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Okay, this idea has come up for the 3rd time in conversation now, and it's been bugging me for years. The idea is a game where all players make decisions/issue orders to units while the game is in a paused state, and all the actions are executed at once, in real-time. This could be at any level from a TRPG (i.e. Final Fantasy Tactics), to a small-scale skirmish (i.e. Worms), to a game with bases and many units (i.e. Advance Wars), to a Risk-type game (i.e. Risk).

The main disadvantage to this I can see is that the player doesn't see the result of an action immediately. In a traditional turn-based or real-time strategy game, the user clicks "attack that fool" and there's an explosion straight away. There also might be weird situations (you send your unit to melee a unit running in the opposite direction, for example), but that's a low-level detail; a good game designer should be able to get around these things. Finally, there's the general paucity of turn-based games, but they offer a level of tactical depth impossible in real-time strategy games, and there's always a market for them (dozens of new TBSes appear each year).

  • Are there any games out there that use this paradigm?
  • Why aren't there more?
  • What would be necessary to make this work?
  • What potential issues could you foresee?

To clarify, I mean pure strategy. The commands are input beforehand, and the resolution is realtime, but it doesn't require realtime "twitch" input by players.

EDIT: Iain's answer pointed me to Laser Squad Nemesis, which basically answered the 2nd and 4th question ;-P -- If you want to know why this won't work, download the demo (It's 9MB) and click the first tutorial. OUCH! Of course, Laser Squad Nemesis's UI doesn't help (play and pause buttons? seriously? and why do I have to click "issue orders" every turn if that's the only thing I'm going to be doing?)

For simpler things (like the board games mentioned in a couple answers, or Zwok that Iain created), this paradigm works great! Issues seem to arise with a more traditional tactics/strategy game, because the lag between the entry of a command and the execution of the command is apparent. In fact Zwok - and some of the board games mentioned - work because off this lag, not in spite of it. You're encouraged to guess what your opponent will do next and "think ahead". However in a more traditional small-scale tactical strategy game, the frustration factor isn't worth it.

It might be interesting to see a game like this on a really large scale. For example, Lee and Napoleon didn't order their troops around in real-time, but rather made decisions based on information that was often hours old -- and it often took hours for those orders to get executed. Even today, generals don't have real-time top-down maps. But taking that "frustration factor" out would require some seriously deft game design.

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armorgames.com/play/5426/steambirds –  RCIX Aug 22 '10 at 6:03
It's not enough content to warrant a full answer; but one problem some commands might not be possible - e.g. if an enemy deletes a unit and you had an attack order on that unit; fog of war would also have the same problem in some situations - which would severely an otherwise well thought out play. –  Jonathan Dickinson Jan 5 '12 at 13:03
Most RTS games (e.g. Age of Empires 1 & 2, the Total War series) allow you to play single-player games in this style, as you can pause at any time, issue orders, then unpause and watch things unfold. I always play like this, and I refuse to play RTS games (like AOE3) that don't allow it because I dislike speed pressure in a strategy game. –  Nate C-K Mar 27 '13 at 14:57
Regarding your reference to Lee and Napoleon, there are board-based wargames that take various approaches to this problem; usually, rather than limiting the info available to the commander, they limit the extent of his control. The Gamers series (gamersarchive.net/thegamers/archive) does this by requiring you to issue orders to subcommanders that they may or may not obey faithfully. The "chit pull" system (e.g. gmtgames.com/p-112-glory-iii.aspx) randomizes the sequence of activation of your units, so that you may know what you want to do but be unable to do it in time. –  Nate C-K Mar 27 '13 at 15:01
Tabletop wargames are an area where there's a lot of innovation going on in terms of game systems, so I think it could be pretty beneficial to look into it. Most of the games' rules are available online in PDF form so you can read them and learn for them for free. (Of course you should buy and play any of them that draw your interest!) –  Nate C-K Mar 27 '13 at 15:03

16 Answers 16

up vote 6 down vote accepted

I first encountered this technique on a game called Laser Squad Nemesis. I always thought it was a great idea, and used it when I developed Zwok for Sony. It allows Zwok to have 6 player multiplayer without ever having to wait in turn.

