The Eleven: Programmed Action Games

In thinking about my favorite game mechanisms, I’d say that role selection is right at the top.  A very close second for me, however, is that of programmed actions.  The genre of programmable games is small and loosely defined.  My definition is a game where all players decide on their actions at the same time, and then take them.  This usually results in some bumping into each other and people doing things they did not plan to do.  It’s kind of a loose definition, one that I kind of stretch a bit for this list because I wanted to only include games I’ve played.  So, let’s take a look.  This list is arranged in reverse alphabetical order by the last letter of the name (that’s the only way I could think of that would make RoboRally first).

image by BGG user Livinus
image by BGG user Livinus

The gold standard for programmed games is RoboRally.  Originally published by Wizards of the Coast in 1994, this was Richard Garfield’s first game after Magic: The Gathering (and allegedly the reason Magic was designed).  In the game, 2-8 players control robots, racing them around the factory floor to be the first to touch all of the flags in sequence.  At the same time, you have to avoid lasers, pits, walls, crushers, and other robots.  Conveyor belts can move you in the right direction, but you have to get off at the right moment, or you’ll end up way off course.

A typical round works like this: Each player is dealt a hand of nine movement cards (forward, back, left turn, right turn, u-turn), and they choose five, placing them face down on their board in the order you want to use them.  Once all players have programmed five actions, each player will simultaneously reveal their first card and resolve their movement, beginning with the player who used the highest number.  Then all players resolve their second card, and so on.  After each action, conveyor belts will move and lasers will fire.  This means that a robot on a belt will be moved, and a robot in the line of fire takes damage.  You also get shot if another robot is facing you in a straight line after each action.  Damage means that on the next round, you get fewer cards.  You can choose to power down, which means you do nothing for an entire round.  If you survive to the next round, you are fully healed.  Play continues until someone touches the final flag.

RoboRally is a very simple concept – it’s basically Capture the Flag with robots.  However, the programming of actions adds a tremendous amount of chaos.  It’s not a simple race to the finish.  Someone else might have done something that severely cripples your plans, or even your robot.  You may think you’ll be touching the flag this round, but you actually end up on the other side of the room with eight damage and teetering on the edge of a pit.  It can be frustrating if you need a specific movement card and can’t get it, but the fun of the game is its unpredictability.  It’s definitely one that all fans of this genre MUST play.

image by BGG user karel_danek
image by BGG user karel_danek

A game that uses a similar action selection mechanism (though entirely different in execution) is Space Alert. This game was first published in 2009 by Czech Games Edition, designed by Vlaada Chvátil.  It’s a cooperative space game for 1-5 players (though really it’s for 4-5 with 1-3 player variants).  The game comes  with a soundtrack that serves as your ship computer, guiding you through the realtime play of your particular scenario.  You can also get an app that randomizes the computer.

A game of Space Alert is divided into two halves.  In the first half, you have ten minutes to plan your 12 actions for the game from a hand of cards.  You can move, or you can press a button that will cause something to happen (guns fire, shields charge, energy restored, battlebots activate, rockets launch, mouse jiggled, scenery looked at, interceptors flown).  Each player plays cards on their own personal board, and can move their pieces around the game board to see how things will look. Meanwhile, threats keep appearing, both external and internal, and you have to deal with them in order to survive for the entire ten minutes.  In the second half of the game, you find out what happened with all your planning.  It’s a bit like watching the video of the action as you no longer have any control.  Players reveal their cards and resolve them.  If you survive to the end of 12 rounds, you win.  If any part of your ship receives 7+ damage, you lose.

