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Review: Timeline Challenge

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Timeline Challenge takes the basic Timeline concept and turns a simple little card game into a full-fledged board game. Now, it would be fair to say that I approached this whole idea with some trepidation. After all, I enjoy all of the individual Timeline sets and even reviewed Americana, but sometimes making a game bigger does not make it better. In fact, it’s often the case that pumping up a game kills the things you loved the most and turns the game into a bloated beast that sours you on the original. Would that be the case for my beloved Timeline, once it blew up into Timeline Challenge?

How It Plays

Timeline Challenge is likely to remind you a little bit of Trivial Pursuit in that you’re moving around a circular board and your ability to continue moving forward requires that you complete the challenges correctly (or at least that you do better than your opponents). Unlike Trivial Pursuit, however, movement is not determined by a die roll. Rather, who moves and how far is determined by how many points each player earns on the various Trials. (Think of Trials as mini-games that all build on the basic Timeline formula of ordering cards according to their dates.)

At the beginning of the game, everyone starts out on the first green Trial space on the board. The Trial is set up in the corresponding location on the game board and each player enters their answers using their nifty historical boards. (The boards are made up of dials that you spin until the number that matches your answer shows in the window.) Answers are revealed simultaneously and points are calculated for each player. Each player then moves forward one spot for each correct answer.

The next Trial is determined by the space occupied by the lead player. So, for example, if Fred is leading and is on a red Trial space, all players will complete the red Trial. Again, after the Trial is complete, each player will move forward one space for each correct answer. Then the next Trial is determined by the color that the lead player occupies, and so on.

Play continues in this way until the lead player crosses one of the two “Challenge Lines” on the board. At this point, play stops and a Challenge is conducted.

Timeline Challenge Player Tokens
The player tokens

Challenges differ from Trials in that they are played over a series of rounds, rather than simultaneously, and are played only between the two players who are furthest behind on the game board. (More than two may play if there are multiple people occupying the same last or second to last spaces.)

Once the Challenge is complete, play resumes as normal, with the player who is now in the lead determining the next Trial. The game ends as soon as someone reaches the finish space and that player is the winner. Ties can either be accepted, or settled with a second Sudden Death Challenge.

There are five types of Trials in the game and two Challenges. A brief overview of each type is provided below.

  • Timeline 4 (Green Trial): The first four cards from the draw pile are placed date side down on the  board. Players use their historical boards to guess where the cards should go on the Timeline. After everyone has guessed, the cards are flipped to reveal the dates and players check their solutions. Each player moves forward one space for every correct answer.
  • The Bet (Red Trial): The first card from the draw pile is placed date down on the game board. Players then use their historical boards to guess where this card goes on the timeline. Players may choose the same answer more than once, increasing their chance for more movement. When everyone has made their guesses, the solution is revealed and everyone moves forward one space for every correct answer. So, for example, if you knew that the answer was “3” and you moved all of your dials to the “3” position, you would move forward four spaces. If, however, you weren’t sure and guessed, 3, 4, 1, 2, you only get to move one space. You’re gambling on how certain you are of the answer.
  • The Split (Blue Trial): The first two cards from the draw pile are placed date down on the game board. Players use their historical boards to estimate the amount of time between the two events. So, if you believed that the two events are 75 years apart, you would set your dials to 0,0,7,5. The player who is closest moves four spaces and the other players stay put.
  • The Right Date (Yellow Trial): The first card from the draw pile is placed date down on the game board. The players use their historical boards to guess the card’s date. So, if you believe the card’s date is 1972, you set your dials to 1,9,7,2. The card is then revealed and each player moves one space for each correct digit on their board. So if the card’s date is actually 1973 and you guessed 1972, you get to move forward three spaces. (This is also the only Trial that uses the +/- dial on the historical boards to indicate B.C. and A.D. If you make a mistake on the +/-, you earn no points, even if your numbers are correct.)
  • The Combination (Purple Trial): The first four cards from the draw pile are placed date down on the game board. Players set the dials on their historical boards to indicate the order in which the cards should go. Each player moves one space for each correct answer.
  • Sudden Death (The First Challenge): This is essentially the regular game of Timeline.The first card from the draw pile is placed date side up next to the board. The first Challenge player takes the top card from the draw pile and places it in correct relation to the first card. The next player takes the next card and places it in relation to the other two and so on. Players continue to take turns until someone is wrong. The player who makes the incorrect placement is eliminated from the Challenge. Play continues until one player remains. That player gets to move forward three spaces.
  • More or Less (The Second Challenge): The lead player not involved in the Challenge takes the first card from the deck and reads its name. This player is the referee. The first Challenge player says the date that they think is correct for the card. The referee then says, “More,” or “Less,” depending upon whether or not the real date is higher or lower than the guess. Play continues clockwise with players guessing dates and the referee calling More or Less until a player gets the correct date. That player then gets to move forward three spaces.