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Just played the demo for Laser Squad Nemesis --That's definitely the idea, and the game looks appealing, but the UI is... ugh. Well, I guess that highlights some of the potential issues :-) –  OverMachoGrande Aug 19 '10 at 22:58
Zwok is kinda awesome! That's the right way to do it. –  OverMachoGrande Aug 19 '10 at 23:01

Are there any games out there that use this paradigm?

"Turn-based" and "real-time" are not mutually exclusive, so if you're asking if this has been done before, it depends on how you define them.

There are plenty of turn-based games where all players write down (or enter, or program, or whatever) their commands for the turn, secretly and simultaneously, then reveal and resolve. The resolution may not count as "real-time" unless it's being shown on the computer, the idea being the players are just sitting and watching the turn play out. The board game RoboRally, the pencil-and-paper game Spellcaster (aka Waving Hands), the online TCG Sanctum all come to mind instantly. You could easily mod a lot of turn-based games: consider Chess where you write down moves simultaneously, using some custom rules to resolve situations where one piece moves into a square just as another moves out, or two pieces cross paths or move into the same square at once. Simultaneous-move is not anything special, but it is an elegant way of removing the first-player advantage.

If you're thinking instead of a game where you make turn-based moves, and then the resolution of those moves happens in real-time through some kind of mini-game, the archetypal game of that type is the classic Archon. The more recent Mario Party series of games are a much more casual version of the same basic theme: move on a board, then play a mini-game to resolve the turn.

If instead you want some kind of mixture of real-time and turn-based, where you give turn-based orders but can then modify them in real-time based on what the opponent is doing, the sport of American Football sounds like it would fit that description.

Why aren't there more?

Who says there aren't?

What would be necessary to make this work? What potential issues could you foresee?

Depends entirely on how you define the mechanics. Mostly, the tricky thing with mixing turn-based and real-time is that you run the risk of combining the disadvantages with none of the strengths. Hardcore strategy gamers might dislike the twitch-based nature of combat resolution, while action gamers might dislike the level of strategizing in between the 'fun' parts.

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Thanks! Yes, I meant the first kind (where the resolution is in real time but depends entirely on the order given before; no twitchy input required). While you say "plenty", it seems like they're all board or card games, and few even in that space. Why doesn't that version of chess exist? Why not digital games ? Seems perfect for multiplayer turn-based strategy (which can get boring waiting for the other player to finish their turn; see Advance Wars). –  OverMachoGrande Aug 19 '10 at 22:01
I think Age of Wonders did this. Sanctum (which I mentioned) also worked this way. I remember playing a console tactical-RPG a long time ago that worked this way, where you'd enter your squad's orders and then they and the enemies would move simultaneously (I forget the name, unfortunately). You see this as a solution to the problem in multiplayer games of having to wait for your opponents to move, but that's not really a full solution; one player can still finish early and have to wait for the others. –  Ian Schreiber Aug 19 '10 at 23:07
Also, it makes a player's turn a lot more uncertain: you don't know exactly what will happen because what you order might not actually happen (e.g. if you try to move to an occupied location). Not all strategy players enjoy this kind of play, where they out-strategize the opponent only to be out-guessed and lose randomly (at least, that can be the perception), which I think is why it's not as common as "pure" real-time or turn-based. –  Ian Schreiber Aug 19 '10 at 23:09
First thought was RoboRally. Basically all actions have the equivalent of an initiative value. That value determines who goes first even within the real-time segment. So you still are really doing sequential resolution of actions, but neither player knows who's move will go first during their strategy phase. –  wkerslake Aug 19 '10 at 23:32

Neverwinter Nights and some of the Final Fantasy titles are turn-based and realtime simultaneously.

