Turn-Based VS Real-Time

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 longer completely 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 be perfect. 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 offer everyone – 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

8 thoughts on “Turn-Based VS Real-Time

  1. “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.” I fail to see your point, John. There’s actually greater precision in turn-based, we could say the first ultralisk can be trained by turn 40 (say) rather than 8 to 12 minutes, because everyone will be processing their orders at the same pace without regard for ability to accomplish 200 actions per minute.

    I see that turn-based might encourage more complexity in single-player (interactive puzzle) games, to make the puzzle harder to solve. On the other hand, if the game involves more than one person, turn-based will encourage simplicity (as in tabletop games) so that “downtime”, time when players are waiting for others to move, will be minimized. At that point we have a game where you play the players, not play the system.

    What real-time mightily discourages, of course, is “analysis paralysis”. In real-time, “you snooze, you lose.” You can make a case that real-time discourages thinking and encourages intuition and trained reaction (you confront a situation you’ve seen before, and through practice you react without thinking).

    Real-time games have grids (boards) too, theirs are just much finer, perhaps even pixel by pixel rather than square by square. On a computer, real-time is faked, time- and space-sliced, not really continuous, as you know. Perhaps because players cannot see the grid, they worry less about being precise.

    I strongly dislike micromanagement whether turn-based or real-time. But it makes sense for puzzle-like games, games where there is no human opposition. When I used to play the outstanding real-time Total Annihilation I slowed it way down, and sometimes paused it, to make it more like a turn-based game so that I could deal with all the management decisions.

    Any activity can be made harder by adding time-stress to it. Chess is harder for grand masters at 2 hours per 40 moves than if unlimited time were allowed. In the recent world chess championship, when the match was tied after the allotted 12 games, they played four “rapid” games under much greater time-constraints, and if one player had not won at that point they would have played “blitz” matches. The most significant difference between turn-based and real-time is to make the game much harder to master because of the time-stress.

    1. Great thoughts, Lewis, thanks for taking the time to write them up!

      In my mind there are two types of pacing, and it seems we’re talking different ones. I’m thinking this is something I probably should have delved into in my article specifically about pacing!

      Your comments refer to what I like to call MECHANICAL pacing, or the number of “in-game time units” that exist between actions or events. However, what I was referring to in the article was EXPERIENTIAL pacing, or the amount of real-world time that passes.

      In a real-time game these are basically identical, because the mechanical pacing and experiential pacing are both tied to the same “clock” – the only exceptions would be if the game was paused, sped up slowed down. Turn-based games obviously differ in that their mechanical pacing is dictated by (duh) turns. In this medium the two types of pacing are almost completely divorced.

      You’re absolutely correct that turn-based games give designers more control over mechanical pacing. However, without time limits of some sort (timed chess matches, for example) the designer has almost zero control over experiential pacing. Someone could take 5 seconds per turn or 5 minutes, and that length of time need not be that player’s PREFERENCE. Someone learning the game might take an extremely long amount of time, but also not have any fun in the process. For better and worse, real-time games push mechanical pacing along whether the player is ready or not.


      As you point out, in the digital medium the difference between a turn-based game and a real-time game is really just one of scale. Computers only provide abstractions of reality, and at the very base level you always have “a grid” and “turns” of some sort, even if they’re smaller or faster than any human could possibly perceive. You could make the case that every game is on a continuum, but as in every field the classifications still provide some value. Plus, using them can often result in great discussions, like this one!

      – Jon

  2. I suggest you try MoO3 John. You will realize how brilliantly it has resolved the issue of micromanaging, especially in the later stages of games.

    1. I do strongly believe that the original design vision of “have as much micromanagement as possible, allow players that don’t care to automate it away” is flawed. The fact that a feature exists in a game has ramifications on both the development side but also in the player’s psyche. Many people just can’t bite the bullet and accept playing in a sub-optimal manner, and if there’s a part of the game you’re not using that’s probably where you’re going to end up!

      That having been said, I’ve only played version 1.0 (ish) of MoO3, and that was a very long time ago. I’ve heard that it has evolved quite a bit since then, so my apologies if my characterization of the game no longer accurately reflects its current state!

      – Jon

      1. Sorry to come so late to this discussion… but talk of MOO3 just pulled me in.
        The biggest thing I remember is that the original design was pretty ambitious in trying to make a 4x that didn’t allow for too much micromanagement, by limiting your influence – you could focus your attention on what you thought was the most important goal for each time and allocate your focus to prod your empire away from its preexisting priorities, but you could only make a limited number of changes per turn… which was a pretty daring concept, given the genre and lineage of the franchise.

        There’s not too much mention of it on the web unfortunately, given that I think mention of the mechanic only happened in some interviews a year or two before the actual release, but did find a column talking about its failed design explosion by not being able to implement its original vision, and not being able to make it out and reassemble the pieces into something that did work.


  3. Let’s be honest: the X-Com series is composed *mostly* of black sheep.

    Anyway, this is a solid, if somewhat surface-level summation of the pros and cons of turn-based and real time. I wish that you were a little more harsh on the hybrids, which I feel always are terrible, and I also wish that you mentioned something about the fact that Starcraft and other RTS games are literally “a turn based game switched to real-time”. There has never been another type of game in history that forced you to control up to 100 actors at the same time in real time, sliding around the screen and shit. We’re used to it because we’ve seen it so much, and I know that criticizing Starcraft is off the table, but just look at it logically – does it make sense for a strategy game that I also have to be able to rub my head and pat my belly at the same time? This problem also explains how stuff like DOTA is starting to take the RTS’ place – single-actor makes WAY more sense for real-time.

    Finally, I wrote an article on turn based awhile back (which if I’m not mistaken, also addresses a game you yourself designed): http://www.dinofarmgames.com/why-people-think-turn-based-is-boring/

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