(Note that there are also rules for team play with each team controlling one player token and coordinating with each other for answers. In two-player games, the More or Less Challenge is ignored and during the Sudden Death Challenge, only the player who is behind can score three points.)

If Life Is Short and Time Is Swift, Do You Have Time For This Challenge? (Jennifer’s Take)

I was worried that Timeline Challenge would take the simple Timeline game I loved and ruin it. While it does change the game in substantial ways, it does not ruin it. Timeline Challenge manages to take the simple Timeline concept and transform it into a board game without compromising what made Timeline great.

Understand that Challenge is not the same game as original Timeline. For one thing, it’s longer. Challenge takes about 30 minutes to play whereas Timeline goes by in about half that. This isn’t a bad thing, though, because Challenge is a more involved game. Instead of just playing cards in the correct order, you have the Trials and Challenges which are like mini-games within the larger game. They all use the same basic idea of ordering cards/dates, but they do it in different ways. You’ll most likely be doing something different on each turn and this keeps it from getting boring.

And even though it’s longer, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. There’s very little AP in this game because you either have a good idea of the date or you don’t and have to take an educated guess. There isn’t a lot to agonize over and turns go by quickly. Since everyone is setting their dials and making their guesses at the same time, there is almost no downtime unless someone is just taking forever to set their dials. (If you have someone like this, I recommend getting a sand or egg timer and just putting everyone on the clock to keep things moving.)

Timeline Challenge Wheels
The historical boards

I found the way that movement is determined to be the most interesting part of the game. Unlike most games of this type where you roll a die and move accordingly, this game moves according to correct answers on the Trials. The best part is that most Trials give you at least some movement points unless you simply get everything wrong. Usually you can eke out at least a point or two to keep yourself from falling too far behind and keep you within one big score of the leaders.

However, if you do drop too far behind, the Challenges provide a nice catch-up mechanic. Since the lead player doesn’t participate in the Challenges, this gives the other players a chance to gain some ground or even overtake the leader. Hardcore gamers might not appreciate this as they may resent being “punished” for being in the lead, but in the family/party setting this is a nice addition.

We play mostly two player and in that mode, one of the Challenges is eliminated entirely. We’ve also played without the other Challenge and find that this increases the “gamerness” of the game. If you fall behind, you’ll have to hope that a string of cards come out that your opponent doesn’t know, or you’ll have to perform really well. While there’s still very little strategy to the game, playing without the Challenges means that you live and die by getting the correct answers. Of course, it’s also meaner because if someone is running away, there’s no way to slow them down. For gamers who appreciate a more cutthroat experience, this may be the way you want to play.

Timeline Challenge Cards 1
Cards set up for The Combination Trial

There’s still something to be said for vanilla Timeline and Challenge doesn’t replace the original in my book. I’ll still play the original games because they are dead simple, quick, can be played solo, and are highly portable. Timeline Challenge takes away these aspects. However, you get the best of both worlds with Challenge because you can just pack up the cards and play regular Timeline without the board. If you haven’t gotten into Timeline and are looking for a starting point, I recommend Challenge because you can play both the board game and standard Timeline. You can always add more card sets if you enjoy it.

This brings me to another plus of Challenge which is that all of the Timeline decks act as expansions for this game. You can add or mix any of the decks into Challenge. If you already have some of the Timeline games, they are not made obsolete by Challenge! I’m so appreciative that the games I’ve already bought simply add value to Challenge.

One of the unexpected benefits of Challenge is that you can use it as storage for your other Timeline sets, freeing up some shelf space. There is room in the box for a few additional card sets however, if you have all of the sets, you’ll either have to chuck the insert or modify it as there’s not enough room for all of them.

Timeline Challenge Board
The huge gameboard

Timeline Challenge works well in the family setting with people of varying ages being able to play together. The only potential downside is that younger players may not fare as well as their adult counterparts simply because they don’t have the breadth of knowledge that an adult has. You can solve this, though, by pairing younger kids up with adults or older kids and using the team rules.

