Pax Galaxia: Accessibility of Turn-Based Games

Last time i talked about the controls of loco roco which make the game very accessible for everyone. This time i want to talk about another principle on how to make a game accesibble, which seems to have been lost for ages.

Turn-based gameplay.

Before I begin, I want to give the disclaimer that I will explain the power (as i see it) of turn-based gameplay on another turn-based strategy game. Of course the turn-based gameplay is strongly tied to strategic games, because it gives the player time to think, which is important in strategic games. But it isn’t necessary to tie turn-based gameplay to full blown strategic games – which i will explain later, too.

Yes, Civilization is great, but a game can easily profit from turn-based gameplay mechanics without being complex – you don’t need to take 2-3minutes for a turn to profit from turn-based gameplay. Also quick game can be turn-based. Take a look at ceeu’s action-puzzler Excit, in which your turn-time will typically be much less than 5 seconds. In a good turn-based game everything is animated and looks realtime and actions happen fast, so that it feels like non-turn based and is possible to play as fast as a non turn-based game – you can do 0.5 seconds lasting turns in excit, and most of the time you will. But the benefit from turn-based gameplay is that you can take as long for a turn as you wish. So a good, modern game does not necessarily neet to decide to be either real-time or deep strategic with turns – it can still be an easy and action oriented game with turns.

Before I get on with my thoughts, let me tell you about Pax Galaxia – the game about galactic conquest.

It is basically like Masters of Orion or Galactic Civilizations – but it’s a whole lot different. It has no unnecessary gameplay elements that require a huge amount of thinking. Hence, the game developer does not have to balance everything to be “very easy” so that it becomes unnecessary for the player to think until his decisions get arbitrary.

Pax Galaxia doesn’t have any galactic-conquest-typical science-research, nor diplomatics, technologies and so on. It just doesn’t need them. You think you won’t like it? – That’s a pitty, because pax galaxia boils down to real, pure strategy gameplay, that what every civilization maniac’s heart loves most.

Pax Galaxia boils the whole genre down to a map view with planets, connections between them and fleets. The only thing you can do is control where the fleets fly to – from planet to planet. If a planet is unowned you gain control over it and it will start to produce new ships for you. If a planet is owned by your enemy your fleets will fight over it.

Take a close look at – try the demo, it’s worth it (if you’ve got time to loose, because you won’t stop playing it for hours!) – and yes, you will even not miss funky graphics because your brain will so strongly concentrate on gameplay!

And the controls? I wrote already about what I like about non standard controls. It is also the same thing with Pax Galaxia: how to move a fleet of ships to a planet? Normally, by selcting it, and then clicking on the target – yes? But what about newly build ships? You must then form new fleets and move them arround, too. What when the pure strategic gameplay is not about certain fleets, but about production lines, about where the ships fly from the back of your empire to the frontlines. How about creating a list of paths through your galaxy, adjusting them, adding branches and then control where they end at the frontlines? Sounds complicated, indeed that would be.

No, Pax Galaxia does it so perfect: you click on a planet (whether it has currently a fleet in orbit or not) and while holding down left-mouse-button you drag to a neighbour planet – voila, you get an arrow on that path that indicates that all ships that are produced or arrive on the first planet automatically will move (or start to attack) the second planet. Not easy to understand, not easy to control the first time, but it becomes so intuitive that it speeds up the gameplay so much, your brain can truely train to become the superior strategy meister.

Wait, Pax Galaxia isn’t turn based, it’s realtime – and they call that a feature for the strategic game it claims to be? Read a bit further, I will return to that point and explain why I chose pax galaxia as an example for a game with an easy accessible gameplay.

