Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 24, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 24, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Turn-Based VS Real-Time
by Jon Shafer on 01/07/13 06:02:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

One of the strategy genre’s most important dividing lines is the manner in which time passes – is it continuous, as in the real world? Or is it segmented into phases designed to restrict player activity? Many strategy fans favor one over the other and the “debates” between these groups often grow contentious. When a prominent series switches sides it often leads to proclamations of imminent doom, or at the very least a fair bit of teeth-gnashing.

While there’s certainly been a great deal of conversation pertaining to this topic, rare are truly comprehensive studies which seek to identify what differentiates turn-based games from their real-time cousins. Good designers need to be well-versed in the strengths and weaknesses of both.



One of the most basic differences between the turn-based and real-time mediums is the natural appeal and approachability offered by each. And the issue isn’t nearly as simple as“one type is easy to get into and the other isn’t.”

Real-time games offer experiences more akin to everyday life. Sure, waiting in line at the grocery store might be “turn-based,” but everything we do is just one link in an endless chain of events. I walk from here to there and it takes a minute or so. Or maybe two. It doesn’t really matter. In an RTS you might order some troops across the map, and they’ll keep going until they get there and will arrive in a minute or two. This sense of familiarity provides a measure of comfort to many players, particularly those with more casual tastes.

Real-time isn’t for everyone though. The time pressure exerted on players can generate feelings of anxiety, sometimes to an extreme degree. Some people relish timed challenges, but many do not.

What should I be doing? Wait, what’s that? Oh, I’ve screwed up already, I just know it. Wow, he found my base already? Ugh, this isn’t fun…

Experienced gamers often forget that it takes a fair amount of effort to get into any game more complex than rock-paper-scissors. There are people who do enjoy that initial “okay, where’s the light switch?” phase, but most would prefer to skip ahead to the good stuff – that moment at which they’ve obtained some level of mastery and are no longercompletely lost. The ability to learn at one’s own pace is a huge plus in turn-based strategy’s column.



The rate at which events occur is perhaps the biggest difference between turn-based and real-time games. Recall that pacing is simply the rate at which “something interesting” happens. In a turn-based game the designer has virtually no control over when, in terms of actual seconds or minutes, events will take place. A frenetic player could finish a game in an hour – a methodical one might do so in twenty.

For many turn-based strategy fans this flexibility is one of the medium’s best features, but it’s not always a positive. A lesson designers learn early on is that what players think they want and what they actually want often don’t align in the slightest! One of the rough edges that has long plagued the Civilization series is the pacing of the first ten or twenty turns when players only have a couple widgets to fiddle with. The need to hit the enter key five times in a row to get past the boring part is not a quality to be proud of. I’ve watched more than a handful of playtests in which individuals would end their turn only cautiously and reluctantly. And they’re right to be hesitant, as a game with better pacing would not have thrust them in such a position.

Designers of a real-time game are blessed with the capacity to know precisely that players can train eight space marines in 30 seconds and will have trained their first ultralisk between 8 and 12 minutes in. Exact numbers of this sort can never be to everyone’s liking, but it greatly simplifies the designer’s task of ensuring a fairly smooth experience for all.




Turn-based games may not have the advantage of natural pacing, but they certainly make up for it in other ways. Their greatest strength is granting players control in deciding what’s important and what isn’t.

The manner in which time flows subtly informs players what they should be focusing on. In a broad sense, turn-based games reward analysis and preparation, while real-time ones reward pattern-recognition and execution.

When one is racing against the clock it’s more important to be prompt than it is to beperfect. When an enemy’s arrival is imminent, simply putting any army into the field takes precedence over tuning its exact composition. As such, real-time games tend to be enjoyed by players who enjoy performing feats of skill and feed off of the mastery developed through practice.

With unlimited time it becomes possible to derive the “best” possible solution for a situation. Not everyone’s brain works at breakneck speed, and turn-based games offereveryone - fast or slow, young or old – the opportunity to exhibit their prowess. While this quality certainly offers advantages, it also comes paired with potential drawbacks…




The ability, and perhaps, necessity of delving into minutia can be both a weakness (Civilization 3) and a feature (Starcraft). Obviously, the more time players have to make a decision the more of an opportunity there is for them to direct every last detail. This naturally encourages designers of turn-based games to add complexity, and it’s possible for these two factors to intertwine and strangle gameplay. Master of Orion 3 is one such title which strayed way off the deep end.

