Tempo: a helpful CCG concept

by jimphd

Competitive players of games like Magic have a concept they call tempo that deserves wider consideration.  Although definitions differ, I will define tempo as “the speed of winning the game.”  In Chess, people sometimes say “mate in two” meaning that they expect to achieve checkmate in two moves.  In this case, the number of moves is tempo, as the game progresses, the player who will checkmate in less moves has more tempo.

In many strategy games, having a faster tempo doesn’t automatically mean a player will win.  There is often an interplay between players using a fast tempo strategy attempting to win, and players using a slower, but ultimately more powerful, strategy, attempting to first disrupt the faster tempo players before overpowering them.  This dynamic is a fundamental dynamic in gaming, on the level of rock-paper-scissors.  In Mario Kart, there are small, weak characters with fast acceleration, and bigger characters with slower acceleration, but faster top speeds.  The bigger characters can bump the smaller characters to disrupt them.  In the board game Puerto Rico, one strategy to win is to quickly build enough buildings to fill up one’s city, while a slower, but ultimately higher scoring strategy, is to ship goods and end the game by depleting the victory point pool.  There are countless examples of this dynamic between fragile, fast acceleration, and consistent, high top speed.  It’s even a dynamic we observe in stories, the mouse is fragile, clever, and quick, the cat is powerful, but is out-maneuvered.

The emotional resonance of this dynamic makes it fun and engaging for players.  Players like to inhabit the role of the mouse while another player is the cat.  Tempo is the key to understanding this dynamic and to building it into your games.  To create this strategic diversity, you want the early actions in the game to be more efficient, but ultimately less rewarding than the later actions.  How you define early and late is up to you, but the basic principle remains the same.  To continue to use the Puerto Rico example, gold is quite valuable in the beginning of the game, but ultimately converts to less points as the game goes on.  So the fast tempo strategy spends their role choice on generating gold and building, while the slow tempo strategy tries to disrupt and build shipping and production.  As I wrote about in an earlier post on costing effects in games, it can be helpful to model this using an exponential function with some tweaking.  In my experience, the exponential function does a decent job at modeling higher cost effects, but the early effects tend to be weak. The remedy is to boost the early effects by a bit.