Set Phaser to Stun – A discussion of Phases vs Turns

When designing a game I usually start by picking a theme that I think would be fun and unique. Then I start to build some mechanics around that theme that seem to fit it well. Eventually I get to a point where I have to figure out how the game is actually played. That’s where today’s article comes in.

There seems to be two main ways that games are played. Some games have turns and some games have rounds with phases.

What follows is a discussion on each of those as well as some of my opinions about how to choose which option is right for your game design. But first I wanted to make sure we are all on the same wavelength in terms of terminology. In this article I refer to “turns,” “rounds,” and “phases.” The best succinct definition I found online was in this thread and is a quote by Sen-Foong Lim, co-designer of Belfort among many other games:

Players take turns executing phases within a round. A game is comprised of several rounds of play.

That’s how I am understanding each of the terms I use throughout this article. Thanks Sen-Foong!

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Turn Based Games…

A turn based game is one where a player takes their turn and then plays proceeds to the next player. Each turn is performed in a similar manner as the previous turns.

Turn based awesomeness.

Example: Ticket to Ride

On your turn in Ticket to Ride you perform one of three actions: building a route, drawing train cards, or drawing destination card.

Every turn presents you with those same three choices.

Every turn is the same.

The game builds from turn to turn, so the choices you make vary, however, the options are always the same.

This form of gameplay is usually more accessible and easier to teach and learn.

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Round Based Games…

Round based games can further be separated into two main categories:

  1. “Pause” Type – Games where rounds separate the gameplay for a special event.
  2. “Seasonal” Type – Games where rounds establish differences in available actions.

Pause Type

A Pause Type round based game is one where players perform a standard action on their turn. This repeats until all players have performed as many actions as they are allowed. Then the round ends and an intermediate event occurs.

Round based torment of making sure you can feed your family.

Example: Agricola

On your turn in Agricola you place one of your family members on an action spot and perform the action. This continues until all players have taken their turns with their associated family members. Once all players have done so, the round ends.

The intermediate step between rounds is often a harvest where players gather crops and feed their family. Then a new round begins.

The turns are the same, but there are breaks that separate the gameplay, dividing the game into rounds.

So while each turn itself offers the same choices, the game is broken up to include more than just the turns you take. Players must deal with the requirements of the intermediate events.

Seasonal Type

A Seasonal Type round based game is one where players take actions specific to the current phase of the round. These are games where only specific actions are available depending on the current phase of the round. So each turn a player takes offers different options.

Auction, Buy Fuel, Build Network, Exert Supremacy!

Example: Power Grid

What you do on your turn in “Seasonal” games like Power Grid depends on the “season” you are in. Power Grid rounds begin with a power plant auction. So this portion of a round involves deciding if you want a power plant, which one, and how much you are willing to pay. After that players purchase fuel and determine the type(s) and how much fuel they will buy. Then players must decide if they will expand their power grid by building on the board. After that phase comes a sort of “clean-up” phase where players use fuel to power their grid and earn income.

In these types of games each round offers a series of different types of choices for players.

Seasonal type games are usually the least accessible in terms of teaching and learning the game. However, they often offer greater and deeper strategy.

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Choosing Turn Based vs Round Based

This can be a difficult part of game design. On one hand most designers would agree that they want their game to be as easy to teach, learn, and understand as possible. On the other hand most designers would also like their game to have a nice deep level of strategy that present difficult and interesting decisions to the players.

I want to make it clear that turn-based doesn’t necessarily equate to “easy to teach, learn, and understand,” and round-based doesn’t necessarily equate to “deep strategy and interesting decisions.” But I would say, in general, that turn-based are simpler to teach and learn, which makes them more accessible.

So how do you decide if your game should be turn based or round based? In general I always start my designs as turn-based and then modify that if it becomes apparent that round-based would be better. But let’s take a look at a few things that might help you make your decision.

What does the theme call for?

If you are designing a game where there is no reason for phases, then design for turns. Qwirkle and most other abstract games are deserving of being turn-based.

Sometimes a theme makes it obvious that round-based play would be better. If you want players doing different things throughout the game it might make sense to have phases where each player works through the different aspects of the game.

I recommend that you choose turns or rounds with your theme in mind. If it fits thematically then you’re on the right track!

What are your desired mechanics?

The things you want a play to do during a game can help you make the decision. If you are using a worker placement mechanic, most often you will have a round based game. Stone Age is a great example. In each round players put there family members on different spots. Once all are placed then the next phase begins, of bringing your family back. Then there is a phase of feeding your family and resetting the board.

But that’s not always the case with worker placement. An exception is The Manhattan Project. In that worker placement games there are no rounds with phases. Rather, once your workers are out on the board you will spend a turn bringing them back.

It’s important to consider what you actually want players to do during a game. This can help you choose the mechanics and whether you want the game to be turn-based or round-based.

What’s more fun for the game?

One of my game design principles is to make things fun. That may seem obvious but I’m surprised by how often I pick a theme or a mechanic that ultimately would not be fun. So throughout my design process I continually ask myself, “Would this be fun?”

As the designer I recommend you ask that same question about your game. Would turn-based be fun? Would round-based be fun? Which option would be more fun?

We are designing board games here, not water bottles or bicycle gears. What we are doing is all about fun. So don’t forget to include that in the design!

Horizontal RuleWell I hope I’ve provided you with at least something to get you started. The bottom line regarding turns or rounds is that both can be fun, interesting, and can make for a good game. How do you choose which one works best for your designs?

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Posted on January 23, 2015, in Board Games, Game Design, The Boards and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I don’t think round based games are designing for depth. Deep games tend to be turn based. Thematic games tend to be round based, and every additional layer of realism (not depth) makes turn based harder to do.

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