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Jon Shafer, Blogger

January 7, 2013

9 Min Read

You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

One of the strategy genre’s most important dividing lines is the manner in which time passes – is it continuous, as in the real world? Or is it segmented into phases designed to restrict player activity? Many strategy fans favor one over the other and the “debates” between these groups often grow contentious. When a prominent series switches sides it often leads to proclamations of imminent doom, or at the very least a fair bit of teeth-gnashing.

While there’s certainly been a great deal of conversation pertaining to this topic, rare are truly comprehensive studies which seek to identify what differentiates turn-based games from their real-time cousins. Good designers need to be well-versed in the strengths and weaknesses of both.



One of the most basic differences between the turn-based and real-time mediums is the natural appeal and approachability offered by each. And the issue isn’t nearly as simple as“one type is easy to get into and the other isn’t.”

Real-time games offer experiences more akin to everyday life. Sure, waiting in line at the grocery store might be “turn-based,” but everything we do is just one link in an endless chain of events. I walk from here to there and it takes a minute or so. Or maybe two. It doesn’t really matter. In an RTS you might order some troops across the map, and they’ll keep going until they get there and will arrive in a minute or two. This sense of familiarity provides a measure of comfort to many players, particularly those with more casual tastes.

Real-time isn’t for everyone though. The time pressure exerted on players can generate feelings of anxiety, sometimes to an extreme degree. Some people relish timed challenges, but many do not.

What should I be doing? Wait, what’s that? Oh, I’ve screwed up already, I just know it. Wow, he found my base already? Ugh, this isn’t fun…

Experienced gamers often forget that it takes a fair amount of effort to get into any game more complex than rock-paper-scissors. There are people who do enjoy that initial “okay, where’s the light switch?” phase, but most would prefer to skip ahead to the good stuff – that moment at which they’ve obtained some level of mastery and are no longercompletely lost. The ability to learn at one’s own pace is a huge plus in turn-based strategy’s column.


Hint #32 that your game might have pacing issues - you include an


The rate at which events occur is perhaps the biggest difference between turn-based and real-time games. Recall that pacing is simply the rate at which “something interesting” happens. In a turn-based game the designer has virtually no control over when, in terms of actual seconds or minutes, events will take place. A frenetic player could finish a game in an hour – a methodical one might do so in twenty.

For many turn-based strategy fans this flexibility is one of the medium’s best features, but it’s not always a positive. A lesson designers learn early on is that what players think they want and what they actually want often don’t align in the slightest! One of the rough edges that has long plagued the Civilization series is the pacing of the first ten or twenty turns when players only have a couple widgets to fiddle with. The need to hit the enter key five times in a row to get past the boring part is not a quality to be proud of. I’ve watched more than a handful of playtests in which individuals would end their turn only cautiously and reluctantly. And they’re right to be hesitant, as a game with better pacing would not have thrust them in such a position.

Designers of a real-time game are blessed with the capacity to know precisely that players can train eight space marines in 30 seconds and will have trained their first ultralisk between 8 and 12 minutes in. Exact numbers of this sort can never be to everyone’s liking, but it greatly simplifies the designer’s task of ensuring a fairly smooth experience for all.


Not everyone has their priorities in line.



Turn-based games may not have the advantage of natural pacing, but they certainly make up for it in other ways. Their greatest strength is granting players control in deciding what’s important and what isn’t.

The manner in which time flows subtly informs players what they should be focusing on. In a broad sense, turn-based games reward analysis and preparation, while real-time ones reward pattern-recognition and execution.

When one is racing against the clock it’s more important to be prompt than it is to beperfect. When an enemy’s arrival is imminent, simply putting any army into the field takes precedence over tuning its exact composition. As such, real-time games tend to be enjoyed by players who enjoy performing feats of skill and feed off of the mastery developed through practice.

With unlimited time it becomes possible to derive the “best” possible solution for a situation. Not everyone’s brain works at breakneck speed, and turn-based games offereveryone - fast or slow, young or old – the opportunity to exhibit their prowess. While this quality certainly offers advantages, it also comes paired with potential drawbacks…


Master of Orion 3 KINDA jumped the micromanagement shark.



The ability, and perhaps, necessity of delving into minutia can be both a weakness (Civilization 3) and a feature (Starcraft). Obviously, the more time players have to make a decision the more of an opportunity there is for them to direct every last detail. This naturally encourages designers of turn-based games to add complexity, and it’s possible for these two factors to intertwine and strangle gameplay. Master of Orion 3 is one such title which strayed way off the deep end.

