Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Whadayamean, “Turn-Based?”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 5, 2013

It seems to me that the last couple of years have brought something of a resurgence of turn-based gaming. Now, it was never truly dead or completely niche – Civilization remains one of the best-selling games on the planet, and it has (thankfully!) remained comfortably turn-based for all of this time. Meanwhile, most other “strategy” games and role-playing games went real-time (“action!”) around the mid 90′s and never looked back…

xcomss13Until now.  Mostly driven from the indie front, but also in part from the new XCom: Enemy Unknown (also created by the makers of Civilization). While it’s still a long way from becoming the “norm,” it is at least getting a second look. And, among the indie-set, advertising a game as turn-based can actually be a selling point.

But what does “turn-based” actually mean? At it’s heart, it means players take turns taking their actions. It is normally imagined as the polar opposite of real-time or action-based combat, where the game progresses at a fixed pace and players can issue orders to their avatar or units as quickly as they want (but said units also act at their own pace, and can’t do everything at once).

Turn-based, on the other hand, doesn’t depend upon the player’s reaction speed. The game waits for the player to declare their move(s), as in a game of chess. This provides more thoughtful game pacing, but has a pretty significant downside in a multiplayer setting, as inevitably one player must end up waiting for the other player to complete their move. Even in single-player games, there may be stretches where the player is watching the action unfold rather than actually playing the game, which is not generally considered a good thing.

But when we speak of “turn-based,” there are actually lots of different variations on the theme. Many variants exist specifically to address the weaknesses of turn-based play, to keep it engaging for all players throughout the game. When you hear that a strategy game is “turn-based,” or that an RPG has “turn-based combat,” it can actually mean a great number of different things. Here are some of the more common variants:

civ5Classical Turn Based (“IGoUGo”):
First up, we have the classic turn-based systems. In wargaming circles, this is referred to as “I Go, You Go” (or “IGoUGo”). This is the simplest form of turn-based system, used in Chess, Tic-Tac-Toe, Civilization V.  In a nutshell, one player takes his complete turn, and then the other player takes his. Repeat. In Chess, when an entire move consists of moving a single piece, this is not such a big deal. In a game like Civilization (and I confess I’ve never played the Civs in multiplayer mode), the turns can be pretty big, particularly in late-game.

Timed Turn-Based:
I think of this one as the counterpart to Real-Time With Pause (see below). In this variant, a player has a time limit in which to complete her move. This time limit can be fixed per turn, or be some sort of cumulative value (30 minutes for the whole game), a combination of both, or even a certain amount of time after the first player completes his turn (leading to a whole ‘nother strategy of gaming the clock…) This variant is pretty straightforward, but the time pressure keeps the game moving, and can also impose a bit of a handicap against a player who is ahead in the game (and thus has more to manage) – which could be considered a feature.

Turn-Based With Reactions:
This is another variant that behaves very much like a classical turn-based system, but the “non-active” players are able to react to the active player’s moves under certain condition. This could be as simple as automatic “reaction fire” taking place when a unit breaks cover in front of an enemy unit, or a more complicated reaction requiring the inactive player to make a decision (if only to choose “do I take this attack of opportunity or not”).  The major advantage of this kind of system is more realistic rules to limit the gaming of turn-based limitations, but it can also help keep inactive players engaged when it is not their turn.

Phase-Based:
This variant breaks a turn into distinct phases that resolve independently. Players alternate actions at the phase level, rather than at the turn level. For example, a game might have a movement phase separate from a fighting phase, so that all players move first, and only then do they resolve attacks. This approach can reduce the advantage of going first (or last, in some game systems), and it shrinks the individual stretches during which a player is inactive. In at least one game I’ve played (Supremacy, a board-game from the 1980s), players could only choose to participate in some of the phases, skipping the rest. This usually meant that a player actively engaged in warfare with another country couldn’t fully participate in the economic development phases. Wizardry and The Bard’s Tale (original) games are often described as phase-based games, with a command phase followed by a resolution phase, though these could also be considered a variation of Simultaneous Resolution (see below).