Space Alert is an extremely tense and unforgiving board game.  The threats keep coming, and you have to work together to succeed.  You cannot have a dominant personality in the game, because everyone has to do their part or you will all die.  The programming portion is played in realtime, so you can’t stop to think.  You have to coordinate, and you have to be willing to take a backseat if it makes more sense for someone else to perform an action.  The game is set up so you can learn as you play, and I’ve never gotten past the first simulator missions.  It is a fantastic game, however, and one any fan of programmed actions should try.

image by BGG user karel_danek
image by BGG user karel_danek

Dungeon Lords was published in 2009, again from designer Vlaada Chvátil and Czech Games Edition.  This 2-4 player game is based, to some extent, on the concept of the computer game Dungeon Keeper.  The premise is that you are a up and coming dungeon lord building your dungeons to do your evil in peace.  However, adventurers keep showing up to wreak havoc, so you’ll have to defend yourself.  It’s a worker placement game where the actions you program have long-lasting implications on your plan.

The game is divided into two years.  Each year is divided into four seasons and a combat phase.  During the seasons, you will send your minions out to work by picking three actions from your hand and laying them out facedown in the order you want them completed.  Once actions have been selected, they are revealed on at a time, and minions go to the first available space for the action indicated.  Each action has three different levels, and you get something slightly different depending on the space your minion lands on.  You could send your minions for food; you could try to improve your reputation (the most evil dungeon lords attract the attention of a paladin); you could dig tunnels or mine for gold; you could buy traps or higher monsters (or ghosts); or you could build rooms for your dungeon.  After each season, the threat grows greater and adventurers start gathering at the entrance to your dungeon, and you’d better be ready for them.  In combat, adventurers will take up to four runs at your dungeon, taking out tunnels and rooms as they hit them.  You can use one trap and one monster per round to try and take out the party of priests, warriors, thieves, and wizards.

The programming element of Dungeon Lords provides some very tough decisions in the game.  You really don’t have that much you can do, especially since two of the eight orders are always out of your hand.  You also have to weigh the timing of your actions – the second action is usually a little better than the first, while the third action can be more expensive but still beneficial.  You know what’s coming, so you know what you need, and it can be maddening when you can’t get it.  Some people complain that there just aren’t that many decisions to be made in the game.  OK, so you’re only going to get eight seasons to build your dungeon, but each decision you make is remarkably meaningful.  I think the programming helps this game become an even better experience than it might have been with just the quirky theme.

image by BGG user Purple
image by BGG user Purple

I’m really not trying to make this a Vlaada Chvátil/Czech Games Edition love fest.  But I did want to mention Galaxy Trucker in the context of this list.  It may be stretching the definition a bit, but hear me out.  This 2-4 player game from 2007 is all about building a ship and going on a journey through space, not knowing exactly what dangers you will encounter.  The game is played over three rounds, and each round has two phases – in the first phase, you build your ship from a pile of components in the center of the table.  In the second phase, you see how well your ship holds up.  Because of this, I think it belongs here – it’s just a different kind of programming

During the shipbuilding phase, you’ll be grabbing parts from a pile of components while all the other players are doing the same.  You’re trying to build the best ship you can, with cabins to house your astronauts, cargo bays for goods you can sell for cash, engines to make you faster, guns to defend yourself against asteroids or mean people, shields to protect yourself, batteries to power various components, and structural modules to hold your ship together.  This is all done without knowing exactly what’s coming in the journey phase.  You could look at some of the cards for the journey during the first phase, but that takes away from your shipbuilding time and doesn’t tell you the order.  Once you go on the journey, you could encounter open space, where you fire your engines to try to get head (the first one to the end gets a bonus); planets where you can pick up goods to sell; abandoned ships that you can give to your crew for a reward; or abandoned space stations that you can explore for rewards.  It’s not all good, however – you could fly into an asteroid field that could damage your ship; you could fly into a combat zone that will punish you for being low on various stats in your ship; you could meet slavers, pirates, or smugglers; you could also have an epidemic on your ship, or a saboteur, or lose flight days due to exposed connectors on your ship.  You can’t plan for everything, you just have to do the best you can and hope to not die.

