Time as a concept, is something we are very familiar with in our daily lives. Sometimes time goes quickly, at other times it seems to almost stand still. Time is also a concept that appears in board games. There is the play time, of course, but some games also use time directly as a mechanism. I want to look at how board games represent time and how they use the concept in different ways.

Play Time

Let’s start with a game’s play time. We all enjoy spending time with friends or family while playing a board game or two. Some people love longer games, while others prefer shorter ones. Picking the right game for the right crowd and the current mood is important. Pretty much every game will show its expected play time. That allows us to try and choose a game that fits the amount of time we have to play or that people are willing to invest in a specific game.

However, we all know that play time is often a very rough measure. It is very hard to define precisely, except maybe for games where there is an actual time limit. Even then, play time is only one metric. How long it takes to teach a game to people, setup time and the amount of time to put everything away again are also very important. If a game takes half an hour to explain but only five minutes to play, people will probably be disappointed. Similarly, if a game takes long to set up and/or put away, but plays much more quickly, it has a negative effect on the gameplay experience.

Putting that aside, actual play time often varies heavily, depending on who is playing, how well they already know the game, what mood they are in, how tired they are and many other factors. So, while it is useful to have a rough idea of the expected play time, be prepared that the actual game may be quicker or take longer than is printed on the box.

the score track, goal cards, point tokens and timer from Nine Tiles Panic (Photo courtesy of Oink Games)
Nine Tiles Panic is a real-time game using a sand timer (Photo courtesy of Oink Games)

Real Time

Before we move onto how the concept of time is used within games themselves, let’s look more closely at real-time games. These games use time in its literal form as a consciously chosen mechanism to create the intended gameplay experience. There is a whole plethora of real-time games that use sand timers, rely on phone app clocks or some other way to keep track of actual time.

One of my favourites is Nine Tiles Panic. I don’t know why, but I still haven’t reviewed this game. There is a lot of tactility in this game that comes with thick cardboard tiles and a lovely little sand timer. Having to arrange nine tiles into a 3×3 grid with continuous roads and certain elements in specific places, depending on the current scoring goals, within a relatively short time limit is a lot of fun. I love visual puzzles like this, even though I’m generally not a fan of real-time games.

For me, the pressure of having to take your turn within a short amount of time is often too much. Saying that, I previously wrote about how having a hard deadline for the end of your game night can speed up players’ turns and while I think having a time limit is useful, generally speaking, it needs to be sensible and allow players to enjoy the game and not feel overly pressured into rushing through their turns.

In-Game Time

Now let’s look at how games represent the concept of time.

In some games, actions always take a certain amount of time to complete. Bremerhaven is probably my favourite example here. In the game, you fulfil contracts with resources delivered by boat to your harbour’s quayside. The contracts are lorries waiting to deliver certain types of goods or coaches waiting for passengers. The problem is that boats and contracts have a certain amount of time assigned to them.

Boats stay in your harbour for a fixed number of rounds, blocking berths for other goods deliveries. Similarly, coaches and lorries wait in their parking lots for a specific amount of time, limiting how many contracts you can have open in parallel.

That time limit can work in your favour, allowing you to wait for another delivery to fill up one of the lorries or to leave goods on a boat while your quayside is full. Of course, the time limit is also often ruthless. Boats will sail away, even if you’ve not unloaded them. Coaches and lorries will drive off, even if you’ve not delivered the passengers or goods they had asked for, which incurs penalties. Not only that, even when you have fully unloaded a boat or completed a contract, they won’t go away until their timers have run out.

So while Bremerhaven isn’t a real-time game, time management plays a huge part. You really have to keep an eye on everything, which can create a lot of pressure, in a similar way to sand timers that trickle down in real-time.

close-up of the game board around Birmingham with a number of industry and link tiles on it
Brass: Birmingham plays over two eras

Epochs, Eras and Generations

There are also games that don’t use timers as such, but there is still an element of time passing. In these games, time is usually linked to rounds or turns, but rather than making this necessarily an obvious, direct link, it is a bit more subtle than that to create a sense of the game lasting a number of days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries or even longer.