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Good examples, though no precisely what I was thinking. FFs only have action going on at once, so it's basically just turn-based (but actions can be entered in real-time). I haven't played NWN, but I thought it was you can pause the game to issue real-time orders? Good thought, but wouldn't work multiplayer. –  OverMachoGrande Aug 19 '10 at 23:04
Yeah, pretty much. But even without the pausing effect of NWN, it's still turn-based and realtime. The turns are time-based, while the action is still realtime. –  anthony-arnold Aug 20 '10 at 0:04

The board game Race for the Galaxy does this. All actions are chosen and placed face down, and then resolve "simultaneously". Apples to Apples also works like this in a way.

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Why has no one mentioned Frozen Synapse? It's exactly as you describe. Turns are planned and played out at the same time. It works amazingly well.


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Yeah, that looks like the sort of thing done right... if you watch the video, though i seems very slow-paced (they mentioned playing multiple games at once). I wonder if there's a way to speed it up but still keep the mechanic? –  OverMachoGrande Aug 20 '10 at 22:10
Frozen Synapse has a play by mail system. It allows players to submit moves and play matches over any span of time (minutes to days). Matches are as fast as the players want them to be. The key to it's gameplay and mechanics though has to do with managing the state of your units in response to how you predict your opponent will play. The victorious unit in an engagement is chosen based on upon who was in a better state. For example, if a unit is stationary watching a hallway and another unit is in the middle of walking, then the stationary unit will win due to being more prepared to fire. –  KlashnikovKid Jan 5 '12 at 3:28

Check out the design documentation and prototype for spacecrack, a simultaneous turn-based 4X space game. The docs are full of interesting observation on the nature of turb-based gaming and gaming in general, and make for a very interesting read.

In fact, all of Lost Garden is more than worth the trouble.

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PS: I saw that Ian mentioned Age of Wonders. That is specifically cited as an inspiration for Spacecrack. –  drxzcl Aug 20 '10 at 7:14

The classic Diplomacy works like this, of course (I can't believe nobody mentioned it yet ...). It's a great rule book to study if you're interested in such game modes, in particular in how they deal with conflicting move orders. You can download the rulebook on the official site.

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Of course, you can have actions queued up which simulates turns, but doesn't stop real-time action.

The Sims has a good implementation of this with actions appearing at the top of the screen and vanishing as they are performed.

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This sounds very similar to the combat mechanics of Star Trek: Birth of the Federation. That was actually the first 4X TBS game I ever played, and I was rather surprised to discover that combat in other 4X TBS games did not follow a similar model. I thought it worked very well. In fact, I'm developing an unofficial sequel to that very game, and I plan on implementing a very similar combat system.

Here's a breakdown of how it worked:

  • The game itself uses simultaneous turn-based mechanics: all players issue orders at the same time and then signal their readiness to end the turn.
  • As part of the turn processing, combat might occur.
  • Combat occurs in rounds/turns. Note that these "turns" are different from game turns; entire combat sessions (i.e. battles) actually take place between game turns as part of the turn processing.
  • During each combat turn, players issue orders to their fleets. These orders generally consist of a maneuver (e.g. charge, circle, fly over/under, etc.) and a target. The only exceptions I can think of are 'retreat' or 'avoid', which do not have a target associated with them.
  • Once all players have issued their orders, the results of that turn play out in real time.
  • This process repeats probably 3-6 times on average until a victor emerges, both sides retreat, or both sides open hailing frequencies in lieu of engaging in combat.

