Trials, Triumphs and Trivialities Article
Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #108:

Designing Strategy: Activity & Timing

by Shannon Appelcline

February 20, 2003 - Strategic games are saved from chaos by a very narrow line. Imagine a world where strategic games were ruled by who went fastest — by who could draw the most cards, who could roll dice the most rapidly, or who could move their little dog around the Monopoly board the quickest. Your games would quickly become centered around physical attributes, and your strategy games would change into an athletic competition.

Fortunately, strategy games have something in place to prevent this: rules. And, more specifically, one of the most important of rules: timing. Generally, there are two types of timing which are important to a game: game timing and turn timing, each of which I'm going to cover in turn this week.

Types of Game Timing

Game timing is a large and abstract part of any game. In fact, it's so much a part of the basic structure of a game that players often miss it. But, nonetheless, it's there, and something that a strategic game designer must consider. At the broadest level, you could divide game timing up into the following categories:

  1. Setup
  2. Activity
    1. Early Game
    2. Mid Game
    3. End Game
  3. Victory
  4. Cleanup

Game Timing: Setup

Setup is when the players lay out the tokens, markers, and environment for a game. There are many different categories of setup in a strategic game.

Minimal Setup: Very little setup is done, if any. Perhaps the board is dropped down and tokens are handed out to the different players, but little more. Examples: Bridge (thirteen cards are handed to each player), Carcassonne (one starting piece is placed).

Fixed Setup: A number of tokens are placed on the environment in a fixed setup position. These may be all the tokens, or just a starting set. Examples: Checkers, Chess, Mancalla, Othello.

Chaotic Setup: Each player selects the positioning of his set of tokens, perhaps totally independent from the other players, perhaps in some interweaving pattern with the other players. Examples: Battleship, Risk, The Settlers of Catan, Stratego.

Randomized Setup: Either tokens, environment, or both, are constructed in some random manner, which is either revealed immediately or revealed slowly through gameplay. Examples: random monster setup in Arkham Horror, random board setup in The Settlers of Catan.

These different types of setup can be combined within one game. Most typically tokens, markers, and environments will each follow different setup rules. For example, as noted above The Settlers of Catan has randomized environment setup and chaotic token setup. In some cases different classes of one general type of components may be setup differently; Arkham Horror has fixed player token setup and randomized monster token setup.

When talking about setup, it's also useful to note that this phase of the game is the place to have all of your weird, funky, and hard-to-remember rules. If you want your game to play differently for different numbers of players, put those differences in setup. If your game has complex rules, put them in setup. The idea is, that if you're ever going to have a part of the game where the players have to carefully peruse the rules, read the manual, or whatever, you want to ensure that period is minimized, so you put it at the start of the game. In addition, players will usually be less annoyed by a slowdown in setup then they would be once the game has actually begun, and they've got their plans that they want to fulfill.

Game Timing: Activity & Evolutionary Gameplay

Activity is the main portion of your game. It's where players are engaging in the various types of gameplay activity that I described in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #103, Designing Strategy: The Gameplay. The exact flow of events during this part of the game will be controlled by turn timing, which I'll get to in a bit.

My division of activity into "early", "mid", and "end" is almost entirely arbitrary, but it's meant to illustrate a point: activity does not need to remain the same throughout a strategic game. In fact, if you're building a good strategic game of any length (say, longer than an hour), it should have activity that slowly evolves, and is very different at the "early", "mid", and "end" stages.

The most common way to create this type of evolutionary gameplay is to build constrained decision sets into your game, with the idea being that some options will become less desirable (or less possible) as the game moves on and other options will become more desirable (or more possible).

Klaus Teuber's The Settlers of Catan, which I examined at length last week, is a good example of this type of evolutionary gameplay. Cities are one of the types of tokens that can be built in the game. However, they require you to upgrade a settlement, which must already exist. In addition they require you to collect together a large number of the same resource: 3 ore and 2 grain. As a result of these factors, early gameplay in Catan is most often centered around building settlements, while end gameplay in Catan is almost always centered around building cities.

