across a game that makes step one easier. Gamers need to have smaller collections and stronger preferences (but never strong preferences that contradict other gamers). I predict that any length in this step is a universal constant, more so than taxes, slightly less so than death.

Step two is easy to overlook – learning the rules is a one time cost, so any saving is a one time saving – is that a justified place to be working if you want your game to be short in general? Well, maybe, it could be that people’s first experience will affect how they play the game in the future and if you want your game to feel pacey launching right into it is for the best. However generally first time learning, while an important issue, isn’t the solution to this problem.

Remembering on the other hand is different. I saw a doozy of a post on a reddit thread the other day, which I’d paraphrase as:

“If I ever make a game the front cover is going to say: ‘If you are coming back to these rules because you’ve played before and forgotten something: The starting hand is four cards, the game is nine turns long, the winner is the player with the most money and cards combined.'”

How many times do you go back to rulebooks for that sort of thing? There’s a neat implicit point buried in there that except for people’s absolute top games there tends to be a bit of rules re-learning whenever you come back to a game. Simply having nicer reference cards or player aids can shave a bit of time off this process (and also save time in game when players pause play to check a rule). Player aids are great.

Step three: Setup is also a place where it’s possible to save a bit of time. Look at the individual processes for setting up a game and ask three questions
1) Could this be faster?
2) Could more people do this?
3) Is this necessary?

Speeding up setup can often be achieved by making the components physically more convenient. Having one type of counter be a hex where another is a circle so that they’re separated more rapidly. Or having an icon on each card that needs to be pulled out of a deck so it’s faster to leaf through and take them out (This icon should be on a corner, which makes it much easier to do at speed).

Games are played by several people, but often set up by one. I hear the exchange “Can I help?” “Not really” quite often, what’s meant by that is “The thing I could ask you to do would take more time for me to explain than for me to do it myself.” If some tasks can be more “offload friendly” then setup gets faster even if each individual step is the same.

The third step is more involved with the rest of your game – but is something we’ll keep coming back to. Looking at parts of your game and asking “Is this necessary?” can lead to removing something. Removing something saves time in setup and in play. It’s also possible to take something out of setup and into play which isn’t quicker, but can feel quicker because the time spent is more engaging rather than busy work. Examples of this being implemented successfully are in games that don’t have a pre-game map building segment and instead ask players to take it in turns to lay out pieces of the game – encouraging them to do so for their own advantage such that the competition has already begun.

Step four: Waiting for other players to take their turns…

You probably shouldn’t be approaching this as part of a game length issue. If players are spending significant time waiting and are not engaged during that time you’ve got a whole different problem to “The game is too long.” You’re dealing with its unpleasant cousin “The game is too tedious.”

Still, a quick reminder couldn’t hurt: Minimise downtime! Try to make it so that players are actually *doing* something during their opponents turns. If you can’t then at least make it possible for them to plan their next move.

Which brings us neatly on to five: Deciding what to do. For some games this is actually the longest step of the game, with players spending more time thinking about playing the game then actually playing it. That can be a really good sign – but it can also be a sign that the game is making decisions inconvenient.

In addition to encouraging players to plan off turn (By avoiding randomisers early in the turn sequence and wild swings that change everything) you can try to make sure that players have meaningful choices and good information. Your players shouldn’t be having to consider a bunch of options that aren’t relevant to their situation – “Is this necessary?” remains a great question to ask. If it turns out that choosing whether to aim or not results in the same overall chances of success then remove that decision point from your game. Players will use information to make their decisions – you know how some games have a player announce when they’re one point away from victory? That’s to speed up play by avoiding having players recount the score every turn (Two lesser versions of this are: The victory track clearly shows how many points everyone’s got at all times and victory points are hidden so you can’t count the bloody things).

So we’ve over a thousand words into an article on making things short and we’re finally ready to address: Actually playing the game!

Here you want to look at how each action is resolved and look for ways to make it faster. There are two parts to this: One is looking for useless chum to remove, the second is acknowledging that some component actions are faster than others and trying to use them.

“Is this necessary?” remains a great question. It’s surprising how many games work just as well with something that might be considered “core” removed from them. If one particular action takes a long time to do, see how well you can work without it. Suppose you have a 4X game and when two fleets meet you simulate a detailed battle between them – what happens if you resolve the entire engagement with a single die roll? Sometimes it hurts the game and the simulation was necessary for the exploration and exploitation to feel worth it – other times it speeds up the game tremendously at almost no cost.

The worst offender I ever saw for this was a mechanic that was resolved by shuffling a deck and drawing a card – where playtesting had caused card types to be removed from the deck one by one until only one type of card existed. Get rid of the deck and just rule on what happens!

