What is the duration of a single game of Microscope? What makes it last longer? What might speed it up?

I plan to facilitate a session of Microscope at some point during a board gaming afternoon, and for planning the time (can we play a short or a long game before and still be finishing on time, etc.) I would like to know how much time to allocate for it.

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Microscope is the game that never ends...

...it just goes on and on my friends.

Microscope is a collaborative world building game, which allows you to jump around time periods, fill them out as you see fit, and then bounce around to other times to ask questions and flesh out the history more.

On each player's turn, they can add a time period, add an event to that time period, or add a scene to an event.

Because every player is adding something each turn, the game could literally go forever.

How long does stuff take?

Setup? Generally 30-45 minutes depending on how many times around you go with the must/must-not list.

Adding Periods and Events take very little time, at most a few minutes while the player decides what they want to add. Scenes, however, require the players to act out the scene until the question of that scene is answered. This can vary wildly. I've literally seen a scene end in 30 seconds, while some of our more robust scenes took 15 minutes or longer to complete.

Setting Time limits

Ideally, what you'll want to do is figure out a number of "rounds" (round trips around the table), that you'll want to play before calling it quits. Every time a round completes, a new player becomes the "lens" (the person who determines the "theme" of the round). You'll probably want each player to get time to do that once, so in a 4 player game - 4 rounds minimum. The time a single round takes really depends on how many scenes you play. If no one makes a scene a single round can go by very very quickly. Otherwise, I'd say allow at least 30 minutes for a round, and if a scene is dragging on try to wrap it up by answering the question.

Continuing where you left off

If you want to "save" a microscope game, you can grab the index cards, place them in order, and then stash them away somewhere so you can play again later.

There is no maximum length for the game itself, so the length of time is a function of your available session time.

In practice, a satisfying game of Microscope is at least two full turns (i.e., two Lenses) around the table, but even one full turn around the table is good if there were at least two played Scenes. For this, my experience is that a 3 to 5 hour block of time is enough to introduce the game, set up, and play one or two Lenses worth of Microscope.

To get maximum play time out of the game, I strongly encourage you to find a history one-liner as quickly as possible. New players especially are prone to dithering since they don't yet know what the group's choice actually means. In these cases, aggressively (but not aggravatingly) facilitate by quickly asking for more ideas if the idea currently floated isn't getting enthusiastic uptake by most or all of the group. You can use the list of suggested histories in the book as both examples of what people should be suggesting, and also as suggestions to make.

Emphasise this to speed up the decision as well: the one-liner doesn't have to be awesome; in fact it can be superficially boring, since the awesome quickly develops during play. A boring premise can actually speed things up because everyone understands it and everyone wants to spice it up with something neat.

We did play a 4-player game of Microscope some time ago. We played three rounds, and it lasted about 4 hours. Time scales roughly proportional with the number of players, and apart from a setup phase (which does not contain any scenes, but requires people to get their creativity kickstarted, and therefore took us about half an hour) is proportional in the number of rounds you play.

In a different game recently with only three players, we managed to start quite quickly. We may not have asked each other enough questions – some things about the setting were still very much up in the air – and we did play only a relatively small number of short scenes – but we managed to play 6 lenses in just below 4 hours. I feel like I may have forgotten some bit of the rules, because this strikes me as a ridiculously high number, compared with what I experienced in the past and what I expected, but the players were really up to it, so it might just be that the game and our implied setting immediately clicked with everyone.

The longest time was spent on coming up with and playing scenes. People spent more thought on which characters to play than expected, and often this choice did contribute significantly to the answer of the scene question, but scenes still took several minutes each to complete. Making sure people play scenes towards answering the question, and not much longer just because the people in the scene are interesting, does help speed the game up.

  • this is my experience also, Each lens (Full round of the table) takes a bit under an hour assuming only one longish played scene per lens – Lyndon White Feb 3 '15 at 14:24

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