Simultaneous Action Selection

Simultaneous Action Selection is another popular game mechanic in modern board games. In games with this mechanic, all players choose an action (or actions) to perform this round at the same time. Those actions are then resolved in an order given by the game: in player order, in a fixed order of actions (for instance, build actions resolve before move actions) or even simultaneously, if the outcome of one player’s action does not impact the other players. The most common way to choose actions are cards, played face down and then revealed when all players have made their choice.

In many games with simultaneous action selection games, one players’ actions do impact the other players. Either actions are resolved in order and players may have to correctly predict the changed board position, or players may be able to profit from other players’ actions. A popular example of the former mechanic is Robo Rally (Richard Garfield), where your robot may be moved by another player before your action is resolved and you might destroy your own robot in a trap if you did not plan for this. A good example for the second group is Race for the Galaxy, where players may take all actions that were selected by any player – although selecting an action yourself does give you a bonus over everyone else. Correctly predicting the other players’ actions in this style of game will allow you to use an action requiring resources you gained from their actions, effectively taking multiple actions in the same round for greater profit.

Another distinction between games of this type concerns the availability of actions. In some games, players have all actions available to pick from every turn (Race for the Galaxy) or have a random selection of actions (Robo Rally). In other games, used action cards go to a discard pile and can only be used again after a certain condition is met – use all your cards before you pick up the discard pile, or play a special card that lets you take back the rest. One such game is Havana, it only allows players to pick up their discard pile when they are down to two cards to pick from. Those games need some memory to keep track of your opponents’ options in order to play well.

An interesting genre often overlapping with simultaneous action selection games are action programming games. In those games, players plan multiple actions that are usually not performed all at once but taken in turns, often making it mandatory to perform all actions even if the outcome of earlier actions is not what was expected. Prime example of this style of game is, of course, Robo Rally: you program five instructions like “move forward” or “turn left” into your robot, and it will execute them, even if he is pushed off course by another robot, sometimes self-destructing hilariously in the process. Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget’s Ad Astra is another example. Although action selection is not truly simultaneous there, players are still left in the dark about each others’ actions until all actions are programmed.

There is also some overlap between this game mechanic and drafting games, namely when the cards drafted are not used to build a deck but are immediately put on the table and have an effect. This is the style of game made popular all over the world by Antoine Bauza’s 7 Wonders: each player selects one card from their hand to play this round and passes the remaining cards on to the next player. Then all cards are revealed and put into their owner’s play area. Since revealing the cards is also done simultaneously, they have no effect on other players’ actions this round, but may effect their options in subsequent rounds.

While cooperative games are not a natural fit for this mechanic – they are all about communication, so you shouldn’t generally be surprised by other players’ actions – the mix is not unheard of either. Vlaada Chvátil’s Space Alert uses it to great effect. It’s a cooperative action programming game that derives its fiendish difficulty not from the necessity to anticipate other players’ action – you are allowed to talk freely about what you will be doing – but from a tight time limit and new information that becomes available during the planning phase through a soundtrack and card draw. Both things make it very hard to communicate all your actions and create a working strategy for everyone.

It is little surprising that simultaneous action selection is first documented in a wargame, predicting the enemy’s actions being an important part of strategy. The game in question is A Simplified Wargame, by Sherman Miles, General of the US Army and Chief of Military Intelligence. He devised the game in 1922. (BoardGameGeek lists a few earlier games with the mechanic, but they don’t seem to be true games of simultaneous action selection but games where all players act simultaneously.) Players write all unit movement for a turn in their notebook, then they put those moves on the map and any units that come within attack distance that way may engage. Interestingly, A Simplified Wargame was published in a military journal (The Field Artillery Journal), not as a boxed game, and intended to be playable anywhere with very few components required.

The first game published as a boardgame to use this mechanic seems to be Giro Binaca, an Italian two player bicycle race game by comic artist Sebastiano Craveri. It used cards for players to select their action, but has the interesting twist that every card shows four actions and the opponents’ card determines which of these actions you take. Although prior examples exist, Simultaneous Action Selection became famous with the 1959 game Diplomacy, a game popular enough to still be widely played today. Similar to A Simplified Wargame, players give a series of written orders which are then executed on the board. Diplomacy couples this mechanic to a strong negotiation element: while planning their orders, players may negotiate with every other player and forge alliances, non-aggression pacts and common operations. They are, however, not bound by those negotiations and may give orders directly contradicting them, creating an explosive mix that is not for everyone.

For a long time even after Giro Binaca, most simultaneous action selection games where either wargames or sports games, for similar reason: simulating the need to anticipate an opponent’s actions. While sports games are not as common as they used to be, wargames using the mechanic are still common. But what we would call boardgames also makes frequent use of it. The abovementioned Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, etc. are good and popular examples of this, but there are many more with a wide range of themes and depths. A lighter game that can be considered part of this is Cash’n’Guns where players simultaneously select an action (shoot, shoot a lot, or don’t shoot) and a target for it with a foam pistol. New variations of the mechanic are still created as well, one example being Uwe Rosenberg’s Glass Road that uses a two-level variation: first, players select a hand of five cards from their full set of actions, then they select one card of those five as an action for three rounds. The two remaining hand cards may benefit them when another player plays the same action. And there are many more examples.

And now you know about simultaneous action selection.

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