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Anyone who’s played a video game in the last decade and a half can attest to how irritating frequent loading screens can be. Though the loading time is often necessary for the tiny people in the video game box to craft the next segment, loading screens detract – sometimes severely – from the gameplay experience. Good thing we’re talking about tabletop game design and that isn’t something we have to worry about, right?

Wrong, strawman! Though board games are thankfully safe from having to worry about processing power and rendering and whatever else those video game people have to think about, our own version of loading screens – actions that aren’t gameplay but are necessary for the gameplay to be meaningful – creep into games, at their worst preventing an otherwise enjoyable game from ever hitting the table.

This article discusses the most common kinds of “loading screens,” how to minimize them, and why some are more insidious than others.

Polishing Mana Crystals

If you think about the times in a game when nobody gets to participate, the most obvious offenders are setup, rules explanations, and scoring. Of these, the rules are the most problematic: A long scoring period comes after players have already enjoyed most or all of the game, and a long setup is only a problem if the game is short enough to make it not worth it, while taking a long time to explain the rules sends many players running for the hills. Games with asymmetric mechanics, like Vast: The Crystal Caverns, especially suffer from this issue.

However, you don’t have a lot of tools to deal with long rules explanations because so many games require that all the rules be explained upfront. Nobody likes getting Columboed, but the only way the person who brought the game can stop that from happening is to explain even the rules that apply near the end of the game so nobody feels like they lost because of something they didn’t understand. Similarly, some gameplay elements might be excellent, but require long setup or scoring periods at their core to function.

There are also shorter actions that, if they happen too many times over the course of the game, add up to taking a lot of time. Public enemy number 1 here is shuffling a deck of cards; a 30-second process where everyone has to wait for the shuffler to finish can be aggravating if it happens too many times.

Reticulating Splines

Though having a “loading screen” in your game may be unavoidable, there are several methods that you can use to minimize them. How you solve this problem in your own design is usually on a case-by-case basis, but I have some scattered observations on problems that crop up most often.

There’s several ways to prevent a lengthy rules explanation from taking over the start of the game. In some games, it works best to attach fiddlier rules to cards or similar game components that the players accrue over the course of the game. Elysium, for example, has six or seven ways to use the variety of cards in it, but you don’t need to know how they work until they’re actually out on the board; thus, you don’t have to explain how they work up front.

Dungeon Lords has a very interesting way of handling this that I wanted to call particular attention to. At the halfway point of the game, a band of adventurers goes and attacks your dungeon. It’s important to know how this works so you can build defenses, but the invasion is complicated, with a lot of rules. But instead of just listening to whoever brought the game blabber about it, you actually run a short simulation of a combat phase. The simulation is actually fairly challenging, which gives players the sense that they’re accomplishing something when they efficiently defeat that rude cleric going around consecrating everything.

For smaller loading screens, you might want to fold them into periods where the player is otherwise not doing anything anyway. Deckbuilding games starting with Dominion made the excellent decision to shuffle your new deck at the end of your turn, meaning that you’ll be done by the time it’s important and you aren’t weighing down the other players. Elegant solutions lower the amount of brainpower needed to play and, more importantly, make you feel really good about yourself.

Spinning Violently Around The Y-Axis

 Something else that might help is creating an engagement graph, as discussed in The Arty Of Party, Part 2. In case you didn’t want to read two articles today, an engagement graph is a diagram that shows how much of a player’s time is spent actually participating in the game. You can note it mentally or write it down. This will give you a vaguely more objective way of measuring how much of the players’ time is spent waiting for something to happen than asking the players.

You’ll want to start making engagement graphs once you’ve moved on to the blind playtesting, where you observe as someone else reads over your rules and explains them to the other players. This should give you a better sense of how long your game takes to teach, especially without you there to give advice. Long periods of player inactivity, especially for every player combined, can be problematic.

Engagement graphs are pretty broad and don’t account for repeated small actions like shuffling, so you may want to make tally marks or something similar if you’re concerned about it.

Conclusion: Some Dumb Joke About Sonic ’06 And Its Numerous Loading Screens

One might think that attempting to keep players 100% engaged is a particular trait of games, or of those darned millennials. But in any creative medium, the deadliest thing that could happen is nothing. A slasher movie doesn’t improve with 15 additional minutes of idiot teenagers partying in the woods, a meal isn’t tastier if you have to eat a bowl of gruel in the middle, and for everyone except me, Snow Crash having pages and pages about the Sumerian linguistic system only dragged it down.

