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Real-Time Games: Hurry Up, Already!

Reviewed by: Derek Croxton

I like the problem-solving aspect of games but I have to admit that my patience is limited and I sometimes wish other players would not take so long. Perhaps this is because I don’t have the patience to take 5 minutes figuring out the best move, or perhaps it’s because I don’t think it’s worth investing that much time in a simple game. Whether you are among those who like to calculate the exact best move no matter how long its takes or whether you just want to keep things moving, most players agree that excessive down time is a detriment to games. But whereas games can keep decisions relatively simple and prevent one player from losing a whole turn, there is no way in most games to keep players from calculating their moves forever apart from social norms. There is no way, that is, except for the special category of games known as “real-time” games.

In “real-time” games, speed matters, either because you get extra points for finishing first or you lose if you finish last or you just need to react to what the opponent is doing in a timely fashion. Although real-time games are a relatively small subset of board and card games, they seem to be growing and many new ideas for keeping game time within limits have appeared in the past decade.

TRADING GAMES

pit73Real-time games may be growing but they are not a new phenomenon. A standard deck of cards can be used to play such real time games as Spoons or Slapjack, both of which are a lot of fun. One of the oldest published card games is the classic Pit. It is not only in print after more than 100 years, it is still popular, ranking in the top 1000 games on BoardGameGeek (out of more than 7000 games that meet the minimum rating requirements). Pit is a trading game, of course, making it the first of a special category of real-time games. I separate them from non-trading games because trading is inherently interactive and real time even if they lack the frenetic pace of Pit. Most games involve limited trading in which only the active player is allowed to trade; although these games have a real time aspect to them, since you might have to shout out an offer to beat someone else, they are on a different level from games like Pit where anyone can trade with anyone else. Pit is also different from most games, such as Settlers of Catan, in which you only need a particular good or two and often have no need to trade at all. Everyone needs to trade in Pit, right up until someone wins the game, and that puts an urgency on it that is lacking in games when trading serves some further purpose (such as building or buying).

The game that stands most in Pit’s legacy is Civilization, another very old game (by most standards) that has stood the test of time very well. Civilization is one of the longest games to play, but it gets a lot of its life from the brief period at the end of each turn when players trade with one another. Like Pit, Civilization contains a built-in mechanism to give players plenty of incentive to trade, with the result that every trading phase is a boisterous exchange and everyone ends the phase much better off than he started. The formula for gaining points from cards, the special way of making offers (number of cards, total point value, and one good that is included), and the existence of tradable calamities are, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant innovations in gaming history. There is hardly anything to compare to it, although many games now incorporate some form of trading. I will mention here only Hecho, a real-time game of acquiring materials for building. Although trading can be part of Hecho, it is very limited because you are only allowed to announce the point value of what you are trading, not the type of good, which is chiefly what you need to know.

DOWNTIME IS BAD

carcboxVery few real-time games are built around trading the way Pit or even (to a far more limited extent) Hecho are. This article will consider any games that involve real-time elements, whether simply speeding up turns or games created with real-time action – no turns – as their central feature. Although there is clearly a difference between them, there is more of a gradation than one might expect. In fact, a survey of games marked with the “real-time” mechanic on BoardGameGeek.com shows that most of them are not strictly real-time games in themselves, but only contain some real-time feature, often not a major one. The motivation in many is obvious: to prevent excessive downtime. A game can do a great deal to reduce the problem of downtime. Carcassonne is the epitome of a minimalist turn: one tile to place, one piece to put on it, and that’s it. It’s hard to have long turns under those conditions. Recently, Rise of Augustus took it to a new level by getting rid of turns altogether. It is essentially a game of bingo, so all players go at the same time, apart from the occasional intervals when a player completes a card and gets to choose a new one.

It is therefore possible to design a game with a minimum of downtime without resorting to direct measures (such as timers) to keep players from taking too long. But even a game like Apples to Apples, in which players simultaneously choose which card to play, can bog down if one player takes too long. Its solution is to add a penalty for being slow: the last person to play a card doesn’t get to play at all. This has the advantage of adapting the speed to that of the overall group; after all, what some players regard as slow, other players may regard as thoughtful. Keeping the last person from playing allows the group to set the pace without dictating the precise speed. RoboRally has a similar mechanism in which the last two players to finish planning their turns are put on a one-minute clock. They can take as long as the rest of the players take but not significantly longer which seems like a reasonable solution.

