Turn-Based Games

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Games where the gameplay is clearly divided into clearly defined parts where players can plan and select actions

Many games separate gameplay into easily understandable units where some actions are allowed and others not allowed. Most traditional games follow this pattern by letting one player plan and then execute an action as a turn and then letting another player do a turn, alternating until the game is finished. Turns are in this way typically used to describe periods of gameplay when one player can plan without risk of interruption to select and perform one action. However, this can challenged in various ways in games while still having them be perceived as having turns, e.g. by having several players do turns simultaneously, being able to do several actions, introducing time limits to make the actions, or letting other players have the possibility of interrupting turns.

Games with more complex structures of organizing gameplay can have turn-like structures on many levels. To distinguish between these rounds, phases, and segments are often introduced as concepts, while turns typically signify when players make important choices that need several steps to evaluate or get to make an uninterrupted series of actions. The players' perception of the gameplay is often the determining factor if a game is called turn-based rather than its internal structure. This is the case why not all computer games have seen as turn-based, even if they do have clearly defined states at all points due to being programs.


In Chess and Go, the players take turns to move or place their pieces on the board. In the basic variant, there is no strict time limit for the players to execute their turns apart from social pressure exerted by the other player while in tournaments this may be enforced due to practical reasons. Diplomacy is an early example of letting players simultaneously have turns, alternating between letting them negotiate with each other for a predetermined period of time and then executing their chosen actions.

The computer games Laser Squad Nemesis and the Combat Mission series offer the players modes for hot-seating, switching the player whose turn it is, and sending the turn information via e-mail to the other player. The Civilization video game series has a turn-based structure in which a player may move all his or her units based upon an action point system, showing an example of more complex division of how to separate gameplay. Bloodbowl does the same but enforces that one unit's actions are finished before activating the next unit.

The two-person board game Space Hulk also has a similar structure, but also has strict time limits on the player controlling the human marines. By introducing a time limited planning phase and an execution phase which replenishes the time limit, the single-player computer-based version can be seen as removing the turn-based structure since enemy actions also take place within the execution phase. Similarly, the board game Space Alert has a real-time planning phase followed by a execution phase when they are executed. By separating all the planning and all the execution into two phases, the game also challenges the turn-based structure.

Puerto Rico lets the active player chooses one action which then every player gets to perform, although the choosing player get a bonus. In this fashion, the game has a turn-based structure which is associated with one player but no player needs to wait long between being able to act in the game.

Related Descriptions

Wikipedia[1] has a section on Turn-Based Games.

Using the pattern

Turn-Based Games may be easily changed to Tick-Based Games by simply introducing Time Limits to the players' Turn Taking. Turn-Based Games may benefit be supported by Dedicated Game Facilitators, especially when the turn is resolved simultaneously, but they are also at least partly Self-Facilitated Games, as completing the turn requires effort from the players, distinct from the actual gameplay.

Combat and Capture in Turn-Based Games compared to Real-Time Games requires more of players cognitive skills, as they have more time to think, and the Timing of actions in Combat and Capture require more Puzzle Solving skills than skills in Dexterity-Based Actions.

Some Turn-Based Games allow players to pass their turn without making any actions, in principle, making one big No-Op action. The actions available to the players during their turn can vary from simple pre-specified actions (such as roll a die and move) to complex action sequences with Budgeted Action Points. An interesting alternative is to have Asymmetric Abilities that rotate out of sync with the turns. Also in some games, these action sequences can have characteristics of Real-Time Games such as Maneuvering, although these have otherwise contradictory characteristics.

Simultaneous turns

Note that Turn-Based Games do not have to force other players

Budgeted Action Points

Interruptible Actions Real-Time Games Time Pressure Time Limits

Diegetic Aspects

Interface Aspects

Narrative Aspects


Turn-Based Games with Turn Taking typically give the other players Downtime, especially in Synchronous Games. This Downtime can provide Stimulated Planning if the game supports Predictable Consequences or Private Game Spaces, but the presences of Predictable Consequences can also cause Analysis Paralysis in the acting player.

These effects are often less drastic in Asynchronous Games, as players have possibilities of non-gameplay related actions while waiting for other players to complete their turns.

It is possible, however, to limit the effects of this Downtime by having the players plan and execute their actions at the same time, and the actions are resolved simultaneously when the players have submitted their actions. If the Turn Taking is sequential, there are Role Reversals when the players change their modes of play from active to passive.

Turn-Based Games make Game Pauses easy to introduce since there are clear break points, and it is easy for every player to be aware exactly where in the gameplay one was when game is to be continued.


Can Instantiate

Analysis Paralysis, Role Reversal, Downtime, Tick-Based Games

Can Modulate

Combat, Synchronous Games, Asynchronous Games, Asymmetric Abilities, Capture, Game Pauses, Predictable Consequences

Can Be Instantiated By

Turn Taking

Can Be Modulated By

Self-Facilitated Games, No-Ops, Budgeted Action Points, Timing, Puzzle Solving, Real-Time Games, Dedicated Game Facilitators

Potentially Conflicting With

Maneuvering, Real-Time Games


A revised version of the pattern that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[2].


  1. Wikipedia entry on Time-keeping systems in games
  2. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.