Now, back on to topic: what’s so good about turn-based strategy, that we see nearly never nowadays? It is the possibility for the player to control “time flow” according to his needs. When the player is doing some gameplay part that he is good in, he can do it in his desired “speed”, simply by doing turns quickly. On the other hand, if it is something that a player needs to learn, train, understand or simply wants to experience in every detail – he can take as much time as he, the king of all cosmos, wants to. (which is the player, of course :)

This is especially true for beginners, for players new to the game that use turn-based gameplay. They will need more time than those who already have some experience with the game, or similiar games. Beginners will have as much time as they want – no lame tutorial which unnecessarily slowly explains even those parts that you did understand already. No tutorial restarting, no missing tutorials. A typically easy beginner level of a realtime game, played with turn-based mechanics becomes so newbie friendly, that even your grandpa becomes a chance.

But this typically needs one super major interface “trick”, that no one seems to come up with. Turn-based games entirely miss it today: no “end turn” button necessary. Of course an “end turn” button is what you would expect in a turn-based game, but having no other chance to end the turn makes “quick” turns impossible. What about the newly acclaimed Heroes of Might and Magic 5? When starting the game, I simply move my knight in a few secons … and then? I need minutes to try out all interface elements to find the end-turn button. This sucks. If I got only one knight to play with, and I used up all his action possibility, why can’t the game just end the turn itself! Because the player could want to rethink the knights movement? Well, what about a undo- / redo-turn button? You think because later on, in deeper gameplay the player does not want a turn to be done before he says so? Well, make a “never finish turn automatically” option for experienced players.

This is all that a good turn based game needs: programming that understands when the player has done all possible / all typical / all necessary actions and finishes the turn by itself. With Excit this works pretty well, it is a simple game where one can only move the player character, nothing else. After each move, a new turn starts. Because the game has no other elements that require turn-based gameplay, there is no need to call turns “turns”. It’s just the point, that the game will wait for years until the player does it’s next move, no loosing, change of zones of interest, beeter or worse moments to move that need to be recognised as such. The player needs only to think about what he wants to do and then do it. Simply without an end-turn button.

Now back to Pax Galaxia: the game is realtime, you move your fleets in realtime, but there is this prominent pause button in the interface. It’s the end turn button, yes it is. Simply press it to pause, you can still make moves and decisions, think about what strategy you want to try and press the button again to make the game fullfill your move – and because of the game is doing everything automaticly for you, you can easily wait until a new opportunity needs you to think about it, press the “pause” button to make your next turn and then “end turn” ;) again.

I would love to have that feature in many more games out there. Often games have so much possibilites that an average player can’t use all game elements. A little bit turn-based gameplay would give the players a chance to use those game elements. This would remove the necessity for the game developers to ballance the game easier and water the importance of decisions down until they are no longer important.

Daniel Renkel

Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel is a true indie game developer (at heart ;) and a part time simulation engineer (space- & aircrafts). He's studied computer science at the university of Darmstadt, Germany and has a background of 8 years as game developer (assistant projectmanager, game designer, associate producer and technical artist). He worked on a whole number of PC and console games including the Aquanox series. Visit for more information about this current android mobile phone games.

7 responses to “Pax Galaxia: Accessibility of Turn-Based Games”

  1. Krystian Majewski

    First, I would like to add a small list of games, which depend heavily on the mentioned mixture of turn-based and real-time gameplay.

    The oldest one I can think of is Battle Bugs. Remeber it? You command a bunch of bugs quite like in a RTS game but you can use a very prominent stopwatch to pause the game. I think the game even paused automaticly when you clicked on a bug.

    X-Com: Apocalypse could be played in two different modes. One mode worked just like the old, turn-based prequels. The other one was similar to games like Syndicate but from what I understood, it was also possible to pause the game to issue more detailed commands. My expierence was that in the second mode, often aliens suddenly jumped from a corner and my team was dead before I even could press the pause button. I prefered the strict turn-based mode.

    While we talk about the X-Com series, we can also mention Laser Squad: Nemesis. There, the game is paused every 10 seconds or so. When the game paused, you are able to issue comands for the next 10 seconds. By ending the turn, the “time flow” contnues another 10 seconds. All units act simultaniously, which is good for the play-by-mail mulitplayer system.

