How To Represent Speed?

When working with videogames, there’s a a lot of different ways to represent speed, and a lot of the challenges they present start out as technical. Infamously on the PC, getting fast scrolling on a room to create the impression of single large spaces the player could move through was a big technical hurdle; outrun used a camera trick and moving single silhouettes, and the VR push of a few years ago (is it reasonable to suggest that VR is now over?) featured a whole host of ways to grapple with the question of duping a human brain that’s very very good at recognising when it’s standing still and convincing it that it’s not.

But that’s videogames, an entire form of games that I don’t really make. I could try, that may be interesting, but anyway for now.

How do we get to represent speed in tabletop game places, with human interlocutors? Have some ideas! Go go go!

Do More Things

First up, if you want a player to be fast, let them do more things in the same amount of time other players get to do things. Having more actions a term is a good way to represent a character being very fast. That might represent some kind of challenge when the question becomes balancing that, but it’s a really simple thing in a game that’s like, say, stacking hamburgers, if one player can stack twelve pieces all at once, that’s a sign that that person is faster.

Think about the materiality of the actions though! Like, if it’s putting stacks of burgers on top of one another, that doesn’t seem to be a physical strength issue, but if it was (say) stacking girders, then the primary thing that’s going to be represented by doing a lot in a turn is going to be a lot of strength.

Travel More Distance

In board games, or games with some spatial element, you can represent speed with a unit being able to move more distance. Nice and easy. Obviously, if the game has some race element that’s going to distort the play experience. Consider a game like Scotland Yard but Mr X or the police can move twice as fast, sure, it conveys speed, but also it does make that game experience extraordinarily different.

It can also be useful in games where this kind of thing is a low-key kind of advantage. Imagine a game where being super fast lets you mostly just get things from the sweets cupboard faster; a game about baking where you can move faster might mean you have more varieties of things available to you, but you can’t make the cake bake faster.

Manual Execution

What about physical ways to do it? Snap is a classic game about trying to act quickly. Of course, this means that this game is directly tied to your physical speed, and then you’re less representing speed and just having speed. Can be doable, but it’s not a game form that works for everyone. Lots of designs like this tend to be less accessible (to the aged, to people with different abilities, to kids with behavioural problems). Still, being able to make a game move ‘as fast as you can move it’ is a well-trod genre of play experiences.

Fewer Turns

Here’s one I like a lot; you know Magic: The Gathering? Well, games in that can be really fast even if they involve a lot of decisions, if the games are over in the first two or three turns. Back during Onslaught standard, there was a real problem with Goblin decks that could close the game out in four turns.

If one type of competitor is trying to end the game really quickly, and other competitors need to address that by fighting back against them aggressively, that creates a feeling of speed when the ‘quick’ player wins, and can create a feeling of ‘slowing down’ when the other player pushes against them.

Also, if your game takes place over a small, or limited number of turns (like, say, Marvel Snap! which has only six turns?), then you make the whole game feel ‘urgent’ and can make the play actions feel like they’re happening ‘just in time.’

Less Time

What if the whole game is performed under a time restriction? This can tie into the manual execution problem, and it immediately runs into problems in competitive play. Chess clocks try to solve this problem for competitive play (and you should check out Jenga with chess clocks), but that’s a very technical device. If you’re going to try and make the whole game experience timed, you probably want to make it so it’s parcelled out – like players have a (small) sand timer for their actions, and when it’s over it’s over. Dividing up the time of the game overall is a real problem by comparison, because that’s very precise timekeeping.

Ignore Traits

Here’s another way you can use speed in games with some kind of abstracted fiction: What if there are things that a fast character can just ignore? What if (say) most characters need to keep an eye out for the cops when they transport their goods, but the fastest character can just outrun them? What if most characters have to wait for an elevator, but the fastest courier can ignore that, by just rushing up the stairs, because they know they’re going to be faster than even the fastest elevator? What if an enemy’s dodging defenses don’t matter to a character who’s extremely fast?

In extremely complicated game systems like Dungeons & Dragons, you can have speed represent things like a to-hit bonus, or, more importantly in this case, you could have it represent a reduction to an enemy’s dodge bonus: sure, it won’t make you better at hidding a big chunky armoured dude, because her armour class is all about presenting metal plates into your attacks, but if you attack a skinny little whippy boi, she might be instead avoiding you with a wholehearted dodge, and being ‘faster’ than her might make her very easy to strike by comparison.


And that’s that! Go go go go!

Back to top