Last night we played Year of the Dragon, a board game we've played maybe a half-dozen times in total. I enjoyed the play, though I lost and lost badly to Mark, and going through made me think about a couple of game dynamics issues. YotD belongs to a group of games that have a transparently obvious number of actions available to each player. The game lasts twelve rounds, with each round except the first two, having a crisis that players have to individual contend with. For example on a taxation round you have to pay money or lose people, on a plague round you have to have doctors to prevent loss of persons, on an invasion round you can get victory points but the person with the least military loses a person. The order of the crises varies from game to game, but all players deal with them at the same time and all players have full knowledge of what events are coming up.
But here's the thing-- on each round you do precisely two things. First, you take an action and second you play a card to add a person to your display. The second part-- what persons you take is somewhat limited. They affect turn order and what abilities you have to play at the moment. In order to take one you play a matching card from your hand. Since you have exactly one card per person type, plus only two wild cards, you know you're going to be taking at least one of each in the course of the game. The question of your actions is a tighter one in some ways.
The seven possible actions you can take are randomly placed into relatively equal sets base don the number of players. So if the four player game we had three sets of two and one action by itself. In turn order, people place their markers on one of the four sets and take one of those actions (but only one even if you place on a pair). However, if when it comes around to you and the action you wish to take already has a marker on it, you can only place and take that action by paying extra gold. Money's tight so that's a fairly extreme effect. Not only that, but if there's a particular crisis which requires an action-- like producing food ahead of the famine or fireworks ahead of the festival, then all players will be competing for that action. So you may have to wait, or you may have to decide to take the hit, or you may have to rearrange your choices. But all that adds complexity and difficulty to a basic issue-- you're only going to be able to take a total of twelve actions, throughout the course of the game. You know what's coming, you know exactly when the end game is, and you have open knowledge of the other player's positions.
I'll come back to that point about limited actions in a moment. First I want to talk about what I see as three basic kinds of mechanics for the controlling the length of a board game. I assume first, that board games, if they work, have an end condition. That is-- at some point the game ends. Usually that's pretty easy to estimate. Some games, of course, have circumstances where they can go on and on and on. For the moment I'll leave out the question of solo or cooperative games. Generally in my experience, games with what I'll call a Race condition have the most risk of stretching well beyond their stated length. By Race condition I mean that there exists some victory condition which a player must reach to beat the other players and end the game. In some cases, reaching that condition doesn't necessarily provide victory, but it usually does. Obvious basic examples of this include Risk and Clue, where one player either conquers the world or solves the crime. Victory conditions may be more or less measurable. Magic the Gathering, Settlers of Catan and San Juan stand as examples of Race games as well. MTG has you racing to eliminate your opponent's life, Settlers of Catan IIRC has you trying to gain a number of...something...I can't recall, and San Juan ends when one of the players has X number of structures in play. A Race condition generally means that you'll never know exactly how many actions (or consider them opportunities) you'll have over the course of the game. Some games try to equal out the number of actions for a Race game. For example in To Court the King, when someone triggers the end, the players who have not yet gone get another action to attempt to match or catch up, and then you do a final round in reverse order to give a last chance to beat the leader.
I'd say the next step out in game design would be End Depletion. In these kinds of games there's a resource which becomes depleted at an irregular rate throughout the course of the game. In Puerto Rico you have two different kinds of End Game resources: Victory Point chips and Workers. You set the number available throughout the game based on the number of players. If either runs out then that round will be the last. Dominion, which is the new hotness right now in BG circles, also has an End Depletion mechanic, where the game ends if any three piles of cards are emptied or the big VP card stack gets emptied by itself. An End Depletion game also generally means that players won't know exactly how many actions they're going to be taking over the course of the game. End Depletion conditions can allow some players to run the clock-- I'm not sure if I'm using the right term there since it is a sports analogy. This means that players can target their actions to end the game sooner or later. Often that's a viable strategy for winning, other times players use it to try to end a game they know they're going to lose. I think one could make a semantic argument for Race and End Depletion being the same from a logical perspective, but from a player perspective you have significant differences.
The last kind of game has, like Year of the Dragon, a Countdown Clock. At the beginning of the game all players know exactly how many turns the game will take. The Countdown moves in regular intervals, moving inexorably towards the end. No player can affect that, instead all players have to keep that in mind. It also means that all players will (generally) have equal opportunities for actions. Some games may have internal mechanics to affect this-- like say some of the Risk variants. Risk 2210 has a Countdown Clock of X turns, but how many things you want to do on your turn is measured by the resources you have available to you, rather than X number. Countdown Clocks show up in Pirates' Cove, El Grande, Yspahan, Alhambra Dice Game, Notre Dame and a number of other games-- most often Eurogames. Carcassone is an interesting case of a game which has a Countdown Clock, but feels like an End Depletion game. Each round players draw a tile to place from a bag-- when the bag come up empty, the game ends. If you knew ahead of time how many tiles were in the bag, you could calculate when the game would end and how many opportunities you would have. Some later variants mix that up, allowing players to place more than one tile or randomly removing some, but in the basic game the tiles provide a possibly unequal Clock, depending on the number of tiles and players.
Countdown Clock games tend to be pretty competitive and a good deal of the pressure comes from a lack of forgiveness for bad choices. That's another way of restating my original point about limited actions. A missed opportunity uses up a percentage-- often significant-- of your ability to affect the board. If you get behind, you often can't catch up. It becomes strange when you combine a Countdown Clock with a random resolution mechanism. For example, in Pirate's Cove, you only have twelve actions IIRC. But often you butt heads with other players, resulting in a ship to ship battle which relies on dice. The Alhambra Dice Game can be unforgiving as well-- again you have a limited number of placements and actions, but you have to make the most of your dice rolls. If they go badly for you, no amount of strategic planning will aid you. Some games do a better job than others in concealing the Clockdown Clock. Year of the Dragon pretty much brings it front and center. Agricola, another new hot commodity our group doesn't like so much, does so as well. Both require every action you take to be meaningful. But another game, Goa, we like in the group also has a Countdown Clock, but for some reason it doesn't feel like a spectre haunting the game until the very end. I'd say Carcassone avoids the problem nearly entirely.
All that being said, I'm not sure if I have a preference, except to say that I'm less fond of Race games. Those are often the most nakedly competitive and often highly interactive. I like a little interaction, but not face to face knock each other player down, where aggressive actions reward themselves. I'll have to go back through my blog and see if I've already written up what things I like in BG's. I think I may have...if I haven't then, woot, there's a future post. If I have then I'll simply be saddened by my earlier inspiration.