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To Time, or Not to Time...

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Lucas.Castro's picture
Joined: 10/22/2008

I am well into the development of a game called Nih'ki : The Crystal Core War (3rd year of development... woohoo!), and have a design decision to make: whether I should add sand-timers to my game. I would love to hear the thoughts of the community here, but first, I'll give you some context.

Nih'ki is a tactical wargame, in roughly the same category as Battle Lore. Players have a force that consists of 1-2 Heroes, and a number of Troopers and possibly Vehicles as well (I capitalised those names because they are unit types in the game). The game is played in 6 rounds, and each round has the following phases:

1. Orders (all orders for this round are played, see below)
2. Fleeing (fleeing units are moved)
3. Execution (orders are actually played out, with each player doing 1 action at a time)

During that first phase, all players simultaneously place their Command Cards face down in from of them. There are 12 of these cards, which have the following actions associated with them:

4x Move Action
2x Shoot Action
2x Attack Action
2x Deploy Action
2x Discipline Action

In a small size game, the player can play 4 of these per round (i.e., he/she has 4 actions per round); or 5 in a medium game; and 6 in a large game. Either way, they have a limited number of actions, and a number of choices to make.

Now, during the third phase (Execution), players cannot change the cards they played during the first phase, nor can they change their order, so they must choose carefully in the first place. However, these actions are not tied to a specific unit, so once your turn comes up, you can use that action on whichever unit would most benefit from it.

Anyhow, we now arrive at my problem. Much like Chess, my combat mechanic has no luck factor. Zero. And I find that this works beautifully for this game specifically, because combat resolution is almost instantaneous (the defending player can choose to use up some Armour to reduce damage, but that is the only unknown). The game becomes more about how/when/where and with whom to attack, rather than waiting to see how much damage is actually caused.

But those of you who like dice will be quick to point out one very positive result of using them for combat resolution: they reduce analysis paralysis. This system does not (quite the opposite, really). Before I get into my main beef with this use of luck, let me see if we can agree on something. In this sort of situation, the more relevant luck is, the less likely analysis paralysis is to creep in, agreed? However, the more luck there is, the less control there is (because luck can be a more significant deciding factor in the game than your actions). In other words:

- Luck is inversely proportional to AP (analysis paralysis).
- Luck is inversely proportional to control.

This is my beef with dice. If you use a less random system such as rolling 2D6 (which favour a roll of 7), you have less luck, and therefore get more AP anyway. If you want to reduce AP further, you will have to take away more and more control from the player. And that's something I would rather not do.

So what I'm proposing instead, is to add the following mechanic. At any point during phase 1 of each round, a player can choose to flip over the sand timer (which would probably be 1 or 2 minutes). As soon as a player points out that time has run out, no more Command Cards can be played or moved around. If you only played 3 of them, then you only get 3 actions. Harsh? A little. Realistic? Yes, because a general won't always have time to think out his/her actions so thoroughly.

Is this idea any better than adding dice to the combat resolution? I believe so, because it is a limitation, but it is still entirely in the control of the players. A skillful player will quickly learn to devise a quick strategy, put down some cards, and focus on rearranging them rather than keeping all 12 cards in hand. That way, if time runs out you have SOMETHING to do, even if it is not the ideal course of action.

What do you guys think? Do you think that adding a timer is too heavy-handed? Do you have any other suggestions of how I could reduce AP?


sedjtroll's picture
Joined: 07/21/2008
Sounds fine in part

I think a sand timer on the programming part of the turn is fine - it's a 'fix' that's been used in Roborally, a similar game in that you pre-program actions then resolve them.

However it sounds like you also have an additional issue - AP during the resolution phase. Your action comes up, and now you have to decide how to best use it. In theory you have an idea who you want to use that action and what you want them to do with it, but you probably want to re-evaluate the situation and see if another opportunity has arisen, or it's possible your plans have been foiled. For example, maybe the guy that was going to use that action got ambushed and killed.

