Troll Timers

Summary: A modification to any two player board game, where you play on a very fast clock with infrequent chances to pause and think things through more carefully.

Tags: Small, repeatable

Purpose: Two common flaws in thinking that both relate to time management. Sometimes we spend too long thinking, endlessly churning and overthinking and going in circles. Other times we don’t take the time to think and give an answer after a second or two of “thought” when we could take longer. This exercise is designed to practice better use of time.

Materials: You need a copy of a game for each set of participants, plus a timer for each group able to be reliably and quickly set. (A smartphone can usually serve as the timer.) It doesn’t need to be the same game for each group. The ideal game is simple but deep, such as Mancala, Nine Man Morris, Hive, Tak, Fallen Leaves, Battlesheep, or Go on a 9x9 grid. If you need to improvise, Nine Man Morris and Go sets can be made with a pocketful of change and a pad of paper.

Announcement Text: We’re going to meet and play some board games, but with an important twist. See, there are two common flaws around making decisions; sometimes we wait too long overthinking a choice when we could make it quicker, and other times we try to make in haste a choice that we could actually stop and think about. The plan is to play some games on very short timers (five second chess clocks) to get used to making fast choices, and periodically to stop and give ourselves five full minutes to look over the board and remind ourselves to slow down and to actually think.

If you’d like to bring some games you think would be fun to play on a fast clock, please do!

Description: First, explain the timing rules. Troll Timers uses a five second turn clock for twenty-five turns, then a five minute clock for one turn, then back to five seconds for twenty-five turns. On the short turns, you must make your move within those five seconds. Once you do, your opponent has five seconds to make their move. After twenty-five turns (make tally marks on paper to keep track) instead take a full five minutes.

Try to win, but winning is second to getting comfortable and relaxed when operating under the time constraints.

Once you’ve explained how timing will work, hand out the games and make sure people are familiar with the games they’ll be playing. It is recommended that people learn Troll Timers with games they’ve played before, and if someone doesn’t know the rules to any of the games then they should play enough games of it to where they feel they have the rules down first. Playing a new game the rules to which you just learned is Troll Timers on hard mode.

From there, this activity mostly runs itself.

Notes: If the timer goes off and someone hasn’t made their move yet, you can range in what happens from “nothing, just do your best” to “they just forfeited the game, set up a new one.” I suggest against taking that time out of future turns. That way leads a spiral that doesn’t usually go anywhere productive.

Feel free to adjust the time units. Five seconds twenty-five times and five minutes are good set points and easy to remember, but I’ve found three seconds was better as long as the game pieces can be moved quickly and precisely enough. (Go works, Mancala takes longer to drop each stone.) You need at least enough fast turns to get a bit of adrenaline, and how much that is can vary from person to person; starting with fifteen fast turns isn’t a bad decision. You do want it to be an odd number of fast turns, so that the slow turn changes from player to player each time. On the upper bound, ten minutes seems to be the point where I haven’t been able to wring any extra advantage or ideas out of a given board.

People are likely to feel stressed, especially at first. That’s normal and in fact intentional. You’re not just learning to make decisions quickly, you’re learning to make them while feeling an anxious urge to hurry up because you’re out of time. On the slow turns, that pressure makes it harder to sit and think. This is also intentional. “It’s hard to make good decisions this fast” is both true and a statement that should be compared to “it’s hard to lift dumbbells this heavy.” That said, be aware that you are deliberately stressing people. It’s worth deliberately de-stressing afterwards. Grin and laugh about some of the goofy moves you made under too much time pressure, stand up and shake out the tension from the arm and neck and shoulders, and try not to send people home still wound tight. Goofier party games such as Cat Taco Goat Cheese Pizza can also be nice ways to relax as a group.

While this is marked as repeatable, I think it has some sharply diminishing returns once you’re comfortable with both short and long timers. Once you’re comfortable with the timers, it’s not a bad twist on a board game night though.

Troll Timers was initially developed for use with Magic: The Gathering. I do not recommend doing this unless everyone cares about being better at Magic, but I will say that none of us ever got chided for slow play afterwards.

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