PX 6: Player Experience Beyond the Time Box

This is the sixth entry in a multi-part essay covering board game “Player Experience” or “PX”. We’ll reference a few earlier installments below, so maybe peek back at them before coming back here!

During early research of this topic (the Player Experience / PX) I discovered an earlier research paper by a group out of northern Europe. Their paper was focused on video games, and in general mobile, but included a great deal of interesting inquiry.

One of the concepts which struck me first, was how their concept of the “Experience” of a game extended well beyond the literal time boundaries of the session. A player begins experiencing your game from the moment it’s brought to their attention, and will continue well on into the future after the game is put away.

A different kind of time box. (Photo Credit: Flickr user rooners)

Everyone’s favorite time box. (Photo Credit: Flickr user rooners)

In Agile development and workflow, there’s a precept while running meetings to “respect the time box” — if  meeting is scheduled from 2–3, end at 3. Don’t let it drag it out. (There are likely volumes to be written about board game “play time” estimates, but this article is not that.) Here, we’ll focus on developing the context of experience reaching beyond the time before the moment the first die is rolled, and beyond when the components are packed away in the box and returned to the shelf. “Outside the time box.”

Clearly the core of the player experience is the time while the game is on the table, but let’s run through some examples of experience outside this ‘time box’:

  • How does someone hear about your game? Through a website like BoardGameGeek, an excited friend, a board game group? The way a thing is introduced to us becomes a powerful part of our memory of it, our willingness to try it, and how we view it when we do.
  • When I’m planning a session of Battlestar, while everyone coordinates their schedules, I’m reliving stories (both in my mind and in the email thread) from all previous tablings of that game — because for me, the shit talk and the paranoia begins the minute the invite goes out. In fact, I’ll sign off “—not a Cylon, Jonathan”.
  • All the buzz surrounding a regular poker night. The experience of that game includes the morning-of when your buddy texts you: “Can u believe Nate took all our money last week? I’m totally getting him back this time”. And the one the day after: “Shit, why did I fold on my pocket fours[1], I should have known that jerk was bluffing!”

For the time span before a session, this extends all the way back to the Kickstarter, including the run-up to the campaign, and as Daniel Zayas termed it: the Kickstarter “pre-marketing”. They haven’t played your game yet, you’re still building an experience for these people, these users, potential customers, audience, players, so when they sit down the first time, they’re bringing those stories and memories with them to the table. If Pavlov was able to train his dogs to get hungry at the sound of a bell, then it’s certain that: the experience of the Kickstarter and the associated updates; the publishing announcement; placing an order on amazon; seeing it on the shelf of their FLGS; unboxing; must have an impact on how players experience your game. Both for the first time, as well as each subsequent time being connected in their memory.

From here, it’s not a difficult reach to project the player experience beyond the end of gameplay. It happens all the time between tricks during card games, take conversations like this during Euchre: “Oh man! I was going to call Hearts trump, but then my partner ordered up… so I had to… then I wasn’t sure if you had… “. The game is not actually happening right then, but the experience is continuing. After the box is put away. The memory persists, and the shared experience between the players is in the collective memory, each player is still experiencing the game, even though it’s over. I have fond memories of the time a coworker (the head of sales!) couldn’t bluff his way through a game of Mafia/Werewolf. A game of The Resistance can live for weeks or months after. Twilight Imperium can generate weeks of emails analyzing every strategic and tactical decision made by the players.

Just as players who repeatedly table your game will begin to trend on the familiarity spectrum, they will also develop layer upon layer of experience with your game beyond the time box of the actual sessions of game-on-table. How does your design guid them through this pattern? Is it setting up Players to layer these repeat experiences together in their memory the way you wish for them to? Are the art assets, purchase options, Kickstarter marketing & updates, etc. drawing them into the game with the preconceptions that will lead them get the best experience now, and during the actual game?

Next week, we make peace in the eternal conflict between “Theme” and “Mechanics” — don’t miss it!

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[1] I know almost nothing about Poker, if it’s not obvious 🙂