Real-time games typically feature significantly less micromanagement. By necessity they must hide certain elements behind the scenes, as there is an upper limit to how many balls even the most skillful player can juggle at once. There are also some types of micromanagement that don’t really make sense in a real-time game.

The ability to move units between discrete grid tiles is a core aspect of many turn-based games, but trying to wedge such a feature into one that’s real-time would be a questionable decision at best. Tiles are an abstraction of the real world which helps designers and players understand and manage the map. A tile-less map is more loose and less precise – the opposite qualities turn-based games favor. There’s a managerial tax associated with tiles that fortunately becomes almost irrelevant when players have unlimited time to make decisions. However, in a real-time game where every second counts do players really have time to be worrying about the specific plot of land their spearmen are standing on?

When incorporated effectively, micromanagement is an excellent way for players to develop mastery. Both turn-based and real-time games can use it as a tool to highlight the differences in skill between players. The Starcraft 2 team unabashedly placed an artificially-low cap on the number of units which can be ordered around as a group because they wanted an unlevel playing field. Obviously this approach isn’t right for every title, but the success of the Starcraft franchise helps remind us that game design is still very much an art where the palette available to developers is vast indeed!

So how do you determine what level of micromanagement is appropriate then? The key factor is usually a game’s pacing. A good example of a real-time game that leans more towards the turn-based bucket is Paradox’s Europa Universalis series. These games offer players many more knobs than a traditional RTS, and their extremely powerful game speed options almost suggest that they’re a sort of turn-based/real-time “hybrid.” There are people who actually play the games as though they were turn-based, pausing the flow of time frequently to survey the situation and issue orders, then resuming for the sole purpose of simulating the “resolution phase” – basically the same flow as in a turn-based game.




Paradox isn’t the only company which has made a stab at creating games which don’t really fit into either the turn-based or real-time category. However, they each pose very different design problems and by combining the two you’re essentially trying to make two games in one. And as any designer can tell you, the job of making just one is tough enough! Making direct comparisons between the two mediums is mostly an academic exercise, but there are a few examples of titles which attempted to do both – without much success.

One such case is the fascinating “turnless” mode in Civilization 3: Play the World. The core mechanics were basically identical to the standard Civ 3 experience, only with cooldown timers attached to research, city production, unit movement, etc. The primary motivation was to create a mode for multiplayer that didn’t have absolutely glacial pacing. Unfortunately, the end result fell flat pretty much across the board.

The problem was that the rest of the game’s design assumed players could set everything aside and focus their attention on a single task. Diplomatic negotiations were a frantic dance which often ended in one player suddenly closing the window in order to put out a fire somewhere else. Warfare devolved into a race to move one’s army into the most defensible tile before the enemy could do so himself. Proper economic management was absolutely impossible, as Civ 3 required such a daunting level of micromanagement that most players were overwhelmed even when not up against the clock.

The “simultaneous turns” mode utilized in the more recent Civ games shares many of these same problems, but the lack of individual timers at least ensures the flow of a turn roughly matches the singleplayer experience.

Another title which made a more serious attempt to straddle the turn-based/real-time divide is X-COM: Apocalypse. Some players loved the addition of real-time combat, but it was by no means universally loved. Because of the dramatic impact on pacing and priorities a large number of fans turned their back the game, and Apocalypse is often regarded as the X-COM series’ “black sheep.” The end result was a more cohesive whole than what Play the World offered, but it was still popularly viewed as a misstep.

Game design is rarely as simple as “good” or “bad.” The expectations of your fans is often the best compass available to you. Few development decisions impact the overall feel of a strategy game more than how time is handled. Hopefully this article has been instructive. Now then – choose carefully, designers!

- Jon

Related Jobs

Digital Extremes
Digital Extremes — LONDON, Ontario, Canada

University of Central Florida, School of Visual Arts and Design
University of Central Florida, School of Visual Arts and Design — Orlando, Florida, United States

Assistant Professor in Digital Media (Game Design)
The College of New Jersey
The College of New Jersey — Ewing, New Jersey, United States

Assistant Professor - Interactive Multi Media - Tenure Track
Bohemia Interactive Simulations
Bohemia Interactive Simulations — Prague, Czech Republic

Game Designer


Martin Juranek
profile image
There are two things that I would like to add:
1) in tactical turn based games (like old X-COM) there is something strange: during same turn 5 man can walk through same door, stand on same place, throw grenade and go back through door.

