Tuesday, 24 October 2006

Timers and Hourglasses ...

I recently acquired the boardgame Space Dealer at Essen Spiel. One of the reasons I was attracted to buying it, is because they use hourglasses (timers) as playing pieces. The game lets you build a space station with various functions, and in order to use a function (e.g. produce a certain good, or develop a technology card), you put a timer on it. Once the timer has run completely, the action associated with that card is carried out. Because players have only 2 timers, they need to think about what resources to activate. Also, the game is played in real time; there are no real turns. The timers drive the progress of the game. Once 30 minutes in real time have elapsed, the game ends.

A few years ago, I was also very interested in game called TAMSK, a game in the GIPF series. In this game, timers are also used. They determine when a certain piece needs to be moved. If the time runs out, there are penalties involved.

Another turn-less game is Icehouse. In Icehouse, a number of pyramidal playing piece are put on the table. Players can take pyramids, put them on top of others etc., all without turns. This seems as if it can be chaotic, but in practice, it works really well.

Especially Space Dealer got me thinking about ising something similar in miniature wargames. Most wargames we play are centered around turns, in which a number of units can do something. Possibly card-driven sequences or command-and-control rules can limit the number of troops one can move and or the type of actions one can do, but basically, the game is still turn-based.

But it doesn’t have to be. Inspired by Space Dealer, I started thinking about using a turn-less structure. Suppose you have a number of units on the table, and both players have 2 or 3 timers at their disposal. A player who wants to move or fire with a unit, puts an order chit next to the unit, along with a fresh timer. The timer starts to run, simulating the time for the unit ‘to get ready’ to act on the order. Once the timer has run out, the unit can be moved/attack/fire, and the timer is available to put an order next to another unit. In the mean time, other timers might have run out, and acted upon, and the opposing player does the same. Thus, the game becomes a flow of a sequence of actions by units, the exact order of which is determined by the timers.

Of course, it would take some time to tune this. If the timers take too long (10 mintes ...), players will do a lot of thinking, and watching impatiently untill one timer runs out. On the other hand, if the timers are too fast (5 seconds ...), the game becomes a chaotic scramble. The optimal duration of a timer should allow for a decent, steady pace of play, with time in between to allow for some proper tactical thinking. Also, it would require reasonably fast resolution rules. Resolving an action that takes longer than the time needed for a timer to run out is impractical.

I plan to use this mechanic in one of my future games -- maybe a fantasy battle using my hex-based Te Wapen rules. In the mean time, any comments are welcome.


  1. I was thinking of putting all my purchases in a nice comment but they are all very very unoriginal in comparison to Space Dealers and what is discussed in Phil's post. The most novelty in a game I bought is found in 'Viking Fury' where the map is printed on a piece of cloth. I doubt you can wash it though :-)
    anyway, Space Dealers and the timer mechanic you want to use sounds very interesting and you're indeed right in assuming the resolution rules must be fast. Isn't that the biggest problem with the rules? Conflict resolution when multiple timers from multiple players expire?

  2. Have you ever tried Arty Conliff's CrossFire ww2 rules? It's truely turnless and have a pretty big following out there.
    Basically you point to a unit, then you move them ANY distance you want. Your opponent stops you when you venture into his fire zone and he shoots at you. If you suffer a bad result it's now his go. If you succeed then you keep moving. That's it in a nutshell and is very inovative.
    Scenario design is important, as intereting terrain placement to limit LOS and fire lane is keo to an interesting scenario.

  3. Milton,
    we have played Crossfire in the past (some [pictures are here](http://www.nirya.be/snv/GALLERY/crossfire.html) ), and we really liked the game system. For some reason or other, we never got back to it after a few games, but it is something we definitely should play again.