Time is an interesting thing in board games. I’m not talking about play time here. I am talking about the simulated passing of time in the game itself. In many games time has little impact or is ignored. How long did it take for you to build your power plant empire in Powergrid? No one knows and that is ok. But, used correctly, time can really ramp up the tension in games. I want to focus on ways games can simulate time to give players a sense of urgency or make time into a resource that players need to use efficiently.

These are games in which there are no turns. Players are doing things simultaneously in an effort to beat the other players to a certain goal. Space Cadets Dice Duel is an example of this. Both teams are frantically rolling dice trying to get their ship in a good a position and ready to fire as quickly as they can. As soon as someone yells, “FIRE!” the game pauses to resolve combat. Once that is resolved players go back to rolling in real time to get the next shot ready. In this case, the clock players are racing against is the opposite team.

This is one of the most obvious and literal ways real time is used in games. Each game has a set amount of time it takes to finish. This can be done with a timer but some recent games have done some really cool things with timed soundtracks. Players are racing to finish something before the music ends and there are audible queues in the music that help players know how much time it left. Talk about tension! As they hear the time tick by and the music pick up players are frantically scrambling to finish their task to beat the game. Think Escape: Curse of the Lost Temple.

This is a very intriguing idea to me. Give players a couple sand timers that act as action markers. Players act in real time placing these on actions and then doing the action. The timers act as a cool down for the action taken. Once a player has used both their action timers they must wait until one has run out before being able to allocate it to another action. Instead of limiting the number of actions a player has in a turn based just on a number this limits the number of actions they can take based on time.

Instead of players rushing against a real clock they are simulating the passage of time by trading time. Each action you take requires you to use a certain number of time units. As you use these you give them to your opponent allowing them the same amount of “time” to use on their next turn. A perfect example of this is seen in the castle defense game Stronghold. Even though there is no clock present players must still be very aware of how they are using their time as they are enabling their opponent.

This type of game follows a more traditional round structure but other players are allowed to interrupt a player’s turn to do something as a reaction to what the current player is doing. This simulates real time by bypassing strict turn order and allowing players the ability to keep doing things even if it isn’t their turn. This can help keep players engaged even if it is not their turn since they have to be watching for opportunities to react to another player’s actions.

Some games can use rounds as count-down timers. You have X number of turns until Y happens and you must prepare for it. Agricola is a great example of this. You must accumulate a certain amount of food to feed your family in a specified number of turns. Or in Kingsburg where you have a certain number of turns to prepare for an invasion. This type of time in a game adds tension while still allowing players time to make decisions.

Simulated time is not for every game but it can have a great effect in tension and keeping players engaged. Consider if time has an appropriate place in your theme and, if it does, use it to its greatest effect. Keep players hearts pounding to the tick of the clock.

Originally posted on BoardGameTheory.com