Improving board game experiences with time control

In this article, I would like to share some ideas on improving board game experiences with time control.

If you have ever run into the following two situations, then you should keep reading! First, you are a quick thinker, and you felt like losing game not because you are less skillful, but because your opponent just spent twice or triple amount of time thinking. You surely understand what I meant if you have ever played games like Scrabble or Rummikub. Second, games expected to be finished within an hour turned out taking 5 hours. If you are a serious Monopoly player, you probably have experienced an half-an-hour-long negotiation on a single deal. These are fun games, but they can easily go terrible if you don’t pay enough attention on controlling time.

Importance of Time control

Time control serves two major purposes in playing board games.

First, it stops a game from running uncontrollably long. This happens a lot in negotiation games like Monopoly as mentioned before, especially when multiple parties are involved.

Second, it encourages fair games by granting equal amount of thinking time for each players. For example, in games like Scrabble and Rummikub, you can always make a better move by thinking a bit longer. In fact, these games do not make sense without forcing a hard time limit on the moves.

Physical game clocks

In professional chess tournaments, physical game clocks will be used. A typical game clock is consisted of two timers, each represent the remaining time of each players. Both timers will be initialized to the same initial value, say 20 minutes. Upon start, the first timer (the one for the first player) will start ticking. After the first player made a move, he/she will press a button on the game clock to pause his/her timer, while at the same time, the other player’s timer will start ticking. The game continues like this while the players take turn making moves. If either player ran out of time, he/she is considered lost.

Game clock apps

Game clock is extremely useful for executing time control in chess or any kind of turn-based board games. However, physical game clock is not cheap, and it could be a relatively big investment for ordinary people. Also, traditional physical game clocks are mostly designed for chess, which can accommodate only 2 players.

In view of these downsides, software game clock (i.e. mobile game clock application) would be a good alternative. Nowadays, you can simply turn your phone into a game clock, which is basically free. More importantly, it’s convenient because most of the time, your phone is around you.

Theoretically, game clock applications can support games with any number of players. However in practice, it can seldom go beyond 2 players because fitting multiple timers on a small screen is not user friendly. Moreover, you might need to circulate your devices around the whole table while everyone take turns making moves. Due to these limitations, most of the game clock apps on the market do not provide good experiences for board games other than 2-players chess.

Mattle Board Game Clock

Mattle Clock is a also mobile game clock application, but was specifically designed to overcome these limitations. It allows everyone to use their own devices to control a centralized timer. In the other words, instead of passing the device one by one, you only need to interact with your own device. You press button on your own device, and the underlying timer is then synchronized across all devices behind the scene!

We have tested the app with some popular multi-players games like Scrabble and Rummikub, and so far our experiences were excellent. We didn’t use other game clock applications before because we found that the need to circulate the device is very annoying. It distracts us from focusing on the games. This kind of distraction doesn’t exist on Mattle Clock because your device just sits right next to you.

An use case of playing Rummikub

To wrap up, I would like to share a real life experience with game clock app. Rummikub is a game I play a lot with friends. If you haven’t heard of this game, I wouldn’t dive into the details of the rules, but in short, each players are given certain number of pieces (each piece has a number and a color). Each turn, player can choose to pass and grab an extra piece, or to put out the pieces into a shared common area in the middle. You can put out however many pieces you want as long as they follow some pattern rules, and you can also make use of the pieces that are already out in the shared area to fulfill those patterns.

It’s not hard to figure that the best strategy is to keep passing and grab more pieces until you can make a single final move to put them all out, because putting pieces out early on can help other players from finishing. Before we started doing time control, everyone just follow this strategy, and the game became unplayable.

Now whenever we play Rummikub, we will enforce a hard limit of 1 minute on each moves. You are not allowed to put out more pieces when time is up, and if the pieces in the shared area do not comply with the patterns by the end of 1 minute, you will receive a penalty. With this little add-on, you can’t follow the optimal strategy anymore, because you cannot make that “single final move” to win a game within 1 minute. By introducing the element of speed into the game, it suddenly become much more enjoyable!


If you have never done any time control when playing board games before, I encourage you to try it out. I believe you and your friends will have a much better gaming experiences!

If you are interested, you can try out the Mattle Game Clock app I recommended. It has both Android and iOS versions:

Mattle Board Game Clock