Temporal Shifts - Timing Mechanisms
Anthony Simons
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I have long been fascinated with the manner in which games flow from a start point, through their mid-points to a conclusion.

All games have a built in timing mechanism; whether that is simply the case of allowing one action before the next player's turn or setting an actual time limit to play to, these all combine to produce what we can call the game's "clock".

In older games the mechanisms used were fairly basic; one player takes a turn, then the next and so on until a fixed point or condition was met.

Hand-in hand with the rise of the modern designer strategy game, there appeared various simple, innovative and/or stylish methods of determining at what point in the game you were at, when it would finish and how long it played for.

After several failed attempts at putting it into prose for my personal blog, I have created this geeklist to share with you my fascination with the game "clock", how various types of game deal with it and which methods are my favourites.

I will apologise in advance if I have chosen a game for this list for which the mechanism was not original; I have simply experienced that mechanism there first in this case.
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1. Board Game: Monopoly [Average Rating:4.41 Overall Rank:14247] [Average Rating:4.41 Unranked]
Anthony Simons
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Old-style games had very indeterminate clocks. The standard family roll-and-move did have upper and lower limits to the clock - usually due to the minimum movement being one space and the track or trail having a distinct start and end point. Some mistakes were made, resulting in games where it was quite possible for the clock to become accidentally infinite (Snakes and Ladders springs to mind, where a player could conceivably experience a loop effect, climbing ladders then sliding down snakes for eternity).

When more involved family favourites such as Monopoly came along, things were even less determinate. Though there was near synchronicity in the actual play (roll, move, act, next player) the conclusion of the game was often indeterminate as such games relied upon a particular condition that was not always achievable. Monopoly for instance required one player to remain; the trouble is this required that player to bankrupt others, which in turn required certain conditions to achieve.

With the wrong kind of approach Monopoly was (and still is, though to be truthful I probably haven't played it in eons) prone to reach stagnation. Once beyond this stagnation, there was still the possibility of infinite looping as cash changed hands again and again. With the wrong kind of house rules, many of which we grew up with, the clock problem was frequently exacerbated. No wonder Monopoly gets such bad press on this site, a site for gamers.
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2. Board Game: Power [Average Rating:5.99 Overall Rank:7031]
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Imposing fixed time limits on game actions has historically been an effective way of limiting turn times. A good example of this would be Power, a game in a similar vein to Diplomacy but incorporating a sand timer to limit the orders period.

Without this simultaneous mechanism, Power would be a rather bland example; the fact players have only a couple of minutes to plan and prepare really adds tension to it. But overall there is not much of a clock to this game, and conceivably a sand timer will do little to alleviate this.

Power is rather open-ended time wise, and though it might seem there is relatively little to achieve in capturing everybody else's flags (the objective) where the payers are pretty evenly matched there is likely to be some delay in this occurring. How accurate the thirty minute time scale listed for this game is I could not say with any precision; but it certainly lasted a lot longer when I last played.
 
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3. Board Game: Web of Power [Average Rating:7.31 Overall Rank:466]
Anthony Simons
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One of the first games in the European style I experienced was this one. The clock is provided by a deck of cards, one of the most basic methods, yet one hardly (if ever) used for more mainstream titles in the past. The "deck-based clock" is a system whereby the flow and endpoint of the game's clock are ascertained by the point at which there are no cards left to draw. In this instance, there is one reshuffle and an intermediate scoring round, forming a clock reset midgame that separates it into two halves.

The flow of time in this game will be determined mainly by how the cards are used by the players; subtle changes in play can expedite the conclusion of this sort of game, in this case extensive use of matching card "joker" plays will bring the end closer in less time.

Tigris & Euphrates (E&T) uses a similar clock function, except in that case there is a bag of tiles which heralds the endgame. There is an important difference, though; E&T can reach game end through the taking of treasures - very much asynchronous to the main deck-based clock.
 
