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Real-Time vs. Turn-Based Mechanics in Learning Games

Hello there! Recently here at Filament Games I was working on a game pitch and the question of “real-time” versus “turn-based” was raised. As per usual, I had strong opinions without any justification, so I thought I would take some time to unpack my feelings about it and share the results with you, the gentle reader.

Let’s start with getting a few definitions on the table, so we can establish common ground. What is real-time, and what is turn-based?


Real-Time is perhaps the simpler concept, in that a game that runs in real time has events that update…in real time. If there is a clock in the game, it runs at 60 seconds per minute. Characters move, actions are taken, and choices are made with the clock running consistently and incessantly. Analog examples of this are real-world sports, (with the exception of things like time outs, penalties, etc.) the rare board game like Hungry Hungry Hippos, or video games like Pac-Man, Heroes of the Storm, or Team Fortress 2.

Real-time is the natural partner of games that rely on action, but real-time strategy games are obviously a thing as well (with their own acronym and everything). Generally real-time games are designed around the idea that the player is going to exhibit skill with how they manage that time via reflexes, prioritization, and drilled knowledge of things like character attributes and/or environmental strategies that allow for very smart decisions to be made very quickly.

Classic Genres of real-time are things like Bullet Hell, First-Person Shooters, MOBAs, and RTS.


Turn-Based games mean that players are able to “pause” the world of the game in some way to make decisions at the pace they desire. The simplest analog example is a board game like Monopoly or Puerto Rico- both of which would be pretty awkward games if played in real time!

Often in turn-based games players move through strategic phases, in which specific types of decisions are made in a pre-set sequence. They encourage players to make very focused decisions, and “min-max” their decisions to be the best decision possible.

In Between

Some games are largely turn-based but incorporate real-time elements, like Hearthstone’s “rope” that gives you a finite, but reasonably generous amount of time to make your turn-based decisions in a way that doesn’t enrage your opponent. I think it’s fair to say that American Football is actually a hybrid between turn-based and real-time, with strategy and execution broken into segments. Chess is largely turn-based, but is often played with a clock to limit your total amount of time in the game to ensure fair play (speed chess is of course totally a thing).

Time is a Currency

When considering balance and engagement in a game, it’s useful to think about all the resources a player leverages to accomplish their goals. There are of course the in-game currencies like vespene gas or skulls or shards, but players also have to spend attention, and they have to spend time.

In a real-time game, the relationship between the player’s real-life time and the game’s time are the same thing- the player doesn’t have to think about time at all, because they are spending time the same way they do when they walk to work on the long route, or watch Hearthstone videos instead of writing blog posts on time. It’s still the fire in which we burn, digitally or otherwise.

So in real-time, time is still a currency that must be balanced- but as the designer you shouldn’t expect players to think about time as an in-game resource, even though it is.

In turn-based games, time is turned into a discrete currency. It’s presented in units- sometimes as simple as “turn,” but sometimes finer grained things like Action Points and/or phases come into play. Players are empowered to spend their real-world time recklessly to maximize their use of the game’s turn-time. It’s a little ironic that creating a lie about how time works helps highlight to players the existence of it, but hey, that’s game design.

Real Time and Learning Games

So that’s a rough overview of the concepts- what about the quaint corner of game design that focuses on learning? My recommendation is actually fairly blunt- start with turn-based, and integrate real-time elements only with really, really good reasons, like an intrinsic tie to learning objectives.

Real-Time Challenge One: Failure

The target player for a learning game is actually very rarely a “gamer,” who is literate in a wide variety of genres and can simply snap up a controller and dominate. It’s true that most people play games, but that does not mean that most people play Halo, it means that different people play different things, and they very rarely play a lot of things for a lot of time.

When you fall out of the sweet spot of “hard enough to be interesting” and into “too hard” in a real-time game, it’s all too often at that point a free fall. Your misstep or bad luck is compounded by the passage of even MORE time and things you might not be able to control or understand yet. For players who don’t have a firm identity of perseverance, for whom “grit” in play isn’t a thing, this is essentially a nightmare unfolding. Even real-time games that implement clever systems to mitigate this usually pull from turn-based sources- the classic Left 4 Dead for example will evaluate your health and ammo after a wave of zombies to determine the next, with each wave essentially being a “turn.” I’m sure there are counter-examples, but by and large, real-time games can be intimidating and snowball into pure punishment for players who aren’t sure about their skills and capabilities.

Real-Time Challenge Two: Accessibility

Another unexpected ding on real-time is…language. Often learning games are played by wide groups of people, in places like schools, and that means you’ll have people play who are learning your game’s speech and writing as a second language. Often critical information (particularly in tutorials!) are written in words, words, words. Even if that text is delivered in pauses, the tension between the game’s real-time pressure and the user’s deceleration when hitting language is cognitive dissonance at best, and disenfranchising to some of the players that frankly need some…enfranchising? Apparently that’s a word, excellent. Thank goodness blog posts are turn-based, I had time to look that up!

Real-Time Challenge Three: Competition

This really should be a blog post in its own right, but competition is problematic in situations where equity is important- for every student that thrives on competition, there’s another that is unsure about their skills, is afraid of being embarrassed, and doesn’t want their projected failure to be quantified and displayed. On a personal note, I used to think that I hated competition, but several years ago I finally confronted the fact that I was fine with competition, it was *losing* I hated. I’m doing better now.

Also, there are of course deeply competitive turn-based games. However there are not a lot of collaborative real-time games- Minecraft played in certain ways would be an example, or Magicka for the first twenty seconds (side note, I forgot the name of Magicka, but found it by googling “game where wizards blow each other up.”)

At any rate, real-time games naturally accentuate and complement competitive models, since players can bring skills like dexterity and prioritization to bear, which are natural fits in sports-like, war-like, or otherwise competitive games. This isn’t really a ding on real-time, it’s more just acknowledging that a natural alignment between game systems here pushes you in a direction that doesn’t help much for learning game design.

Turn-Based Benefit One: Conversation

I’ve found that some of the *best* impact from learning games is when you give players the chance to *talk* about what they’re doing. Share cheats, laugh at bugs, talk shop…whatever it is, if the game can facilitate engaged discussion, it’s making magic happen. And turn-based games are designed to have purposeful moments of reflection, which are also great times for discussion. Time to think is not that different than time to talk, and every time a student takes the time to format their game thinking into words, they’ve just done a moment of transfer of knowledge from one place to another…which is like…the thing, man.

Turn-Based Benefit Two: Practice Modeling

If your learning game is about a practice or procedure, the turn-based structure can be seen as modeling the template of the practice itself. Want to make a game about evidence based argumentation? Have players do it by first examining evidence and evaluate which arguments they might impact…in turns. Want to make a game where players learn nothing about argumentation? Turn that into real-time, where the quantity of arguments applied would outweigh the quality. I’m tempted to turn that into a sly aside on the state of modern political discourse, but honestly it made me sad to even think of it. Let’s move on.

Dan Norton quote


This summary basically writes itself, which at least to me is a good sign that I’ve written something that makes some sense: learning games benefit largely from turn-based mechanics, in which reflection, discussion, and practice modeling can be brought to bear. Turn-based components can be considered and applied where appropriate, but careful consideration should be made about accessibility, usability, and keeping the door of play open for as many players as possible.

There are probably a wide variety of interesting counter-examples, so please drop us a line on Facebook or Twitter if this was interesting to you and you have some nice counterpoints to help me flesh out my thinking further. Thanks for reading!


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