    Finally, Civilization: Call to Power had a system, which worked quite like you mentioned. When you moved every unit, the game automaticly advanced to the next turn. You could deactivate this function if you didn’t like it. I always did. The function frequently leads to situations where I want to do something during a turn but the game finishes the turn before I had the chance.

    You see, when a turn begins, automaticly a unit is selected. Your first instinct is to move the unit, especially if you can attack some enemy or discover new land or something. When you moved a unit another unit is selected and it goes on an on. All the time, in the back of your head you try to remember that you want to produce a different kind of units in a certain city, for example. However, suddenly you moved your last unit and the turn is over, you missed your chance and quite possibly even lost a lot because of it.

    Also, because in Civ, turns get longer and longer as the game proceededs, ending the turn by pressing a button gives you a better feeling of how many turns have passed.

    But I agree that the turn-based excit feels very real-time, which is very good. I think the idea to end turns automaticly only works if the overall game mechanic is suitable for it. In case of Civ:CtP, it simply isn’t.

    I think it has to do with what you can do during a turn and expecially if something happens between your turns. In Civ, a lot of stuff you do in a turn is optional. You can micro-manage cities, move every unit, engage diplomatic contacts, etc. The possibilites become endless as the game gets larger. There is no way finding out if a player did everything he wanted to do in a turn. Chess might be similar to civ because you are moving units too, however you always can move only one unit, no matter how many you have.

    Also, in Civ, the computer moves when you end a turn. If a turn ends too quickly, you might loose a lot. In excit, there is no real punishment for ending turns. This kind forgiveability makes it especially suitable for automatic turn ending.

  2. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    as i said already: really complex games need the option to disable automatic turn ending. or a undo button to go back to the last turn, which is most often pretty difficult to implement – and therefor left out.

    but for actions that you can do in a turn but need not to – those actions like build units in civ – where you fear you could miss them before automatically ending the turn, simply those actions need a different way of interfacing, so that you neither forget about doing them, nor have to do complicate maneuvers until you can do them. a good way for complex strategy games is to have a “results from last turn” summary, before the player can move units, on this results page one can build units etc.

    x-com apocalypse had the problem most sequals hav: it is simply to hard, balanced for pro’s not beginners. it feels great while playing strictly turn-based, but when playing the same balancing in realtime i felt totaly overrun from enemies, allready in earlier easy stages – no chance to survive.

  3. Krystian Majewski

    I agree with your analysis of X-Com: Apocalypse. The game wasn’t designed and ballanced to work real-time.

    But also, this is why I think it is a bad idea to build in an option for disabling automatic turn ending. If automatic turn ending makes such a big difference, we shouldn’t leave this for the user to decide. It’s our job as designers to find out and decide which one works best. If there are good reasons for both, manual and automatic turn ending, then it is a sign that something is wrong with the gameplay. Just like in X-Com: Apocalypse.

    Just think about it: this kind of option increases the complexity of the game even more because you have to implement some kind of User Interface to offer those options. Further, you have to explain to the user what impact the option has on the gameplay which is almost impossible if the user plays for the first time and still hard if he didn’t notice that it was round-based.
    Even if a “pro” (there is no such thing) still decided to use manual turn ending, for him it will be the lesser of two evils. Most of the time, he will be annoyed by having to press the “end turn” button but he takes that for granted if he can prevent the automatic to screw up his game.

    Another way to look at it what Yu-Chung said in his Prince of Persia post ( You implement a feature which doesn’t really work with your gameplay and screws up the game sometimes. Instead of fixing the feature or the gameplay, you implement ANOTHER feature on top so the user can decide if he want the crappy feature or not.