Reiner Knizia's Res Publica is another example of a game which evolves due to constraints without ever changing any of its game rules. It's a simple card trading game, where players can trade two commodities: peoples and technologies. Early on, only peoples are traded. Players can't even get technologies until they've traded in a set of five identical cards to build a city, and thus technology trades slowly increase as the game goes on. By the end of the games, the people cards have all been expended, and only technologies are being traded.

Skotos' Galactic Emperor: Hegemony shows an even simpler example of evolving gameplay through decision constraints. There are "death probes" in the game which can nuke entire planets (and their fleets) but cost 200 stellars to build. After the first day of play, an individual player's daily income might be 50 stellars, thus making the death probes a very unlikely purchase; however by end game where a successful player could earn 200 stellars a day, the constraint has shifted notably, and allows for a different type of warfare.

The other way to build this type of evolutionary gameplay is to allow for a sudden change in your game — the idea being that when some goal is met, suddenly there's a large change in the way the game works. Tokens, markers, environment, or the rules of activity themselves may abruptly shift. This could be a temporary change, until the current condition is passed, or it could be a permanent one.

Interestingly, Klaus Teuber had originally planned for this type of sudden, ratcheted activity in The Settlers of Catan. When he first pitched the game he broke it into three distinct phases: exploration, settlement, and conflict. In the end The Settlers of Catan only built on the central activity. The other two activities have since been built into other games: Entdecker and Lowenherz.

Reiner Knizia's The Lord of the Rings is a rare example of a game which changes its environment (and the importance of various markers) as the game progresses. In this game players proceed through a sequence of maps, each of which has different dangers and requires slightly different resources. When one map is "finished", the players move to the next one.

War games sometimes make a sudden ratchet change by modifying scale at certain times in a game. You may move around on a global/wilderness/strategic scale, and then when a battle occurs you're transported to a local/battle/tactical scale, usually with slightly different rules in place. The Heroes of Might & Magic series of computer games exemplify this sort of change.

I suspect that one of the reasons this technique isn't used more often in tabletop games is because shipping extra maps and tokens would jack up the price of the game, and in addition different rules at different times might confuse players. However, web and other computer games are a superb medium for games of this sort, because pixels are free and the computer can arbitrate the varying ways that rules might work.

Game Timing: Early Gameplay

Before leaving activity behind, its worth talking about early game a bit more.

In many ways, this can be the trickiest part of your game design, because if you're not careful it can be mind-numbingly boring, if players are forced to engage in repetitive steps to "get going", without any real opportunity for decision making. If, for example, your players spend dozens of turns just gathering resources before they get to build anything, they're not going to be happy.

Thus, don't be afraid to cut off the front part of your game design and start players at a slightly more mature stage if it'll ensure that they begin playing your game where the playing is actually fun.

The Settlers of Catan is, once more, a good example of a game that takes advantage of this technique. It starts each player off with two settlements and two roads. Many variants of the game also start each player off with some number of resources cards already in hand. All said and done, these steps allow a player to engage in the fun gameplay more rapidly.

One other caveat on early gameplay: make sure it matters. Don't create a game where your power curve is so considerable that nothing done in the first quarter of the game matters. (Though it's probably OK to have a wasted turn or two so that players can get the hang of the game without their mistakes haunting them afterward.)

The same is true for the converse: you don't want to create a game where the victor's already chosen by the time the game is a quarter over. However, I'm saving the discussion of this matter, and for that matter the entire discussion of "end game" and the "victory" phase of the game until next week, where I'll talk about them together with the idea of game balance.

Game Timing: Cleanup

That brings us to the end of the game: cleanup. Surprisingly, you should at least briefly consider this game with a designer's eye too. Generally, you want to make your cleanup as easy as possible, so that your players will walk away with a good memory of the game, not cursing the trouble required in dealing with dozens of different components or markers.

A bad cleanup will leave players sorting game pieces for 10-15 minutes after they're done. Sometimes, though, it's unavoidable. A prime example is Empire Builder, and its brethren, where after you're done you have to spend a while scrubbing the crayon marks off the board.

