Why do box-printed game-length times never feel accurate?

07 February 2023
Dan Jolin investigates in Cardboard Manifesto

Life is full of mysteries. Why do resealable tabs never reseal? Why is food sticking to my non-stick pan? Why do plumbers never get back to you? And the big one: why do my games always take longer to play than the time stated on the box?

Let’s start with something I’ve reviewed: the brilliant Oathsworn: Into the Deepwood. It’s a chonky mother with a deep narrative, so I’d never have expected (or wanted) each session to be over in a jiffy. But on the box it says “45 Mins” for its Story segment, and “90 Mins” for its Encounter, making a total of two-and-a-quarter hours. With a party of four, we’ve never played a combined session that’s lasted less four hours (plus set-up time). Another favourite of mine, the Aliens-esque Nemesis, claims “60-120 Mins” on its box. Played with three or four others, it usually takes around five to six hours. That’s quite a discrepancy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining about time spent playing board games. But sometimes I’d rather not be just starting to pack a game away at almost 1am when I’ve got to get up for work the next morning, after the box assured me I’d be all tucked up in bed by 11. It makes me wonder: how do they arrive at the times on those boxes? Is it genuinely based on rigorous play-test timings? Or is it sneakily cut short to give a game a wider commercial appeal? But rather than just wonder, I decided to ask a designer I know.

“I’m pretty sure the publisher makes the decision on advertised play times in almost all cases,” says fellow TTG contributor Ellie Dix, aka The Dark Imp. “They’ll often have reasons they want to fit it into a certain time bracket – either because their range is similar, or because of the player they’re trying to attract.”

So maybe publishers are skewing play times lower, even if for understandable reasons. Next, it made sense to pester some designers who also publish. “Personally, I try to pick genuine times based on what I believe is correct for the majority of players,” says Frank West, founder of The City of Games and designer-publisher of The Isle of Cats and The City of Kings. “I’m not worried about commercial pressure when it comes to number as I think being deceptive has a far greater long-term negative impact.”

Fair enough. West, who records play tests and picks times based on what appears to be the average play-length, admits it’s a tricky business. In short, every group is different. Plus there’s all that time around the table when they’re not actually playing. “The whole process requires a lot of normalisation,” he says.

It also doesn’t help that most people think about their first play (i.e. the slowest) when making judgements on how long a game takes – especially when, as Tristan ‘Gloom of Kilforth’ Hall puts it, “there’s a tendency for people to play a game once and move onto the next new shiny.” Hmm, yes. I confess this may well be what I’m doing, albeit unintentionally.

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Hall reveals that he bases his games’ time estimates on “play-testers who’d played the game many times,” which explains how he got to just “45 mins per player” for Kilforth, which has never taken me less than two hours solo. He even knows players of his historic battle card games who finish in much less time than he’s put on the box.

“I suppose there is a marketing sweet spot, and pitching play-time lower might be generally more favourable,” he muses, “but equally a short play time on, for example, an epic sci-fi 4X might actually be off-putting to some. So it’s about feeling out the right balance for your own game when designing it, or offering what you perceive is the best ‘value’ play time based on your audience.”

So there you have it: mystery solved. Well, mostly. Now, please excuse me while I call that plumber again. 

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