Galaxy Trucker is one of my favorite games, and part of it is because of the programmable aspect.  There are some decisions to be made once you are in flight (whether to power your guns or engines, what planet to stop on, whether to lose some astronauts for a reward), but the bulk of it comes from building your ship.  You have to have a good balance of everything, but even the best laid plans can be demolished – I had a saboteur blow the back half off my perfectly constructed ship one time and had to limp into the final destination.  Great game – very unpredictable, but fantastic nonetheless.

image by BGG user MasqGames
image by BGG user MasqGames

Epigo was the first (and thus far, only) game I was sent a review copy for on this blog.  It’s a 2011 game from designers Chris Gosselin and Chris Kreuter, published by Masquerade Games.  It’s a 2-player abstract game (with a 4-player variant) that takes 15-30 minutes to play.  The art gives an ancient Meropotamian feel, but it’s really just moving numbered tiles around on a grid.  The game is probably the most similar to RoboRally in its execution, though considerably shorter and with less of a thematic flair.

At the start of each round, players choose three numbered tiles from their hands, indicating that these are the three tiles they want to use.  The tiles will be secretly stacked so that each one is oriented in the direction you’ll push the tile (left, right, up, down).  Once players have chosen their orders, the first is revealed.  The higher number always moves first, and if both players chose the same number, neither moves.  You can push other tiles around with the tile you’re moving, but only if there aren’t too many opposing tiles in the line you’re pushing.  After the first tile resolves, the second resolves, then the third.  You’ll then choose a new set of three orders.  The object of the game is to push three of your opponent’s tiles off the board.  Once a tile has been captured, you’ll never see it again, though you can still use its order to try and block your opponent.

Epigo is a very simple game with a lot of strategic elements.  You have to outthink your opponents, and you have to position your pieces to make them effective.  It’s quite difficult at times to see every move available on the board, and you have to be able to think in several different directions to be victorious.  The game comes with 21 different setup variants, with more available on the Masquerade Games website.

image by BGG user tasajara
image by BGG user tasajara

When the Spiel des Jahres nominees were announced in 2010, I think most gamers wanted to see Fresco win.  Dixit won instead, but I think it illustrated more than anything the perceived need for an award for a more complex game of the year.  Fresco was designed by Wolfgang Panning, Marco Ruskowski, and Marcel Süßelbeck, and was published by Queen Games.  It’s a 2-4 player worker placement style game that lasts about 60 minutes.  The theme is that you are artisans working to restore a fresco in a Renaissance church.  The programming comes in the form of determining what actions you want to take with your 4-6 workers.

In a round, players will first determine play order as they decide what time to get up.  Getting up early means the prices are high at the market and your workers are unhappy, but you get to go first.  Getting up late means that things are cheap and your workers are happy, but you have to choose last.  You then distribute your five workers (4 if your workers are too miserable, 6 if they are extra happy) to the five actions possible.  You can have up to three workers on each action.  This distribution is done in secret.  Once workers are distributed, actions are revealed, and players resolve them in player order (the order they woke up).  You could visit the market to buy paints at the price set by the time you woke up.  You could work on the fresco, completing one section for each worker you allocated (sections are completed by turning in paints, and you score points for each section).  You could paint a portrait, which essentially gets you $3 per worker.  You could mix paints – this is often the easiest way to get orange, purple, and green pain.  You could also visit the theater, which makes your workers happier.  The game ends when there are six or fewer sections remaining to be restored on the fresco, and the player with the most points wins.

The programming element in this game comes in the form of a sort of bid.  You decide which actions you will do on your turn before knowing what the others are doing.  You do know where you are in player order, so if you’re going last, you can’t count on the paints you need being available.  On the other hand, if you’re first, you can do whatever you want, but you still want to consider what others are doing.  It’s not a traditional programmable action game, but I think it fits because you are deciding on several actions without knowing what other players are doing.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

I’m going to stretch the definition a bit here.  Infiltration is a 2012 game from designer Donald X. Vaccarino and Fantasy Flight Games.  2-6 players go into the 45 minute push-your-luck style game where you are attempting to steal data from a corporate facility.  It’s set in Fantasy Flight’s Android universe, which they are developing more and more lately.  The programming of your turn consists of choosing one action, but you can very easily get stymied.

