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The Concept of Downtime

J Updated
The concept of downtime
There Will Be Games

Does downtime matter or are you missing an opportunity?

[Person on phone at the gaming table]: "Well, we're in the middle of a Western Legends game, but it's not my turn so I'm just sitting here WAITING..."

The topic of downtime (i.e. waiting while someone(s) else takes their turn) is a popular one in modern game design and discourse. Many games are dismissed by potential or one-time players because the idea of having to wait a couple minutes before being directly called on to do something is intolerable. To many players if, like a video game, they're not doing something involving the game with every second of their time (and, too often, precious little of their actual attention), then the game itself is flawed and not suitable for regular play, if at all. This has always struck me as the most foreign of concepts for a variety of reasons, the most prominent of which is that gaming is a social activity for me, but also because so-called "downtime" is often a good moment to actually consider one's strategy, which may be the better measure of whether a game is worthy of attention or not.

First off, let's get one thing clear: Downtime is not analysis paralysis. We all know someone afflicted with the AP problem; where one player considers and reconsiders their next move for an extended period while everyone else at the table sighs in frustration. That situation is a whole different discussion about who is fun to play with and who isn't. What I'm talking about is the normal span of time between one player taking actions and the next time, created by other people doing the same in a normal fashion. This can be affected by a variety of things: the number of players involved, the inherent pace of the game, the amount of space between players and their immediate environment in the design, and so forth. A good example of the latter trait is Runebound. Many people have complained over the years about the downtime in adventure games like Runebound, where turns can occasionally be lengthy and if you're playing with four or more people, you can wait some time before you get the chance to swing a sword with your character, as so many are busy swinging with theirs. The fact that you can be adventuring in locations across a continent from each other, often with no immediate impact on the fortunes of others in the game, only exacerbates this.

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In contrast, two-player abstracts, like chess, normally do not suffer from this, since the only person to pay attention to is the one across from you and every move they make will usually have immediate impact on your prospects for victory, however large or small. In fact, most two-player games aren't often accused of being problematic with downtime because of the more narrow confines of the competition. But a key element of two-player games is the fact that you're playing a game with someone else. To me, that element does not shift when adding more people. Gaming for me is a social endeavor. I'm with this group of people, playing this game, because I enjoy their company and am interested in doing this activity with them. Consequently, their turns are almost as interesting as mine are. I'm interested in what they're doing and how they're doing it and also in the story that the game is telling about this time that we're spending together. I don't ever want to leave a gaming table shrugging my shoulders at something forgettable or not feeling like I had a good time with these people that I enjoy being around. To me, staying involved in what's happening on the table is part of that, in addition to being able to tell a story about that Tyrants of the Underdark game where I managed to play two Intellect Devourers in the same turn and wreck the hands of my opponents on the last round while I kept hold of Auramcyros for the win.

Just as importantly for those of us who like to win said games, it's often crucial to be aware of just what your opponents are doing. I saw a review of Pax Pamir, 2nd Edition on BGG the other day that listed the game's downtime as "Medium." Newsflash: There is no downtime in Pax Pamir! If you think there is because it's not you who is paying coins or moving cylinders, then you're likely going to lose every session of the game that you play. Paying attention to what others are doing in games like that is absolutely essential to playing well. If you don't observe your opponents' strategy and shape yours to meet, evade, or defeat it, then you're doing yourself a disservice, as they'll probably be running rings around you by the time it's over (or just having four more points than you in a Dominance check, which means the game is definitely over.). To me, this same principle still applies to games like Runebound, as I'm usually eager to see just what treasures my opponents turn up in the towns they visit or how successful they are in dealing with the creatures out in the world that I may have the chance to take down if they don't defeat them.

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Furthermore, no matter how exciting the next five minutes on Twitter might seem, so-called downtime is also the best time to consider one's strategy or assess how the game is shaping up. From my perspective, the amount of time that I'm considering the next turn's move is usually a good measure of whether the game is worth playing in the first place. The Hacan have just jumped through the stargate to take control of Hope's End, spoiling the move I'd planned for my Arborec two turns from now. But it's now the Mentak player's turn. Should I pay attention or not? Using the opportunity given by other people taking their turns may be a facet of the design to begin with and it usually means it's a factor of depth that the designer intended. People usually draw this line when deciding whether games are "heavy" or "light", but even light games like For Sale! can take some thinking if you're trying to guess how your opponents will play their cards in the more rapid selling phase. There's no downtime there. I'm watching people play cards the same way I would be if I was in a poker hand.