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4. Board Game: Union Pacific [Average Rating:7.24 Overall Rank:431]
Anthony Simons
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I later experienced the delights of Alan Moon's take on networking. Union Pacific (UP) started out as Airlines; the main mechanisms remained the same for this railway version. One such mechanism involved the deck of share cards as a sort of deck-based clock.

However the important difference here is that the clock was limited but indeterminate; specifically nobody could tell exactly when the scoring rounds and endpoint occured and could only estimate. This mechanism has been used in numerous forms ever since; but the way it is used here is one of my favourite examples.

Another point to note is the game's timing structure here is very much asynchronous. The clock does not necessarily move forward at all during a player's turn, although there will always come a point where clocking is necessary - when a player's hand is empty and there are no more UP shares to take.
 
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5. Board Game: Puerto Rico [Average Rating:8.08 Overall Rank:12]
Anthony Simons
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Puerto Rico (PR) utilises a clock based on straight actions, with one action being a step on the clock. The interesting difference between PR and other games employing this temporal structure is the clock in PR evolves.

Where any action is taken at the start of the game, more than one player is likely to perform it; but naturally an individual choosing an action will want that action that best benefits him and nobody else. This means that the clock will tick at a faster rate at certain points in the game, slower at others.

Furthermore, an astute player can manipulate the clock to his own ends. The game terminates according to one of three possible conditions; by selecting the right roles the endgame can be accellerated or delayed. This ability for the players to affect the game clock directly is one of the facets of PR which keep it near the top of my favourites.
 
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6. Board Game: Amyitis [Average Rating:6.99 Overall Rank:733]
Anthony Simons
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Most games have a core rhythm; there are rounds,divided into turns, divided into phases or actions. Some of these games employ secondary clocks which, when combined with the base structure of the game, add important elements to the flow of the game.

One such game is this one, Amyitis. Apart from the standard structure of giving one action per round to a player there is the secondary "clock" in the form of the Mesopotamia board, around which the caravan travels.

The position of the caravan is key to the game; players must be able to synchronise their actions with its current position to reap the benefits of planting more gardens, building banks, palaces and caravans, and having the right resources to do so.

If a player can synchronise both clocks in this way, he will do well; if he can see how well-synchronised the other players are, he will do better.
 
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7. Board Game: Caylus [Average Rating:7.85 Overall Rank:40]
Anthony Simons
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Caylus is another game which makes use of a variable clock. As anybody who plays knows, there are three distinct stages involving building the keep (donjon), walls and towers of the castle. If they're fully built before the bailiff reaches the relevant point on the road then the scoring is triggered; if the bailiff gets there first they are also triggered.

The clock can be sped up and slowed down by the collective will of the players; if the provost goes backwards, the bailiff moves forward more slowly. It's a matter of delaying the inevitable for the players; sooner or later the bailiff will reach the point at which the round ends.

Caylus could probably be described as having a secondary timing structure too, in the form of the worker placement and the subsequent actions. There is certainly close synchronisation here, with the main clock ticking on only after the secondary clock has performed its function.
 
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8. Board Game: Warrior Knights [Average Rating:6.88 Overall Rank:787]
Anthony Simons
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A familiar clock in games such as Puerto Rico and this game is best described as a general stock which dwindles as players take from it. It's difficult to give it a name, so I will refer to it as a "supply clock", which in general means the game will end when one or more supplies runs dry.

Of course in PR there are three such supplies and only one needs to run dry for the game end to be triggered. In Warrior Knights there is only one supply which can affect the endgame, and that is influence.

Because of the nature of this clock, it is the most likely means of reaching game end in a game where there is a single, much more difficult, alternative end condition achievable. Essentially it's a conditional clock; the sands of time will only run dry if nobody has in their control more than half of the unrazed cities on the board.

The advantage of a clock like this is that it is very easily tweaked if you feel a game runs on too long - or in this case not long enough. Many (myself included) advise an increase in the influence pool so the game doesn't peter off before a climax is reached.