Activation-Based:
In this variant players take turns moving (activating) units (usually one at a time or two at a time), until all units have had their turn. Players can choose which units go at which time, which can present all kinds of interesting tactical opportunities. It provides somewhat more realism than classic turn-based systems — and keeps the players engaged with very short rounds. However, said “tactical opportunities” can also lead to “gaming the system.”

As a point of personal interest, Frayed Knights 1: The Skull of S’makh-Daon uses a Unit Initiative based system, while Frayed Knights 2: The Khan of Wrath is using something far closer to an Activation based system.

shadowrunfightUnit Initiative-Based:
This variation of turn-based also has players moving units individually and alternating actions during the course of a turn, the order is determined by an initiative system for the individual units, rather than letting the player decide over the course of a complete turn. In other words, during the course of a turn, all units on all sides have an order in which they become active and can be moved. This is the classic approach of Dungeons & Dragons and older, party-based games either directly licensing or inspired by the system.

Simultaneous Resolution:
This can be viewed as a special case of a phase-based system. It works best with computer moderation or with very simple actions. In this variant, all players provide their moves more-or-less simultaneously and then these actions are resolved independently -  all at once, using a real-time system, or by unit initiative.  The trick with this kind of system is that some of the player’s intended moves may be invalidated during the resolution phase, in which case some sort of automated fallback is chosen (for example, attacking the next closest enemy if the chosen target is already dead). I really consider the Wizardry games (and many 16-bit era JRPGs) to fall into this category, as well as wargames like the Combat Mission series, and the most excellent Frozen Synapse.  It’s also used in the boardgame (as I recall) Robo Rally, which I never liked too much because it felt too much like my day job programming. :)

BGEE_combatReal-Time With Pause:
This is more of a variant of real-time / action systems, but they keep a toe in the turn-based side of the line by allowing full input of player moves while paused. In theory, the player can get the best of both worlds. With regular pausing, the gameplay is a lot like Simultaneous Resolution games.  In fact, the Baldur’s Gate and other Infinity Engine games (which are credited with popularizing this approach), players could actually trigger pauses to occur automatically under certain conditions, forcing the issue.

The Meaning of “Turn-Based”

Clearly, there are more variations than I listed here, but I think these covers the most popular, most broad categories. Naturally, many games have mixed and matched and provided their own unique spin on each of these categories.

While it works well enough as a high-level “catch-all” to describe games that do not depend heavily on player reaction speed for success, the term “turn-based” really has a huge variety of meanings. Each variation has a dramatic impact on gameplay, and may work best in different types of games or circumstances. They are not all created equal.

And then players may have their own favorites…


Filed Under: Design, Dice & Paper - Comments: 17 Comments to Read



  • Infinitron said,

    I’m confused. What’s your label for an X-Com like system where you can interleave your characters’ movements and actions within a single turn? Is that “classic” turn-based? Because to me the more “classic” system is what you described as “Unit Initiative-Based”.

  • Felix said,

    Indeed, people usually balk at the proposition of turn-based multiplayer, because they can only think of the first form (IgoUgo). They seem surprised when I tell them that FreeCiv for example uses simultaneous resolution (optionally with a time limit for turns) and it works very well.

    Speaking of time limits, that’s how Worms managed to keep the gameplay dynamic, in addition to an activation-based system. But Worms also featured very simple decisions and controls.

    And yes, real-time with pause worked exceptionally well in the Infinity Engine games. But knowing a little about time systems in roguelikes, I can tell it’s probably a nightmare to implement.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Infinitron – I’d call XCom “Turn Based With Reactions” (automated reactions). In most turn-based systems, you aren’t constrained to whatever order you need to do things. It’s true that because there are reactions involved, the order in which you move your people *does* make a difference. But in XCom (both original and modern), there are very distinctive player turns vs. alien turns.

    @Felix – Really? You think RTwP would be a nightmare to implement? I’m not sure I see that. At least, not beyond the nightmare that making *any* kind of RTS-style system would be (which ain’t exactly trivial).

    And you mentioned FreeCiv – dang. I haven’t heard that name in forever. Years. Now I’m inspired to check it out!