But modern design has incorporated this perception, whether because of new innovation or simply the exaggerated concern over presumed downtime. In some cases, it's a sign of developmental trends or a new way of approaching a mechanic. Dudes-on-a-map games can often be accused of having downtime, as players build armies and marshal their forces. One way that Tiny Epic Kingdoms short circuits this idea is by using joint actions. One person takes an action and everyone has the choice to either duplicate that action or gain resources. So there is a decision to make based wholly on the game state on every player's turn. Rising Sun does something similar with its mandate and kami phases, where everyone is involved and the board usually has to be consulted repeatedly to determine the outcome. Another method is simultaneous action, like in The Quacks of Quedlinburg, where everyone acts together and variation (and playing skill) is determined by how far people are willing to push their luck with their cauldrons. Probably the most notable overall design change is in the push away from "I go-You go", where players make multiple moves and do everything they can do in their turn, to an action-based system where players take one action of many before play passes to the next player. A notable exception to this in the modern era is Star Trek: Ascendancy, where players do, in fact, build, move, explore, and fight, exhausting all resources and actions, before another player can do anything. It's so odd in modern design trends that it makes everyone hesitate in the first couple rounds every time we play.

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But the fact remains that the game still works for two reasons: 1. The fluidity of its play, where turns are fairly direct and there shouldn't be a ton of hemming and hawing before making a move. And 2. Because it's still really important for people to pay attention. Part of that fluidity means that the game situation can change so rapidly that if you don't continue to watch what your opponents are doing, you'll miss a lot of opportunities to forestall or resist it. Far better to realize that an opponent just set up a direct path to your homeworld before it comes around to your turn and you have to alter your plans in a hurry. That, again, is the essence of playing games with other people, rather than just waiting for them to be done so that you can do something. It's like the difference between actually listening to other people and just waiting for them to be done talking so that you can say something. If the only thing keeping you at that game table with these people is because you get to play a card or roll dice or move a dude, then I may suggest that you take a moment to contemplate why you're there in the first place. I can see that attitude fitting rather seamlessly with the surge in solo board gaming in the last couple years, where many people seem to think that the only impediment to them having fun with a game is... other people. That, if anything, is the polar opposite of my perspective. I can play video games alone all I want. When cardboard hits the table, it needs more than just me hovering over it and that means that I'm there to spend time with those people.

Now, there are games that play slowly. Dune is a great example of one that takes serious consideration and, quite often, much discussion between turns or especially when a shai-halud comes up. But that's all part of the game. If you expected it to be over in 45 minutes, you probably shouldn't have sat down to Dune. Plus, there's nothing that says that games have to be long or slow to make them good games. I'll sit down to something like Lovecraft Letter any day. But I'm also more than happy to play something like Here I Stand, where it could be a whole 10 minutes before I get to move a piece again. But that's 10 whole minutes that I can watch other people perform in this game that I'm enjoying with those people. And that's what makes the difference and why "downtime" isn't even a consideration for me. Even when I'm not touching a piece or drawing a card, I'm still playing.

There Will Be Games
Marc Reichardt  (He/Him)
Associate Writer

Marc started gaming at the age of 5 by beating everyone at Monopoly, but soon decided that Marxism, science fiction, and wargames were more interesting than money, so he opted for writing (and more games) while building political parties, running a comic studio, and following Liverpool. You can find him on Twitter @Jackwraith and lurking in other corners of the Interwebs.

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Articles by Marc

Marc Reichardt
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Marc

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WadeMonnig's Avatar
WadeMonnig replied the topic: #319116 11 Feb 2021 13:09
I've found the "waiting to talk" people you mention are the exact same people who will pick up the phone during the two minutes of "downtime" then spent 5 minutes playing catch up when it is thier turn. (Spend 30 seconds not knowing it's thier turn, then two minutes catching up and a few thinking about what to do).
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #319117 11 Feb 2021 13:18
I 100% agree with you, great column. I have some natural limits to how often my turn comes around and I can take action but in general if it's interactive you need to be paying attention. That's part of the game. Like, I've heard people say Twilight Imperium has downtime and it's like, WHAT, everything else that is happening at the board is of like deep vital importance to you in a game like that. The only games with truly useless downtime are those that aren't interactive and have incredibly long periods between your actions.