Naturally, this supply clock is usually used in conjuntion with a stuctured, synchronous clock; there are set phases in this game. The action phase is most interesting; there will be a fixed number of actions and all players will know which actions they will be taking but they can never know the exact order in which the actions will be taken.
 
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9. Board Game: Age of Steam [Average Rating:7.70 Overall Rank:95]
Anthony Simons
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Age of Steam (AoS) follows an almost classic "phase-based" timing structure. By "phase-based" I mean that the game will run for a fixed number of rounds, each of a fixed number of turns consisting of a fixed number of phases. For a game like this (and AoS is a fine example of the clock type) everybody will start the game knowing (if they can be bothered to think about it) exactly how many actions they will perform during the game.

In older games - wargames in particular as I recall - there was a tendency for a clock to run for just one player while everybody else's was stopped. That old-fashioned idea has long since been replaced by game structures where everybody performs one type of action in player order, then everybody performs the next and so on. We could call the latter style "interleaved", or "multiplexed", depending on how you want to look at it.

For AoS, there is such an interleaved structure; but there are temporal exceptions in the form of the "first build" and "first move" special actions.
 
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10. Board Game: Thebes [Average Rating:7.18 Overall Rank:351]
Anthony Simons
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There have been a few games recently which adopt a different approach to time. In these games, players can decide on one of a number of actions and then spend time accordingly. Time is measured in game terms by a track or some such. This is meant to simulate time spent on particular actions; depending on the game this has various effects on the concurrent game clock.

Around the World in 80 Days employs this system; the result is a slightly variable number of actions to the endgame and then time spent is checked to ascertain the winner. The whole turn-action element remains the same throughout, but the number of times it will renew is directly influenced by this clock.

Naturally this means the clock doesn't tick over so much in steps but rather in blocks; this results in an important facet of this system which was exploited to great effect in Thebes. Players are essentially at different temporal points during the game; the player whose turn it is will be determined by looking at who has spent the least time. Time is essentially a currency used to buy actions.

The resulting in-game clock is essentially different from the norm - and a very attractive mechanism. Players will be performing actions asynchronously to reach a synchronous end-point. If you have not tried this game yet, you simply must.
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11. Board Game: Galaxy Trucker [Average Rating:7.47 Overall Rank:114]
Anthony Simons
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Thinking more about timing, it seems fairly clear there are distinct families of clocks within game structures.

On the one hand there are games in which the main clock is set within the structure of play and is followed strictly by the rest of the rules. Though timings inbetween clocking may vary (different action types, not all actions taken and so on) the overall timing structure of the game remains the same.

On the other hand there are games in which the clock depends mainly upon the actions taken by the players. I don't mean variable action turns here, but something subtly different; open-ended action turns. There is often a limit to these too, but it is more subtle than a set sequence and usually involves a player stating "I'm finished".

Because I have an engineering background, I call the former type "active clocks" and the latter type "passive clocks". Passive clocks are not very ordered elements at all, so it's no surprise they are hardly ever seen dictating an entire game's structure. The exceptions are usually party games, tho9ugh there are a few boardgames which utilise a passive clock structure throughout - and quite successfully too.

A fine example of a passive clock would be Galaxy Trucker's first phase of the game, where players build their ships. This part is truly passive as any sort of turn structure is ignored while the players engage in a free-for-all.
 
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12. Board Game: Khronos [Average Rating:6.39 Overall Rank:1849]
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Something many designers have found dfficult to incorporate in their designs over the years is the concept of time; this has resulted in many such games being quite removed from the theme. It can't be easy, though; a game in which the whole object is to change the structure of time itself has to be presented in such a fashion that it can be played by people other than physicists, mathemeticians and cosmologists.

Khronos utilises a rather standard, fixed clock for the actual gameplay. Nestled in the middle of this is as simple a clock as can possibly be devised to deal with the theme. There are exceptions for the operation of this clock with respect to paradoxes (and to be fair it is the exceptions which make the game), but the basic clock structure is represented by the board.

The board of Khronos can be likened to a series of connected registers on a computer's processor; the first clocking through data to the next provided the right conditions are met, then clocking through to the next after that.