A good cleanup will leave the components naturally in the exact state they're needed to start a new game. The Settlers of Alexander, one of the historical supplements for The Settlers of Catan, is my favorite example of this. At the start of the game you shuffle all the resource cards into a large "supply" deck, which each player draws from each turn. But, as each player goes, he spends the cards and thus a neat, organized bank is slowly created. By the end of the game the shuffled deck is gone, and the organized bank is once more entirely returned — just what you need for the other Settlers games — and also easy to shuffle if you decide to play Alexander again.

You also assist in your cleanup by having unique and distinctive components in your game. Having different types of cards with the exact same back is a no-no that I've seen many a game commit; it either slows down the cleanup or the next setup, depending on how meticulous your players are. Conversely having cards with very distinctive backs and tokens with very distinctive shapes can help a lot.

Good or bad cleanup won't make or break a game, but it's worth thinking about.

(Though when you're designing a web game, the issue of cleanup can be totally avoided.)

Types of Turn Timing

Although thinking about game timing is important, it's turn timing which is really the heart of your game, because it's how 95% of your gameplay will be structured. Generally speaking, there are a number of methods of turn timing used:

Ordered Turn-based Games: Each player has a turn in which to take his actions. His turn may have a number of subturns within it, which he does in sequence (eg, collect resources, then trade, then build), or each player in the game may do a subturn, in turn (eg, all players collect resources, then all trade, then all build).

One factor in ordered turn-based games is figuring out what that order is. Is it the same every time, as is the case with most games? Does the turn order reverse every turn, as is the case with Gang of Four, to prevent someone from always being stuck behind a really good player? Do players always go in order from lowest victory points to highest, as a method of balance? (More on that next week.) Is turn order randomized every turn? Is turn order based on some specific action in a game, such as the player choosing to take the "first turn" marker (eg, the King in Citadels), or getting to go first based on accruing some disadvantage in play, such as "passing" rather than taking an action.

Examples of turn-based games encompass 90% of the tabletop strategic games in existence, from Chess and Bridge to The Settlers of Catan.

Simultaneous Turn-Based Games: An alternative method of structure, that still keeps your game tightly locked into turns, is to allow for simultaneous revealing of turn moves. This is a tactic widely used in PBM games, where you can't have each person do their turn one at a time because of the delays between input and output created by the mail system. Some web games adopt a similar method, because that's another medium where you can't always count on every player taking their turn in a timely fashion. Fist of Dragonstones is a simple tabletop strategy game which shows another facet of this structure; it centers around auctions, and each player reveals their auction bid simultaneously, with the auction going to the player who bid highest.

Simultaneous turn-based games can either be structured to occur when everyone's ready, which is most common for face-to-face games, or to occur when a time limit is passed, which is most common in PBMs and web games.

Real-Time Games: In a real-time game things generally happen as fast as you can assign individual tokens their individual actions. This is a tact usually taken in games where you can assign tokens specific missions. It's pretty much unknown in the world of tabletop strategic games, but is popular in computer strategic games, with Warcraft being the best known example.

Slow Real-Time Games: A fairly distinct category are those games which involve tokens being assigned individual actions, but those actions occur over a span of hours or days rather than minutes. In some games you can save up "turns" (call them "action points" or whatever), which means you can always use all of the "time" in the game. The web game Archmage is an example of this, with "turns" being used primarily to build and research. In other games actions begin whenever you initiate them, and conclude some time later. Galactic Emperor: Hegemony is a good example of this type of play. In a standard game it takes 1.5 to 3.0 hours for a fleet of ships to span 1 parsec, and "close" stars tend to be 2-5 parsecs from each other, thus meaning a one-hop fleet movement takes 3-15 hours. Web games tend to be the medium that uses this gameplay style the most, primarily because it allows players to interact with each other without having to be all online at the same time.

If you're building a tabletop strategy game, you'll almost definitely go with either ordered or simultaneous turn-based gameplay. However, if you're designing a computer game of any type, all four styles are much more available to you.

Turn Timing: Breaking it Down

Just the act of segregating player actions into their individual turns removes most of the potential chaos from your game. However, also dividing those player turns down into subturns can also have notable advantages.

The biggest advantage is that you'll be creating multiple, linked decision sets, each constrained by turn phase, and that'll let you make a more complex game without it becoming difficult to play.

