Years ago, as a school teacher, I found out that the easiest way to lose control of a classroom was to have a handout in the wrong place. The few seconds it took to walk across the room were enough for sotto voce conversations to spring up. Inevitably those turned into larger, longer, louder discussions, and trouble was in the air from then on out.
Playing a game is much the same way. As soon as friction appears in the play experience, players start to think about other things. Minds wander while someone looks up a rule. Phones come out as resources are counted. Shuffling cards becomes an excuse to watch a minute of the ballgame that’s on TV in the next room.
If you’re lucky, everyone comes back when the task is complete and the game is ready to resume. Relying on luck is dangerous, however. Like students who don’t enjoy a class, players who aren’t very invested in a game may never quite fully renew their attention, to the detriment of the group as a whole. They may just wander away and never come back!
It’s therefore vital to keep an eye out for rough edges that catch and delay your game’s progress. When does play stop? When do the players have to wait? Every time that happens they’ll spiral away from the game, like planets being spun off from a star. If they’re permitted to get too far away, they’ll leave your solar system entirely.
To the greatest extent possible, you want to remove those moments. Ideally you want to get rid of them entirely. Failing that, cover them over with something else happening.
As an example of the latter strategy, consider Dominion. Dominion involves a tremendous amount of shuffling. However, the next player can start her turn while the previous player’s routine end-of-turn shuffling is going on. The game therefore doesn’t have to stop; things are still happening, and everyone stays engaged.
Now imagine Dominion built a little differently–say, a player gets to make one final buy at the end of her turn and put that card on top of the deck. Now all shuffling has to be done before the next player can go. That game is significantly longer, and thus quite a bit more likely to lose people’s interest.
Polishing those little rough edges, sanding them down so that they don’t grab and slow the player experience, is a vital step in design. Eliminating rid of those problem moments will do a great deal to keep players involved in the game. Leave some time in your process for this work; it will pay dividends.