At the beginning of each round, players all choose one of four actions – advance, retreat, interface, or download – or choose an item to play.  You all reveal simultaneously, then resolve your actions in player order.  You could move forward or backward through the facility, made up of 12 cards (6 in each of two levels).  You could interface with your particular location, taking a special action.  You could also download data in that section, and the data you collect is what gives you the win.  At the end of the round, the alarm level is increased.  If it ever hits 99, the game ends and anyone that has not escaped loses.

With only one action to select, Infiltration is a bit different from the other games I’ve already talked about.  However, I included it for two reasons.  First, the action you select could be affected by what someone in front of you has done.  For example, only the first person to interface with a location can do the interface action.  If two people in the same location choose interface, the second person is out of luck.  Also, downloading can affect everyone.  The first person to download gets 2 pieces of data, and everyone else gets one.  If the data runs out before your turn, you’ve wasted the action.  So, the action you choose is quite dependent on where you are in turn order.  The other reason I chose the game for this list of programmable action games is because it’s a game about computers, and it just seemed right.

image by BGG user W Eric Martin
image by BGG user W Eric Martin

1st & Goal is another game where you’re only choosing one action at a time, but this time in a football setting.  This 2 player game was designed by Stephen Glenn and published by R&R Games.  In 1st & Goal, you are trying to win a football game.  Simple as that.  It’s the play selection process that lands it on this list.

The game rally does play out a lot like a real game of football, so if you know the rules of that game, you’re well on your way to understanding 1st & Goal.  There are two decks of cards in the game, one for the offense and one for the defense.  A down involves the offense choosing a play from a hand of eight cards, and the defense choosing a play from a hand of eight cards.  The plays are simultaneously revealed and compared.  The defensive play versus the offensive play results in the offense rolling a certain number of dice.  Based on the die results, the offense either moves forward or backward, or has to roll for a penalty or turnover.  You can also choose to roll for a field goal or punt.  When the ball changes hands (after a score, turnover, or kick), the decks pass with cards remaining in hand shuffled back in.  A half is over when the cards run out, and the game lasts two halves, with the winner being the one with the most points.

In thinking about this game in terms of being a programmable action game, it’s caused me to think of the game of football as a programmable game.  The coach calls a play, the quarterback relays it to the team, the team carries out the action.  Unlike other sports like basketball or hockey where your strategy is constantly changing, or baseball where you can really take your time making decisions, football is played in a huge stadium with loud fans and a large team on the field, so there’s not much room to change things once a play has been called.  The defense has to think about what the offense is going to do, and adjust accordingly.  You still have to account for luck – a hand might go up at just the wrong instant, or a clod of dirt might trip someone up, or a quarterback may throw a ball just a little too far or high.  I think 1st & Goal simulates the game of football very well, and the programming of plays makes it a very exciting experience, particularly as a football fan.

image by BGG user sparky123180
image by BGG user sparky123180

The Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game from designer Jason Little was one of the first things to come out with Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars license.  The game (for 2 players, though teams can be formed for bigger scenarios) involves moving miniature spaceships around on the table, trying to accomplish certain objectives – surviving, destroying objects, destroying each other, etc.  There’s no board, so moves are calculated using several different measurement tools included in the game.

In a round, each player programs one maneuver for each of their ships.  Your squad is set up using a point allocation system, so you may be using a different number of ships than your opponent.  Once maneuvers have been set, you reveal and, from the worst to best pilots (based on a number on the pilot card), execute your move.  Each ship also gets to take one action – evade (which helps in the combat phase), focus (also for the combat phase), do a barrel roll, acquire a target lock, or do an item action.  After all players have maneuvered and taken an action, they attack.  This is done from best to worst.  Once all players have gone, a new round begins with the surviving ships.

