A lot of games are the domain of the careful thinker, there's a lot of time to make decisions and watch a grand strategy unfold as your machinations come to fruition. Some games are not like this, instead limiting the time players have to make decisions. I was introduced to Brawl this weekend, a game in which you can take your turns as quickly as you're physically able. It really reminded me of something.
For the uninitiated, that's a picture of Glasgow, I thought I'd pick one of it looking pretty because there are lots of awesome things about it and I wouldn't want your view to be coloured when I tell you that I am reminded of it because it's the only city in which I've been anywhere near a bar fight. I'd say "In a bar fight", but I since I'd told the man who started the fight that we should walk away and that I wouldn't help him if he started a fight where we had nothing to gain and everything to lose, I kept out of it. That was about the only reason that when the friends of the people on the other side of the fight turned up (a pair of police officers) we weren't arrested. Real fights, as opposed to fights in films, scraps where people aren't actually trying to harm each other or martial arts classes, happen really really quickly.
I thought that Brawl used a real time element to capture the feeling of speed very well. It didn't capture the whole thing, but if someone's made a game that can make me marvel at how much blood is in a person, I'm not sure I want to play it. The act of having a deck in hand, playing one card at a time and getting an average of a second to make each decision requires a type of mental agility that other games don't demand. After a one on one game with Heather, who introduced me to the game, she pointed out that it gets the heart rate up. I didn't notice until she drew my active attention to it, but the little blighter was pounding away. It's rare for a game to manage that.
Now, to continue the point in a completely transparent and logical way: What makes a zombie movie work? It's not zombies. The focus is rarely on the zombies, pick your favourite one and total the amount of time that a zombie is on screen, it's generally the minority of the movie. The interesting part is in how the humans survive and react to each other and make decisions, which is where most of the works on the subject focus.
Telltale's The Walking Dead series of computer games does this very well, one of the key mechanics that works is giving the player a limited time in which to choose what to say. I know that some board games have tried to capture the "arguments between survivors" part of the zombie genre, but I can't think of one that succeeded. On the other hand I can think of a game that achieves success by making players communicate clearly and come to agreements in a strictly limited time frame, the excellent Space Alert, which I cannot recommend enough times.
In this game players are cooperating to achieve the goal of "not exploding" and the real time element is more relaxed than in Brawl. Typically you'll have a few seconds for decisions and will sometimes be able to spare as much as half a minute to think about something really important. The execution is different too, in Brawl the real time element is that players get as many turns as they can physically take, there's no external time, but you need to be faster than your opponent so you both play as quickly as possible. In Space Alert the timer is external, a CD tells you when your time is up. Both games use their real time element fantastically to suit their mood, in Brawl you are supposed to be in a frantic hectic situation and the setup encourages you to always be trying to do things faster, in Space Alert you are supposed to feel threatened by external forces and the constant need to keep up with the clock plays into this.
I'd be interested in playing more games that make use of real time elements. It seems to me that they open up a design space, in that any game that would be too simple to be fun can suddenly become viable again when a time pressure is added. Even a weak time pressure can force mistakes on the simplest of tasks. Chronos Conquest has an interesting idea in having players place sand timers as an action and getting to do something else if they run down before your opponent has effectively reacted and removed yours from play. Sadly it is doomed due to not paying attention to advice on how to run kickstarters, I'd say a $100,000 target was doomed if not for Xia, I'm not sure it'll hit its $40,000 relaunch target, which is a shame because it feels like a game that could make $100,000 if it didn't have such an off-putting target. Ah well, it's still a really cool twist on the real time mechanic and I hope that I get to play it or something like it one day.
I find all of this quite inspirational, in the brief window between getting Space, Monkeys and Cannibalism ready for its next playtest and playtesters being available I might try my hand at sketching out some real time game ideas. Playing with concepts is almost as much fun as playing with games!