There’s this term used for describing when players are thinking a great deal about their choices in games, and it’s called being in the tank. During this stage, players are prone to lapse into quiet as they concentrate on a complicated game state.
I don’t think it’s a problem when games let you go into the tank, or that games require you to go into the tank. Some games like Chess, are basically built out of tank moments, where players do everything in their power to give as little information about what they’re doing as they can while still engaging with the game, even if that’s something of an optimistic myth.
Still there is a problem that comes up when games, I feel, regularly lapse into protracted silence, where players are quiet purely because they feel they have to be silent, when they cannot play or communicate or make deals or interact with the board state in the interest of courtesy, of not hindering other players’ play. Magic has these moments on the pro tour, but games that are less formally structured, with less on the line, sometimes get infected with this experience: A player needs to concentrate very hard, and the whole game lapses into that silence.
I think the problem, inasmuch as this is a problem, is how the game is designed, and what the designers and players value. It’s not a problem if games in general have quiet moments, moments of rising tension, moments of quiet, but some games – such as Imperial Settlers send players into the tank as quickly as their third decision – in a long game full of decisions! What makes this really awkward is these are games where players, largely, can’t interact much with one another – there’s the razing in Imperial Settlers but for the most part these really quiet thinkfests are games that keep players segregated from one another.
This isn’t a good thing or a bad, per se – but if your game sends people into the tank ask if that’s something you want them to do. Ask if you want the game to be moments of long, intense thinking and decisions that can result with an unhappy outcome. You might be making the play a bit too arrested, or you might want to start introducing reasons for players to talk to one another. You gotta remember, gaming is a social activity – and if you do it well, it’ll give you a chance, more than enjoying the game, to enjoy the game with your friends.