Here's some general words of advice for laying out a turn order:

Place Required Actions First: If something must be done every turn, be it resources that should be collected, victory points that should be marked, or whatever, put that first, as it's less likely to be forgotten there.

Divide Turn Order By Complexity: Your main criteria in dividing up a turn should be based on complexity. If taking two, somewhat different actions at the same time (e.g., "combat" and "movement") doesn't seem complex, then keep them together. However, if doing those actions together seems to widen up the decision set enough to force intense cognition, that's a good reason to split them up.

Divide Turn Order By Unique Decision Sets: Individual subturns should be clearly discrete actions which can seen as understandable individual decisions. Once complexity has forced you to break up things into subturns, make sure those subturns follow the natural contours of your game, and aren't arbitrary distinctions.

Order Subturns by Rules, not by Player Choice: Generally it's better to state that subturn A is always followed by subturn B, rather than saying that subturn A and subturn B may each be done, in any order. First, by doing so you totally avoid the possibility of a player accidently taking an action twice. Second, by doing so you simplify decision making, as a player isn't constantly thinking "should I take subturn B?" Magic: the Gathering is a good example of a game that ignores this rule, to its disadvantage. Combat may be done at any time during the main player turn phase, and thus a player has to constantly consider whether combat would be beneficial or not at any point.

Order Subturns in Other Meaningful Ways: If, from the rules side of things, the ordering of the subturns doesn't seem to matter, you should consider other ordering methods that might be meaningful. You could place actions before results if something produced in subturn A is generally useful when taking subturn B (e.g., place "monster creation" before "monster movement"). You could place subturns in a realistic order if the subturns have a clear real-world correspondence (e.g., place "missile fire" before "melee combat"). You could place subturns in an order that makes your game feel unique & interesting or you could place subturns in an order that helps achieve another game design goal, such as balance or the control of unpredictability.

Place Arbitrary Events Last: In general, you want to push as much unpredictability as you can to the end of a turn phase. The reason is, that if a player has no unpredictability at the start of his turn he can have already figured out what he's going to do, modulo chaotic activities undertaken by other players, and thus turns will go faster. Limited unpredictability, such as that created by a die roll, is somewhat OK, as the possibilities can be largely predicted. However, a totally arbitrary event, such as drawing a card, is best consigned to the end of a player's turn, so that the player has a whole round of turns to figure out what to do next. Wizwar is an example of a game that does this correctly, as players draw cards, which heavily influence their actions, at the end of their turn; many other games make the mistake of having that card draw at the beginning of the turn instead.

Turn Timing: Spreading It Out

Before I close up on turn timing, I want to reiterate one of my earlier points: remember that these subturns may be either all done by one player, or each player could do the subturn in turn. The first is more common, but not a requirement.

It's also possible to mix these two methods of turn timing. The Settlers of Catan, especially with the 5-6 player expansion, is a good example of this type of mingling. Every turn, there's a clearly outlined list of activities, some of which are undertaken by the "phasing" player, whose turn it is, and some of which are undertaken by all players:

  1. Phasing player rolls dice.
  2. All player collect production simultaneously.
  3. Phasing player initiates trades.
  4. Phasing player builds.
  5. All players build in turn order.

In Settlers of Catan the all-player subturns are used for the purpose of balance, but other games could use them for any number of purposes, including simply keeping players involved.

It's also interesting to note how Settlers makes use of both simultaneous and turn order actions. In order to make the simultaneous action work, there are specific rules (if any produced resource runs out, no one gets the resource) that take away the advantage of going faster; by allowing this, the designer has helped speed up the game.


So, what does all this mean?

Mainly that you need to think about timing in your game. Consider overall game timing, and how it might relate to evolutionary gameplay. Consider individual turn timing, how you're going to split it up, and how you can use subturns to your best advantage.

This week, thanks again to Quigg, Christopher Allen, and Saul Bottcher for good comments on my rough draft. I keep sending these articles out to them, because the articles keep ending up being better after I've addressed their comments.

Next week I'm going to get to the bit of timing that I missed — end games — and consider how game balance and victory relate to that topic.

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