THE NEED FOR SPEED

There is a big jump between keeping downtime to minimum and introducing speed as a major component of victory. Speed games have a completely different feel and usually very different objectives. The classic game Set, for example, is a pure speed game in which the first player to recognize a pattern among the face-up cards gets to claim them. 24 is an earlier game based on a similar concept: the first player to figure out what arithmetical operations on the four numbers showing on the card can produce the result 24 wins the card. Most games that we classify as real-time use a similar mechanism of pattern recognition (most basically, matching) or simple problem-solving as their “engine.” In other words, real-time games do not typically involve complicated, multifaceted issues that players have to rush to solve; they are not like other games in the sorts of issues players face, but rather reduce decision-making to a very basic level. Partly, no doubt, this is because of the myriad problems that it would introduce if players were trying to do multiple things simultaneously. There are a few games that violate this tenet but they are exceptions.

ricochetrobotsPuzzle-solving games are a step up in complexity from pattern recognition. Ricochet Robots was an early version of the simultaneous puzzle-solving game. It is real-time in that players try to come up with the best solution at the same time, but it is not a speedy game by any means – unlike more recent speed games such as Brawl or Jab. (Neither are Set or 24, for that matter.) Ubongo makes nice use of simultaneous play without becoming pure speed. The first three people who solve the puzzle (provided they do so before the timer runs out) get to take gems which are used to determine the ultimate victor but the first player to do so gets a more favorable position, the second player somewhat less, and the third finisher least of all. The advantage to this system is that there is less pressure to beat the other players every round. Sure, you might not win the game if you don’t frequently finish first, but at least you can have the satisfaction of finishing your puzzle and having something to show for your efforts. Galaxy Trucker takes the puzzle-solving mechanic to a new level by having players construct spaceships out of tiles drawn randomly from a common pile. There is no particular advantage to finishing first, but there is an interactive element because players cannot simply keep tiles that they draw for later use. Instead, they either have to use them immediately or put them back in the middle, risking that another player will take them for his spaceship. It isn’t too difficult to construct a legal spaceship but players have to balance shields, lasers, batteries, crew and holds while attaching tiles in a legal fashion, which is real challenge.

INTERACTIVE REAL-TIME PLAY

jab2Galaxy Trucker starts to take us to a new realm: real-time, interactive games. In these, not only do you have limited time in which to make your move, you also have to deal with a situation that changes as your opponent acts. Blink (one of my favorite games) is a pure speed game where this comes into play. Each player is trying to get rid of all the cards in his deck by matching the color, shape, or number of symbols on a card in his hand with the top card in one of the two face-up piles in the middle. If your opponent plays on a pile before you do, one and possibly two aspects of the card will change, forcing you to recalculate. This isn’t a lot of interaction, but it matters a great deal in a game that is over in about a minute. The 2011 game Jab (reviewed by me last issue) offers a great deal more for a player to consider. Although they are not restricted in what “punch” cards they can play onto their opponent’s body, the best result is to follow up a “haymaker” punch with another card of the same color before the opponent can block it (by playing another card on top). At the same time, players have to consider blocking their opponents’ cards with the appropriate punch types. There are also combination punches and counterpunches that are available for either player to pick up if the cards on top of various stacks show the right values – values which can change in an instant based on what the opponent plays next. The game really requires a broad view of the stacks in play and quick reactions to your opponent’s moves.

bears1You aren’t limited to tiles and cards when it comes to real-time games, as several recent contributions show. Wok Star was one of the first to use dice as the main component; moreover, it was one of the first cooperative real-time games. The advantage of dice is that you can re-roll them to get the results you want, but each re-roll uses precious time. Escape is another cooperative dice-rolling real-time game that is very popular. Bears!, an underappreciated game from 2011, deserves credit for getting maximum use out of interactivity in a real-time dice game. Not only do you have to weigh the time lost re-rolling your dice, but the actions of other players can actually change the value of your pairs. A large set of common dice (5 per player), each with 4 tents and 2 bears on its 6 sides, are rolled and revealed to all players simultaneously. You then roll your own set of 5 dice and match them with the ones in the middle to form point-scoring combinations. The round ends when only one type of die, bears or tents, is showing in the middle. The biggest score is for matching a sleeping camper with a tent, but this only works if the remaining dice are all tents. If there are bears left in the middle, your sleeping campers get eaten and you lose points. Although bears show up only about half as often among the common dice, they can only be used in one combination that is worth a paltry one point, so people rarely pull bears from the middle. A player who matches several sleepers with tents can only watch anxiously as the other tents disappear and pray that someone will take the last bear.

