I’ve been weirdly fascinated by Travian, a browser-based MMO from Germany. It looks a little like Settlers of Catan, but plays more like Civilization: gather resources, build up your cities, expand your territories, conquer others. The twist to the game is in its pacing, which is very, very, very, slow. You can only develop one building at a time, and building can take anywhere from five minutes to multiple hours. If that seems like a long time, gathering the resources it takes to build anything makes the building process seem downright zippy. The result is a game where you can only take action a couple of times a day, rather than being occupied for hours at a sitting. Opportunities to take action are so few and far between that Travian starts to feel like a play-by-mail game, even though everything is, strictly speaking, happening in real time.

Limiting the number of actions you can take in a day is a common pattern in browser-based games; I’m not sure if the intent is to keep bandwidth under control or to keep players from burning through all the content too quickly. It’s a pretty interesting inversion of some core game design tenets, though; generally, a game wants you to keep playing it, and gets you to do so by engendering a sense of steady progress. In browser-based games, that sense of progress is constantly being upset by the need to wait for your resources to replenish, and Travian takes that waiting to extremes. In spite of the fact that I can do so little so infrequently, I still feel compelled to keep checking in on my village to see if I’ve stockpiled enough wheat, or if those pesky Teutons have come to raid me yet.

How do you fill in the long time between turns, though? If the way this weekend went for me is any indication, Desktop Tower Defense will do a pretty good job of soaking up every available moment you have, and quite a few that you don’t. Hang on a sec…

[15 minutes pass.]

Sorry, got distracted for a sec. Anyway, Tower Defense games, like browser-based MMOs, involve a little bit of action and a whole lot of waiting. In this case, though, your actions involve laying gun turrets across a board, and the waiting involves watching creeps crawl across the board and hoping that your turrets can take them all out in time. Desktop Tower Defense has a much more open board than most of its type, and has a nice variety of weapon types, which allows you to come up with any number of strategies as you try to build mazes to slow the creeps’ progress and… um….

[15 minutes pass.]

OK, where was I? At any rate, the kind of waiting you go through in Desktop TD is completely different than that in Travian; rather than going away and coming back later, you’re riveted to your screen, tension building as you hope against hope that the maze of guns you’ve set up will be enough to hold off the enemy, tension releasing as the last of the creeps is zapped. After the first few levels, though, creeps start coming fast and thick, so that you have less and less time to think about how you’ll extend your network of towers. Oh, wait…

[15 minutes pass.]

Sorry, had to try out an idea really quick. One of the really nice things that Desktop TD does is to convert your layout into a static image, so that you can share your maps with others for the purposes of bragging or advice. Seeing the wide variety of strategies that players have come up with encourages further experimentation, which leads to that “just one more” kind of gameplay that proves so engrossing and so damaging to other, more productive pursuits, like finishing weblog posts…

[15 minutes pass.]