Game design mistakes 3: End it already
by Gil Hova
Have you ever played a game that just won’t end? Just as you think it can’t possibly go on any longer, it does?
We’ve all played childhood games of Monopoly where your big brother has all the money, and it’s just a matter of time until the last few hangers-on go broke. It’s a process that can last hours, and it’s excruciating, especially if you made the unfortunate decision to play with Free Parking.
Monopoly has nothing forcing its endgame. It can theoretically go on forever. Munchkin, another game I always seem to bring up when I have to drag out an example of a crummy game, is also guilty of this. Recall that a player wins a game of Munchkin when he reaches Level 10. But since players can go down levels as well as up them, the game can theoretically go on forever.
To me, one sign of a well-made board game is that the game never overstays its welcome. I might give Munchkin a lot of flak, but the truth is that I might actually enjoy it if it took ten to twenty minutes to play. I’ve seen games of Munchkin drag on for hours, no exaggeration, and I’d rather have dental surgery than go through that experience again.
Making sure your game ends is a solid way to ensure that it never overstays its welcome. So how can you do this?
- Set the game up to last a specific number of rounds. For example, The Princes of Florence always lasts seven rounds, never more or less. Agricola is always 14 rounds.
- Set the game up to last a maximum number of rounds, but allow some rounds to be skipped. In Traders of Genoa, there’s a die roll at the beginning of each turn that could result in a round being skipped. This adds a good uncertainty to the game, because players have to weigh whether or not the game will end before they can fully execute their plans.
- Base the endgame condition on something that will never reverse. Settlers of Catan ends when one player reaches 10 VP, and no player can ever lose VP. Puerto Rico ends when one player fills his building track, or when there aren’t enough colonists or VP in supply when players need them; buildings can’t be destroyed, and colonists or VP never return to supply. Ticket to Ride ends when one player runs low on trains, and players will never get more trains into their supply.
All of these rules ensure that these games have a consistent and enjoyable play time. When a game doesn’t, it risks overstaying its welcome.
Let’s look at a game with a length problem. I played a lot of take-that games when I started seriously gaming. One of them was Ninja Burger, a game with a great premise (ninjas delivering burgers in 30 minutes or less, or they commit seppuku).
Unfortunately, this light dice-rolling game could take almost 2 excruciating hours to play. Players win by having the most Honor Points. In typical Steve Jackson fashion, players can gain or lose Honor, so nothing forces the game to end.
At that point in my gaming development, I was starting to realize that something was wrong. But my group at the time enjoyed take-that games, so I tried to fix the problem.
I came up with a “limited honor” variant for Ninja Burger, in which only a fixed amount of Honor Points are available at the start of the game, and lost Honor Points are permanently removed from the game. Once we started playing this way, games would run no longer than 30 minutes. Much better for a light dice-rolling game!
So how long should your game be? It depends. If it’s a light filler game, then less than 30 minutes. An intermediate strategy game should be 1 hour, a heavier strategy game can run 2 hours, and a dense epic can run for days, provided you don’t own cats.
If you’re a designer and your game seems to falter partway through, take a look at the game length. Sometimes shorter is better.