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Random turn order systems
Unit activation in For What Remains
For What Remains
For What Remains is a one to two player skirmish game designed by David Thompson (Undaunted: Normandy, War Chest, Pavlov’s House) with Paul Low and Ricardo Tomas.
It’s sold as stand-alone, two-faction sets that can be either played separately or combined for additional head-to-head skirmish options:
Streets of Ruin (Combine & Freemen)
Blood on the Rails (Echo & Soldiers of Light)
Out of the Basement (Erthen & New Dawn)
I recently picked up For What Remains: Out of the Basement based on a recommendation from a friend.
In many ways, Out of the Basement is a very straight forward skirmish game. Players have cardboard tokens representing characters/units. Each unit has movement, combat, attack range, and defense values. You roll dice to resolve combat. While there is a very nice scenario book, there’s a good chance that skirmishes end up as a war of attrition.
For What Remains also, however, does a few things that are really interesting!
One is unit hit/damage tracking, but that is for a future post. The other is randomized unit activation order based on bag-building!
Types of turn order systems
First, let’s talk about how tabletop games handle turn order.
Geoff Engelstein lists about seventeen different turn order mechanisms in Building Blocks of Tabletop Game Design, but we’ll just consider a few:
Fixed: You are probably familiar with going clockwise or counter-clockwise around the table. It’s simple, but also potentially introduces serious issues. Not only does the first player matter, but also in games with more than two players, the left-right positions matter as well. You might be a strong advantage or disadvantage through no action of your own.
Claim action: In many worker placement games there is a worker action that allows you to become the first player. This ability to claim the first player position can sometimes be a really interesting part of the game!
Rolling for initiative: Many roleplaying games handle turn order via rolling for initiative. For example, everyone makes a Dexterity check by rolling a d20 and adding their modifier. The DM does the same for all monsters and NPCs. All participants are ranked from highest to lowest, and that’s the order for the battle.
As one more example, I’ve always enjoyed how Emberwind handles this in the setting of a roleplaying game.
Rather than rolling for initiative, there is a fixed Initiative Slot Order in which players choose where they’d like to be. Slots alternate between heroes and foes: Hero A goes first, then Grunt Foes, then Hero B, then Awakened Foes, and so on.
Using Role Order for turn order eliminates the need to roll and sort numbers, and turns the order into a collective strategic choice for the player party. It also ensures that foes are easily slotted in as groups from weakest (i.e. Grunts) to strongest (i.e. Boss Foes).
If you’ve seen initiative systems similar to Emberwind’s in other games, please leave a comment!
Random Turn Order
For What Remains uses Random Turn Order for unit activation:
Representatives of play pieces or players are randomized, and one is drawn at a time. That player or play piece takes its turn, then a new random draw is made.
Each player begins the game with three (3) activation tokens per character (unit) they control on the map. The twist is that players choose which activation tokens to put into a bag, which allows them to adjust the probability:
Players secretly select a number of activation tokens equal to the number of characters (units) they have on the map.
Tokens are drawn one at a time, activating that character and continuing until all the tokens have been pulled.
Players recover any “Exhausted” tokens used in previous rounds.
Tokens used this round are placed in an “Exhausted” area, and may not be used until recovered.
This leads to some really interesting choices!
Do you place all three tokens from one character in the bag? You’d be able to move three times, but then would be stuck for the next round. Do you pick one token from each character? You’d be able to engage everyone, but you might end up going last. Or perhaps you use a mix of both methods!
This activation system not only balances the game by removing potential first player issues, but it does so by adding meaningful player choice. Rather than rolling for initiative each round, the selection of tokens adds a layer of strategy that can be quite satisfying when it works. Conversely, it’s possible to put activation tokens in the bag for a specific character, only to find that it has been killed by the time you draw the token.
Having randomly selected activation from a small set of tokens, adds drama to the game. Setting up initiative in games like Emberwind and Dungeons & Dragons can sometimes pull the players out of the action, and become a mechanical exercise. This method is fast and leads to watchful anticipation as each token is drawn!
Some things to think about:
Consider the impact of your turn order system. There’s a reason there are so many different mechanisms for turn order. Each one has its own pros and cons that need to be weighed against the overall game. Sometimes the impact is huge, but other times winning initiative doesn’t matter as much as you’d think.
Random turn order doesn’t need to mean just rolling dice. For What Remains shows how even simple bag pulls can allow players to make meaningful choices that impact overall strategy. It’s worth considering how to add player agency into each mechanism vs. pure randomness.
Bag-pull turn order systems require more components. While retail games may include bags, tokens, and other physical components, it can be a real challenge for print and play games. Cosmic Frog’s Activation Deck is a good example of a card based random turn order system.
I’m glad I had a chance to play For What Remains: Out of the Basement, and look forward to future plays. The level system (i.e. Recruit, Veteran, Elite) and damage tracking are really interesting, and may very well become future posts on their own!
What unique turn order systems have you seen? What’s your favorite initiative system in a roleplaying game? What’s your favorite way to select the first player?
See you next week!
— E.P. 💀
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