View From the Wet Coast – Does Game Length Matter?

I was reading a forum thread over on BoardGameGeek during my writing hiatus, which is something I do a lot of even when I am writing. While some of the forum threads are just entertaining reading to see who gets snarky with whom, this one actually made me stop and think for a moment. Then it made me decide to write about it.

The thread title was “The Trend that Shorter Game Time = Better Concerns Me,” which made me pause, partially because I don’t think that’s really a trend. Is it? I know that a number of gamers I have spoken to like shorter games because they have less time to play at any given time. But “better?” I hadn’t heard that. I don’t know anybody who actually believes that, though I admit my gaming circle is limited.

The thread goes on for an extremely long time (16 pages at last look) and basically degenerates into a battle of preferences, with the occasional person agreeing with the original poster that it’s a disturbing trend and some people disagreeing.

But it’s mostly about preference.

It did spark a thought, though. Is there a battle between short games and long games going on that I don’t know about? Is there a shortage of super-long monstrosities that people used to love, but now they can’t sell more than a few copies?

I don’t think so. There are certainly popular games out there that take longer than 90 minutes. Just look at Eclipse. That’s often said to be a shorter alternative to Twilight Imperium, but it’s still a good 4-6 hours long on a good day. That’s a very popular game. The first time I played Terra Mystica, it took a good 2.5 – 3 hours.

Personally, I think that playing board games is becoming a more popular hobby, bringing more people in, but a lot of these people have the same time constraints as many of us do and don’t have the time or energy to learn a long game. Say you have a pool of 100 people and 50 of them prefer longer games while 50 prefer shorter games. Then you add 50 more people to it and they all prefer shorter games too. What happens? The proportion of long-game players is going to go down. But it’s still going to be a good 50 people who prefer longer games.

I, for one, prefer shorter games unless I’m going to a game session that’s going to be an all-day thing. At conventions, I see people hauling out their 6-8 hour games, and I wonder about that. For me, the point of a convention is to broaden my experience, meeting new people and trying out new things. Tying myself down like that just doesn’t seem good to me.

To each their own, though.

Don't try A Game of Thrones on a short game night
Don’t try A Game of Thrones on a short game night (via WikiMedia Commons)

There are, of course, the usual reasons for that short-game preference, and they are ones that people usually share: time crunches, only having a couple of free hours after work, maybe your gaming group meets in a public space so only has a limited time to play each week. I certainly have those problems.

But I think there is one additional reason that doesn’t often get talked about, at least for some people. I count myself among them.

The increasing urbanization of society makes it really hard to keep games set up when you can’t finish in one sitting.

I remember when I played wargames as a teenager and in college. Down in the basement of our family home, my brother and I had Third Reich set up and we played over the span of a couple of weeks. Other war games were similar. My college buddy lived in his dorm room alone, so we left Squad Leader set up on the second desk that was in his room. I would come down and play a few turns of the scenario before going back to do homework.

Now? I live in a fairly small condo downtown and there’s no way I’m going to leave a sprawling game set up for a week or two at a time. There’s just no room (and having an inquisitive cat doesn’t help either). All of the people I know are in similar circumstances. They live in small dwellings, or at least small enough that they don’t have a room set aside for gaming where they can just leave a game set up.

Now *this* looks like a game that would be cool leaving set up (via WikiMedia Commons)
Now *this* looks like a game that would be cool leaving set up (via WikiMedia Commons)

I used to love long games. I think I could again if I (or a friend) could leave them set up. But I can’t, so I don’t play them.

There are many other reasons for our game length preferences, some of which I share, but adding them here would just make this post too long.

So I invite you to share. Do you prefer long games or short ones? Why? What are your thoughts on game length?

And do you actually subscribe to the “short is better” philosophy, or is it just a preference for you?

2 thoughts on “View From the Wet Coast – Does Game Length Matter?

Add yours

  1. Great article David, its a topic I’ve been thinking about over the past week and will write about next month.

    When people say game length they usually mean the duration of time that encompasses the entire experience from set up to clean up. There are two more specific meanings people use when they say “game length”:

    Time Value: what does a game do in the time it takes to do it? Does it hit a sweet spot where it plays in just the right time?

    Engagement: Is the game continuously engaging or does it drag at some points? This could be from downtime between active turns or disproportionately long setup periods or scoring rounds.

    These each carry their own weight of important to players but in some combination they should factor into the minds of game designers and board gamers as they find the right games for them.


    1. Great points, Alex.

      Your thoughts about time value and engagement are some of the things that I was talking about when I said there was more to say, but the article was getting long. Somebody on that thread (and I there’s no way I’m going looking for it) made the point that appropriate length is based on the game itself. So when people say (like I heard on the Dice Tower podcast I listened to this morning) that Firefly is “too long,” they’re talking about too long for what you do and what you are getting out of it.

      My five-hour first game of Eclipse never dragged, except when the guy who I complained about in an earlier post was taking his turn, though that was a product of the player, not the game itself. I was always keeping an eye on what the other players were doing on their turn, looking to see what my options were, and changing strategies if I needed to.

      A game where you’re just picking up things to deliver to amass the most points, not making any new discoveries, that would start to drag after a 90 minutes or so.

      Thanks for the comment. It’s greatly appreciated. I look forward to seeing your post about the subject.


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