FIRST MOVER vs. LAST MOVER ADVANTAGE

In Bears!, you are discouraged from matching up all your dice immediately because you don’t know what value your matches will have until the common pool of dice has shrunk considerably. In Jab, as well as some other games, there is no such discouragement to quick play. Getting all your cards down before your opponent allows you to end the round immediately, which will probably result in your having a better score. Jab limits the advantage of speed by giving a penalty to the player who grabs the “ding” tile to end the round – he loses five points off of his score. If you finish just a couple of cards before your opponent, therefore, you may not want to end the round and suffer this significant penalty. (If you finish a lot before your opponent, it will still be worth it: not only do you have many more points already played, but allowing your opponent to take his time playing cards without being able to interrupt his combinations would be devastating.) More rarely, games have the opposite problem of favoring slow play. In the Looney Labs game IceTowers, the object is to put your pyramids on top of your opponents. Withholding your pyramids until your opponents have played, therefore, is a sound strategy for which the game doesn’t provide an adequate counterbalance. A similar situation prevails in a 1980’s wargame, Pax Britannica. To speed play, this multi-player game allows all players to place their influence markers simultaneously, with the unfortunate effect that the best move is to wait and see what other people do before committing.
The card game Light Speed not only comes up with good solutions to balancing speed vs. patience, but is also unique in its approach to spatial play as well. It is a simple space combat game in which each player has a mini-deck of ten cards, numbered from one to ten in increasing power. You shuffle your deck and begin playing your spaceships one at a time as your draw them, trying to aim for your opponents’ ships. Just as there are no turns to regulate speed of play, there is no board to regulate where you play your ships. Each has one or two lasers printed on it, and you use a straight edge to see which other card it hits – including your own. To prevent the first plays from being a disadvantage, the game starts with an asteroid in the middle that can be “mined” for points in the same basic way that you shoot other ships. You still have to play quickly, however, because the game ends whenever one person has played all of his cards. You then fire each ship type in numerical order from one to ten, ships of the same speed firing simultaneously. Light Speed is a little slow to calculate the scoring but it is a well thought out game that is one of the better real-time games available.

WHEN SPEED HURTS

Light Speed also uses, in a small way, the possibility that the cards you play will hurt you. We have seen this in Bears!, and it is also present in Brawl (like Light Speed, a James Ernest design), in which you might deliberately play cards that help your opponent just to get rid of cards and hope that you can undo your actions later. The new release Hawken from Crytozoic is the first game to make this into a major element of play.

HawkenHawken is another two-player battle game, but unlike Brawl and Jab!, you play cards on your own side of the table rather than on a particular base or portion of the enemy. Each player does damage to the other based on the weapons and possibly the defenses that they play. Damage is represented by discarding cards from your deck, so playing a card is as bad as taking a damage! Moreover, ending a round by grabbing the “fire” token often doesn’t help you at all, since both players will get to shoot. (The exceptions are on the round where someone is finally knocked out, and a few rare cards that only take effect if you go first.) The factor impelling players to stop playing cards and grab the “fire” token is that each card has a heat factor. If you play more than 5 heat factors in a round, your robot takes damage – catastrophic damage if the heat gets up to 10 – and can only slowly cool back down. Although Hawken is a real-time game, there, the speed element is strongly curtailed.

