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Do you care when another player is taking his or her turn?

March 7, 2008

So, let’s say you’re making a turn-based game. I have one question for you: do your players care when the other players are taking their turn? If not, your design may need to be revisited.

Turn-based games, be they digital or non-digital, sometimes have difficulty keeping a player attention when it’s not that player’s turn. I’m thinking here specifically of games like Monopoly. You can get up, fix dinner, watch television, hike the Rockies, and then return to say, “Hey, you’re on my spot.” It doesn’t matter if 6 people are playing. The dynamics of other players’ turns are inconsequential to your mental involvement in the game – just show up for your turn, check your property and you’re off. Sure, people can buy other property on their turn you while you’re away, but this isn’t anything you can make a strategical or tactical move to change. You’re going to roll the dice, land where you land, and you’re done.

Contrast this with something like, say, Risk. It’s a stretch, but not much of one, to say that bladders have nearly exploded during tense matches. What one person does on their turn is of intense interest to other players.

As a designer, that kind of cognitive involvement is gold. How do you get it? There are lots of ways. For today, two of them.

Zero sum your resources

Unlimited resources sometimes equals unconcerned players. However, consider how much play changes when those resources become limited. If there are only 10 medpaks in a level, suddenly, competition for them becomes fierce.

Make things vulnerable

Consider the concept of territorial acquisition in Risk vs. Monopoly. In Monopoly, you’re not going to lose Park Place unless a) you decide you’re going to lose Park Place or b) you go bankrupt. In the latter case, you probably don’t care anymore. In Risk, you don’t really own anything. People have camped Australia to death, but in general, everything’s vulnerable. A level of controlled vulnerability increases strategic development. If you’re constantly forced to monitor the safety of your resources or territory, you’re naturally going to be much more involved with the other players and the game overall. Risk uses strategic choke points to control the level of the player’s vulnerability. When my daughter and I modded Risk to allow ownership of the oceans, that dramatically changed everything. Vulnerability wasn’t controllable. It just was.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2008 1:21 pm

    So grid up the monopoly board and make hostile takeovers of property a possibility.

    I smell a monopoly mod.

  2. March 7, 2008 2:19 pm

    I am reminded of the Heroes of Might and Magic series. Though turnbased, you kept a very close eye on all the other players, as your resource generators existed out in the wild. If you didn’t keep a close eye, suddenly you were pulling in 3k less wood and 2k less gold a turn than you were used to, and your armies are growing much more slowly now.

    Later games did allow you to garrison troops there, but that ran the risk of having your hero leaving the resource with fewer defenses of his own.

    I enjoyed Risk, but I far more enjoyed History of the World as it felt a little less influenced by the chance of dice rolls. I liked the fact that had to consider if you were attacking through mountains, over a river or uninterrupted land, and the defenders capability of sacrificing a soldier icon to create walls giving the location a permanent +1 defense roll as long as anyone is garrisoned there. It just felt more… responsible to the players. Compared with Risk where the first time I played, my 1 soldier in Alaska held off an invasion from Russia of an army of 26 quite handily. I eventually lost it, but it cost Russia over 20 soldiers. It had no basis in skill ultimately, it was purely chance, and no involvement of my own.

    But thats a whole other issue.

  3. March 7, 2008 2:21 pm

    Yeah! Nice. Each player might hire henchmen in order to create his own gang, to be used to cause damage to other player’s properties. So here the Risk’s dice might be used in a standard way.

    Now I smell a “Monopoly, The Godfather edition”. 😉

  4. March 7, 2008 2:31 pm

    @scar3crow: I couldn’t agree more with you. I have been playing World Conquest on Facebook for a while now, and as it mimics Risk’s standard rules, the attacks do rely much more on luck than anything else.

    “Malditos Dados! (Damned Dice!)” has been a common battle cry among my fellow players. 🙂

    By the way, I have never heard of this History of the World, I wish I had, and for the worse, it’s probably impossible to be found here on Brazil. 😦

  5. March 8, 2008 11:56 am

    A good point, and one of the reasons Euro games do so well. My “Learn to Love Board Games Again” post addresses this problem.


  6. March 8, 2008 5:34 pm

    I would look beyond RISK. Even when you’re vulnerable, the key is that you **aren’t making any meaningful decisions** except on your turn. (Yeah, there’s a “decision” of whether to roll one die or two on defense. At least 99% of the time, it’s better to roll two, so that’s not much of a decision.)

    Compare with Settlers of Catan or Bohnanza, where you trade with other players on their turns. Step to the bathroom and you might miss a few choice trades. Or Puerto Rico, where you get to take an action on everyone else’s turn. Or Carcassonne, where the rules explicitly tell you to kibbutz on other players’ tile placements. In any case, the idea is that you’re doing something even when it’s not your “turn”.

    Another way around this is to abolish the concept of the “turn” entirely. Brawl, Ricochet Robot and Icehouse are all played in real time, with no turns at all.

    A third way to address it is simply to make the turns short enough that your downtime is minimized. Ra, Hey That’s My Fish and Blokus are examples of games where a single turn often takes just a few seconds, so you don’t have long to wait. And if the game ever DOES come to a particularly tense period where one person is taking a long time to move, it’s probably because the game is at a critical juncture where EVERYONE has to think hard, so you can use the time on the opponent’s turn to plan your own moves (and then you can take YOUR turn in a few seconds to speed things up again).

  7. March 8, 2008 6:28 pm

    @Ian – Interesting point about Puerto Rico, though I will argue that you are making meaningful decisions while you are waiting for others to take their turn in Risk. You’re constantly adapting your next move to what you see being done on the board, and your brain is never done processing the information, particularly in the endgame.

    On short turns, you stole my next post! 🙂

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