Each episode of The Game School (my show on Teacher Hug Radio), contains a game design challenge. Here’s a recent challenge for you to tackle. 

In these mini game design challenges, the idea is that we make decisions quickly – we want to have the outline of a game in 10 minutes. Don’t ponder all the possible choices, just make a snap decision at each decision point and go with it.  At each point, you don’t need to have any idea about how your game will work, you’re just making one decision. The result of making a series of decisions will be the outline of a game. No special equipment is needed, we are just mapping out ideas. The aim is to get used to swift idea creation – to react to a stimulus and creative decisions. You can go on to create prototypes, playtest, refine and repeat if you wish, but the initial idea creation process is what we’re interested in here. 

Today’s challenge is to create a real time game.

Let’s start by defining what we mean by a real time game. Well, arguably the opposite of a real time game is a turn-based game – which, fairly obviously, is a game in which players are required to take it in turns to play. Whereas… in real time games, players don’t have set turns. Instead they will play simultaneously – all at the same time. Real-time games almost always include an element of speed. These games can be loud, chaotic and funny, but they can also be tense and fraught!

So, you’re going to be mapping out your own real time game. The first decision to make is whether you will make a competitive, cooperative or team-based game. In strictly competitive games, players all work as individuals, trying to beat each other. In cooperative games, players all work together as a whole team to try to beat the game. In team-based games, some players work together – against other players.

Cottage Garden is a turn-based game.
It has no ‘real-time’ element.

It’s also possible to have a ‘one-versus many’ game, in which one player with super powers plays against all the other players, who are cooperating with each other. It’s also possible to have games that require players to cooperate in certain aspects of the game – otherwise everyone will lose, but ultimately to be attempting to win individually – this is called a semi-cooperative game. For the purposes of this challenge, however, your choice is competitive, cooperative or team-based. Let’s look at some examples…

Captain Sonar – a real-time game for two teams

Captain Sonar is a real-time team game. Each team consists of up to 4 members, each with different roles. Each team is the crew of a submarine – navigating around a map. The captain is making decisions about where the submarine is going and is mapping the progress on a map. They must speak out their bearing very clearly, so the other team can hear – NORTH, SOUTH, etc.

On the other team the Radio Operator is listening to the directions and mapping the route of their opponents. They can hear all the directions, which they are drawing on an overlay, but they don’t know where the other team started, so they are moving the overlay around the map, trying to find a route that avoids all the islands, while giving information about what direction to move to their own captain. The two submarines are trying to attack each other, without being attacked themselves. The first mate is firing up weapons and special abilities, while the engineer is dealing with systems malfunctions and telling the captain when a certain moves no longer become viable. At some point, the engineer will tell the captain they must resurface to repair the damage, but at this stage they reveal their location. Subs can move as quickly as the teams can. It’s a brilliant but unbelievably tense game of cat and mouse. 

Escape room games are designed to simulate the experience of being in an escape room, but with a boxed game. Players usually have 1 hour to work together to try to solve all the puzzles and ‘escape the box’. This is a real-time cooperative game – all players are working together. 

In Pictomania, all players are simultaneously drawing pictures while attempting to guess what other players are drawing before their opponents correctly guess. This is a competitive drawing game, where each player is playing as an individual.

My dice box

Have you made up your mind? Competitive, cooperative or team based… Make a snap decision, don’t think too hard about it. 

It’s worth noting that usually, in competitive play, players are racing each other and in cooperative play, players are racing the clock. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. It’s perfectly possible for all players to be individually racing to complete a task before the buzzer goes. But I’m struggling to think what a cooperative game where players are racing each other would look like? Let me know if you think of a way to make this work!

The next choice you need to make is about the main component. Cards or Dice? Yes, there are lots of other things you could use, but for the purposes of this exercise, you are restricted – cards or dice. Both cards and dice lend themselves to speed games. Both dice and sets of cards have randomness inherently built in. A quick shuffle randomises a deck, while the roll of a die gives you a random result. Randomness makes even simple games replayable – as we get a different game every time – and searching for a card or repeatedly trying to get a certain dice roll can be a very fun part of a speed game.  So – snap decision – Cards or Dice?

Now we come to the core mechanics. Something that may feel quite dull in a turn-based game can work brilliantly in a speed game. Let’s say we’ve designed a game about finding cards within a large tableau that contain snails with matching shells. If there was no time pressure, this would be very dull. But make it a race and suddenly things get interesting. The task itself is simple, but having to process information and react quickly can be difficult. Simple tasks like pattern matching are a powerful tool when designing speed games. The tension comes from the speed, so we can keep the task straightforward.

So you will get to choose between two mechanics – Bingo and Ladder Climbing. Let’s take a closer look at these options. 

Panic Lab – a competitive real-time game about identifying aliens

My City is a competitive game with simultaneous play, that uses the bingo mechanic. It’s not a real-time game, however.

The Bingo mechanic – which is obviously named after the game – forces all players to use the same result on their own board or sheet in some way. In bingo, of course, a number is called out and everyone can mark that number off if they have it. But in your game, players could do something different with the result. Perhaps a card is flipped and you must find a matching card in your own deck. As soon as one player has done this, they may flip the next card in the central deck – giving all players another card to find, for example… Or maybe, two separate dice show an animal and a number – this shows the number of that animal that each player has to house on their zoo sheet. Each animal may have restrictions about how it can be housed, but will give you points at the end of the game. Players must make decisions quickly, because the game may move on before they have housed all the animals, and then they have chaos on their hands as animals are wild in the park.

As a side remark – I couldn’t find a game on BGG that lists ‘bingo’ and ‘real-time’ as mechanics. This means there’s a gap to fill. Exciting!

The other option is ladder climbing. In ladder climbing games, one player plays a card, or rolls a die that gives a certain outcome. Subsequent players must play cards or roll dice of an equal or higher value to continue – climbing the ladder. When no player can go, or a certain target is reached, the last player to play wins the round and starts a new one. In your real time game, turns have disappeared, so perhaps players are racing to roll ascending numbers on 20 sided dice – and each time they achieve a number, they take a point. In future turns, players could spend points to buy benefits – additional dice, dice modifications, time when other players can’t roll. 

Spit (a.k.a Slam) is a real-time ladder climbing game

Ok – so make a choice about which mechanic your game will use – bingo or ladder climbing.

Let’s just quickly talk about victory conditions. Many games of speed involve a ‘first past the post’ system, where the player that is first to complete the task, wins the game. But this is not always the case. The other main option is for players who are quick to gain bonus points, but ultimately the player with the most points will win. To ensure that players don’t dawdle, the last player to complete the task may get zero points, or have some other significant limitation placed upon them. Penalising the last player will keep everyone moving quite quickly. So how will your game work?

Plate Spinner is my game of real-time dice rolling

Finally, is there a theme that neatly fits to your chosen game mechanics? For example, I recently designed a speed dice rolling game where players race to roll their own desired dice outcomes – so they can gain ever more powerful combinations. I gave this the theme of competitive plate spinning, which seemed like a really good theme for this sort of high stakes game. What theme suits your game? If nothing immediately springs to mind, here are two to choose from… 

  1. Spaceship mechanics racing to complete pit stops in a high octane space race. OR
  2. Surfers trying to catch waves to travel as far as possible.

Make your choice now. Spend another 5 mins mapping out the basics of your game. Remember, you don’t have to create a prototype, this is just an idea mapping exercise. 

As always, I’d love you to share ideas that have cropped up as a result of tackling this game design challenge. Please comment below.