Personally, I think there are some very compelling reasons to go with such a system. In contrast to games like Civilization (in which combat progresses as a series of 1v1 skirmishes), it provides real-time cinematics of a grand battle where all units are engaging at once. I also tend to think it works better than completely real-time combat systems like the one in MoO3 because:

  • It maintains the simultaneous turn-based mechanics of the game.
  • By restricting the player to simple orders consisting of a maneuver and a target, combat time can be kept reasonably short (remember, other players are waiting on you!). In a system where players can issue real-time orders, it would be easier to draw combat out by luring enemy forces away, playing hide-and-seek via cloaking, etc.
  • Because players issue simple maneuvers instead of setting a course themselves, it's easier to take advantage of combat in all three dimensions (if you're building a space-based strategy game). Instead of needing a clumsy 2D interface to plot an "attack from above" in 3D space, the player simply has to click "attack from above" and be done with it.
  • It's a hell of a lot easier to develop ;).
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Here's a video of a combat session in BotF: youtube.com/watch?v=26cuUjrRnNw –  Mike Strobel Aug 20 '10 at 16:36

My idea for how to implement this revolves around each turn, having units possess a specific amount of "energy" or "mana" or some other thing that allows a unit to do only so much during the real time resolution (think Civilization, or the Total War series)

That way, you might tell a melee unit to attack another unit, and if the other unit is told to move away, then the melee unit will move as close as it can, but may not necessarily get the attack off.

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I would say the main reason is simply that resolving conflicting orders is complicated. It's far easier to force each move to be made in isolation than to try and decide which of several moves that might contest the same position or resource should take precedence.

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Sure it's complicated, but who's it complicated for? If it's complicated for the user, I can see the argument; if it's complicated for the game designer, well... that's their job, right? –  OverMachoGrande Aug 20 '10 at 19:00
It's complicated for the developer. Complications mean extra development time and cost, and possibly the increased chance of bugs, and maybe difficulty testing and balancing gameplay. A decision has to be made, and often it's worth dropping some of the requirements so that you can do a better job on the other ones. –  Kylotan Aug 23 '10 at 14:50
Fair enough.... –  OverMachoGrande Aug 26 '10 at 2:06

An example of a game that uses this paradigm is Flotilla. The space combat sequences start with a simple three-step setup for each ship (direction, speed, target). You get a "ghosted" preview of where your ship will move when the orders are executed. Once you've set up all your ships, you commit your actions, then the game runs real-time for 30 seconds. The only thing you can do during that time is sit and cringe as your plans go awry. Once the 30 seconds are up, everything freezes (including projectiles in mid-flight) and you repeat until all of the ships from one side are destroyed.

As you stated above, a primary reason that there aren't more of these games is the lack of instant gratification. A secondary reason might be the steeper learning curve: the feedback cycle for trial and error is much longer than in real-time games.

Perhaps to mitigate the feedback issue, you could allow very limited real-time tweaking of each individual unit. This would make it easier in the early game, where you are likely to have fewer units: you can spend your time on those few units with a shorter feedback cycle while still learning the larger strategies. The amount of real-time that you have remains constant, though, so as the number of units grow you would not be able to tweak more than a few units, downplaying the usefulness in the later game.

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The "lack of instant gratification" is an interesting point. I think it really depends on the scale of combat in the game. If you have only a handful of units, then one might prefer to see an immediate result. But for large-scale battles (e.g. fleet-based space battles), I'd find it less gratifying to see the battle proceed one unit at a time. The delay seems like a fair trade-off when you get to witness the resulting fleet actions carried out in an epic battle, even if the battle is broken up into turns. –  Mike Strobel Aug 20 '10 at 18:16

Simultaneous turn-based games are common enough, mainly in the wargame genre, where they're sometimes referred to as "WEGO" turn-based systems. As already mentioned, Laser Squad Nemesis would be the main example of a squad-level one. On slightly larger scales, the Combat Mission series from Battlefront would be a good example; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combat_Mission_%28video_game_series%29

Re problems with this approach, I think the main one would be the greater demands on the AI - the player's units have to be able to work autonomously and respond to unexpected situations well. Eg, the player send their squad around a courtyard, and mid-way through that, the opponent's guys appear around a corner. The player isn't going to be too happy if his squad just keeps on moving and gets taken out, so they have to be able to branch off from their original orders and respond appropriately - and just stopping on the spot, standing there and shooting probably won't suffice.

