Mechanically Speaking: Acting and Action/Movement Programming

It’s a new irregular series for the blog.  I’d like to take a look at the 51 mechanisms listed on BGG and give some thoughts on them, along with some games that are representative of the type.  My goal is to try to identify an archetypical game for each mechanism, but as I’m not terribly familiar with some of the mechanisms, we’ll see how that goes.  I’ll be doing these in alphabetical order, so here we go with the top of the list.

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We’ll start with ACTING!  The BGG definition for this mechanism is as follows:

Games with the Acting mechanic require players to use some form of mime or mimicry to communicate with the other players.

There’s not much to explain beyond that.  In Acting, you have to act, usually as a form of giving clues to others.  Charades is the archetype for this mechanism, where one person acts out a clue for his or her team.  It’s also a party game, and I really see Acting as a party game mechanism.  When you take it out of party games, it starts to move into the territory of Role Playing.  I think there’s a fine line between the two, and I think that line is narrative.  Acting is usually done in brief spurts to communicate with other players, whereas Role Playing has players taking on the personas of characters in a story.  Think short-form improv (such as on Who’s Line Is It Anyway) versus long-form improv (such as on the Spontaneanation podcast).

I really don’t have a lot to say about Acting, as it’s not really a mechanism I enjoy (not being a party game person).  But here are some of the top Acting games, as ranked on BGG:

  1. Time’s Up! family – I’ve never played any of the Time’s Up! games, but from what I understand, the format is that you play three rounds.  In the first round, you can give any clue for a target word; in the second, you can only give a one word clue; and in the third, you can’t use words at all.  That’s where the Acting comes in.  People love this game, and I should probably try it out sometime.
  2. Spyfall – Here, one player is a spy trying to figure out the location where everyone is located (he’s the only one who doesn’t know).  So the spy has to act like he knows what he’s talking about.  Each player has a location card, and these have titles on each one to give you a little role you can act out while playing.  This one is a pretty fun game that I’ve only gotten to play once.
  3. Dixit: Journey – I wasn’t aware that Dixit had any acting elements, but apparently this version expanded what the Storyteller could do to include songs or actions in his clue.  So there you go.
  4. Monikers – I am completely unaware of this game.  Apparently, it’s just like Time’s Up! with a little more freedom in the guessing and clue giving.
  5. Two Rooms and a Boom – Players are secretly placed on teams and given roles.  They then need to figure out the President and the Bomber.  If the two are in the same room at the end of the game, the Bomber’s team wins.  If not, the President’s team wins.  It’s a pretty fun and expansive social deduction game, and I would probably classify it more on the Role Playing end of the spectrum.
  6. Ice Cool – This is a dexterity game where players are flicking penguins around while another player is trying to catch them.  I have to be honest – I have no idea where Acting comes in to this one.  Then again, I haven’t played.
  7. Snake Oil – Players take turns pitching the wildest products they can to certain customers.  It’s definitely an improv style of game.
  8. Imagine – Players try to represent various words by combining transparent plastic cards on the table.  It’s an interesting concept that I hadn’t heard about before making this list, but I’m once again having trouble seeing where Acting comes in.  Apparently, you can animate your clues, so maybe that’s it.
  9. Funemployed! – This is a lot like Snake Oil, except you’re selling your own qualifications for different jobs instead of a product.
  10. Ugg-Tect – In this game, players are cave people trying to communicate how to build different objects by grunting in different ways and beating their partners over the head with an inflatable club.  It’s very silly.  I don’t like it very much.
  11. Rock the Beat – Players start playing by slapping the beat of We Will Rock You on their thighs.  The player whose turn it is replaces the clap with a symbol as represented on a card they got at the start.  Then they replace the clap with another player’s symbol.  That player does their symbol, then another.  And so on.  When someone messes up, they give their card to the player who threw it to them, and that player now has two symbols to keep track of.  Seems like it’s pretty silly, but fun for a little while.

So that’s Acting.  On to the next mechanism:

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Action/Movement Programming is defined on BGG thusly:

In programming, every player must secretly choose the next ‘n’ turns, and then each player plays their turns out according to the choices made. A game has the programming mechanic if it provides choice of actions, preferably several, with a mechanism of executing those actions such that things could go spectacularly or amusingly wrong, because the status of the game changed in ways one did not anticipate, or hoped would not happen, before the action is executed.

In short, players choose what they would like to do, then see what actually happens and how their plans went completely haywire.  For an archetype of this mechanism, look no further than RoboRally.  That’s a game where you are programming robots five moves in advance.  However, each of the moves is done at the same time as the other players, and you can be thrown completely off course because of it – you could find someone else in your spot, or they could find you in theirs, which could get you pushed into a wall, a pit, a conveyor belt, or a laser.

I frequently cite Action/Movement Programming as one of my favorite mechanisms in games.  I understand a lot of the critique of these types of games – they’re chaotic, they’re unpredictable, and people who’d prefer to make careful choices about what they’re doing frequently get upset when things go wrong through no fault of their own.  But that’s exactly what I love about them.  I think the lack of control is sometimes refreshing, and it makes it so much more satisfying when you successfully outthink your opponents.  It’s a very unique mechanism in gaming, and one that always grabs my attention when I find out it’s there.

