Thinking about teaching bite-sized board games

I am in the process of designing an introductory composition course for the fall semester. A bit of background: at the university I’ll be attending (Georgia Tech) their communications program is necessarily multimodal, using WOVEN (Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, and Nonverbal) as a model for thinking about how we communicate. The spring version of the course is more focused onĀ  research methods, so I’ll teach something related to medieval texts and culture. For the fall, the focus is on communication and critical thinking. I set myself a challenge: to address those concerns through material and assignments that are multimodal.

Why not board games? I’m already working on a summer presentation on the subject that may turn into an article. It is a hobby that I’ve read some criticism in. I can assign games and articles on games having already reflected on some of them, and can also sprinkle in some new material to keep us on our toes. In turn, students can communicate about games and design games to communicate.

I’ve planned a sequence of readings from a number of critics of games, from some popular writers on games, and from at least one guidebook to designing games. I’ve also planned a few playtests, class exercises designed to play, reflect on, and discuss the qualities of several games. Personally, I draw parallels to close reading a poem in-class – we engage with the material in a variety of forms and map out together what could be going on with the poem, over and under the hood.

I am also thinking of asking them to design a board game in several steps. Peer feedback in the form of playtesting or reviewing their games will be a part of the assignment sequence.

For both of these, shorter games are ideal. The remainder of my post will think about what picking shorter games will mean.

In a class period of 50 or maybe 70 minutes, a game of more than a half hour would be impractical to attempt to do. In turn, while I am not sure of the precise time involved in designing a game,* longer games tend to have more elements and tend to take longer. Length and complexity are not 1:1 or else Monopoly would be a much shorter game, but they do often correlate based on the number of pages in rulebooks.

manual illustration
Manuals for Alhambra (top) and Shadows over Camelot (bottom). The first, a 30-60 minute game, has 6 pages. The second, a 90 minute game, has 19 pages in one of its two manuals.

To follow up the idea I just stated, a shorter game may look lighter with regards to rules and material. I certainly envision small-box games like Saboteur, Love Letter, and Timeline. All of them are primarily card games. Shorter games that involve boards as well as cards, like the strategy game Condottiere, still are primarily a game that primarily use one mechanic. The map adds few complications and is used to determine the stakes of the each match.

Condottiere setup
A staged setup of Condottiere. The cards play out in rounds of play. Map tokens mainly map how many rounds someone needs to win. The cards could be played by themselves. Playing with the board alone would be like Tic-Tac-Toe.

Even so, there are shorter games that have a rather large apparatus. One of my favorites, Scotland Yard, features a map of the city of London, player tokens, fare tokens, a separate itinerary board, and a hat for the fugitive Mr. X. Its rule book in three languages is the thickest I pulled out for this post. It was a full box when I brought it from the UK to the US, and yet it takes only 30-45 minutes for an experienced group to play.

Scotland Yard box and setup.
Scotland Yard right out of my box. The tokens on the bottom left tend to mingle in-box. The board is folded to quarter-size.

So besides lightness other qualities are at play. One question: is the duration fixed? Scotland Yard ends after about 30 turns. Other short games are short because they have a definite end: a round of Love Letter ends when the deck runs out if not sooner, and the game ends when someone has won enough rounds. Some games are billed as short but are less definite about ending: Fluxx and Chrononauts are both billed as half-hour games when their flexible win conditions allow players to win in as little as 5 minutes or as much as 60.

peg game
A solitaire peg game. The possibilities restrict themselves over time, as each move eliminates a peg.

Whereas in chess or Stratego a game’s strategic possibilities degrade over time as pieces are lost, and in Candyland players move inexorably towards their goal, in Fluxx or Chrononauts the resources are never depleted. A draw deck can always be shuffled. A player is never fully out until one player wins. A playtest environment would be different for the latter games – in the alotted time some groups could play three games while one plays a more protracted game without finishing.

Fluxx hand and setup
A game of Fluxx. The goals and even rules can change, and players can run through the variety of cards without winning indefinitely.

Most games take more time to play in the first couple of encounters as players learn rules. In-game text seems to prolong the time it takes for newer players to play a game, since players will have to read the text and think about its unique effects on gameplay. In a game like Fluxx with over 50 distinct cards that each do an individual action, it can take a while for players to internalize their effects and understand them at a glance. Bang, with its shorthand symbols instead of in-game text, still takes some time to decipher. Scotland Yard and Tsuro require little in-game reading. One interacts with a set of choices prompted by the rules and the board. Not every tile is a rule-onto-itself.

Most often, chance is introduced to a game through rolling dice or shuffling cards. Sometimes a spinner is involved. Chance also introduces uncertainty to the length of play. Favorable cards or dice rolls help players win sooner, for instance.

poker hand; one player with full house
A fortuitous poker hand.

Finally, I can’t pretend that games are a closed medium. Players play games, and their own understanding, their habits of decisionmaking, their tendencies to deliberate or act all affect a game’s length. Some players will dally for minutes over the right move. Do they do so more often if the game establishes the stakes as being higher? Sure, and there’s also a component of personality. Some players are slower to decide. Furthermore, some team games give a lot of space for player debate. In The Resistance: Avalon, the choice of mission partners can take a few seconds or several minutes depending on the personalities and on which mission it is. If one side might lose with a lost vote, you bet they’re going to debate.

So these are some elements I’m playing with as I think through the course. Shorter games tend to function in particular manners – physically smaller with fewer mechanics, less writing, and contracted player choices. At the same time, for each of those observations there’s an exception: Scotland Yard is huge with lots of text, The Resistance: Avalon is built on nothing but choices, and (mostly) short games like Fluxx consist of nothing but writing. What I’m observing are not hard generic rules. They’re tendencies that will come out in whatever we decide to work with and what they decide to design.

I look forward to seeing the results already.

* In a way, this is a trial run of an assignment model. For that reason I’ll set a general rubric for the assignment that I’ll adjust based on feedback, and I’ll be careful about how much writing or designing is involved in each stage.

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