Warrior Knights has this dynamic - you put the actions you want to do into the deck, they get shuffled up, and when they come up you get to do your action. Again, in theory you had plans for that action, but sometimes you need to reconsider.

I don't necessarily think this is a problem, and it works fine in Warrior Knights - I'm just posting to say that the timer might not fix AP as much as you might think it will because all it can do is hurry the Planning step. In fact, in rushing the planning you might force players to play actions without fully knowing what they're going to do with them, which will just INCREASE the time it takes to resolve actions.

Joined: 07/08/2009
I would . . .

. . . disagree with the Luck/ Control vs. AP stuff. I'd certainly disagree with it in the abstract, and still probably disagree in the specifics unless I had played your game a bunch. It takes just as long to try and predict what a good opponents will do when there's probability involved, as what they'll do when there isn't. You didn't put anything specific about your game that would suggest otherwise.

However I've heard AP used to describe two different things (and I'm kind of getting sidetracked.) I've seen it used to describe situations in games where the player is faced with so many choices that it's unclear which to take, and I've heard it used to describe situations where the choice will become clear, but only through enough analysis. The former makes more sense to me, but I can see how it might overlap with the latter, then become the latter. So what is it that's happening to players in your game?

Anyway, to answer your question: if you have a diceless system that works, I can't imagine changing it after three years would be easy. I doubt adding dice into it would reduce AP, anyway. So, if you're having issues with time, a timer might be the way to go. I'd just do it like Robo Rally, and have the timer get flipped by the person who finishes first (your mechanic sounds kinda like that game too!) That's pretty simple, and might actually simulate combat in interesting ways. You only have as much time to react as your opponent gives you. I could just play all my fire cards in five seconds to order one of my battalions to charge, forcing my opponent to react quickly if the timer's only twenty seconds or so (and he'd know I was up to something, but his spies couldn't tell him if it was a strategic retreat or an all out attack!)

I haven't played lots of tactical games like this one, but it's something I'm interested in. I can't imagine getting stuck on what sounds like an interesting system, though. It seems like you'd either set orders up in a specific way for units you had specific plans for, or you'd set them up in a flexible way to maximize reacting to opponent's moves.


Pastor_Mora's picture
Joined: 01/05/2010
When does it becomes paralysis?

That would be the question. As the battle gets complicated, turns will tend to get longer, so flipping the clock at the start of the turn will still give you too much time in the first rounds, and may give you too little time in the lasts. From another perspective, this is what actually happens in real time strategy. As the battles get more complicated, you start to loose control of the increasing number of units and make less rational moves. The "first ready flips the clock" rule tries to give the players as much time as the turn requires, but not so much. The thing is that the fast flipping defensive tactic gets used by the dead-beat guy with a single unit left and overall strategy suffers badly.

In the other matter, there is always a form of luck, or at least some "reasonably taken risk". Otherwise, if the best action can always be calculated, there is no decision-making process other than the reasonable/non-reasonable move and the players are only free to commit suicide. I think risk should not only be measured in combat's statistical resolution, but instead, should rely at some point at what you think your opponent is into. Your advantage should then, come from your wits at guessing the enemy moves instead of the muscle of your own units.

Keep thinking!

PS sand clocks are cheap but are a pain, because you need them to empty a side to flip them again. if you end up using them twice per turn (i may not have gotten this right) this could be annoying

Lucas.Castro's picture
Joined: 10/22/2008
Great Feedback!

That's terrific feedback, folks! Sometimes you just know your own game too well, and your perspective of it is too solidified to consider other approaches.

@Sedjtroll: you are spot on! However, the AP we get during phase 3 is almost always minimal compared to that in phase 1. In theory, you would think that it wouldn't be, but that tends to be the case because each turn tends to play out in one of two ways:

A) You can still do the action with the unit you intended to do it with (but maybe need to pick a new target). Or...
B) You need to pick a new unit to take that action, but there are only so many options since the action is already defined for you.