My absolute one-two punch of "I never want to play with you again" is someone who complains about downtime but has agonizing analysis paralysis on their turn, basically Wade's person above. Spend some of that fucking time analyzing your situation---that's partly what it's for!
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319122 11 Feb 2021 13:36
Good article. I appreciate that you separate analysis paralysis from downtime, as they are very different issues that happen to share a superficial similarity in appearance. It's true that multi-player games are the most likely to feature some downtime, but this can be offset if there is a decent amount of interaction between players or some other mechanism to encourage engagement. Cooperation, negotiation, overwatch, and pvp combat are all good ways to minimize downtime and maximize engagement.

Part of it is dependent on the players. I once saw an 8-player game of Cards Against Humanity crash and burn because 4 of the 8 players kept doing stuff on their phones instead of paying attention, so the natural rapid pace of the game slowed to a crawl and then just stopped. I often like playing a long game as long as it is at least somewhat engaging. When it isn't my turn and I'm not directly involved in the proceedings, I can casually talk a bit with another player, maybe get up and stretch, or pay more attention to the background music. But there is a certain kind of player who is just frantic to cram in as many games as possible into the day, and they want to rush through everything and ultimately enjoy nothing. That's exhausting. But I'm not the AP guy, either. There is nothing more maddening than having every ounce of fun drained from a game because one selfish player is playing really slowly.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #319125 11 Feb 2021 13:45

WadeMonnig wrote: I've found the "waiting to talk" people you mention are the exact same people who will pick up the phone during the two minutes of "downtime" then spent 5 minutes playing catch up when it is thier turn. (Spend 30 seconds not knowing it's thier turn, then two minutes catching up and a few thinking about what to do).


Right. So, don't pay attention to the game, don't interact with anyone else, but make everyone else wait because whatever was on Twitter simply had to be responded to. Save me, jeebus.

@Gary: "Downtime" in Twilight Struggle is even worse than my example of "downtime" during Pax Pamir. Everything your opponent does will directly affect your position in the game! Everything! I don't care if they're just reinforcing their position in Berlin. That's important. It also means you're paying attention to a) the game and b) your opponent.

@Shellhead: Absolutely fair point about people wanting to rush through as many games as possible. I'm annoyed by that, too. Again, games should be a social activity. You're there to enjoy the game AND enjoy the people you're playing with. If you only play two games as opposed to four but have a great time doing it, what's wrong with that?. I have a ton of stuff on my shelf that needs more daylight, too, but I'd rather enjoy my plays, rather than try to work against a clock.
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #319126 11 Feb 2021 14:05
I am rather infamous in my gaming circles for intolerance of slow play . BUT that doesn't mean I don't play long games - far from it. As the article mentions, good games involve the players being aware of what is going on during other players turns.

That said, some games do feature mechanisms that invite poor use of players time. For instance, games that allow players do rummage thru the discard pile is a pet peeve of mine as it usually brings play to a grinding halt . Or games that feature intricate combat systems between two players. Sure in the case of the latter the other players usually have a vested interest in the outcome. But it can still bring the game to a halt.

Many games have informal ways of getting around this - for instance in HERE I STAND, we usually get to the Pope and if he and the Prot are doing religious stuff only ( common pre Schmaldic League ) we just let them do their thing and go back to the top of the turn order.

