Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Importance of Setup Time

In my group, there are two leading factors that determine whether a game gets played.  How long does it take to set up, and how hard is it to learn?  I can't really say which one takes precedence over the other.  But today I'm going to talk about set up time.

I want to play it, but not that badly.

Many games in my group have fallen into the trap of being fun, but not quite fun enough to justify how much work goes into setting them up.

I'm supposed to turn this...into this?!

Runewars has fallen into this trap.  As much as I long to play it, the extended setup time just kills our enthusiasm for the game.  Battles of Westeros suffered the same fate.  I was teaching a friend of mine to play it one night, and she was watching Hockey as I was setting it up.  Two periods later she was wondering if I was done yet.  I ended up trading away Battles of Westeros when I got the much easier to set up Commands & Colors: Ancients.

Some assembly required.

The fantastic tracking side board from Combat Commander
Some tasks involved in setting up a game are simply boring time sinks.  Assembling all the flags in Battles of Westeros.  Constructing the board according to an arcane list of requirements in Runewars.  Shuffling upwards of a half dozen individual decks of cards in numerous Fantasy Flight games.  Assembling and laying out numerous different game state tracks.
Four decks could be
condensed into one!

But thankfully there are numerous fixes to many of these problems!  Fantasy Flight Games eventually released pre-assembled flags for Battles of Westeros.  Their newer games, like Descent 2nd Edition, combine what could have been a separate draw pile for each terrain type into a single deck.  Instead of having a separate track for each game state, Combat Commander combines them all, even the ones you may not use, onto a single side board which you just unfold.  A little ingenuity goes a long way towards reducing set up time, and thus increasing the likelihood that a game will hit our table.

Wait, where were we?

Every manual should have a picture of the game set up.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  And given the sometimes confusing language of many manuals, it is often more clear as well.  Bonus points for numbering the picture with the steps taken.

Is this too much to ask?
Another thing that gets me nearly every time, is games that require a specific manipulation of a draw deck.  Nine times out of ten, if I'm supposed to deal out starting cards, and then seed the deck with various triggering cards, I'm going to do it wrong.  This may be a personal failing, but I'd love to hear how often other people do it as well.  Which is unfortunate, because this is often a brilliant mechanic in games.  Pandemic uses it to fantastic effect.  So does Alhambra.  But perhaps instead of dealing out the starting hands, and then seeding the deck, you can do the opposite.

For example, in Alhambra, instead of dealing the starting hand, then splitting the deck into 5ths and putting the scoring cards into the 2nd and 4th parts of the deck, it could be divided into 6ths, and the scoring cards go into the 3rd and 5th segment.  For whatever crazy reason, this just seems like a more intuitive order of operations for a player to carry out.

Where is the baggie for this?

I love this insert
Some games go above and beyond, like Lord of Waterdeep, and provide a perfectly molded space for everything.  Many of the big box games released by Rio Grande Games, like Alhambra, do this as well.  But most games come with baggies if you are lucky.  Otherwise, you are left to your own devices.  I can't exactly fault companies for not going nuts with molded inserts.  Those things cost a lot of money, and additionally some people are very vocal about hating them.  But companies could at least make their games conducive to organization, perhaps in Plano boxes.

This one too
For example, in Agricola, having all the resources in a plano box cuts down set up time enormously.  Instead of dumping out baggies of each individual resource, I just open the plano box and I'm done.  But some games are such that they defy this simple set up assistance.  The original Quarriors tin, while a wonderful concept, drove me nuts with all the baggies I had to sift through.  On top of that, the box was such that no organizers could possibly have worked with it.  Thankfully they came out with the amazing boxes they've used since, and the tin has been retired to the dustbin of history.

We have to mix them up again, you accidentally flipped some over.

I think my final pet peeve that effects set up time is games that have a random draw pile of something that isn't cards.  And they don't include a bag.  Bags are so vital for this function.  You simply cannot easily shuffle most objects that are not cards.  So what you have to do instead is just mix them up as best as able in the box top, and then make sure they are all face down.  Then you hope that when people reach in, they don't accidentally flip any over.  But someone will, at some point.  It's just what happens.

No! Yes!

If there were a bag, all you'd have to do is dump the pieces in the bag, shake it around, and you are done.  Forever.  Alhambra comes with a bag.  Several bags if you get the big box.  And Carcassonne eventually gained a bag in it's expansion frenzy.  Quarriors came with a ton of bags for it's random dice draw.  Bags are vital and you skimp on this component at your own peril.

The effects of long setup time

The worst part about long set up times is just how much they erode enjoyment of a game.  Lets face it, setting up a game is work.  Not many people enjoy setting up a game for the sake of setting up a game.  It's a chore you must go through in order to get to the fun of playing.  The more of a chore it is, and the less fun the game is, the less likely you are to play at all.  But there is nothing as frustrating as a good game, a genuinely good game that you love, which has a prohibitively long or complicated set up time.  The ingenuity on display when people are trying to make their favorite games easier to set up is a testament to this.

Elaborate repurposed art cases, custom build storage, card containers full of clearly indexed cards and tackle boxes full of meticulously sorted components.  Some players' desire to make a game more playable knows no bounds.  It would be nice if game designers kept this in mind more often as well.


  1. I actually no longer like Waterdeep's insert. Sure it seems awesome, looks great, everything is in its place, and the odd angles under the card slots even make it easy to remove the decks by just pushing down on one side... but if you tilt the box too much, the pieces go everywhere. I often transport games in a backpack or store them on-edge, so this matters to me. Plus the money and VP chits have to go in a particular way so you're fiddling with the pieces to get them all lined up right while putting them away.

    I ended up baggieing the money/vp and each players' kit anyway. Speaking of quicker setup times, it's so much faster when you can just hand a baggie to each player with everything they need to start.

  2. Mageknight the Board Game is a beast to set up as well. Stacks of different kinds of enemies randomized, board tiles, starting decks and powers...

  3. We had stopped playing Agricola because of its long setup time. The Plano box definitely helps.

    1. You know the first time I played Agricola I hated it! It was too fiddly, and dumping out a dozen different baggies of stuff, then putting them all back completely turned me off to the game.

      But for some reason the gameplay really stuck with me. So 2 years later I bought my own copy and made sure to get a Plano that fits all the communal pieces. Now to set up the game I just get out the Plano and open the top, done!

      Now I love Agricola a lot more. I think Runewars is the next serious candidate for Plano-ing. Plenty of room in that box to have a Plano for each player.