  4. Daniel 'sirleto' Renkel

    clever tought … on the one hand, on the other hand i don’t think that in reality one can design the perfect thing. so, why don’t we let the pro-gamer (and of course there is such a thing ;) decide for himself. the chance is high, that the pro is noch nicht einmal capable of deciding on a objective basis, but he decides on a subjective – takeing the lesser of two evils.

    of course, better than having to stick to something that the player feels to be bad and doesn’t even have a chance to ask the designer to hear that this one is definitely the better choice, as is typically in games.

  5. Krystian Majewski

    If fact, it doesn’t help the player at all. It just helps the designer. It is nothing more then a convenient excuse: if you run into problems, instead of solving them, give up the responsibility to the player so the designer be blamed.

    If we say that “pro-gamers” will end up using manual turn ending then ultimativly, all players will end up playing manual anyway but they will have to go through quite a burden to arrive at that solution: a player starts playing with automatic, then has to understand and learn that he can turn turn ending to manual and then he has to change his playing style to manual because he learned the game playing automatic. Just like the menu/keyboard shortcut duality we have discussed already. So in fact, you are offering not the lesser of two evils but simply three evils at the same time: automatic, manual and the fact that players have to switch.

    Sure, there is no such thing as one, perfect solution. But is that an excuse to give it up entirely and let users do what we are supposed to do in the first place?

    I think your idea of an undo button goes in a better direction. It makes the game more forgiveable so it becomes less important when exactly a turn ends. Hece, there is less need for an “end turn” button. Hoever, note that you are just exchanging one button for another. Also, you run into problems of quicksave-creep. The forgiveness of the game should not be created by a feature on top, but should come from the gameplay. Attention should be shifted away from the fact that there are turns onto other gameplay elements. Just like in excit.

  6. Diodor Bitan

    I’m the designer of Pax – thanks for choosing my game for a review.

    I agree about the controls – I think they’re the best part of the game by far. The review mentions how to give a movement order between two stars: make a drag and drop movement from the source star to the destination star. It gets better: there’s no reason why the movement cannot be continued to a third or a fourth star, creating a linear path across the map. A stroke from one’s star to an enemy star causes the former to attack it. But at this point there’s no reason to let go of the pushed mouse button – to attack the same enemy star from another direction one only needs to move the mouse to that star and return to the attacked enemy star. Likewise, an attack across a broader front can be executed with just one stroke of the mouse, going back and forth from the stars on my front line to those of the enemy in a long drag and drop zig-zag motion.

    Regarding the automated end turn. I think that’s more of a function of how the game rules work. There can be no end turn button in chess, yet in Civilisation the automatic end turn is promptly disabled.

    I think the main difference between turn based and real time is the amount of events that happen during a turn. At the real time end of the spectrum that amount is very small. Realtime simulations may have tens of turns a second – Pax has about a turn a second at the average speed. Gameplay is reactive and fast – for any move there needs to be a quick counter-move. At the turn based games a lot can happen in a turn – it is therefore important to think very thoroughly what may come.

    Laser Squad Nemesis is a good example. A real time simulation, with turn based controls. The brilliant LSN gameplay, of anticipation and planning and thinking ahead would pushed aside if the controls were real time.

    That’s why Pax is a real time game mostly. It’s a click fest game of rapid action and reaction. The pause button doesn’t really change this (there’s no pause in multiplayer games btw).

    That being said, there is a turn based mode of playing Pax, although I’ve never really toyed with it or given it much attention and I have yet to see someone too enthused about it. The hot seat mode gives each of the players control of his faction for a period of time – when one player is in control the other players’ forces move automatically according to their previous orders.

    1. Lizabeth

      Fell out of bed feeling down. This has brginhteed my day!


Game Design Reviews is a Blog used by a group of game designers from Germany to publish and discuss their thoughts on various games. The blog consists entirely of reviews of games. Each review focuses on the important game design ideas and concepts of that particular game. We also run a second, more informal Blog called Game Design Scrapbook.


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