I'm coming up with a prototype for a card game with real-time mechanics. Players would act simultaneously, each performing actions that take a set amount of time to complete. These actions can be interrupted by external events. I was thinking of using hourglasses to time the actions, but if an action gets interrupted, you can't instantly reset an hourglass. Is there some alternative to using an hourglass, or maybe a way to make an hourglass work?

  • Is there a reason you don't want to use a phone? Feb 25, 2023 at 0:53
  • @Acccumulation There are a few reasons. (1) I know that when I play board games, it's usually to get away from technology as a way to have fun with people. (2) Whatever app is used would have to be kept up-to-date and made available across OS's. (3) If there is something simpler that could be used instead of a phone, I'd rather use that.
    – Noah Mazza
    Feb 26, 2023 at 1:07

5 Answers 5


Another approach of having each player time down it's own actions via hourglas is to rework the action into one common action and that one gets an hourglas.

For example if a player before was planting crops and placed an hourglas until the harvest and another one for the duration of the harvest, there is a board phase that has a timer to plant your seed. Until the timer runs out, you have time to do that action. And all plants grow at the same time on the next timer phase. And all players harvest at the next timer phase.

This still gives you real time actions but it is less confusing when you have more players since the amount of timers does not go up. If you would need to track multiple timers for different people, it gets confusing really fast.

An example game with similar mechanics is Pendulum

If you want to reward players by who did an action earlier, the easiest way to do that would be having an order indicator on the action field itself.

There are a few reasons why having individual hourglasses are not the best idea:

  • They tend to get stuck. If you have only one hourglas per action, everyone has to live with it. Having to solve for what to do when one stops in the middle makes game play slow or ensures arguing.
  • Having a lot on the board at once will be hard to keep track in which order they ran out of time
  • The more time keeps you have, the harder a break is going to be. Either resetting or stopping them all for a even a short break will be difficulty
  • That's actually a really good idea, I hadn't thought of that before. One hourglass per action area could work, although I might want to reward whoever did the action earlier rather than giving all players equal rewards.
    – Noah Mazza
    Feb 21, 2023 at 15:49
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    This could be solved by order on the action field itself. First player on the field gets higher yield/ less cost.
    – Zibelas
    Feb 21, 2023 at 16:40

A key piece of game design is marrying the design to to the materials available. If you want to do real-time, you have four main options:

  1. Hourglasses. These have good tactile feel, are easier to have multiple of, and can be paused (put it sideways). But they only work for a fixed interval of time and are hard to reset (if you put it with whatever side has less sand, it can still take up to half the time of the hourglass to reset). These drawbacks have really seen the reduction in the use of hourglasses in games. The only games I can think of that ship with one are classic games like Boggle, Taboo, or Pictionary. But you can think bigger than these games. Hourglasses are a cool component; explore them.
  2. Timers. These are good if you want to be able to reset quickly or set arbitrary time, and are easier to pause and resume, but it can be challenging to have many timers going at once. These have shown up as a replacement for a single hourglass as a way of tracking time on timed games, but that's about it. Many newer games in the Taboo genre ship with an actual timer. The fanciest timer hardware I can think of is a Chess Clock, which is a linked pair of timers.
  3. Apps/Recordings. An app (or at least a set of recordings) can have a whole bunch of time-based information encoded in it, and so have been used by real-time games that want to have events that happen against a central clock. See Space Alert for a example; you play timed missions, with recordings to tell you when various events trigger during the missions.
  4. Speed. Here, you dispense with the timers all together and have the limit be about how fast players can do something. Examples include Galaxy Trucker (the building ship phase), the card game Speed, and Set. Note that if people are managing different actions each of which has an hourglass, then the speed with which someone can set up one of them in a valid way will likely be a part of your game as well.

If you want to go with hourglasses to have separate timers on separate actions, great! That sounds really cool. But you have to build around the limitations of the component. Here are some general suggestions:

  1. Each player has a limited number of hourglasses. This is an important restriction given hourglasses will have to ship in the box and you have only so much box space. An hourglass should represent one concurrent action that a player can be doing. Players can start with some number (say 2) and be able to gain additional hourglasses (up to say 5) through expensive upgrades. This way, players feel like they are getting more powerful as they progress and also the game accelerates as it goes. This is a really interesting counterpoint to traditional action increases in turn-based games (like Agricola), where adding more actions per player slows down the game.
  2. An hourglass must be reset to be available to use. Hourglasses take time to reset, so bake that into the rules. If you want to cancel an action and use that hourglass on another card, you need to put it in a waiting area and wait until it is empty. This makes canceling actions expensive (unless you have just started them, in which case the hourglass can be emptied quickly). The same rule would apply to actions that get interrupted by abilities or game events. As a result, interrupting an action is very punitive, and should be commensurately rare in terms of events/abilities. Maybe cut this aspect entirely as it likely will feel very bad to the recipient.
  3. Some actions can take multiple hourglasses to complete. Hourglasses have a fixed duration that they run for, so bake that into the rules. An hourglass is one unit of time. If you have something that should take longer, require it to go through two or more hourglasses (every time an hourglass on it completes, it gets a token, and it needs N such tokens to be done). You could even have variations of this where some of the longer actions allow multiple hourglasses to happen in parallel (ex. building a complex building) where some require hourglasses to be used in serial (ex. sending units to a far away location).

Just use a timer of some sort that has some basic functions.

  • Start
  • Stop
  • Set timer
  • Reset (for when you don't need the full time.)
  • I like the idea, but there may be a few problems with timers. (1) They can be a bit bulky, taking up a lot of box space. (2) Not as tactile as an hourglass. (3) Could be noisy, although it depends. I do like the idea, though. My game would need a lot of timers (around 12), but it could work.
    – Noah Mazza
    Feb 20, 2023 at 18:40
  • 1
    Timers would only be noisy if they are mechanical ones and I was thinking of a digital one and you can make those smaller.
    – Joe W
    Feb 20, 2023 at 20:03

Since about everybody has a mobile phone these days, I would direct users to a (free) mobile app. Apps like that don't need Internet access, so giving proper preparation, that is not an issue either. The timers of the operating system usually only have one; searching for "mobile app multiple hourglasses" returns several results, none of which I've tried, but I guess there must be some that match what you're looking for.

  • That would be pretty convenient for players and would reduce box space. However, I should have specified that the location of each timer shows what it's being used for (gathering resources, building tiles, of the like). Using timers on a phone would make it difficult to keep track of which timer is being used for what since each player would have multiple timers going at once.
    – Noah Mazza
    Feb 20, 2023 at 19:01
  • 2
    In your situation, I might consider writing a custom app, but that's only because I'm used to developing mobile apps ...
    – Glorfindel
    Feb 20, 2023 at 19:03

A possibility to make hourglasses work would be to have multiple per player.

If a timer is interrupted and needs to be reset, simply exchange it for a new hourglass from the stockpile. If you need to pause, just lay it on its side.

Depending on your game, this would also allow for simultaneous actions, or actions of different durations.

  • I like the idea. However, each player in the game would be waiting on multiple actions at once, meaning they'd already have multiple hourglasses per person. Also, if multiple interruptions occur in a short period of time, players may run out of hourglasses. It could work for a game where each player does one action at a time. I do like the idea about pausing hourglasses by laying them sideways, I hadn't thought of that before.
    – Noah Mazza
    Feb 21, 2023 at 0:45

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