The Art of Boredom

Well, you’ve been reading my site for a month now, and there’s a bit of an elephant in the room, isn’t there? I tend to make up terms. And there’s one in particular that I will lean on heavily and often when discussing board games. I call it “game fatigue.” I honestly don’t know if I’m the first person to use this term, but there’s no denying that: one, it is definitely a thing; and two, the hobby collectively does not talk about it enough.

Maybe you’re wondering what game fatigue is, but I’m suspecting you already know. It’s the point where a game goes from interesting to tedious. That moment when you realize “I’m bored with this game. I’m ready for it to be over.” We’ve all been there, and it can be a horrible experience. For me the two games that come to mind first are “Ticket To Ride” and “Terraforming Mars.” Both of these are built on fantastic mechanisms. But about halfway through, they both start to drag. Disagree? Fantasize with me for a moment about a version of “Terraforming Mars” that takes only an hour to complete…

I suspect the primary cause, at least from a design perspective, is repetition. Both of my example titles comprise a great deal of repetitive actions. Both games also focus on growth- more importantly, growth over time. Sometimes a turn can pass leaving a player feeling as if they have accomplished nothing, which can be incredibly frustrating. It can also cause a player to completely disconnect from the game.

So all of this begs asking how we might fix, or at least lessen the likelihood of game fatigue?

I imagine the easiest thing designers can do is increase the number of actions available to a player. But ramping up complexity can actually backfire, accelerating disengagement with a title. (“Caverna,” I’m looking at you!) So that said, I would encourage designers to think outside of this particular box. Instead, I would recommend focusing on depth over complexity. What if a particular action could have different results as gameplay proceeds? By giving players more meaningful decisions, a designer can make an inherently more interesting experience.

Alternatively, looking for ways to increase interest in the actions of other players can help. Encouraging players to compete for resources in a game (and I’m using the word ‘resources’ very broadly here) can really pull players in, giving them a vested interest in what other players are doing. While it is a bit on the shorter side, “Splendor” does a very good job of this. Between the gem chips and the cards, resources in the game are just snug enough that players will always have options, but they will definitely have to adjust their strategy at times as the game moves forward.

I know that Jamey Stegmaier (one of the designers I admire most) might disagree with me, but gameplay phases can also really cut down on game fatigue. Breaking up gameplay assures that players are always doing something different, and usually it can keep turn length down. I think a game that does this exceptionally well is “Power Grid.” Players float breezily from the tenseness of the auction in to buying resources, building their cities, and making those sweet elektros; only to jump right back into the auction.

“Power Grid” is especially fascinating to me because of how long and math heavy it is. I’ve heard it referred to as “That game you need a calculator for.“ Basically, if there’s a game that should be boring, this is it. There’s a distinct challenge that longer titles face when they land on the table, as keeping someone focused for 30 minutes is much easier than maintaining interest over the course of three hours. But somehow “Power Grid” remains compelling for hours, even for those of us who don’t normally sit down to a game that long.

Ultimately, this is just a matter of perspective, as a game that fails to maintain my attention may enrapture the next guy. All I really wanted to accomplish is to provide a definition for a term that I’ll be using frequently, and by extension call attention to an issue that many within our beloved hobby experience. And while I’ve really only focused on the mechanical side of things, I still think it’s a bit convenient, even lazy, to simply blame designers for game fatigue issues. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot that can be done before a game hits the market to reign in game fatigue. But game groups should, as a whole, show a vested interest in maintaining an atmosphere that is conducive to the hobby. Trust me when I say this, if the person across the table stops enjoying themselves, eventually you will too.

And now, I’d really like to hear from my readers! Tell us your game fatigue stories or solutions in the comments below.

And, as always, thanks for stopping by!

One thought on “The Art of Boredom

  1. It’s true – “Ticket to Ride” – one of my most beloved games – can drag miserably if you are only playing it with one other player. I don’t recall what the minimum recommended players for that one are, but being sure to recommend the right number of minimum players (or, when possible, provide slight gameplay changes when there will be fewer players) is probably an easily overlooked design decision. If eight people are playing “Monopoly” (who chose and want to play “Monopoly”), it becomes a different game altogether. These are points that prove that little number on the side of the box (2 to 4 players) is actually important in reducing game fatigue.

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