In Brass: Birmingham for example, the timer is the draw deck. When it runs out and everyone has also played the last card from their hand, the game goes to a scoring turn and then resets, ready for the next era. You begin in the canal era and then switch to the age of steam. The game covers a time span of 100 years in a matter of a couple of hours. So while the game’s play time isn’t the shortest, the in-game time is even longer. You do really get the sense of playing through a decade or so every round, as the board fills up with new industries and new infrastructure.

Tapestry really plays with the emulation of time. While there is no link to turns or rounds, your civilization develops new technologies and skills as you draw cards or move along the four tracks. The game is set in a fantasy world, so there is no expectation that inventions will play out in a realistic way. It’s very possible that your civilization has developed the credit card, but still has no language and relies purely on symbols. It bears no resemblance to humanity’s history, but you still get a sense of how you’re progressing through time.

What Time Is It?

These are the ways I have found games handle time. Have you come across any other examples? If so, what are they? Do you like real-time games or do you prefer to take your time? Do you enjoy when games use time as a mechanism in some way? What is your favourite game that emulates time in some way? As always, I’d love to hear what you think. It’s time for you to share your experiences in the comments below.

Useful Links

Audio Version

Intro Music: Bomber (Sting) by Riot (https://www.youtube.com/audiolibrary/)

Music: Breaking News 6 by Sascha Ende
Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/10180-breaking-news-6
Licensed under CC BY 4.0: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license


These are the songs I listened to while I was writing this topic discussion article:


  1. What an insightful dive into the role of time in board games! It’s truly fascinating how time not only dictates the duration of our gameplay but also integrates itself as a crucial mechanism in certain games. I completely agree with your observation that the indicated play time is often just an estimate and can vary based on numerous factors. Moreover, your distinction between the tangible ‘real-time’ games and the abstract concept of time in gameplay provides a comprehensive perspective.

    1. Hello Darek. Thank you so much for your sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you liked the article and that you feel that I covered the topic well. Have you got a favourite game that has time as a mechanism?

  2. Thinking of more indirect ways time plays a role in games, I thought of games that have a strict round number (the game ends after 5 rounds, for example), which creates a feeling of time as you have to get the most points, resources, etc. out of the fixed number of rounds and you need to plan many actions accordingly. Then there’s also something like ‘Twillight Struggle’, which not only likens its fixed rounds to decades or eras of government, but also progresses with its cards of ‘mid-war’ and ‘late-war’ kind that represent history passing along. And finally, I thought of ‘Black Orchestra’, which has ‘timing’ as a main game mechanic (your assasination attempt needs perfect timing of the cooperative group in order to be successful).

    1. Hello Christian. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. Setting a fixed number of rounds or similar end game trigger like that certainly creates a time pressure. It makes the game a race to get the most points or otherwise complete the game’s goals before it finishes. I also love your comments about Twilight Struggle. There are many games that use different decks to represent different eras or where each round takes you through a certain number of years in some other way. I’ve never played Black Orchestra, but it does sound like timing is critical in this game too. Thank you again for commenting on my article. It sounds like it gave you lots of food for thought.

  3. First off, nice article! I enjoyed reading! I just ran a poll on my Instagram the other day relating to this. The poll was “Do you prefer games under 30 minutes or over 1 hour.” Now, I know this is a smaller sample size, and my followers are primarily gamers, but to my surprise 80% chose over 1 hour! I think about my gaming experience, and I’d say I have to agree for the most part. I think it’s good to note that oftentimes when I play a shorter game, I’ll end up playing it multiple times, which in turn adds more time.

    1. Hello Kyle. Thank you for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. It’s also great to hear that in your poll, most people prefer games longer than 1 hour. I guess a lot of people do, but as you say, shorter games can be played more often and can be squeezed in at the beginning or end of a game night, for example. So it’s good that there is a wide range of games with different playing times.

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