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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!