But most down time issues are player issues, not design issues. If someone repeatedly has to ask "who's turn is it" they are the fucking problem , not the game.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #319128 11 Feb 2021 14:14
There are definitely games that have blind spots. Riffing on your discard pile example, there were cards added in the last FFG Wiz-War expansion that let you search the deck for a creature. Well, there's only six creatures in a stack of a few hundred cards, so I took those search cards out for exactly the reason you cite: the game lurches to a halt while one person goes through the whole deck. It may mean we don't run into creatures as often as we could, but it also means that an incredibly rapid game like Wiz-War doesn't drop dead (like most opposing wizards do against me...) So, I'm all about house rules to speed play for instances like that.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319131 11 Feb 2021 14:32
It's true that modern game designers have often addressed potential downtime with good mechanisms. Co-op games tend to encourage discussion and teamwork. Spartacus arena combats are usually fun for the whole table due to the betting. Games that could potentially have long player turns instead break down those turns into phases, or even just actions, so that the turns are shorter and moving from player to player more quickly.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #319145 11 Feb 2021 16:19
Damn, i was gonna bring up runebound just based on the thread title! The movement dice thing alone was so frustrating i bought a second set so the next player could be counting out their move while the current player did their turn.

Inattentive players REALLY get me in a game like Power grid, because the math itself can be laborious in the late game so to wait for someone to get their turn and JUST THEN look at their cash and start plotting is AAAAAAHHHHHH!

I don't mind some downtime because it at the very least gives me time to plan my own moves. Though if it is really significant DT i'd rather it not involve me so i can leave and get a beer while the active player is pulling a Dr. Strange and trying out EVERY DAMNED POSSIBLE COMBINATION of moves before settling on one.

I most like the games where everyone takes an action (usually quick to resolve) and it goes round and round till everyone is out. Makes it easy to stay engaged and usually most folks have relative action point parity so no one is sitting it out for long.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #319146 11 Feb 2021 16:22
You kids with your electric gadgets and your . . . electric gadgets. In MY day we played wargames BY MAIL and we were thankful for it! I had to wait seven weeks for David Merwine to send his letter back when he had his groin surgery and all he did was move one headquarters two hexes forward! We STILL haven't finished that game!

I think each group has its own pacing. If you have seven new Kickstarter games waiting in a pile next to you on the table there's an urgency to get through things. But if the only game that shows up is Maria and there's exactly three of you attending, you want that game to fill the evening and for everyone to have a chance to bring their best play to the session.

Heck even each evening has its own pacing. Find it, enjoy it. Quit whining.
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #319147 11 Feb 2021 16:29
I kind of get it Sag. If it's with really good friends, I could see just fucking around chatting, etc and following whatever conversational paths while playing. I think a lot of us don't have a group of close friends as gaming partners, unfortunately.

I think it would still sort of drive me crazy but I'm not sure.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #319149 11 Feb 2021 16:42
Almost all of my regular groups have been good friends, but we're still there to play the game. And my point wasn't about people playing slowly. It was about people not taking advantage of the time they're given and instead complaining that the game was too slow or some such thing. So-called "downtime" is, in fact, ideal for the socializing that Sag is speaking of.

I never did the PBM thing because cats (e.g. there was never a place that they couldn't get to and disrupt weeks of play.) But when I was in high school, one of the history teachers was a big gamer and let us use part of his office to play longer games. We had a session of Third Reich running in there for a few months. We set up a schedule so that there'd always be at least one other person there (doing study hall or whatever, if not the professor himself) and people would just come in make their moves and leave a note for the next person: "It's your turn."
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #319150 11 Feb 2021 16:44

Sagrilarus wrote: You kids with your electric gadgets and your . . . electric gadgets. In MY day we played wargames BY MAIL and we were thankful for it! I had to wait seven weeks for David Merwine to send his letter back when he had his groin surgery and all he did was move one headquarters two hexes forward! We STILL haven't finished that game!


Greg Aleknevicus's Avatar
Greg Aleknevicus replied the topic: #319152 11 Feb 2021 17:54
In the first edition of Carcassonne, you drew a tile as the first action of your turn. Despite this, every group I've ever played with uses the house rule that you draw a tile at the end of your turn. This lets you ponder your options while others take their turn. A simple change that drastically reduces downtime.
Jexik's Avatar
Jexik replied the topic: #319153 11 Feb 2021 18:22
This is something that I think about a lot, as I'm often worried that I am the slow player. There's an older guy in my old regular gaming group that used to add a lot of time to games, but that's more of an AP/reading tiny text on cards issue. He used to host an annual Advanced Civilization game. You could count on it taking all day with 6-7 players, but that never bothered me. That's an example of a game that does a number of things that can ostensibly be done simultaneously, and a number of things that directly impact the whole group (trading phase), as well as some things that only involve two players so you can kind of go and grab a snack or something while this is going on. There's also lots of chatter, negotiation, and opportunities to catch up with people. It's also simply long by design by requiring a certain number of turns to be played to show the passage of time. It's a different kind of experience than X games of Dominion in X/2 hours.

