Very few people who enjoy games wish to play fewer games. But folks usually have a relatively fixed amount of time available in which to play games; other obligations have a nasty habit of keeping time at the table in check. So there’s something to be gained from playing games quickly.
But at the same time, generally people don’t appreciate being rushed. Oh, there are times people want a fast game and are willing to move things along as a result, but in general “hurried” is not a sensation one wishes to feel when gaming. A slow, pastoral pace isn’t required either, but most people view playing games as a relaxing activity, and don’t want that feeling disturbed.
So what, then, can be done to cause games to finish faster, without making them feel rushed? There are a large variety of choices, which can be divided into two categories: tools, and techniques.
Perhaps the single most useful tool is, unfortunately, _not_ a physical item, but the ability to do mental math quickly and accurately. This doesn’t help every game – there’s no math in For Sale to slow that game down, for instance – but most economic games benefit, and a fair number of others as well. For example, imagine a game with a ubiquitous numbered scoring track. Player A has a score of 76, and scores 5 points for action Z and 4 for action Y, plus 3 for item Q and 7 for item P. If even just one player can count those points and quickly move Player A’s score marker to 95, that’s a small amount of time saved. If this is done at the end of 4 players’ turns for each of 6 rounds – you probably knock a few minutes off of the length of the game – without asking anyone to make their decisions in less time.
Math skills can have an even larger effect in an economic game such as Indonesia. Say that player B delivers 5 rice, two on his own ships, two (one on one ship, one on three) on Player A’s ships, and one (on two ships) on Player C’s ships. If each good is delivered individually, placing a five coin on each ship used, and crediting player B for the remnant in each case – that’s a lot of steps, and a lot of small coins being handed out, which will undoubtedly require players to trade small coins in during the game. On the other hand, if you hand A $20, C $10, and B the remaining $70 – that’s a lot of steps saved. And when a merger is proposed between player B’s five-size rice company and player C’s eight-sized spice company, having someone quickly announce that the minimum bid is $325, verify the ongoing bids, and split the winning bid of $403 immediately into $155 for player B and $248 for player C will save lots of time.
Of course, not everyone is good at doing math quickly, and while there are many techniques for improving one’s math skills not everyone is interested in doing so. So what other tools are available? One of the most widely utilized is poker chips, to replace paper money. Often these can help, as they are more easily handled. But there are a couple of potential drawbacks to using them. First, even when everyone is familiar with the values unmarked poker chips can slow things down, and with even one person unfamiliar with the values the net result is likely to be a longer game. Even with marked poker chips, there are some games which are intended to be played with money hidden. Designers will sometimes choose to have players hide their money in an attempt to prevent them from knowing precisely what other players have. This doesn’t work to speed up all games, but for some groups it will definitely have an impact, and might be a good reason to stick to paper money.
Another critical tool – if only in a limited number of situations – is a computer or approximation thereof. Perhaps the game where a computer has the most significant difference I’ve seen is Time Agent; there is an incredible application (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/filepage/22986/timeagent014-swf) that tracks victory and resource points with nothing more than a click on the associated event, and displays the information in a way that it’s easy for players to track. Another place where a computer can significantly speed play is where there are a large number of payouts which can be reduced by use of a spreadsheet. The classic example of this is 18xx, where a spreadsheet (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/filepage/33697/dividend-tracking-spreadsheet-with-joe-hubers-impr) allows players to be paid once at the end of a set of operating rounds, instead of 20 or more small payments throughout the round.
That’s a number of tools that can be utilized to speed game play – what about techniques? One of my favorite techniques – albeit one that requires players who are familiar with the game – is the fast start. Essentially, you want to do _only_ those setup tasks absolutely required in order to get started. For example, in Saint Petersburg, you only need to distribute the phase start markers and shuffle and deal out the workers in order to start, so that’s all we do. While players choose their workers, we shuffle the other cards; at the end of the worker round we give people their money (minus the cost of their workers, plus their income). This actually has two effects; first, it cuts a few minutes off of the game directly. And second, it sets a tone for the game; most people play faster when others are setting a speedy pace.
A related idea is to have players familiar with the game in advance. Even for a game that no one has played, if one player is very familiar with the rules, and others have at least looked over the rules in advance, the first play will get underway much faster, and take correspondingly less time. It’s also enjoyable to play a game with your group often enough that for some games everyone knows the rules well going in, though you might endanger your Cult of the New membership badge in the process.
The next technique – and the one that can make the biggest difference – is for a faster player to take on the administrative tasks. An ideal game for this is Power Grid, where two players can contribute. One puts out all of the new goods, while payers are being paid, and adjusts the power plants. The other pays out all of the players. This is the ideal step to speed up; it doesn’t rush anyone, and offers the potential for saving time every round.
Another option is potentially more controversial; it can easily (and reasonably) annoy players. It’s actually an idea that came from my job, in microprocessor design. In order to speed program execution, computers use a technique known as branch prediction; when it’s not clear which instruction will be executed next, the processor takes a guess. If the guesses are correct often enough that the time saved by not waiting to evaluate the branch is greater than the time lost by having to back out from incorrect execution, the processor works faster. The same thing can be done, in a couple of different ways, while playing. First, if you see only a few viable options, you can list them; I definitely recommend being careful with trying this, as it definitely bothers some players. Second, when you see a clear choice for a player, you can have the consequences ready – the tile they need, the money they’ll earn, or whatever is required. This can be even more bothersome to some players, who see it as playing their game for them – even if you’ve simply guessed at what they will do. But these techniques do save a little time each time – and often over a lot of occurrences.
When asked to _really_ push a game along, I will further give regular reminders to players as to when it’s their turn, and what action they need to do. This is probably exceptionally annoying, however, and unlike other choices actually starts taking away from the time players have to make their choices. Therefore, I don’t recommend it unless a game _really_ needs to be done in a fixed amount of time, and everyone is bought into the idea that finishing that particular game quickly is better than player some other game (or no game at all).
So what difference can this make? 1846 has a listed play time of four hours; Tom Lehmann, the designer, notes that the game can be played by a brisk, experienced group in three and a half hours without a spreadsheet, or as little as two and a half hours with. We are consistently playing the game in less than two hours, and when really pushing have played in less than 90 minutes, including setup and cleanup. But 1846 is a game that offers lots of options for speeding play – more typically, the applicable tools and techniques will cut 10-20% off of the length of a game.