Component speed is a different issue, but also worth considering. There’s a hierarchy in how long things take to do: “search the deck for any card”, “roll a die” and “move a piece one space” take different amounts of time. There might not be much in it as an individual operation, but when you’re describing things that people are doing every turn, possibly several times per turn, then it makes a difference.

Reducing the number of operations also makes a difference. Does anything happen if your roll to hit succeeds but your roll to damage fails? If not, why are you rolling twice? At very least you could throw the dice at the same time rather than sequentially.

Which brings us to where most people trying to cut a game short typically start: Repeat this loop until someone wins.

If someone can win in fewer turns then the game will be shorter. This often feels like a magic bullet, but your game’s length is broadly:

Game Length = Setup + (Turn length x Number of turns)

So reducing the number of turns has a smaller impact at shorter turn lengths and vice-versa. Often attempting too extreme a reduction in either category will sorely hurt a game, so looking for ways to cut down on turn length and number of turns to a more moderate degree can leave you with a better game than trying to gouge either.

The method for reducing the number of turns will depend upon the properties of your game. If you’re playing to a score, then a smaller score. If you’re playing to the elimination of a faction then more fragile factions (possible via a smaller map). If you’re playing until a deck runs out then fewer cards in the deck (or more drawn per turn). It should be fairly self evident what approach is required depending upon your ending condition.

Remember that what you’re looking at is the difference between your start state and your ending condition, rather than the absolute value of the ending condition. So if a game is played to 10 VPs it may be that rather than reducing that to 8VPs you could start players with 2VPs worth of assets. Are your playtesters more engaged at the start or end of the game? When choosing which side to shave some time off, be sure to shave from the part of the game that’s generating less enjoyment.

That brings us to the end of the important stuff. The only step left unmentioned is the time spent clearing a game away or resetting for another round – which is unimportant to the experienced length of most games.

However if your game is short and intended to be played dozens of times in a session then it’s worth devoting a little bit of thought to how it might be achieved. How much needs to be separated? How many things need to be shuffled? Are there ways to reduce them? Perhaps – but it’s a rare game that takes this as its primary focus.

So, this was my long article on making shorter games 😉 Bear in mind that shorter isn’t always better and not every game wants to be minuscule, but it’s always worth bearing in mind that game length is a choice, not an immutable fact. Happy gaming, whether you prefer short or long ones.



5 thoughts on “Making a Game Shorter

  1. Thanks for the article!

    I agree that you’re main point is the most important, but I really wouldn’t mind some more explicit ideas and / or examples on how to shorten the other elements…

  2. I found for one of my games that a really small change that eliminated one decision point each turn had a drastic impact on playtime – something like 20-30 minutes for a 2 hour game.

  3. Regarding optimisation of operations – besides trying to optimise the typical case, I think it’s worth considering the worst case. While it may not be a large proportion of the overall time, these are points at which the delay is the most significant, both in terms of impression and risk.
    For example, shuffling a deck is painfully slow if you’re trying to do it properly – and some games can be ruined by insufficient randomisation.

    What I’ve noticed is that some games have decks which spontaneously sort themselves, and others basically don’t. Two very simple games at almost opposite ends of this spectrum are Uno and Dobble. The Uno deck is quite large, but after a single game the used section is essentially formed of runs of suit (colour) with occasional paired-value transitions. It needs to be shuffled carefully to remove that, every single time.
    Dobble on the other hand has almost no issue with this; dependent on the exact game type played there may be a small excess of runs (i.e. more than two consecutive cards with the same symbol). A minimal amount of shuffling between rounds is sufficient for all but the most hard-core play.

    This suggests to me that it may be possible to sometimes engineer a game such that the cards are ‘self-shuffling’.

  4. As a follow-up to my above post, specifically regarding mitigating the time cost of shuffling:

    If you only have a few different card types, one option is to convert them into coloured cubes (or similar) and pull them from a bag. As in the game “Automobiles”. This works quite nicely to avoid the constant shuffling inherent in deck-builders, but it does rely on distinguishing the colours. (And to be honest, some of the colours in Automobiles are a bit too close for my comfort.)

    Another approach is to treat the sorting of the deck as a feature. Apparently this is the case in French tarot, although it does come at the cost of a slightly more involved dealing process. In brief, the deck is cut only, and then hands are dealt to players in ‘packets’ of three cards each.

    • Replacing with a different component that does the same thing but is more suited to the approach makes a lot of sense to me 🙂

      I’ve always wondered about how successful pulls from bags are as randomisers. Has anyone ever studied it? Sometimes it feels like cubes get stuck in the corners or that some draws are more common because the pieces wind up “on top”. Obviously people jiggle the bag, but like a deck shuffle it’s probably not a true randomiser. I wonder how well bag draws stand up.

      I know games that involve just flipping the discard pile to form a new deck, certainly there are ways to make that interesting play. I can’t think of a deckbuilder that does it though – that could have some curious consequences.

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