Asynchronous online multiplayer

Lately I’ve been playing a couple of games with a friend back east via iPhone apps. First we played a few rounds of Ascension, then a few rounds of Ticket to Ride. These are both adaptations of games designed for non-electronic play: Ascension is a card game, Ticket to Ride a board game. In their original forms, they would be played face-to-face in a single session, which is to say, in a period of time set aside just for play. As mobile games, no set-aside time is required. You can take your turn at any idle moment of your day. It’s no surprise that this transforms the experience of the game. It’s a little less obvious that it transforms it in very different ways depending on the rules of the game.

Ascension isn’t a CCG, but its design is informed by them. As in Magic: the Gathering, most cards are in some way exceptional, with special-case rules printed directly on the cards themselves. And if the central act of gameplay in a CCG is deck construction, Ascension manages to approximate it within the body of the game: the players start with small identical decks, and vie to acquire cards from a central pool, to add them to their decks and use them later in the game, most often for acquiring more cards. On every turn, you’re dealt a fresh hand of five cards from your deck, and your turn doesn’t end until you’ve played them all and your hand is empty. Importantly for the mobile adaptation, you’re dealt next turn’s hand immediately on the end of your turn, so you can contemplate what you’re going to do with it while your opponents are going.

Ticket to Ride is about trains. The board is a map of a rail network. Players compete to claim the tracks between cities and complete connections between particular distant pairs of cities assigned to them in secret. Each track can be owned by only one player, so some of the strategy is in dealing with, and exploiting, congestion: trying to foil your opponents by claiming the tracks they need while trying to plan for alternate routes in case your own efforts become blocked. Buying a track costs varying types and numbers of resources in the form of cards, which build up in your hand over the course of play. On any given turn, you can either draw two cards, or buy one track, or get additional contracts to connect cities (which is risky, because any contracts left uncompleted at the end of the game count against you).

Now, the big difference between these two games is in the length of the turns. Ticket to Ride turns are short. You do one thing, and that’s it — and if all you did was draw a couple of cards that you didn’t really need, it hardly feels like doing anything at all. Ascension turns are long, and get longer as the game advances and your deck becomes more powerful, enabling you to do more stuff. Moreover, Ticket to Ride separates the act of acquiring resources from the act of using them, and the result can be fairly excruciating: you finally get the fifth green card that you need to buy the St. Louis to Pittsburgh line and complete the connection you’re aiming for, but then you have to wait hours for your next turn before you can complete the transaction. In Ascension, your purchasing power is also tied to the cards in your hand, but it’s transient, not something that builds up from turn to turn, and so you use it the moment you get it. It’s a little strange to say this about a game that’s all about collecting things for future use, but turns in Ascension feel pretty self-contained, or at least self-sufficient. They’re like full sentences, where Ticket to Ride turns are sentence fragments, only meaningful in groups.

Another thing: Both of these games involve a struggle to get stuff before your opponents, and the possibility that a thing you really want will be taken away before you can get it. But the degree of consequence is very different. In Ascension, if I don’t get the sweet card I wanted, well, it’s just a card. There will be others. But in Ticket to Ride, if someone nabs the track I wanted, I’m devastated, and have to rework my plans. This again relates to the relative unimportance of forward plans in Ascension, which is more about seizing whatever the circumstances offer.

The end result: Ascension works more or less the way I want asynchronous multiplayer to work, with turns as satisfying nuggets of gameplay that I can take care of whenever it’s convenient. With only two players, there came times when we shuttled several turns back and forth in a short period of time, but this wasn’t a necessary part of the experience. Whereas in Ticket to Ride, the times when we made multiple moves in rapid succession were the only times that the game really felt like it was going anywhere. After submitting a move, I’d keep impatiently checking my phone for an opportunity to finish what I started. In other words, despite the asynchrony, I wanted to treat it like I was in a dedicated game session. Whereas Ascension is so well-suited to the format that I feel like it would be weird to play it face-to-face.

So, I’m speculating that this is generally applicable. Games that are well-suited to asynchronous multiplayer play will be those with long, self-sufficient turns, and without a great deal of forward planning. What does this predict for other games?

Chess and Go are big losers in this model, having both short turns and heavily planning-based gameplay. Scrabble, I suggest, is a winner — sure, you only get to do one thing per turn, but my experience is that it the turns tend to take an uncomfortably long time for face-to-face play anyway. And indeed asynchronous Scrabble-oids such as Words for Friends have been immensely popular. Settlers of Catan? Ignoring the problem of how to handle trading, it seems a pretty good candidate to me, despite sharing Ticket to Ride‘s congestion and resource-accumulation aspects: the congestion is never as individually crucial as in Ticket to Ride‘s routes, and resources can be spent as soon at they’re acquired. Magic: the Gathering might seem promising at first glance, what with its long turns, but it involves a degree of out-of-turn interactivity that’s unwieldy even for synchronous online play, let alone asynchronous. Diplomacy more or less fits the bill, and is also one of the few board games that I know to be more satisfying played via email than in its original form, but it’s also such an oddball with its all-players-move-simultaneously thing that I’m not sure it really fits into the same model as these other games at all.

2 Comments so far

  1. paul on 24 Mar 2013

    Dominion, as an Ascension ancestor, probably works well. Agricola is similar to Ticket to Ride in that it has heavy planning, competition for resources, and reasonably short turns. Nevertheless, I’ve played asynchronous games of it online and it’s super fun. It’s possible that the more a game is like double solitaire, the better it works.

  2. Laura on 25 Mar 2013

    I’m torn about Agricola. I’ve had a lot of fun playing it online – the other player’s turns don’t have that much to do with your plans, except that he takes some resources you might have wanted. You’re still mostly focused on your own farm. And the setup is such a huge hurdle to playing in person. That said, it’s way more fun when you set aside half an hour to play with someone, turns going rapidly back and forth; if you spread out turns over hours or days, you forget where you are in the game and make really stupid moves you never would have made in person.

    Similarly, having playing Dominion online (only in dedicated playtime sessions the length of one game, not asynchronously), it seems like it would be hard to keep in mind, over the course of the day, long-term strategy elements, like what cards you’re focusing on this game, what other players are doing, and how close they are to winning. But I’d be open to trying it.

    Of other board games popular in my circles:

    I feel like “Ivanhoe,” “Carcassonne,” “Guillotine” and “Fluxx” would work because, although the turns are often short, all the information you need to make a turn is in front of you when you go to play your turn. You don’t really have to be paying attention to what other people do in the meantime or what point in the game it is (at least, what point in the game it is, is readily visible from the board.)

    “Apples to Apples” would not work because it barely works in person. It’s not so much a game as a pastime.

    When I saw the title for this post I thought it was going to be about SimCity. I love reading about SimCity.

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