The programming element comes here at the beginning of a round when you choose your maneuver.  You want to try to position a ship so it will be able to shoot someone, but you don’t really want to put yourself in harm’s way.  You also don’t want to crash into someone, so you need to be wary of what the other player is doing.  You’re only choosing one action per ship, but you’re programming a bunch of ships at once which keeps you on your toes.  Once you’ve moved, you have other decisions to make (actions and attacks), but that initial program is critical to what you want to do later.  Your opponent can totally screw you up with an unpredictable move.  You can play this game with teams which really adds another element of chaos and excitement.  It’s one of the most popular games to come out recently, and a very good example of programming actions.

image by BGG user Kevin C
image by BGG user Kevin C

One of the earliest Days of Wonder games was 2002’s Pirate’s Cove.  The game (for 3-5 players) is all about gaining fame as a pirate.  It features a programming element where players direct their ships to different islands where they can gain treasure and other ship upgrades.  However, you must be careful – if another pirate shows up at the same time, you’ll have to fight.

Pirate’s Cove last for 12 turns, and at the beginning of each turn, a treasure card is flipped up on each island.  Each player will then secretly choose one of the islands, and reveal simultaneously.  If everyone goes to a different island, great.  If two or more pirates go to the same island, it’s time to fight (there’s a Legendary Pirate that moves around the board, so watch out for that).  Ships take turns launching volley cards until all but one have either retreated to Pirate’s Cove or been crippled.  Once all combat has been resolved, players collect their treasure from the card – gold, treasure, Tavern cards, and fame points.  Each player then can take advantage of the island they’re on – at Tavern Island, you can pay two gold per Tavern card you want to buy (up to 3); at Hull, Sail, Cannon, or Crew Island, you can upgrade the respective section of your ship; at Treasure Island, you can bury treasure or gold for points; and at Pirate’s Cove, you can draw 2 Tavern cards or 1 Tavern card and 2 gold, then repair your ship.  After 12 rounds, the game is over, and the pirate with the most fame wins.

This is another stretch for the category with only one action selection at a time.  However, you have to carefully consider where you’re sending your ship.  If you need parts, you have to consider that other players may also want to upgrade that stuff.  Or if there’s a valuable treasure card, other players may have their sights set on it.  The action you take could end up sending you into combat, or could get you an unimpeded shot at stuff.   This makes every round a tough decision.  To be honest, this is the entry on my list that I’m least comfortable with.  I’m including it because I locked myself into doing eleven, and I couldn’t think of an eleventh I had played.  So give me some other options to check out, and maybe I’ll replace this one at a later date.

image by BGG user loeffe
image by BGG user loeffe

Another pirate game, and one that I think fits the genre better – Jamaica.  This game was published in 2007 by Gameworks SàRL, designed by Malcolm Braff, Bruno Cathala, and Sébastien Pauchon.  You can play with 2-6 people, and the game takes around 45 minutes.  Jamaica is essentially a race around the island of Jamaica with players attempting to pick up treasure along the way.  The first one around doesn’t necessarily win – in the end, only treasure counts.

Each player has a deck of 12 identical cards from which they have a hand of three.  Each card has two symbols – the one on the left is your morning action, and the one on the right is your evening action.  At the start of each round, the first player rolls two dice and orders them however he wishes – one goes on the morning space, the other on the evening space.  These numbers indicate how many times you can perform the corresponding action.  Each player then selects a card from their hand and reveals it simultaneously.  Then, in turn order, each player performs their morning action and then their evening action.  In the rules, these occur consecutively for each player, but I like playing where each player does their morning action, and then each player does their evening action.  It makes more sense thematically to me, and I think adds a more chaotic element.  Your actions could get you cannons (used in combat if you find yourself on the same space as another pirate), food (used to pay docking fees), doubloons (also used for docking, as well as to win the game), or movement.  There also may be ano opportunity to get some treasure that will add to your final score (or possibly subtract), or may give you an added benefit.  The game continues until one player has crossed the finish line.  The current round ends, and then players add up their treasure to determine the winner.

Jamaica is a very simple, very beautiful game.  The programming of turns is very simply done, with one player determining the numbers all others must use, and all other players using those numbers to the best of their abilities.  The cards are well marked, and the game plays quickly enough that all players are engaged throughout.  Definitely a good gateway pirate game, and also a good introduction to programming turns.

There’s the list.  Let me know some other games with programming – I really would like to expand my horizons in this department.  Thanks for reading!

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