Mad City is Mayfair’s recent entry into the real-time market. In most respects, it is a simple puzzle-solving game with a one-minute sand timer. One innovation is that there is no wrong solution to the puzzle, only arrangements that score more or fewer points. Another aspect is the tree token which allows the player who grabs it to score parks and lakes, which are otherwise worth nothing. There is only one tree token, so it is strictly advantageous to get it. The downside is that you are no longer allowed to rearrange your pieces any longer once you have the tree, effectively ending your turn. The advanced game adds a further interactive element in that players compete for having the longest road and the largest section of each color (red, blue, and yellow). The trick is that you must hold a token in your hand indicating that you intend to compete in a category. If you have the token and the largest total, you get three extra points; if you have it, but someone else has more than you in that category, you lose points. If you don’t grab the token, you are safe from losses but lose the opportunity to gain extra points. What makes this element different from other puzzle-solving real-time games is that it virtually requires you to look at what other players have before deciding to complete in a category. You won’t be able to count precisely, of course, but you need to have a general idea that, say, someone has an awful lot of yellow and perhaps you shouldn’t risk going for the largest yellow group this turn. Since the “puzzle” has no specific solution, you can divide your time between maximizing on-board points and maximizing your chance of winning one or more categories.

REAL-TIME AND REAL DECISIONS

The non-trading games discussed so far pretty well adhere to the pattern-matching or simple puzzle-solving paradigm. I am only aware of a few that try to add a real-time element to standard game play, and they deserve special mention. One is Space Alert, a co-operative game of defending a spaceship. This is one of the few games from this article that I have not actually played myself, but I love the concept. One difficulty with co-operative games is the most intelligent or forceful players will tend to dictate what everyone does. It makes sense to have a coordinated strategy rather than to have each player acting on his on, but it isn’t really a multi-player game if one player comes up with a strategy and you can either follow the plan (and make no decisions of your own) or go with your own plan (and alienate all the other people on the team). By introducing a timer, it becomes impossible for players to coordinate a strategy entirely in advance; you can only give general directions, and players have to make many decisions on their own whether they like it or not. Wok Star and Escape use similar mechanisms, but they are both more about speed and less about making decisions.

spacedealerSpace Dealer stands alone as a full-blown development game played in real time. The crucial aspect of the game is that each action requires a sand timer to empty before it can be completed. Each player has two sand timers that he can use for various activities: producing goods, shipping, and acquiring technology. What makes this game particularly interesting is that, although it is real-time, there are significant periods when a player has nothing to do but think of his next move. It is not frenetic in the same way as other real-time games but it still keeps the game moving. The major interactive feature is delivering goods to satisfy the demand at another player’s city, but it rarely becomes an issue in which players need to rush to be first; you can see if anyone else is already making a delivery (waiting for the timer to run out), and it is unlikely that two players would try to make a delivery at the same time. (What is likely is that you would produce goods in preparation for a delivery, only to find that someone else beat you to it, but that at least avoids two players throwing their pieces at the same time to beat each other.) The downfall of Space Dealer appears to be the poor quality of its timers, which often differ from each other by 10% or more. When everyone is using the same timer, this doesn’t matter much, but when each player has his own set of timers, it can turn an equal game into a very imbalanced one.
Excalibur deserves special mention as the only wargame that uses real-time turns (at least, as far as I have seen), and it does so in a unique and clever way. The game starts with four players entering from different board edges, and a player turn is mostly the familiar move-combat paradigm. What is different is that, in this game, two players move simultaneously. When you finish your turn, you pass the turn token to the next player who doesn’t already have one. In general, therefore, the tokens will rotate around the table, but a player who consistently moves more slowly will eventually find that he will miss a turn because he was still moving when the other token was passed. Despite this unique mechanism, which I love, Excalibur doesn’t completely solve the predictable problems of having two players moving simultaneously and it has not been well received (partly because of a huge rule gap that failed to mention certain terrain was impassible). It remains to be seen if anyone can make this – or any other idea – into a workable real-time wargame.

OUTLOOK

Real-time elements appear in a surprising variety of games, often in the brute-force form of a sand timer. Although I appreciate game elements that keep players from taking a long time, I find the timer method a necessary evil rather than a major benefit. The best real-time games allow players to move simultaneously, making the failure to act its own penalty as your opponent gets more accomplished. I am therefore partial to interactive games such as Bears!, Jab, and Light Speed. The disadvantage to these games is that the pressure to move is so imminent that there is hardly any time to think; and while I enjoy hyper-speed games on occasion, I am still hoping that someone can come up with a more moderately-paced game that does not use sequential turns to regulate play.

Games like Hawken, Space Dealer, and Excalibur have some promising ideas, but each has serious problems with implementation. Given all the innovation in this area in the past two decades, however, I am still hopeful of a breakthrough. Failing that, real-time games still form an important part of my collection and I look forward to finding out what clever ideas designers come up with next.


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