16 July 2018
Strap in for a good time
In the current political world climate, seeing a game that uses instantly recognisable mushroom clouds as part of its artwork may hit just a little too close to home. Add to that gameplay that is inherently and purposefully aggressive, and Time Barons may have a hard time appealing to some players. If and when you manage to get over the grim premise, though, you might discover a quick and clever card game with plenty to master.
Previously a two-player print-on-demand game, this Time Barons is a fresh release with updated components as well as an additional expansion to the number of players supported, which now goes up to four. It has a loose theme of Illuminati and shady 'time barons' who manipulate the world and gather followers.
It is nice to see the theme subtly weave itself into the game; for example, in the epoch cards, which show the development of tools and weaponry. In the first epoch, you might draw a catapult, whereas the fourth epoch, much harder to reach, offers a futuristic and more powerful doomsday laser. However, the theme is not intrusive, making sure to keep players focused on the key parts of the game, building a solid engine that sustains itself with capabilities to deal damage to opponents.
All players begin the game on an even battlefield, with a capitol or a homeland, depending on a number of players, and ten followers. Using their three actions per turn, they will aim to destroy all of the opponent followers to win the game. This is done by acquiring building cards and relocating followers to active the abilities on those cards. Like in any game that uses engine building as part of its mechanic, knowing the types of cards on offer and their abilities is crucial.
Even then, winning in Time Barons is not an easy task. Three actions per turn may seem like a lot, but soon become a precious commodity and no upgrade comes without its price. A higher epoch might offer more powerful cards, but to get there players need sacrifice their action points, leaving themselves exposed on that turn. Powerful weapons or abilities may require discarding a card or a follower, again putting a player at a disadvantage. There is a constant push and pull within the game, where players need to weigh the effectiveness of their possible action against its cost to their own engine.
Derek Yu, one of the creators of Time Barons, is also a video game designer, best known for the dungeon-delving platformer Spelunky. This is possibly one of the reasons behind a certain video game-like feel to the game that is evident in how it plays: turn-based, snappy, with a variety of modes including free-for-all, team-versus-team and even two players against one. With small adjustments to the rules for each mode, it scales beautifully, retaining its overall nature, but offering new challenges. The two-versus-one mode is particularly hard, requiring a deep knowledge of the game and its strategies.
Time Barons strikes a tricky balance between providing depth and complexity, while not sacrificing the fast pace of the game. The rounds play out quickly and the gameplay encourages you to be almost instantly aggressive, creating immediate interaction between players. It is brutal and, if you fall behind, catching up may be impossible. However, what is gratifying in every loss is that it is less due to the luck of the circumstance, but rather a mistake in a move or a decision. It is part of the learning curve of the game and, when the next session comes, there is a pleasant reassurance that this time you will do better.
Time Barons is a great evolution of the print-on-demand game, with a tight combat mechanic that scales up nicely for a different number of players and modes. Its gameplay is easy to grasp, while the variety of powers and strategies ensure replayability.
Designer: Jon Perry, Derek Yu
Artist: Derek Yu
Time: 30 minutes
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