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Setup Pains

O Updated
Setup pains
There Will Be Games

Chits, tokens, player boards, tiles, pieces, cards and all the other components we have come to know and love can sometimes be a bit of a problem: when you need to place dozens upon dozens of them into specific places on the game board or player mat and spend hours shuffling dozens of decks of cards before you can even think about starting the game. Setup is something most of us will want to be quick, so we can get to the fun bit as soon as possible.

There are many examples of games that take a long time to set up, and I really don't want to name and shame any here, but I've come across a few in my life - and I'm sure you can name a few yourself.

The most annoying ones in my view are games where you meticulously place two dozen small, custom shaped tokens onto your player mat. Even though everyone has to do the same, so, in theory, everyone should finish at around the same time, it's often not just your player mat you have to focus on. There is still the game board to prepare with even more tokens or cards to be shuffled or miniatures to be taken out of the box and put in position. So one of your games group ends up doing that while everyone else sets up their player mat, meaning that one of you still has to prepare their own board while everyone is finished and enjoys some banter.

Speaking of preparing the game board, it's games where you have to place dozens of tokens on the central board that are the second most annoying in my view. It's often hard to find where to place tokens, so when the illustrator or graphic designer has ensured the necessary spots clearly stand out and show what tokens need to be put where, then that is very much appreciated. It still takes time, but is better than having to spend time searching a highly detailed game board for the relevant place to put the required token.

I think the third most annoying thing during game setup is to put half a dozen different types of resources out around the board for people to use during the game. Of course, using baggies or small plastic containers helps a great deal here, but it still takes time. Also, I want to avoid the use of plastic, so I'm still looking for better storage solutions such as small cardboard boxes, but I've not yet decided what will work best.

If you really want to save time during setup, then consider using a custom insert that allows you to store all resources separately, but also lets you take all resources out in one go. Custom inserts are also often made from wood, which is a better material than plastic, especially if it is made from sustainable sources or recycled wood.

There is still a little gripe though when it comes to shared resources, especially when you have four or more players sitting around the table. If you place all resources at one end of the table or the other, then some people won't be able to reach them, meaning one of your games group has to become a sort of banker and pass out and return resources to the central pool, meaning they have to divide their attention between their own strategy and helping other players.

Therefore I have started to split all resources into two pools, one at each end, so everyone can help themselves. However, custom inserts usually have all resources in one place, so their benefit of a quick setup is slightly marred by having to have a banker in your group. I wish custom inserts had two resource trays, one for each end of the table. That would be amazing.

Last in the list of annoyances is card shuffling. Now, I've grown up with shuffling cards, so I find it quite easy, but it still takes time. I can forgive the fact that you have to shuffle card decks when you first get a game, even though I do sometimes wonder if there isn't a way of publishers to print the decks in such a way that they are already shuffled.

Set collection games are the worst of course, because cards are returned to the deck in a sorted fashion, meaning you have to shuffle especially well before your next game. It's a bit like having bought the game anew every time you play. Yes, the pile shuffle method is often very useful to separate cards effectively in a sorted deck, especially if you use a prime number of piles, but even then you will still want to use another shuffle method to create more randomness. I put a link to different shuffling methods on Wikipedia below which you might find interesting.

Setup time is one part of every game experience. Putting everything away at the end is the other. I must say, I don't mind too much if it takes a while. In fact, I find it a bit therapeutic. However, if your game night ends late, everyone is probably keen to leave, so being able to put everything away quickly would be much appreciated.

Again, custom inserts will help with this. In fact, they're probably the best way of reducing the time it takes to put everything away - unless you are happy to just chuck everything back in the box of course, but then your setup time will probably increase a lot. The next best option is little containers or baggies, and they're probably the most common among gamers. After all, custom inserts are quite expensive, or if you make your own, they will take quite a bit of time to make.

So what do you think about setup time? Are there tricks you use to speed things up? Do you avoid games that take a long time to set up? What do you use to store everything in the box to make setup and breakdown faster? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. I'd love to hear what you think.

There Will Be Games
Oliver Kinne
Oliver Kinne
Associate Writer

Oliver Kinne aims to publish two new articles every week on his blog, Tabletop Games Blog, and also release both in podcast form. He reviews board games and writes about tabletop games related topics.

Oliver is also the co-host of the Tabletop Inquisition podcast, which releases a new episode every three to four weeks and tackles different issues facing board games, the people who play them and maybe their industry.

Articles by Oliver Kinne

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Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #306426 21 Jan 2020 10:00
Another good topic. Games with significant setup time are nearly a dealbreaker in certain gaming situations, the kind where there are other tables with other players. Some of my favorite games have complex setups, so I tend to save those for when I am hosting, and set one of them up before people show up.

There are a few things that can speed the setup and take down. It helps a lot if one or two other players are also familiar with the game and can help setup. Organized storage of components also helps, especially if you label bags or storage slots so other players can help. If there are players who aren't familiar with the game, I hand them decks of cards to shuffle, or give them similar easy tasks.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #306431 21 Jan 2020 10:28
My least favorite setup routine is card deck preparation. By this I mean ensuring the deck has a certain number of this or that, and often removing cards if you don't have the right number of players, etc.

I find it tedious, and it always means a lot of extra shuffling once the decks are prepared.
engelstein's Avatar
engelstein replied the topic: #306435 21 Jan 2020 11:46
Good essay! I have started paying particularly close attention to setup time in my designs, and changing mechanisms to avoid fiddly setups. The Expanse and my upcoming 1919 and Pinball game all setup very quickly, and I think that adds to the critically-important first impression.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #306437 21 Jan 2020 11:59
For me, all proportional to time investment in the game. A 1 hour game with setup annoyances is a huge deal compared to an evening game I can prepare ahead of time. I'm pretty tolerant of setup time in general.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #306438 21 Jan 2020 12:19
Teardown time > setup time by far. At least you can talk about the game and play out hypothetical scenarios while you’re putting everything away.
WadeMonnig's Avatar
WadeMonnig replied the topic: #306451 21 Jan 2020 14:50
I love the parks gametrayz insert because they do split the resources for placement on both sides of the table.
oliverkinne's Avatar
oliverkinne replied the topic: #306644 27 Jan 2020 10:15
Thank you for all your comments. I'm glad the article chimed with you. It seems that I'm right and a lot of people don't like the setup "phase" of a game.
jpat's Avatar
jpat replied the topic: #306668 27 Jan 2020 16:00
I'm probably going to fall on the side of not particularly liking Empires of the Void II anyway, even if you plopped me down after setup and let me wander away after the game is over, but for a roughly two-hour game, a half-hour of setup and maybe 20 min for teardown is nutty. I even more or less know what I'm doing. That's in exchange for the variability the game offers, but right now it's the poster child for me of "not worth it" vis-a-vis setup/teardown.