This particular clock is a subordinate one, triggered by player actions; it is also a very clever one. To be honest, aspects of this game could be improved, but I think this element works very well.
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13. Board Game: Combat Commander: Europe [Average Rating:7.91 Overall Rank:89]
Les Haskell
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In many wargames each turn equals a certain amount of time and you usually know how many actions you can do in that amount of time.

In Combat Commander you do not know how many actions you will get in a time segment. In this game cards are turned from your deck for dice rolls for attacks and morale checks. These "rolls" can cause a variety of Random Events, Sniper Attacks, Jammed Weapons and Time.

Every time a Time card comes up the player who drew it shuffles his deck, the defender in the game gains a victory point, the time marker advances one space on the time track, reinforcements on the time track are placed on the board and a possible Sudden Death ending to the game can be triggered.

You know it's coming, you can see it getting nearer but you aren't sure when the next segment of time will arrive or when the game will end (barring losses that bring a side to its Surrender Level). It definitely adds to the tension and excitement of the game.
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14. Board Game: Storm over Arnhem [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:1436]
Mircea Pauca
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Wargame pioneering the "Area-Impulse" series (followed by the similar Thunder at Cassino). Alternating impulses that can use units from only one area show the "subjective" nature of time under stress, with difficulty of coordination between local commanders. Each impulse has no definite length, only indicates event order and causality. The overall 'game turn' clock indicates troop recovery (one action per turn per unit).

There are periods of Zugzwang (the nature of infantry combat - nobody wants to become vulnerable first) while still desiring to do something before the day ends, and moments of hurry (trying to react to simultaneous threats). The Zugzwang predominates in these two early games, and the solution was...
 
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15. Board Game: Turning Point: Stalingrad [Average Rating:7.19 Overall Rank:1652]
Mircea Pauca
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Later Area-Impulse games (first was TP:S followed by Breakout: Normandy and Monty's Gamble: Market Garden) added the 'Ticking impulse clock' with an increasing chance for each turn (day) to end. It added much pressure to use impulses efficiently, ending almost all Zugzwang in previous games.

The seemingly absurd name of "Sunset Die Roll" actually simulates a sort of 'subjective time' too - the chance that a poorly started combat drags undecided until night falls (but with the unintended? side effect that other front sectors may not start doing anything by then). The attacker's roll doubles as Sunset roll, so they often correlate (poor attack + no more actions that day) increasing the overall influence of luck. This may also simulate increased logistic preparations to do more operations quickly in parallel - as the also-absurdly-named "buying Sunset modifiers".

TP:S but not the later two games also has variable delays before troops get Fresh again, depending on the ease of action (1 day for uncontested move or Overrun ... 2 days attack with partial progress ... 3 days stalemate ... 4 days after defeated attack or forced retreat). Superposing them across the map portrays a mosaic of chaos and increasingly degrading coordination possibilities, and generates interesting dilemmas (split that division, knowing the parts with different fates may not cooperate as well later ? wait for one force to unify with another getting ready later ?)
 
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16. Board Game: Le Havre [Average Rating:7.92 Overall Rank:31]
Anthony Simons
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At Essen last year, Le Havre, Uwe Rosenberg's follow-up to the successful worker-placement game Agricola, was introduced. Le Havre utilises much of the same resource-management ideas of collecting one resource to make products, erect functional buildings or simply keep the economic engine ticking over.

Inherent to the system is a shared clock. When a player comes to take his action, the clock is moved forward one step; after a specific number of steps (seven to be precise) the round is over and a new one begins.

One interesting aspect of this clock is that it forces different players a different number of actions each turn. Uwe incorporated resource availability into this system, by giving every space a couple of resources whose pool increases when the space is landed on.

This core timing mechanism gives the entire game its rhythm, such that what decisions a player makes must take into consideration how many actions are to be taken by that player before the turn ends. Furthermore, the entire game clock has to be considered if those actions will have a long-term benefit.
 
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