Real-time games typically feature significantly less micromanagement. By necessity they must hide certain elements behind the scenes, as there is an upper limit to how many balls even the most skillful player can juggle at once. There are also some types of micromanagement that don’t really make sense in a real-time game.

The ability to move units between discrete grid tiles is a core aspect of many turn-based games, but trying to wedge such a feature into one that’s real-time would be a questionable decision at best. Tiles are an abstraction of the real world which helps designers and players understand and manage the map. A tile-less map is more loose and less precise – the opposite qualities turn-based games favor. There’s a managerial tax associated with tiles that fortunately becomes almost irrelevant when players have unlimited time to make decisions. However, in a real-time game where every second counts do players really have time to be worrying about the specific plot of land their spearmen are standing on?

When incorporated effectively, micromanagement is an excellent way for players to develop mastery. Both turn-based and real-time games can use it as a tool to highlight the differences in skill between players. The Starcraft 2 team unabashedly placed an artificially-low cap on the number of units which can be ordered around as a group because they wanted an unlevel playing field. Obviously this approach isn’t right for every title, but the success of the Starcraft franchise helps remind us that game design is still very much an art where the palette available to developers is vast indeed!

So how do you determine what level of micromanagement is appropriate then? The key factor is usually a game’s pacing. A good example of a real-time game that leans more towards the turn-based bucket is Paradox’s Europa Universalis series. These games offer players many more knobs than a traditional RTS, and their extremely powerful game speed options almost suggest that they’re a sort of turn-based/real-time “hybrid.” There are people who actually play the games as though they were turn-based, pausing the flow of time frequently to survey the situation and issue orders, then resuming for the sole purpose of simulating the “resolution phase” – basically the same flow as in a turn-based game.


X-COM: Apocalypse was an interesting turn-based/real-time hybrid, but ultimately it fell short of expectations.



Paradox isn’t the only company which has made a stab at creating games which don’t really fit into either the turn-based or real-time category. However, they each pose very different design problems and by combining the two you’re essentially trying to make two games in one. And as any designer can tell you, the job of making just one is tough enough! Making direct comparisons between the two mediums is mostly an academic exercise, but there are a few examples of titles which attempted to do both – without much success.

One such case is the fascinating “turnless” mode in Civilization 3: Play the World. The core mechanics were basically identical to the standard Civ 3 experience, only with cooldown timers attached to research, city production, unit movement, etc. The primary motivation was to create a mode for multiplayer that didn’t have absolutely glacial pacing. Unfortunately, the end result fell flat pretty much across the board.

The problem was that the rest of the game’s design assumed players could set everything aside and focus their attention on a single task. Diplomatic negotiations were a frantic dance which often ended in one player suddenly closing the window in order to put out a fire somewhere else. Warfare devolved into a race to move one’s army into the most defensible tile before the enemy could do so himself. Proper economic management was absolutely impossible, as Civ 3 required such a daunting level of micromanagement that most players were overwhelmed even when not up against the clock.

The “simultaneous turns” mode utilized in the more recent Civ games shares many of these same problems, but the lack of individual timers at least ensures the flow of a turn roughly matches the singleplayer experience.

Another title which made a more serious attempt to straddle the turn-based/real-time divide is X-COM: Apocalypse. Some players loved the addition of real-time combat, but it was by no means universally loved. Because of the dramatic impact on pacing and priorities a large number of fans turned their back the game, and Apocalypse is often regarded as the X-COM series’ “black sheep.” The end result was a more cohesive whole than what Play the World offered, but it was still popularly viewed as a misstep.

Game design is rarely as simple as “good” or “bad.” The expectations of your fans is often the best compass available to you. Few development decisions impact the overall feel of a strategy game more than how time is handled. Hopefully this article has been instructive. Now then – choose carefully, designers!

- Jon

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Jon Shafer


Jon Shafer is a lead designer at Stardock Entertainment, currently directing an unannounced project. Prior to working at Stardock, He was the lead designer and principal gameplay programmer for Civilization 5 while at Firaxis Games. Jon lives in Michigan and (when he's not fighting-the-good-fight on behalf of PC games) spends his free time cooking, listening to podcasts and playing strategy games/RPGs.

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