By grinding your game to a finely honed edge of engaging play, you can create something that’s better for your players and a better product in general. So start thinking about your loading screens!

A Real Experience

Modern game design operates on a set of assumptions that don’t work for every game. For example, asymmetric games are supposed to be balanced as closely as possible, but some Cosmic Encounter aliens shut down other aliens’ powers completely. Good games should have little to no luck involved, but Betrayal at House on the Hill is reliant almost entirely on dice rolls and good draws. And yet, Cosmic and Betrayal are generally considered good, fun games. How can this be true?

The secret is there are actually two kinds of game, each with their own standards of design: Strategic games and Experiential games. When creating a game, it’s important to think about which one you want, as designing using the wrong method could be fatal.

Are You Experienced?

 There’s different ways to define strategic vs. experiential, but the simplest way is as follows: Strategic games are a challenge, while experiential games are an experience.

In strategic games, the players are challenged to do their best under the infrastructure of the game rules. This will almost certainly create difficult situations which have to be resolved through the players’ wits and, rarely, dexterity. The winner in a strategic game should be someone who deserves it: Someone who was best able to solve the puzzles presented to them.

Examples of strategic games include Euros, wargames, most co-op games, abstract games, and anything with an organized play system.

In experiential games, the players use the framework of the game to create an engaging experience for themselves. Difficult choices are present, but simple choices that are fun or flavorful are also present en masse. Luck is much more acceptable. A player or players can technically win, and the threat of losing the game adds important stakes, but winning is less important than having played the game period.

Examples of experiential games include party games, social deduction games, RPGs, dungeon crawlers, and anything with “legacy” in the title.

Like every binary in the real world, the line between strategic and experiential is fluid, and some games, like Magic, hover in the middle ground. Players may also treat a game like it’s the opposite: Take, for example, someone who is very serious about Apples to Apples, or someone who decides to spend a game of Catan building a very long road and doing nothing else.

Gold Experience

It’s fairly easy to figure out whether you’re trying to design a strategic or experiential game by thinking about it. But if you’ve decided you’re creating an experiential game, how do you analyze and improve it?

(I’m not getting into the realm of strategic game design because many people who are smarter than me have covered it on many, many websites.)

Good experiential games should rile up your players’ emotions. Laughter is the best, as it means that the players are having fun even when they’re getting their butts kicked, but depending on the game, rage or shock can also be a good sign. Note that frustration is unacceptable, as it has a component of helplessness: Nobody enjoys being bound by the social contract of a game to twiddle their thumbs and do nothing.

When observing a playtest, make sure to write down when your players are reacting and how. Post-playtest discussion is also helpful, but sometimes people don’t remember what they felt, especially if the end of the game is weaker than the events preceding it.

This next part is more painful: You don’t need to care about strategy that much. As long as your game is engaging, it’s okay if a player wins mostly through luck or if certain abilities are moderately under/overpowered. Your responsibility as an experiential game designer is first to create something that lets your players have fun, and second to create something balanced.

Codenames is a great example of this principle. The shifting word grids make it so every game results in different prompts, but occasionally a team will luck out and get four words that are all animals or countries. In a more strategy-focused game, this would be unacceptable, but because Codenames is more about the experience of the spymaster and their field agents than one team winning, exacting balance is sacrificed in favor of a simpler game.

Though you don’t need to care about strategy as much, you don’t get off scott-free, as you now have to focus much harder on your game’s impact. This not only means thinking about more unique and memorable gameplay, but the illustrations, graphic design, and even writing of your tabletop game have to be clear, interesting, and cohesive. When creating an experiential game, you should be daydreaming about things you won’t even get to for months so you can design your skeleton in preparation for its flesh.

Ideally, all games should be challenging and impactful, but if you have to make a decision between one and the other, strategic games should make challenge more important and experiential games should make impact more important. Unimpactful strategy games like Hansa Teutonica are successful in their lane, as are strangely balanced experiential games like Arkham Horror.

Conclusion: The Word “Experience” Has Lost All Meaning To Me Now

Experiential game design is a topic I’ll most likely revisit in the future. These games are a very important component of modern tabletop gaming, but they frequently get swept under the table or, even worse, scoffed at by the kind of enfranchised gamer who most often writes about design. Hopefully, my writing will form the core of a new, more psychology-focused method of approaching tabletop design.