I’m not going to do a fancy introduction for this one, I just want to get into something that I haven’t noticed much discussion of: Turn autonomy.
Turn autonomy is the number of things a player can do on their turn. Note that in some games, a player might have many options but can only pick one; my term refers to being able to pick many options in a single turn. In many games, this is effectively the statistic that measures how much a player can get away with before an opponent interferes.
Let’s look at a couple of examples and see how much turn autonomy they give the player.
High Turn Autonomy: Warmachine
Similar to many other minis games, Warmachine gives each player a ludicrous amount of autonomy on their turn. Each player gets to move and attack with everything in their army before their opponent gets a turn, and games will frequently look like one player demolishing the other, only for that player to deal even more damage in return when the turn passes to them.
Though this form of turn progression is mainly a genre holdover, it does have its benefits. A lot of Warmachine and companion game Hordes’ selling points are based on coolness: You can have an army of Imperial Russian steampunk robots get into a fistfight with a bunch of bipedal elephants led by the human version of Hedonism Bot. By allowing players plenty of time to exploit the synergies of their army, it makes them feel like they’re accomplishing something.
The downside of this increased turn autonomy is player uninvolvement. If it isn’t your turn, there isn’t much you can do to interact with the opponent besides certain tricks with upkeep spells and shuffling damage around on a few units. Depending on army size and player inexperience, you could spend as long as half an hour waiting for your opponent to beat your face in before you can do anything about it.
A large amount of turn autonomy that can’t be interrupted by opponents has its uses, but it requires a specific kind of game to be effective. These games are generally complex and for “core” tabletop gamers that are willing to accept that it won’t be their turn most of the time.
Low Turn Autonomy: Smash Up
Games with small amounts of turn autonomy frequently use it as a challenge factor to prevent players from effortlessly winning. Smash Up is a good example: The main reason you can’t immediately take over a base on your first turn is because you can only play one minion and one action at a time. This limit is easy to remember (until your time traveler wizards give you six extra actions) and creates a different gameplay feel than ones that use a resource system to dictate how many cards you can play on a turn.
Short turn autonomy games are much more common than long turn autonomy games, and range from shorter American-style games to denser Euros like Terra Mystica. However, some games make visible the mechanic’s major flaw: If an opponent develops a lead, having low turn autonomy means you won’t be able to do very much to catch up. This creates helplessness maybe a little deeper than that in high turn autonomy games, where a player might feel that they’ll never be able to put together a plan faster than their opponent can tear it apart.
Much like chance, politics, and hidden information, turn autonomy is an essential part of non-simultaneous games, and a dial that the designer can adjust at their will. However, I haven’t seen in brought up or discussed in my reading of several other board game design communities. Being conscious of its use is another tool to add to the designer’s toolbox, and one I hope to be able to use when I stop my endless barrage of games that everyone plays at the same time.