Twilight Imperium is a similar kind of situation, but the combat kinda drags comparatively. I'm not a big fan of "roll lots of dice with low odds of success." The last time I played, this was the time to ask the host for another drink or talk to him about his house or work or whatnot.

I really think it depends on the level of familiarity you have with the people you're playing games with. If I'd be comfortable inviting the same people to my house to do something other than game (non COVID times obviously), then I definitely don't care about the downtime. If I'm playing with relative strangers at a game club or I strictly interact with them through games, I'll be more cognizant of the time passing by.

This could be why some 2 player tournament games (X-wing, MTG, etc) have so much in-game interaction.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #319155 11 Feb 2021 21:15
That's a good point. If you're playing with new people at an FLGS, then maybe downtime is more obvious. I've found that when I'm in that situation, I'm often teaching, so I'm oblivious because I'm watching carefully to make sure things are functioning properly. Or if I'm not teaching, I'm still focused because, unlike when I'm with my friends, I'm usually trying even harder to win. B)
boothwah's Avatar
boothwah replied the topic: #319179 12 Feb 2021 14:52
Ugghhhh - I have one of those guys, that I love dearly as a friend, but is the worst when it comes to gaming - He checks out when it's not his turn, either scrolling his phone to to share memes, or regaling us with tales of what games he is playing on pc, then when is turn comes around he's AP guy, but also narrates his turn - I'm going to copy paste my example of one of his turns from the what games are you playing thread from last year :

*uncrosses arms and sighs and sets his cards down*

"Well I had a great play that was going to net me 8 VP, but he took the spot I was gunning for."

<the guy that took his planned play was 2 players ago and he's had 6 minutes to makes changes due to the gamestate>

*uncrosses arms, looks at cards, looks at the board*

"See, I have this bonus for the having 3 leaders in brown spaces, So I was going to use that to get the extra die, and then I was going to just sweep right along the coast here and I would have longest chain easily."

"Well since the only 2 actions available at this point are a move and a fight..........."

*the table hopefully concurs*

"well...waitaminnit.......I wanted that spot because of the chain, but maybe I could reach it with ......."

*Rules book is grabbed - Several sections are read aloud in the entirety to confirm that he can not do what he was fishing for*

*arms cross and think tank face again*

"well if I move and attack......This guy could go here....or this guy could go here.....this guy could go here and would get a plus 2, and it would deny Jason the tile...or I could ignore Jason entirely because Ryder left himself vulnerable overrrr herrrree....This guy gets a bonus for his weapons, which would have been awesome if Bjorn hadn't discarded them last turn...he would get to roll add 3 to each of his rolls AND have advantage - that would have changed everything.......See my original plan wouldn't have need any weapons, because my guys go so fast i could just rush objective.....Wait, did I activate my production this round?"

*walks around the board and picks up each figure as he's talking and demonstrates the attacks*

<You did we reply>

*picks up cards and reads each of them individually*

"Yeah I can't play any of these right now."

"I guess I will move and attack ."

*touches like 5 figures while making a Hrmmmmmmmm sound returning to the same two figures at least 3 times*

"I'm sorry Ryan, but I'll attack you here"

*dices rolled/chits pulled/whatever*

"OH -missed it by one."

*Long narration about how many point he would have scored by choosing any of the other attacks available to him with the roll.*
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #319183 12 Feb 2021 15:54
Yeahhhh... That's not someone that would be invited back.
jason10mm's Avatar
jason10mm replied the topic: #319184 12 Feb 2021 17:07

Jackwraith wrote: Yeahhhh... That's not someone that would be invited back.


That guy must be bringing belgian monastery beer, 18yr old scotch, and el primo snack food!
Msample's Avatar
Msample replied the topic: #319193 12 Feb 2021 20:28
Unless your turn entails some obscure rule you need to remind people of, , fuck narrating your own turn.

Downtime and or annoying players are one huge reason why many refuse to game with random strangers at stores or especially conventions. Sucks if you're an outsider but its the simple truth.