Exploring the Design Space of Real-Time Games

Last week, I wrote about a game that I had played called Hawken; a real-time card game (referred to from here on out as RTG) that was the first of it’s kind that I had encountered. I had played RTGs before, namely Pit and Egyptian Ratscrew, those sort of games, but they are a vastly different breed than what Hawken is. Enraptured by what Hawken had offered, I began researching, diving into reviews and game play of any RTG I could find, and I’ve come to the following conclusion; there is a limited, yet unexplored amount of design space in this genre.

To elaborate, we need to understand that calling a game an RTG actually covers a lot of ground, and we can section most RTGs off into categories. From everything I’ve learned, there are roughly three different categories that these games fall into; Matching/ Trading, Action/Reaction, and Slapjack style. Each of these share characteristics and differ from one another at the same time, so I while briefly go over a few of their unique aspects.

The Three Cornerstones of Real-Time Games

Beginning with Matching and Trading, this category’s most notable inclusions are Pit, Wheedle, and Blink. These games are designed for players to race to match their cards as fast as possible. In Pit and Wheedle (two games by the way that are almost identical in design) this is done by scoring victory points for having the most of a specific card, and in Blink by being the first to match their entire deck into the discard piles in the center of the table. These games boil down to acting as fast as possible, with there being no punishment system in place for acting too quickly, and no reward system in place for waiting and reacting. This isn’t bad, it just requires significantly less strategy than other games to play.

Following that, the next category is Action and Reaction games, this category includes Light Speed, Brawl, and is the category that most suits Hawken. Here, players are encouraged to play cards from their deck as fast as possible, but can be rewarded by watching what is happening on the board. In Light Speed, you are firing lasers pointing at either an asteroid to mine resources, or another player’s ship to damage them. There’s not really any reward built in for reacting other than you get to shoot your opponent back, but oh well. 

Brawl is a bit different, as you are almost forced to react to what your opponent does, as both players have the ability to stop the other immediately by playing cards over their stacks that have to be cleared before further actions can be taken. Hawken is the best example so far, as it encourages you to play fast, but rewards you for reacting, and severely punishes you for taking too many actions with the overheating mechanic.

The final category is Slapjack Style, and it doesn’t need too much explaining, this category includes basic games like Slapjack, Egyptian Ratscrew, and Spit. All of these games are purely reaction based, and the winner will generally be whoever has the fastest reaction time to slap the correct card once it is revealed. By far the worst category on this list.


With that broken down, let’s get into specifics and what I meant by “limited yet unexplored” design space. Slapjack and Matching/ Trading games have all but expended their design space, which wasn’t large to begin with. Most all of these games will be more or less the same, with a smaller amount of variation with each new rendition. Because of this, these games have fallen out of favor with publishing companies, as there is little new to bring to the table. That’s not to say games like Pit and Egyptian Ratscrew aren’t classics, just that the “best” version of these categories has already been discovered, and there is not much point in exploring further in my opinion.

The Action/ Reaction category is a different story however. All three of the games mentioned above in this category vary greatly. In Brawl, players share a board that they are acting on and reacting to, forcing them to keep up with their opponent. In Light Speed, you are simply placing all of the actions you have available down, the only reacting necessary being counting the number of lasers being pointed at you. And in Hawken, you are required to pay close attention to what you are playing on your board, while also being mindful of what your opponent is playing in order to stop the round at the opportune time.

This screams to me that there is a lot that can still be done and played around with in this category, and I want to dive in.

The Best and the Worst of Mechanics

I want to talk first about the mechanics I dislike and wish to ignore. First off is the lack of a punishment system for acting too fast. RTGs work on paper, but if you consider how humans react to fast-paced situations, they are far more inclined to act first and think second. Therefore, if you have no punishments in place (as seen in Pit, Wheedle, Blink, Ligretto, and Light Speed) there is no incentive stopping you from treating it as a Sonic the Hedgehog side-scroller.

Gotta go fast.

I next want to talk about the ‘Card Matching’ mechanic. If you paid attention, you may have noticed that almost every game mentioned above has some form of card matching required, though the matching is carried out in various ways. If I were to design an RTG I would have matching be a mechanic, but with a forced thought process required to match. What I mean by this is in Pit and Wheedle, you shout out as loud as you can what you want, or what you want to get rid of, then you trade, rinse, and repeat until the game ends. In Brawl, you match only by color, and in Hawken, you’re matching by card type, but you are still able to continue putting cards into a stack endlessly, provided you don’t overheat.

I believe card matching allows you the opportunity to land on a pitfall trap, but if you are able to slow it down with more required thought, it will work beautifully to turn matching into strategy. Allow me to reference a Microsoft Paint mock up I made, representing how this can be done.

In this representation of the model for the mechanic I have in mind, players will match cards from their hand onto the table one at a time, creating stacks of three. These stacks are required to match by type (Attack cards, Magic cards, and Movement cards all being in their own stacks), the twist however is that each card has an assigned value, and the card has a different effect based on where in the stack it falls. If it is the first card in the stack, the card’s value represents the cost required to resolve the stack’s effects. If it is the second card, the value represents the  defense gained to protect from your opponent’s offensive value, and if it is the third card in the stack, its value is the offense of the stack, or the amount of damage you can deal by resolving it.

This system will slow players down a lot, requiring more thought to be put into each action, while still matching cards. For this to work, players will have full hands that refill once they run out, as opposed to drawing a single card at a time like in Brawl and Hawken. There also needs to be a way to reserve or discard unwanted cards, to allow players to continue drawing and playing cards if they have an unfavorable hand.

Speaking of slowing players down, I believe Hawken hit the nail on the head for how life totals are determined. For the unaware, in Hawken each point of damage is assigned by discarding the top card of your deck. You get three reshuffles of your discard pile throughout the game, and when you run out of cards after your final reshuffle, you lose. This is excellent, as it combines your resources with your life total, so playing faster than your opponent isn’t even necessarily an advantage anymore, as you’re burning up your own life total.

Differentiating ‘Real-Time’ and ‘Fast-Paced’

One of the biggest lessons I have learned from my rigorous research on this subject is that most RTGs believe that they are required to be fast paced, so as to make the element of real-time really shine. I believe this is a huge mistake on the part of game designers. In order to make a game fast paced, it needs to be easy to digest, and in order for a game to be easy to digest for fast paced game play, there needs to be limited strategy, and limited card complexity. You have to make sacrifices on two very important fronts in order to gain headway in a mediocre area of your game.

This doesn’t mean that fast paced games are bad, they simply require a significantly smaller amount of thought to be played. Sometimes this is good, sometimes this is bad, it’s all a matter of taste and mood. However, having an RTG that can be played slowly is great, as not only is there room for thought and strategy, but it makes the times where the game is fast paced all the more intense and gripping.

If there is one thing I’m going to be taking away from what I’ve learned, it is the slower we row, the slower we tire. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by a game’s fast pace and fall in with the other players slapping down their cards as fast as they can, or yelling for a trade as loudly as possible, and I don’t want that in a game that I would design. I’m learning a lot of lessons from this, and am moving forward with a game design of my own which will hopefully enter play testing soon, from which point I will see the flaws with my ideology, and adapt from there.

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