With that said, here are some of the top Action/Movement Programming games, as ranked on BGG:

  1. Robinson Crusoe – This is a cooperative game from Ignacy Trzewiczek and Portal Games.  I haven’t played, but my understanding is that players place out their workers in areas they want to do stuff, then resolve without knowing precisely what’s going to happen.  I guess that’s technically programming, but it’s more like indeterminate worker placement.
  2. Mechs vs. Minions – This one is by the guys at Riot Games, makes of the League of Legends MOBA.  In this one, you’re fighting off hordes of minions.  At the start of each round, players draft new action cards, then program into a space on their action board.  These cards will remain there until replaced at a later time, so you’ll be doing the same actions in the same order over and over.  It’s sort of a long-range Action/Movement Programming.
  3. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game/Star Wars: Armada – This system is basically representing the dog fights of the Star Wars franchise, with X-Wing on a smaller scale than Armada.  The basic idea is that you program your ship with a single maneuver, then resolve in initiative order.  You’ll either be the Rebellion or the Empire, and your goal will change depending on who you’re playing.  It’s a smaller scale programming mechanism, with just one action rather than several.
  4. Mombasa – In this one, players are running chartered companies in Africa and trying to earn money.  I know very little about this game, other than it was designed by Alexander Pfister, and that player will program at least three actions each round.  It’s one I need to try sometime.
  5. Wallenstein/Shogun – The 2002 game Wallenstein and its 2006 retheme Shogun apparently also use the programming mechanism.  As I understand it, there are a number of action cards dealt out, and players secretly program which ones they want to do.  It’s kind of a hybrid Euro-wargame, and one that I haven’t played.  But I hear lots of good things about it, especially the cube tower.  But it’s yet another that I haven’t played.
  6. Space Alert – Vlaada Chvátil loves to use programming, and this is probably his best use of it.  Space Alert is a cooperative game where players have to program their actions for the game as they try to keep their ship in one piece.  The first phase of the game is straight programming, the second is seeing if your program worked.  It really works well with the programming analogy too, because if one part of your code is bad, it is likely that the whole thing will fall apart.  It’s a great game, though very chaotic and very difficult to do well in.
  7. Dungeon Lords – This is another Vlaada programming game, though this one longer and more strategic.  Players are trying to protect their dungeon from smelly human adventurers.  Each round, you choose three actions that you want to take, then send your minions.  The order of claiming matters, and the second person to take an action will likely get a better action than the first person.  It’s a pretty thinky game.
  8. Fresco – In this one, you are a craftsman working on a great work of art.  You first have to decide how early you want your workers to get up to determine play order.  You then simultaneously and secretly assign workers to various actions – buying paints, mixing paints, and of course painting.  It’s  very pretty game, and the programming element works pretty well, especially with the wake up mechanism that can make your workers grumpy if they’re up too early.
  9. Colt Express – This SdJ winner is all about robbing a train.  In each round, players take turns playing actions from their hand into a community pile of cards.  At the end of the round, you’ll flip the community pile and resolve the cards in order.  Some are played face up so you know what your opponents are doing, and others are played face down so you don’t.  It’s a wild and chaotic game, and I love it.
  10. Lords of Xidit – In this game, you’re trying to gain wealth, influence, and reputation.  In each of the game’s 12 rounds, you are programming your units with six orders across four possible actions – move, recruit, eliminate a threat, and wait.  After 12 rounds, you assess wealth, influence and reputation in a randomly determined order.  The lowest score in each is eliminated.  It seems like a really cool game.
  11. La Isla – With this Stefan Feld design, players are choosing three cards per round and deciding whether to make them their A action, B action, or D action.  A actions are special powers that will remain in play (though you can only have three active at a time).  B will give you goods.  C is the movement of your scientist as you try to surround different areas, and D moves you up on an animal scoring track.  It’s a pretty light game, but interesting.  I’ve only played it online.

Just for fun, I looked to see if there were any games that combined Acting and Action/Movement Programming.  There are six games in the BGG database – Confrontation (1970), Ruck Zuck (1990), Mini Copa (2015), Over the Line (2015), Misantropia (2016), and Venise (2016).  None of them have enough ratings to be ranked at BGG.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed that.  Thanks for reading!



  1. Nice write up. You should really give Time’s Up a try. My favorite round of Time’s Up is the 2nd one and the reason is that sometimes people give terrible clues in round one and these are the ones that tend to “stick” to the word or words you are trying to identify rather than the good clues. Hard to explain, but you’ll see what I mean.

    And TOTALLY agree on programming games. LOVE them. You are exactly right in that people don’t like the lack of control, but I totally don’t understand that. If everything you wanted to happen happened, then what’s the fun in that?!? That’s the whole point. It’s the unexpected things that make them great. I bet these same people are the ones that love to play something like Scythe with newbies (or a worker placement game) and have already figured out the optimal sequence of what they need to do to win. Bor-ring.

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