Obviously the AI opponents have to do that in any kind of turn-based game anyway, but it's a lot easier to convince the player that someone not under their control and not very visible has a game plan. Whereas if the player's own units mess up his carefully planned orders by coming apart when faced with unexpected (but reasonable) scenarios, you're going to lose your player pretty quick. That's the main issue I'd see, aside from gameplay concerns like balancing how long the execution phase is, how much can be done in it, etc.

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Yup; agreed all-round. I was thinking way to solve this might be to allow units to only execute one command per turn (like most console TRPGS - FFT, Disgaea, etc.). This would reduce, if not eliminate, the issue. But I'm not sure if it would be enough to give players back that feeling of control –  OverMachoGrande Aug 22 '10 at 5:52

I think Dan Bunten's Global Conquest fits your definition. Players issued gave movement and action instructions to all of their units and then all of the orders were executed at once.

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If you don't mind widening the scope a bit for examples, Scorched Earth has a mode like this, where everyone sets what they're doing for the turn before having everyone execute at the same time.

Also in an even looser sense, Grandia (RPG).

Whenever someone's turn crops up, it pauses on them, then when you assign the action they wait a specific amount of time during which they can be "canceled" by a hard hit (spells/abilities take longer than attacks which just take a moment). Once they are done building to the attack they go off to do it. This does mean shortly after they are done they have a tendency to just stand still, but it does make things like evasion (choosing to run to another point) and AoE (actually takes into account who's in the target area at the moment the spell goes off) have interesting effects.

Also if you queue up an attack, and the enemy takes off to attack someone elsewhere, your person will attempt to chase them down for a certain distance then stop. If they run by, they'll take a swipe at the target but depending on their attack animation/direction/speed they may or may not hit.

Both of these are not traditional Turn-Based Strategy, but elements of the gameplay you are looking for are shown in each. Might help give a different angle on bits and pieces of it.

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I love Grandia's battle system (though later in the game it turns into just casting a bunch of spells; the cool timing mechanics aren't as important). –  OverMachoGrande Jun 17 '11 at 1:14
Perhaps, but I found (I forget if it was II or Extreme) that having one of your people with a ranged critical and making sure they're really fast is pretty useful to have for taking the bite out of the worst of the bosses attacks. –  Lunin Jun 17 '11 at 16:42

The idea of simultanous turn based gaming is quite old, actually. In industrial age around 1800, it has surfaced as Kriegsspiel - german for wargame - and was used to train officers in the Prussian army. Also, the concept is well known in the board game community, with early game system titles like Diplomacy beeing released in 1959.

As for computerized versions of simultanous turn based system, the play by mail and then the play be email genre spawned many a game. Notable examples of more complex, large scale war-gaming that orginated in the 1980s and 1990s are STARWEB (by Rick Loomis, now remade as RSW-Game), Olympia (Shadow Island Games/Rich Skrenta), Galaxy and Atlantis (both by Russell Wallace), Prometheus (Mathias Kettner) and Wolfpack Empire. Order cycles usally were about one week due to the high amount of game units and order complexity e.g. 200 units with 5-6 orders each. A modern representation of this kind of game system is the open source game Freeciv.

All of these games use a certain degree of abstraction when it comes to the simulation of the player unit's action in the game world - some of them tend to simulate more, while others are more on the abstract side of this. As such, some games do not feature fully simultanous game actions, while others try to emulate this model as closely as possible. These beforementioned games represent very complex game systems that are not found anymore in todays strategy game shelves - mostly for market reasons and the problem of GUI - some of these games are still played by hard core strategy enthusiasts.

I advise to search for the games mentioned above to find out whether some instances are still running.

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