There are cases were these "minor" adjustments actually take a lot of forethought (especially in the final round, to see how you can maximise your Victory Points), but for the most part, I am pretty happy with it. I do have to say though, you probably have a point in the use of timers possibly adding extra AP to the execution phase. I'll have to keep an eye on that, so thank you for bringing my attention to it.

@Scifiantihero: good point in the different types of AP. The main problem I face with Nih'ki is a bit like what you get in Chess. It is pretty clear that trying to think a few moves ahead can help you do well in the game. So the tendency players have is to try to play out certain actions, and calculate whether the payoff is worth taking that action.

For instance, many times I have taken a certain offensive action (attacking or shooting) near the end of the game, only to find that I had to abandon any attempt to kill that opposing unit because it would take more actions than it was worth at the end of the game. Positioning for objective-grabbing is key in the last round or two, whereas killing a single unit tends to be of marginal value.

Thinking about this sort of scenario can be time consuming, sometimes.

To be fair though, the AP is not usually severe in this game, because players select their actions simultaneously (which reduces some of that wait time). Also, during the action execution phase, players only do one action at a time, so you never have to wait too long between your turns. My main concern is wanting to cut down on the occasional excessive wait because of AP, as well as keeping the game the length of the game down (only a concern if AP is causing the game to drag -- game length is a non-issue for me if the game flows well and players are having fun).

And you are right about wanting at least some flexibility in how you can execute your actions. Because of the limit in number of cards of a given type (e.g., there are only 2 Shoot cards, and only 2 Attack cards), you want to have multiple units that can carry out such actions. I quite like how that ties your force-selection with your tactics.

@Pastor_Mora: that's very insightful. Though I've never actively paid attention to this with Nih'ki, my gut feeling is that you are right, for the most part. There is often more AP in the last two rounds than in other rounds, but it also depends a bit on how closely contested the game is, and on whether there have been major surprises during a turn (such as, "Oh shoot! What the heck am I going to do with that Attack action now?!?").

As for the "fast-flipping" tactic, it will undoubtedly get used here if I include timers in the game. Although I see that in two ways. For one, if it is part of the desperate tactics of someone losing, then I don't mind it at all. If a player is being so soundly defeated, the least they can do is put a little pressure on the front-runner. However, keep in mind that Nih'ki is almost never about killing opposing units, so in most cases the carnage is limited. In particular, the last two rounds tend to feature more maneuvering than killing, an sometimes you enter into combat just to tie up a unit. So it is unlikely that a player would have far fewer units to think about (but point taken).

Secondly, I see it kind of like Scifiantihero: one general might be putting quick pressure on the other, to try to gain an advantage. I actually quite like that. And if the timer is one minute long, that should be plenty of time to get enough cards down, but your reaction might be more disorganized than if your opponent was kind enough to wait for you to plan your defence ;-)

This has been very helpful already! Thanks folks.

Joined: 02/22/2010
The game sounds pretty

The game sounds pretty interesting - but I wanted to ask a little more about the combat mechanic and the lack of luck.

If the combat mechanic is similar to chess (in that its all thinking and strategy), have you run into problems with players developing and maintaining such a lead that the other player(s) can't catch up to win? In other words, is it like chess where players realize that they've entered a no-win scenario and just... stop? If that's the case, then it seems like some more randomization is in order (dice).

I'd also like to quote from a passage from Brian Tinsman's "The Game Inventor's Guidebook" (not sure if the book is well-received here, but I thought it was worth a read): "Adding luck does a couple of important things. First, it makes players comfortable with just making a move to see what happens as opposed to sitting there agonizing over a decision and slowing everything down." You talked about Analysis Paralysis, and if you're working to fix this, consider the fact that it might be a symptom of not enough luck. In that case, adding the timer is correcting a symptom of the problem, not the root cause, which may not have the result that you want.

