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, Chess, 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 some paper and pencil. 

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. 

Variations: By default, the long turn comes at a predefined number of turns. This usually means it comes at a less-than-maximally interesting turn. Another option is to give each player a once-per-game timeout, which lasts for exactly five minutes. All other turns are five seconds as normal. The five minute turn cannot be split up or saved.

By default, this I suggest using one on one games such as Chess or Go. Multiplayer games give people much more time to breath, since you can think during the opponents turns as well. If you want to include more people in a single game, I suggest pairing them up and having them alternate turns; in a Go game, Adam and Alice might play white while Bob and Bella play black. Adam places a white stone, Bella places a black stone, Alice places a white stone, Bob places a black stone, then back to Adam. Their timers are unchanged.

Notes: The most typical chess clock I've seen gives you a certain amount of time for the game total, and constantly counts down when it's your turn. This is a fine system, but note that Troll Timers deliberately uses a different kind of timer. It's a setup most chess clock apps I've used are capable of though.

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 afterwards.

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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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:21 AM

Might it make more sense to allow players control over when their long turns are (via something vaguely resembling byo-yomi timing?)

I'm envisioning 'you have 3 Time Tokens to start the game. You have 5 seconds per move. Spending a Time Token raises that to 5 minutes.'

This seems like it would keep the property of 'learning to operate with both long and short turn times', but also like it would encourage thinking about when to think about things.

For normal use, chess clocks (time per game, allocated however the player likes) are probably the best answer.  In poker, it's unofficial, but common for players to get antsy if someone's taking a long time, and for players to call "time, please" verbally when they're facing a thoughtful decicision.  Very occasionally, the floor personnel will actually put a clock on the player and give them 2 minutes or they fold.

For this excercise, part of the purpose is teaching the players what it's like to have shorter or longer periods for thinking, outside of their control.  This develops the habits of acting when it's obvious and thinking/planning when necessary.  So the lack of control is intentional.

Thank you for teaching me the phrase byo-yomi today! I want to start by saying I'd be delighted to hear people try variations on troll timers and report back how that worked. My confidence here is closer to "how to spice a recipe" than "how to do a math problem."

The very first iteration of troll timers gave people one time-out a game, where time-outs lasted as long as you wanted. The problem I encountered was one side almost always used their time-out by the fourth turn right as the first non-obvious choice came up, and they only took a long enough time-out to make their decisions for that turn. The eventual fix to that resulted in the current version: fast turns long enough to get used to making moves that quickly, slow turns that presented you with all this extra time you might as well use productively. In hindsight, I never thought to reintroduce control of time tokens or time-outs once people had the concept down. I'll give that a try in the future, and if you beat me to it let me know how that worked!

Why not use a standard chess clock when you can freely choose to allocate your time as needed, playing easy moves instantly and taking more time when needed ? It's a bit sad if the important decision that decides the game has to be made on a 5 s clock at move 23 but you get the whole 5 minutes to contemplate your ruined hopeless position at move 25...

Besides real life mostly plays out like a chess game when you can allocate more time to a decision when needed. In fact, deciding which situations call for a longer time to think is a key chess skill and also a key life skill.

I want to start by saying I'd be delighted to hear people try variations on troll timers and report back how that worked. My confidence here is closer to "how to spice a recipe" than "how to do a math problem" if that makes sense. You're absolutely right that deciding what situations call for a longer time to think is a key skill, and it's even a skill that I'm trying to build some foundation for in troll timers.

I think playing on a standard chess clock is going to teach something in the neighborhood of what troll timers are aimed at. Certainly one skill that I value is realizing you can stop, pause, and take some time to actually think. The failure mode that I see a lot and worry that standard chess clocks don't solve is stopping the thinking process after the first idea or the first failure. To quote HPMoR:

"So figure it out," Harry said. "I have confidence in you. Not total confidence, but if you can't do it, tell me that, and I'll try someone else, or do it myself. If you have a really good idea - for both the ridiculous story, and how to convince Rita Skeeter and her editors to print it - then you can go ahead and do it. But don't go with something mediocre. If you can't come up with something awesome, just say so."

Fred and George exchanged worried glances.

"I can't think of anything," said George.

"Neither can I," said Fred. "Sorry."

Harry stared at them.

And then Harry began to explain how you went about thinking of things.

It had been known to take longer than two seconds, said Harry.

You never called any question impossible, said Harry, until you had taken an actual clock and thought about it for five minutes, by the motion of the minute hand. Not five minutes metaphorically, five minutes by a physical clock.

On a standard chess clock, taking five whole minutes to study the board and think about where this game might go is usually a poor choice. There's a feeling one learns to notice inside yourself when you've hit diminishing returns and it's better to put the clock back on your opponent. The intention behind forcing people to spend five minutes, yes the whole five minutes, you don't get any of that time back by saving it so use all of it, is that it helps learn how to keep thinking. Sometimes the brilliant play is the seventh or eighth idea you came up with. Sometimes it takes a couple of minutes to get rid of your first knee-jerk reaction. If you know you have five minutes, then maybe you play around with taking the first whole minute to close your eyes, calm down, and then look at the board with a fresh mind. 

There's something in the space of letting people choose the turn that they need to take the long timer. Like you said, it's sad if someone realizes that turn 23 is the crucial moment but doesn't have the time to think it through. What do you think of Aphyer's idea of offering a set number of tokens to spend and get longer turns? I tried something like that very early on but I didn't try reintroducing it once people were a little more comfortable with the fast turns.

That's what they do in go and it makes more sense than a fixed pause after 25 moves. Or if you want to really force people to think for 5 minutes you could make it a 5 minutes every 5 moves - then you can use your 5 minutes to really map out your options for the next 5 moves before the next pause. And it may even be a good training for chess players, avoiding to waste time by redoing the same calculations move after move.

Am I correct that this is called Troll Timers because some people "troll" their fellow players by thinking long?

I used to think very long on game moves - with the common comment/complaint that it doesn't seem to improve my winning chances. Not sure about the latter. We did introduce timers to some games to limit turn time - and it did speed up things.

Nope, you are not correct. If anything the timer is the troll, badgering you and getting in your head and leading to sub-optimal decisions.

The working title was Time Pressure, and one might say its current alliterative name is a joke in poor taste.

(Explaining the joke + spoilers for anyone unfamiliar with HPMoR: Time Pressure was the title of a chapter where the main character has to think fast to keep a friend of his from being eaten by a troll, the kind with green skin and a big club. The panic of a ticking clock leads to missing some ideas he only thinks of later.)

(According to Eliezer, each tick denotes a "wasted motion" - something that Harry does or thinks that will nevertheless not influence his final course of action.)

Ah, that troll.

I expected the turns that take long to be unpreditably assigned. With a known schedule I worry that it distorts play in that the fast and slow turns are not comparable.

Can you expand on what you mean by comparable? Certainly the version with one slow turn every twenty-five fast turns tends to give you a slow turn on a random choice, not an important turn.

I am imagining figuratively "grasping for air" in the end of the slow turn which would seem to make early fast turn and late fast turns have different attention profiles.

I guess I have a image about if every turn had a chance to be fast or slow then it is more vivid that the question how that turn would have went if it was the other type. Also knowing that both players have their fast turns simultaneusly avoids feeling the edge that the speeds have against each other (being sloppy is not that bad when the exploiter is also confused).

Having random amounts and at also potentially in the beginning would make the players think more about the value of such things. I would imagine being able to see the weak spots in fast plays would make players hope for slow turns in the "weak spots". Similarly of using a coin and noting on what side you want it to land rather than on which side it lands.