A fundamental question you must answer for your design is "what will a player do on his or her turn?" In most cases, players will have individual turns. Yes, there's simultaneous play, like in 7 Wonders, or there's real time play, like in Paper Route, but generally most games have player turns.
There are typically three options to give a player on his or her turn:
- Give the player one Action. Ascending Empires does this beautifully.
- Give the player several Actions. These are done in a strict order. Dominion is a great example of this (Action, Buy, Clean).
- Give the player several Actions. These are done in any order. Alien Frontiers, Farmageddon, and Empire belong here.
Let's go through every option. There are good things and bad things about each. Here's a bit of foreshadowing: I prefer option 3.
Give the player one Action: This is the cleanest of the three options. Essentially, you give the player a variety of choices, but they can only choose one. Ascending Empires is one of my favorite games and it does this perfectly.
You can build, move ships, research, recruit men, or mine. For many of these, you must meet the conditions before you can choose the Action, which further simplifies your decision. You could also argue 7 Wonders does this as you select one card out of a fairly large hand.
One Action has a few VERY strong arguments in its favor. Firstly, the pacing of a game with this structure is typically fantastic. Taking only one Action means you can't have any combinations (two is required), which greatly simplifies the decision and reduces analysis paralysis. Games with one Action are also simpler and more straightforward. They ask "what one thing do you want to do most this turn?"
Games that use this can also be presented very easily. You can use a tableau that shows the five options (Ascending Empires, Glory to Rome). Or, like 7 Wonders, you tell the player "Pick one card" and they can just look to the cards.
There are some downsides to this mechanic. If not properly tuned, a game where you take one action at a time can feel plodding and tedious. You need to make actions decisive and "big" enough that the player doesn't feel like he's trying to drain the Titanic with a bucket. The one action should feel like a step, not a baby's crawl.
The other issue is that by having one Action, you remove the ability for combinations. Yes, this is a plus, but it's also a minus (depending on your point of view). In my experience, combos, even simple combos, are one of the best ways to let a player feel clever. Combos give players that "ah ha!" moment and with one Action you'll need to deliver that elsewhere.
Give the player several, strictly ordered Actions: This is arguably one of the most common ways to let a player take his or her turn, and for good reason. As a designer, you can present the player with several options and far more flexibility, yet still give the player a comfortable and rigid structure.
One of the first things I learned in design is that players want to be told what to do. They find it comforting. No, I'm not saying people are sheep. But, nothing is more overwhelming than being told "do all of these things however you want!" Gah! Instead, you're saying "Do all of these things, but step by step."
Dominion is an absurdly popular game. A big reason for this is how accessible the game is. Yes, learning 10 new cards every game isn't easy. But, knowing that on every turn you're going to play an Action, Buy a card, and clean up your hand eases things along. ABC. ABC. ABC.
Designers should be careful with the number of steps. Yes, you can (and should) have a reference card that walks you through the steps. However, I've played some very simple games that had 6 steps on every player turn and, even though the order was strict, it was overwhelming.
Multiple actions with a strict order give the player a broad turn, let the game move along quickly, and do so within order and with a reasonable pace. Analysis paralysis isn't too bad because players know they must do step 1, step 2, and step 3. It's a routine and people like a routine. But, the downside is that combos may be more rigid and you limit the option for player creativity.
If you have a complex game and you're trying to figure out how to simplify it, try testing the prototype with a strictly ordered turn system.
Give the player several Actions with no order: Be warned! Use this only at your peril, for it is fraught with all sorts of nonsense you must resolve.
With this system, you give the player an array of options and tell them that they can not only do many of them (if not all), but they can do them in any order, and sometimes multiple times. This immediately sets you back:
- Your game is now more prone to analysis paralysis players.
- Your game is more overwhelming and less accessible.
You will need to understand and accept this. It also means that you'll need to scale back your complexity elsewhere and reduce other opportunities for players to stall and over-analyze.
One of the hardest things for players to grasp with Farmageddon is that they can do things in any order. Every demo I have ever given is immediately broken up by a "how much can I plant?" or "When can I play Actions?" or "Can I plant again?" The game would be FAR simpler if I said this was the order:
- You must harvest if able.
- Plant (optional)
- Play Action card 1 (optional)
- Play Action card 2 (optional)
- Fertilize at least 1 time.
However, the game would be far less fun. Farmageddon isn't a terribly deep game. It's not a brain burner. But, over and over again I've seen the joy in people's faces when they see they can plant, insure, and destroy a crop, then plant again to take up the field. Or, they can plant, steal a card, Bumper another crop, harvest, then not fertilize because they burned all their cards.
I made the choice that flexibility would vastly improve the game even at the expense of accessibility. It was a compromise I made and had to work for, but one I've never regretted.
A very similar game to Farmageddon is Gamewright's The Big Fat Tomato Game. This game does many things like Farmageddon, but you must do everything in order. The game comes with reference cards to walk you through the 6 steps. It's not a difficult or complex game, but my friends and I had to use the reference cards for the entire game. If I brought it out again, I'd still have to use the cards. Sometimes the confusion is just shifted to another place!
Order of operations allows for exciting combos and player creativity. If you have a game with cards, you'll see players coming up with new combos that you hadn't conceived. This has been the best part of developing Farmageddon and Empire for me. I personally love playing Alien Frontiers because every dice roll is a "holy crap look at all this cool stuff I can do!" moment.
Really, it all comes down to the game you're trying to deliver. It is greatly determined by your target audience. If pace and simplicity are your priorities? Use One Action. If you need a bit more flexibility but want to hold players' hands? Multiple structured Actions. If you want to enter the wild west and you're ready to scale back elsewhere to let it happen? Give multiple action unstructured a chance.
Contribute to the discussion! Do you have other examples? Other pros and cons I failed to mention? Use the comments below.