Board game design

Pacing: Intensity changes for a more engaging board game


I love games that suck you in, that let you be there. Today I want explore one element of this that I believe isn’t thought about much and mostly happens by accident: Pacing.

Pacing means to determine the speed or intensity at which things happen. It’s used in story telling (whether verbally, in books or on the big screen) to indicate the changes in intensity of the story. There is the buildup, which reaches a climax, after which we have a relaxation (and then we do it all over again).

And while board games are not stories, they share enough similarities to allow for fertile cross-pollination (see this post about story telling in board games).

The macro pace of a board game

Different board games have different “feels” to them. Spanning a number of rounds, a pattern emerges. Let’s look at two examples.

A game of Catan starts of slow, with players scrambling for every resource. Then at some point everybody has a few villages and maybe a city and the pace picks up, with resources becoming more plentiful. Finally, players get close enough to the end point (winning) that they start a final spurt to be the first to reach the 10 points. This is where crazy trades are proposed (and sometimes made), where roads to nowhere are built (for that coveted longest trade route) and hands full of development cards are played out. Catan then has a “rising” pace, with something of a crescendo at the end.

Risk starts with players spread out over the map. Players build up their armies in continents they believe they could take, until they feel they are strong enough. One or two turns of conquest (with hopefully that continent secured) are followed by another phase of building up. When one player seems to be particularly strong (having a continent or two for themselves) it’s not uncommon for the other players to gang up to bring number one to a lower standing. This can go on for quite a while, until someone gains a large enough advantage, or everybody loses interest and quits playing. Risk thus has a much more back-and-forth pace, with periods of relative quiet and frantic activity.

These two patterns, the “climb” and the “back-and-forth” are very common in board games. And I believe that good games use both to their full extent.

First, you want to have a “climb” to ensure that there is a constant feeling of “progression”, of working towards something. This also helps the game to end within a reasonable time. Risk suffers because anything that is gained can just as easily be lost again; players can continue to drag the leader down indefinitely.

Second, a fair amount of “back-and-forth” makes for an interesting game, with different players taking the lead, tension being built up and released again. Here Catan suffers: There is very little to stop someone who is already winning to continue doing so.

For what I believe is a good example of a game that does both, take a look at my dissection of the “Evolution” board game.

The micro pace of a board game

It’s the high intensity moments we live for
Board games also have pacing within rounds or turns, with different parts giving a different feel.

Let’s look at Catan again. The first part of a turn is rolling the dice and gathering resources. Then there is some trading followed by building. Each of these elements has a different pace to them, with the rolling of the dice giving a micro-burst of excitement, followed by a relaxation as players take their resources. Trading can be heated or mellow and the final building then is a culmination of all that came before.

An especially nice and clean example is 6 Nimmt (also known as Take 5). The first part of a round is every player deliberating and placing a card face down. This is in itself is a low-intensity moment, but it’s an important decision (in fact, it’s the only decision players take during a turn – read more about interesting decisions in board games here). Then all cards are flipped over and they are placed in different lines based on simple rules. This is a high intensity moment, as players are shown whether their choice was “correct” or not, as the sixth card placed in a line needs to take the preceding 5 cards (which is a bad thing). After this players who need to take their line of cards, resulting in a reduction of tension again. In 6 Nimmt every round has a buildup, then a climax and finally a relaxation; perfectly in line with the “standard” pacing of just about every action movie out there.

There will very naturally be different “intensity” actions that are taken during a turn. The most interesting pattern is a buildup from low intensity to high intensity and then a relaxation of the built-up tension. This is what can happen without further thought, as most rounds will have a “preparation”, “doing” and then “cleanup” in one form or another. But as can be seen from Catan it’s not at all certain that you’ll end up with this pattern.

Can you change the order of the actions taken in a turn to create more of a buildup with a climax?

Different levels of intensity

Different board games have (require!) different levels of intensity. A party game should have everybody at the edge of their seat for the entire game, whilst a heavy Euro probably only has a few moments of high pace in between long periods of quietly setting up for the big kill.

There is a reason party games tend to be short: It’s very hard to keep a high level of intensity for a long period. And it’s why Euro games can be much longer: Most of the time is spent in low-intensity preparation.

Don’t make the mistake that everything in your game has to be high-strung; the periods of relative quiet can be very satisfying, as long as they do lead to an ultimate climax.

Selecting the pace

Do remember to relax (your players) once and awhile
So how do you create the pace that you want?

Low intensity happens when you’re preparing or building up. Gathering resources that you can’t (or won’t) use immediately works for this, as well as putting your playing pieces in the right position (for that big swoop). In general low intensity comes from actions that don’t show immediate results, but are the necessary preparation for that result.

High intensity is the moment where things come together. This can either be a one-off (rolling the dice in Catan) or a well-prepared plan that finally is set in motion (those 50 armies that are poised to take over South America in Risk) and the final count of all those victory points at the end of Agricola. It is the result of an action that gives an immediate result.

And then there are the no-intensity elements, the things that never show any (meaningful) result, but that are needed for the game to progress. Most forms of book-keeping, upkeep and replenishing fall under this. They need to be part of some games, but they don’t do anything for the pacing; avoid them if possible.

Closing thoughts

Pacing and intensity are subtle parts of game design and most certainly shouldn’t be at the forefront of the brain when designing. But once you are getting somewhere with a design it’s certainly not a bad idea to give them some thought.

Can you identify high and low intensity moments in the game and within a turn? Do they alternate in an interesting pattern? Would it be possible to improve this by changing the order of actions in a turn? Is there natural climax to your game or does it simply “end”?

Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

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