Board Games and the Attention Economy

The “attention economy” is a sociological and economic term that has gained increasing relevance as users gain near-constant access to media channels via smartphones. Herbert A. Simon summarized the concept as “…a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” To be more succint, attention is a finite resource and each call for a person’s attention drains some of it.

The attention economy is also a valuable metric to keep in mind when designing tabletop games (though I’m migrating the term a bit from its original meaning). In fact, I would argue that one of the most important indicators of a game’s complexity is its attention strain, which we can define using several objective factors.

Factor 1: How Much?

The first, and most obvious, factor in a game’s attention strain is how many components there are. However, this isn’t just total number of components – it’s the total number of components the player needs to pay attention to in order to play the game.

The distinction here is most noticeable in tableau-building games like Roll for the GalaxyRoll has a fairly large number of distinct components: Each player has a sizable tableau with up to six or seven different powers, an action strip to which they assign dice, and a pool of dice, in addition to the victory point chips and round information markers in the center of the table. However, despite this staggering amount of components, Roll is still a medium-weight game because each player only really needs to pay attention to about 20% of them. Because you can’t interact with your opponent’s tableau, you only really need to know your own components in detail most of the time.

Components that entry-level or intermediate players don’t have to pay attention to may deserve attention from advanced players, and that’s okay – advanced players will have a better range of attention for your game anyway because they’ve internalized the basic principles. Returning to Roll, a player of average skill might not pay attention to things like their opponents’ dice colors or the distribution of tiles of a certain type, and it’s not necessary for them to do so to win against people of their skill level, but that opportunity exists ready for a highly skilled player to exploit.

Factor 2: How Often?

Even if a component deserves attention, it doesn’t necessarily deserve your foremost attention all the time. Some parts of a game are only important during certain times, and at other times they can be safely ignored at no strategic cost to the player.

In many games, you can’t take every kind of action every turn, so the features you have to pay attention to are limited by whether they actually matter to you in the immediate moment. Great Western Trail has a number of disparate features, including a “job board” where players can hire cowboys and such; a cattle market where players can buy better cows for their deck; a train track running around the board with stations that grant special abilities; and the board itself, which has a number of hazardous areas that can drain money from players. However, actions are limited to the “buildings” that your cowbeeple can reach within three steps. Unless you’re planning ahead for a future purchase, you only have to care about the parts of the game that you can actually get to in the present moment, and you don’t have to balance every component at once.

You can also call attention to different components through a scoring system. In Cartographers, your scoring conditions are 2 out of 4 conditions that rotate every round; something you might need to pay careful attention to at the start of the game will become irrelevant, replaced by a new scoring condition. Besides ensuring that players aren’t pulled in too many directions at once, a system like this also keeps each round fresh and interesting, preventing a snowball effect of one player’s early lead compounding.

One of the big issues of trying to make components that only require players’ attention some of the time is that having a component only matter once in a while, or even worse, once every few games, is going to be more taxing on your players than if you had to pay attention to that component all the time.

Factor 3: Where?

The spatial placement and grouping of components can often make it easier for players to concentrate on a number of otherwise unrelated actions. This plays off the psychological principle of chunking, where humans can more easily process large amounts of information when they’re organized into discrete groups. (Think about how phone numbers are easier to remember because the 10 numbers are broken into three segments.)

In Cosmic Encounter, gaining 5 colonies on other players’ planets will let you win the game. This can frequently be difficult to track, especially with a full playercount of 5+ players and with ships of multiple colors hanging out on different planets. The Fantasy Flight edition includes a tracker that lets you keep track of everyone’s foreign colonies at once, which is a baseline move for a game like this, but in a stroke of brilliance, attached the tracker to the Warp component. The Warp, beyond storing everyone’s “dead” ships, is also the focus of numerous mandatory phases during the game: Notably, at the beginning of everyone’s turn, they retrieve a ship from the Warp, thus allowing their eye to drift over the foreign colony tracker. In this way, remembering to check the win condition is chunked into normal game actions, making Cosmic‘s total cognitive load easier. (Something very valuable when you’re playing with the more complex aliens.)

There is one point of caution here: The more you dictate where all the components are located relative to each other, the more you’re dictating where everything in the game is set up. This can be an issue for people with smaller tables if your components are a weird shape that won’t fit the available space. Try not to combine too many features into a large component and keep things “free-floating” as much as you can.

Factor 4: When?

This article was inspired by the deckbuilding games Dominion and Trains. Both games have expansions with “attack” cards that affect the other players in some way, something removed from the extreme multiplayer solitaire feel common to their genre. However, despite increased interaction generally being considered a good thing, these attack cards frequently detract from the game experience because they break the unspoken promise that you don’t have to pay attention during turns that aren’t yours.

While up until now my discussion of the board game attention economy has been spatial (referring to concrete objects and their placement), when a player has to pay attention is also important. In some games, typically party games, players have to be “on” and engaged all the time. Meanwhile, in many Euros, what the other players do on their turns doesn’t require your attention until it’s your turn again. Having to be always on, especially when you’re regularly making complex strategic decisions, can often be more draining than when you have time to take a break and think about your next move sometime in the future.

Just because it’s good to let players take a break from concentrating on the present game state sometimes doesn’t mean you need to strike interactivity from the game entirely; you just need to make sure that interactive actions that affect players outside of their turns are one-sided. Two attack cards in Dominion are the Witch, which dumps a negative VP card into your opponents’ discard piles, and the Rabble, which makes each opponent do the work of discarding certain cards from the top of their decks. The Witch is much more successful in Dominion‘s context because you can mess with other players without yanking their attention away from their personal hand of cards, as the Rabble does.

This is something that’s typically determined by your genre of game. If you’re designing a game that has even partial family members in a genre, try playing those and see when you actually have to pay attention to the game. This will inform your players’ expectations going into the game, and meeting them will help prevent needless friction.

Factor 5: Wait, This is the Conclusion

Game design is about establishing a “magic circle”: Inside the circle, you want to challenge your players and deprive them of the means to achieve their goals, while outside it, you want to support your players in their gameplay experience and prevent friction in the same way other designers do. Unless you’re designing a game specifically intended to test your players’ attention span and memory, paying attention to when your players expect to concentrate and not interfering in that space will help maintain the magic circle’s integrity.