Sunday, 17 November 2013

Drawing cards to determine player turn during a boardgame

We've been looking at a few Wild West skirmish game rulesets online, with a view to implementing some ideas in our electronic board game. One thing we were unsure about was how a turn-based shoot-out could actually work:

"My go. I shoot your characters - him, him and him. And that got just got wounded. Four of your five guys are out of action. Your go."

What a boring game that would make!
Some games try to address this problem using "initiative" - players can bid or roll dice to determine who gets to go first. Some Wild West type games split each turn into movement and firing. One player moves all their pieces, then the other player all theirs. Only then does the shooting start.

But all these feel like a "fudge" to address the problem that the person who goes first has a distinct advantage. An interesting solution to this problem used by many games (including "Blaze of Glory" and "The Rules With No Name") is to use a deck of cards (either playing cards, where each card represents a character in the game, or a deck of specially made cards, each depicting a character from the game).

The basic idea is that a card (or cards) for each playing piece is put into a deck and at the start of each turn, the deck is shuffled. Players activate their characters as their card is turned from the top of the deck.
Some rules use just one card per playing piece, some rules give each character a "level" which represents how many times their card should appear in the deck (suggesting that "better" characters can be activated more times per turn).

It's a neat idea, and solves the problem of one player annihilating the other completely, before the second player has a chance to take their turn. It also means that one player may have the opportunity of moving two or more pieces in succession but this would only be addressed by the other player having the same opportunity later in the turn.

An important element of this "random" turn taking that doesn't get much discussion is that it stops players anticipating what may happen during their opponent's turn, and moving their pieces to accommodate this. For example, in a typical you-go-I-go style game, the first player may anticipate where their opponent is likely to move to, move half of their playing pieces to perform tasks to stop this (shooting at opposing characters) and if this fails, move their remaining pieces in a sort of Plan B defence move (move and put them on overwatch, to fire at enemy characters during the other player's turn).

By not being able to anticipate which character moves next during a turn, each player must "think on their feet" and try to maximise what each playing piece can do while activated.

We think it's a great game mechanic.
It obviously wouldn't work for games played over distance, or for turn-based games played online (each turn could potentially take days to resolve, as each player moves just one character then hands play over to their opponent) but for face-to-face games, it seems like a really good idea. So good, in fact, we might borrow the mechanic for a sports simulator game for our electronic board game(s).

The problem with games like Blood Bowl (which originally started this whole project about two years ago!) is that the turn-based approach gets abused by players looking to win.
All too often, they will move their entire team during their turn (while the opponent looks on helplessly) to create an almost impenetrable formation. Because each player can move every character in their entire team during their turn, the game does not "flow" naturally.

For example, in Blood Bowl, a dropped ball means the immediate end of your turn. So a player may move a piece ready to catch the ball - but instead of then throwing the ball, the fear of it being dropped and causing the turn to end immediately means they then move supporting players into strategic positions (either supporting the catching player, or trying to "take out" opposing players who might be able to reach the catcher on their next turn) before attempting to complete the pass.

This is, of course, entirely within the rules. But it just makes the gameplay feel a little disjointed. Having to perform an action with the character whose card is next of the deck is a great way of introducing that spur-of-the-moment action back into what is supposed to be a fast-paced sports game.

We're really looking forward to trying these rules out and seeing how they work for a sports-style game. Of course, it'd be great to be able to run it on some hardware and try out an electronic version. But for now, we'll have to settle with a board drawn with felt-tipped pens and a handful of dice!

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