Updated: Feb 24, 2020
Not too fast. Not too slow. Just right.
I've learned quickly that setting the pace of a board game, while vitally important, isn't necessarily a simple matter. Two things to clarify before getting into the meat of the discussion:
What do I mean by pacing? To me pacing is the rate and intensity at which the game proceeds. I add intensity to the definition because I think it's a key ingredient in the perception of pacing.
Co-op vs. direct competition. This journal entry speaks specifically to pacing in cooperative, all-the-players vs. the board type games. In a co-op game, you as the designer have a great deal of control over pacing because the game is the adversary. Whereas in directly competitive games, the other players are the adversaries and thus have more control over when to raid someone's village, steal their sheep, and otherwise make their life miserable. As the designer of a co-op game, it's your job to make the players miserable!
As the designer of a co-op game, it's your job to make the players miserable!
The cooperative games I like the most are the ones you barely win. Games by Matt Leacock, like Pandemic and Forbidden Island, are perhaps the best known in this category. They start out at a reasonable pace and then pick up speed as they go along, forcing the players to deal with ever more difficult odds. They have periods of frenetic activity followed by occasional lulls providing for some degree of recovery - but not too much!
So what's the recipe for a perfectly paced game? Great question. I don't have the answer, but I think it's more of an art than a science.
The Best Laid Plans
The first non-solo play test of Medic! was a slog. The goal of the game is to save X lives before you lose X lives. Prior I had done some back-of-the-envelope number crunching to determine at what rate soldiers needed to enter the battlefield, get wounded, and lose health in order to keep the game challenging but winnable. I assumed roughly one life saved per two turns and wanted the lives lost to keep pace with that. I was close on the pacing of lives saved, but I was off on lives lost. While the game ended close to what I would have hoped, with 20 saved and 19 lost, these numbers were far apart until the very end when things got fast, furious, and much more interesting. Early on it was 11 saved / 2 lost and then 18 saved / 7 lost meaning there was little to no urgency up until the end. It was like a bad baseball game that finally got exciting after everybody had already left the stands.
To remedy this, I began adding additional wounded soldiers at the outset of the game. Then I switched to adding one active soldier to the board at the end of every turn. Then I increased the density of the artillery strike cards in the conflict deck (soldier movement and artillery fire are both controlled through card draws). Then I reduced the size of the board to compress the action into a tighter space and generate more conflict. These and other tweaks have all helped and the lives saved and lives lost counters are more often neck and neck now, but only additional play testing will say whether more needs to be done.
Controlling the pacing of a game is challenging for the same reason it's fascinating: it's not necessarily prescriptive and there are many variables involved. But the things most worth doing are generally difficult to do. Getting pacing right in your board game is no exception. So, if you're designing your own game, remember: not too fast, not too slow, just right. See how simple that is? And if you're reading this and have ideas to share on the topic, leave a comment below.