2) hybrid mode of paused realtime (like UFO:Aftermath or 7.62). Similar to what you mentioned with EU, but expected to play using pause and play (with automatic pausing on events) approach. They seem to capture good parts of tactical turn based games (strategic/grand strategic level of abstraction does not suffer from 1), and imo does not benefit from this) and are much swifter (esp. when nothing is happening)

TC Weidner
profile image
I agree, I m a fan of the hybrid model, it allows the best of both, while eliminating the worst of both.

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Jeremy Reaban
profile image
"Real-time isn’t for everyone though. The time pressure exerted on players can generate feelings of anxiety, sometimes to an extreme degree. Some people relish timed challenges, but many do not."

This is pretty much why I quit PC gaming for a long time, when real time games (both RPGs and strategy) almost completely displaced turn based.

For a while, handhelds were the last bastion of turn based games, since real time things weren't really suited for their interfaces. But now as those disappear, thanks to smart phones, I'm pretty much going to have to give up gaming, I guess.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
profile image
Fallout: Brotherhood had a good hybrid mode, and you could switch in between in the middle of any mission.

Lou Hayt
profile image
two thumbs up for X-COM: Apocalypse

Bart Stewart
profile image
The part of the real-time vs. turn-based discussion I find most interesting is how individual gamers perceive time pressure.

I'd suggest that "thinking quickly" and "thinking deeply," while related, are very different abilities. The challenges and rewards provided by a game need to reflect this.

Thinking quickly is about tactics. It's about perceiving local resources and exploiting them immediately. Tactical computer games reward fast action.

Thinking deeply is strategic. This is about perceiving and manipulating force relationships across relatively large stretches of both space and time. Strategic computer games reward large-scale pattern recognition and big-picture planning.

By that assessment, "real-time strategy" is a oxymoron, and all true strategy games are turn-based. The "turn" mechanic is required for strategy games -- the ability to pause time is what allows a player to think deeply about a complex web of forces, to see the threads that control the web, and to devise multi-contingency plans for what may happen when you pull on particular threads in certain ways.

You pretty much cannot support that enjoyable form of play when your game is designed to force real-time responses to tactical (local, immediate) challenges.

The popularity of games like Starcraft shows that real-time resource management can be a lot of fun for some gamers. A lot of people enjoy tactical play that rewards being good at thinking and acting quickly.

The popularity of turn-based games like Civ and MoO suggests that there's also a hunger for truly strategic play, which -- when done right -- rewards being good at thinking deeply and planning carefully.

Ferdinand Joseph Fernandez
profile image
Might I say I think there is some confusion here. Tactics and strategy afaik in this context comes from the military usage of those terms.

According to Merriam-Webster:

Tactics is the art and science of fighting battles.
While strategy is the science and art of military command exercised to meet the enemy in combat under advantageous conditions.

Tactics concentrate on combat only, like troop placement, formations, and ambush points, while strategy also concerns logistics, supply lines, and to an extent, diplomacy and subterfuge, and the like.

This is in accordance to RTS games like Starcraft or turn-based games like Civ, where preparation via resource management is key to the meat of the game, as much as the actual combat. That is, if you fail in the resource management skills as a player, you will fail in the combat as well.

While in tactics games like the turn-based Final Fantasy Tactics, or the real-time tactics Warhammer: Mark of Chaos, preparation of your forces is a separate exercise from the battle itself, (and not done in a hurried manner like in RTS games).

The units you choose for that battle is more or less the only units you will have for that battle. There is indeed the part where you customize your army in between battles, but the highlight of the game is on the combat.

In some games like the real-time tactics World in Conflict, you are primarily not concerned with preparation at all, you simply call-in for reinforcements if need be.

I'm not saying I'm defending the usage of those terms that way, I just want to say what I've observed.

I'd like to add, I do agree with "thinking quickly" and "thinking deeply" that is indeed the dichotomy between real-time and turn-based.

You say thinking quickly favors tactics more, and thinking deeply favors strategy more, but I don't necessarily agree with that. That is, I'm referring to "tactics" and "strategy" in their military usage as I've mentioned above.

I.e. a turn-based tactics game allows one to "think deeply" where to maneuver, where to flank, etc. Like in chess, don't you think chess has "big-picture planning" i.e. thinking in n turns ahead?

I think it's safe to say most of these games actually are a mix of strategy (thinking in terms of preparation, planning) and tactics (thinking in terms of maneuvering, charging, flanking).