Finally, a quote from the same paragraph: "In Risk, if you attack an enemy territory and fail, it's not necessarily your fault. This brings up another benefit of luck. Players can blame it for their losses. It gives the losers a psychological out so they don't feel inferior. It also gives weaker players hope that they can beat stronger players." Or, it makes it so that my wife will still play Settlers of Catan with me. Does your game retain playability because weaker players can still win against accomplished players / strategic thinkers?

Joined: 07/08/2009
A couple more questions:

So, when I responded this morning I was assuming your game was for two players, but going back it seems like maybe it can be with more. Is that the case?

This got me thinking about how sometimes playing slowly can be a function of how easy it is to tell if one is winning or not (not usually as much of a problem in two-player games.) If people in the lead have obvious choices that will protect or enhance their lead, and people who have some catching up to do have other ways to try to get a better position, decision making would probably be a quicker affair. For instance, if attacking with a unit means I have to move him off the objective that's scoring me points, It would probably be easier to rule that out. Chess is kind of like that-- there ARE lots of possible moves any turn, but it's usually easy to tell which ones are bad, which helps to pick a good one.

Not that scoring would have to be totally transparent--TI3 secret objectives pop into my mind as an interesting mechanic--but knowing where you stand definitely speeds choices up.

But yeah, everything you've said so far sounds really cool!


Lucas.Castro's picture
Joined: 10/22/2008
Luck and Skill Differences

@jslade8581: We haven't run into a runaway leader issue, no. I think the reason for that is because we use Victory Points, and that killing opposing units is not directly useful. In the basic game, the only way to achieve victory is to control a certain number of objective zones. Consequently, there is a major focus on maneuvering within the last two rounds of the game to pick up as many points as you can. So far, players have remained engaged all the way through in the vast majority of games (with the game only really being decided in the final round).

To be honest, though, I am not found of adding random elements to even out a game between rookie VS veteran. For one, luck is just as likely to favour the veteran as it is to favour the rookie. And two, I would rather introduce a "Mario Kart mechanic" than introduce blind luck into the game. What I mean is a mechanic that helps players that are behind, and/or hinders the players that are in front. Such a mechanic would be known to the players, be no less unfair than luck, and would always favour the player who is behind.

Currently, there is no such mechanic in this game. All we have is the opportunity for players to pickup points in the last two rounds of the game. So even if you feel like you are behind, you can still win (and we are working on setting appropriate values for all the objective zones to ensure that the player who takes the middle zone is not always the winner).

@scifiantihero: The game is for 2-4 players. However, a 4 player game features two teams, rather than a free-for-all. I feel that having each player on their own greatly increases the chances that one player will get picked on and wiped out. If players have teams, they can support each other and having a shared strategy.

I am not sure how we will handle a 3 player game yet. That will probably be a free-for-all, because there will be better spacing. Either that or one player will control two factions, and the other two players will play as a team.

Also, we definitely run into situations where either: A) Attacking moves you off ideal position for scoring; or B) Attacking/Shooting in the last two rounds will not be enough to kill a unit that is contesting an objective. That is why the last two rounds tend to be less aggressive, and more about picking up points and blocking your opponents from doing the same.

In that sense, I think that there is enough to play for in the end-game to not cause players to give up.

I am actually leaning toward not adding the timers, at this point, based on the feedback I've had here and on Board Game Geek. You guys here have been far more supportive of the idea, but it doesn't seem like a necessity. As the folks at BGG said, most gaming groups that have to deal with AP probably have found ways to do so already. If cost was not an issue, I would still comfortably lean toward adding the timer in the game. But since every little bit counts in getting a decent return (or even convincing a publisher to take on your game), I will have to see a lot more need for it in the playtest to add on that cost.

Either way, this feedback has been terrific. Thank you again!

Joined: 07/08/2009
If I said anything helpful . . .

. . . then you're welcome!

I would imagine you can definitely get away without timers. If you think about it, most games that are played could have timers added in for people who take too long. And when you go to tournaments, they do!


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