The Proverbial Knife Fight in a Roman Phone Booth
Designers: Wray Ferrell and Brad Johnson
Player count: 2-4
Publisher: GMT Games
Things weren’t always peachy for the Romans during the IIIrd Century. For L years—as important families strove to carve themselves a place in History—civil war was a way of life, with mobs of ignorant peasants insisting on decent living conditions, vile barbarian hordes knocking (and sometimes doing quite a bit more) on every door they could find, and nowhere to buy an aurochs at a fair price.
In short, the glorious Empire was going to hell in a handbasket—albeit a finely woven one. And Time of Crisis invites II to IV players to recreate those chilling days when even thinking about becoming emperor was tantamount to a declaration of war.
The game is played on a large map that shows just how far reaching the Empire had become: from Hispania to Asia in the north (let’s not forget Britannia!), and all the way from Africa to Syria in the south. Breaking away from most wargames, the map in question is not laden with hexes: instead, military units—as well as uncivilized barbarians—move between adjacent areas, some larger than others. Thus is territory gained and lost, all in the name of a greater cause: posterity.
The goal here is to accumulate as many legacy points as possible before the game ends. Such points are mainly earned through the control of provinces and, oh, actually being the Emperor.
Time of Crisis is a deck-builder at heart. Everyone starts with the same basic deck of IX (rather weak) cards. Each turn, players have the opportunity to ditch old cards from their decks and purchase new, powerful ones. The cards come in III flavors: red (for military actions), blue (for senate actions) and yellow (for populace actions). Purchased cards go into your discard pile, to be put into circulation the next time you run out of cards and need to reshuffle.
Ah, but not so fast: cards are not drawn from a player’s deck, but rather selected, one by one. So every time you need to refill your hand to V cards, you look through your deck and pick the cards you need. Of course, you can give yourself a gorgeous, incredible hand for a turn or two, but then you’ll have to contend with whatever leftovers are still available until you reshuffle the whole thing.
Every player turn starts with a random crisis that applies to everyone: it either causes barbarians to pile up (and possibly unspool into neighboring regions) or it unleashes a special event (from Inflation to the Plague, all the way to the rise of a rival emperor who needs to be shown who’s boss). Then the player whose turn it is plays any and all of the cards he selected at the end of his previous turn.
Playing a card enables its event (good for you, insufferable for your opponents) in addition to yielding a number of influence points (from I for the basic cards, to IV for the most powerful pasteboards in the game). Red points make it possible for armies to grow, move, fight, and gently disperse the occasional mob; blue points allow governors to seize control of rival provinces; while yellow points increase support in a province (rendering the aforementioned seizing more difficult), and generally make home a better place by installing some militia, holding games (keeps the mobs busy) and building improvements that perform a variety of useful tasks.
In the meantime, armies clash and provinces change hands. (More than once.) Intermittent attacks by barbarian hordes can screw up the best laid plans, but also provide opportunities to rack up some quick legacy points. Because who can forget leaders who administer memorable beatings to the unwashed masses?
Whoever becomes governor of Italia also claims the Emperor’s throne, which effectively doubles the legacy points awarded for his provinces at the end of each turn.
When a player currently holding the title of Emperor reaches LX legacy points, the round is played out, bonus points are awarded depending on how many turns each player spent wearing the crown, and whoever is then showing the most legacy wins.
The equipment in the thin Time of Crisis box fails to elicit any excitement on its own. The large map is pleasantly mounted but will not stop anyone in their tracks: it just looks like a map in IV colors. The cards are their usual GMT sturdy selves, with nice illustrations. The unit counters feature silhouettes of Roman dudes, and there’s a bunch of dice. Player aids present a wall of text; however they will later turn out to feature everything you need to play without touching the rulebook). Only the box cover proves to be arresting, and promises serious Roman action.
And boy does the game deliver.
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Not to be outdone, the rulebook turns out to be deceiving in its own way. Wargamers usually relish a heavy tome of rules to peruse; but in this case, the tome turns out to sport a mere XX pages, half of which are devoted to an extended example of play. This means that Time of Crisis runs on just X pages, which I find astonishing. True, the text is lacking in a few areas (Can a militia join an attack against a foreign army in its province?) but it’s nothing an online search or II won’t solve, and the depth of tense gameplay that is achieved with X pages of rules is to be saluted.
The “pick the cards you want” mechanism is fiendishly clever. It sounds like nothing, but it changes the game dramatically. For one thing, your cousin Angus will stop complaining about always getting a rotten draw. For another thing, you can set up your political uprising (or your military conquest) to perfection: just select the exact cards you’ll require to pull off your shenanigans on your next turn. Then again, if you succeed, you know that your opponent will be able to pick just what he needs to counterattack—unless the relevant cards have already been used up, that is. (Yes, it pays off not to nap while others are taking their turns.) In the end, a huge part of the fun lies in divining what your adversaries will attempt, and then building the perfect hand to both advance your own plans and thwart theirs. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
The only drawback to this card selection procedure is a fairly scripted opening: since you can pick the cards you want, you can decide ahead of time what your starting hand will look like, and there are combinations that definitely outrank others. (It also makes the “refill your hand” part of each turn a little slower than in other games, but it’ll only bog down the works on occasion, when someone’s on the verge of seeing one of their precious provinces collapse. Muahahahaaa.)
Please allow me to indulge in a thin slice of personal life.
A couple of years ago, I attended a gathering where a volunteer armed with a prototype copy taught the game to a small group of which I was part, and we proceeded to play our first ever session of Time of Crisis.
I hated it.
There was something dull in the whole proceedings, the cards weren’t exciting, it felt like there was to nothing to do, combat was putting us to sleep… Both my wargaming buddy and I emerged from the experience thinking we would not touch that game again with a sharpened trident.
And then something strange and wonderful happened.
GMT finally published Time of Crisis, I got my hands on a review copy, and against my better judgement, I started reading the rules. Before long, I was texting my friend about how the game seemed to be right up our alley, and how strange it felt to want to give it another shot. To his credit, my partner in crime agreed to a do-over, and within a handful of turns, we were grinning at each other, clearly enjoying ourselves. So either the game had undergone a chrysalis-style transformation, or the volunteer had seriously bungled his explanation, or a little of both—but whatever it was, time had worked wonders and we were hooked.
The game plays great with II, III or IV players, and although I do prefer to enter the arena facing a full complement of adversaries, I will never turn down a head-to-head request. It’s fun, tense and surprisingly deep, while remaining simple and fast: unless you’re playing with bespectacled snails, you can expect a play time between II and III hours.
This has to be a first for me, in III decades of boardgaming: a game that goes from “man that sucked” to “can’t wait to play this again” in just a couple of sessions.
Time of Crisis proves to be that elusive, reasonably deep, multi-player wargame that drips with theme and moves fast enough to reach a satisfying conclusion well within the confines of an evening. Best of all, one player can teach the intricacies of the game to the rest of the patricians in about XV minutes.
My only serious complaint is akin to an unquenchable thirst: I want a larger variety of cards from which to gradually build my deck. Now, I am are already hearing rumors of an expansion coursing through the Empire, so the gods must be listening…
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