  • Tesh said,

    “Turn-Based with Reactions” is where I’d peg Frozen Synapse, though it also allows time turns and play-by-email sorts of no-time-limit shenanigans. It’s a great game in my book.

  • Maklak said,

    Fallout Tactics strangely enough had 2 modes:
    * I go – you go (at least I’m pretty sure, I moved all my people at once) with reactions. It was slow and boring because for a team of six I had to fire and end turn too many times.
    * It also had a sort-of real time with pause, but with an extra twist: speed of units depended on their initiative and equipped weapon. Action points (needed for actions) were recharging in real time and faster, the more of them there were. To me this mode usually lead to my units dying in shootouts.

  • Chad said,

    In Tales of Illyria we use an initiative based real-time system. Either you or the AI will pick an order for every party member. The order goes into the queue based on action speed. The game engine then process each order one at a time. The AI will pick a different target if the selected target dies. We even have an option to allow you to pause combat entirely and reissue all your orders.

    It works extremely well is fun and very fast paced. Combats are typically over in a minute. If you fail you can retry the combat.

    FYI Tales of Illyria is often described as the best RPG on Android. Every thing is streamlined and it plays like a pen & paper role-playing game. Matt Barton makes a cameo in it as the Rat Herder.

  • Infinitron said,

    Jay: I’m not talking about the reactions. I’m talking about the fact within your turn, you can control your units in whatever order you please, including switching back and forth between them multiple times and spending all their time units in whatever order you please.

    To me, that’s not the typical mode of turn-based combat. I call that “Squad Turn-Based”. Regular turn-based is when you’re round-robined between characters in some order, and you can control only one at a time.

  • Infinitron said,

    Fallout Tactics had three modes: the real time mode (“continuous turn-based”), squad turn-based and regular turn-based.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Inifinitron – that’s how it works with most turn-based games that I have played… you can move units and choose commands in any order you want. Think Civilization, Master of Orion, etc. While there’s a “default” order the computer might help you out with, there’s no requirement to actually go in that order. Or change things that otherwise wouldn’t come up. Unless I’m totally misunderstanding what you are saying.

  • LRN said,

    What about the “plan & go with pause” system? It was used in UFO After* titles, and despite not being heart-warming classic turn-based games, i feel that they did deliver high level of realism (i mean, seriously, when you can step out of cover, fire, then step behind cover – all in one turn, that’s hardly realistic (i did that in Fallout 2 while assaulting Sierra Army Depot); interrupts don’t solve that problem completely).

  • Infinitron said,

    I guess it depends on what you’re using as a frame of defense, RPGs or strategy/tactical games.

  • Infinitron said,

    er, frame of reference. stupid phone

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @LRN – Hmm… that could be another one to add to the list.

  • Cuthalion said,

    I could never get into real time with pause. D:
    KotOR, Baldur’s Gate II… that system was always an obstacle to my enjoyment of the game. Honestly prefer one of the less real time variations. Kind of like unit initative based, as in many tactical RPGs. (Guess which one we’re probably using? ;P)

  • DungeonHack said,

    Turn based with pause is not turn based. It’s a system that has no concrete start and end times, thus it is more affected by player input than by statistics. If BG and it’s contemporaries who use the same system were to limit the amount of distance you could walk when in turn based mode and also force everyone’s selected action to be dictated by initiative, then it could be called turn based.

    This isn’t to say I dislike BG, just that it isn’t in any way turn-based.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I vaguely remember one of the pause triggers in Baldur’s Gate was “at the end of every turn.” They did have turns (six seconds) in the Infinity Engine games, but they werent’ obvious to the player unless that option was turned on.

    Anyway, while I still consider it to be more of a real-time option moonlighting as a turn-based variant, I would have a tough time explaining the difference between an RT game auto-pausing at the end of each turn, and Simultaneous Resolution, aside from SR not usually allowing input while the action is taking place.

  • Cuthalion said,

    …but they werent’ obvious to the player…

    That was my big problem with those games. They were turn based behind the curtain and allowed pausing, but the information you needed to make decisions was hidden from the player.

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