The only other negative is that you may reach a point where you become too familiar with the cards and figuring out their relationships becomes easier. Also, someone who plays all the time and knows the cards has a distinct advantage over newbies. However, if you buy an additional Timeline set or two, you can extend the life of the game.

This is one of those games that I think can find a home in almost any collection. It’s great as a filler or light game with friends or family. Since you can play with up to ten people using the team rules, it also works as a party game. It’s nice to have a party game that’s not esoteric trivia, drawing, a charades variant, or gross-out/dirty/rude fare that doesn’t work for families. It’s got an educational component to it, but it’s just so darn fun you don’t notice that you’re learning something. All in all, I recommend Timeline Challenge, both for those who have played and enjoyed the original games and those who are seeking a light, family or party game for the collection.  

A Time to Guess (FarmerLenny’s Take)

Jennifer covered Timeline Challenge well above, but I thought I’d add my experience to the review as someone who hasn’t played the original Timeline. For me, I like Timeline Challenge quite a bit–with the right group.

Timeline Challenge, while not fully a trivia game, still has the aura of a trivia game about it, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable. No matter how many I times I say, “No, no, you don’t really have to know much”–similar to Wits & Wagers, a lot of the game is about generalities rather than specifics–some people shut down when they think their intelligence will be judged. Which is a shame.

But aside from those who shut down at the mention of any trivia games, Timeline Challenge casts a wide net and is suitable for a broad audience. The challenges in the game test different skills, and you usually can get some points, even if you don’t win a challenge. I’ve played with people who play board games as a hobby and with people who play them only at social functions, and both groups have enjoyed it. I think the key is players who are willing to enter into it in a spirit of curiosity. “No, I don’t know when forks were invented–but now I want to!” There’s joy in revealing what the right answer is, and there’s a lot of joy in getting answers right, but there are also a lot of laughs to be had when you are way off in an answer. You have to be willing to look foolish, but since this foolishness affects everyone at the table in more or less equal measure, it’s not a deal breaker for most people. But again, those who don’t like trivia games for this reason probably won’t love Timeline Challenge either.

Timeline Challenge Cards 2
Some cards lined up for the Timeline 4 Trial

I’ve played Timeline Challenge with as few as three players and as many as eight. For me, I prefer the larger group game, even to the five-player game in which each player has their own set of dials. The game does last longer with a larger group (more in the 45 minutes to an hour range), but I enjoy having a partner to discuss things with. (With more than five players, you play in teams.) It’s fun to hear another person’s milestone markers that they use to keep time (“They have that on Downton Abbey, so it has to predate 1914!”), and this is just the kind of game where I want more people at the table to keep a lively atmosphere.

The game also leaves plenty of room for discussion in what dates are given on the card. Each card has an event, invention, discovery, etc., on one side and a Definitive Date on the other. When the date pertains to something easily measurable (when a music album was released, say), there’s little to discuss. But something like when socks were invented? (Who was keeping track of the generic garment? What counts as a sock?) Or when something is “discovered”? (By whom?) Or the date for a legend? (The oral legend? When it was written down originally? When it was famously retold?) These are a little harder to nail down, and the cards are vague as to how they arrived at the dates listed. So it’s fun to hear arguments why the game’s cards are wrong, at least when the discussion stays lighthearted. In our games, appeals to the Internet fall on deaf ears–we keep to the game’s dates for everything–but it’s fun to argue just the same.

All of this to say, if you have invested and curious players, it’s hard to go wrong with Timeline Challenge, for the many reasons Jennifer enumerated above. It isn’t my favorite social game–I tend to prefer social games where players create things–but it is one of the better trivia games on the market, about equal in my book with Wits & Wagers, and it’s one I intend to keep in my collection for when the right group comes together.

  • Jennifer's rating 8.0
  • FarmerLenny's rating 7.5
  • User Ratings (1 Votes) 8
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Summary

Pros

Remove/modify the insert and you have storage for all of the Timeline games.
Can be played with any of the Timeline card or mixes of cards.
Slightly educational.
Plays up to ten, so can function as a party game.
Easy rules and fast setup make for a good weeknight game.
Catchup mechanism allows players to make up ground.

Cons

Favors older players who have more general knowledge over kids.
Can get repetitive if you don't add more cards.
Little strategy and gamers may resent being punished by the catch up mechanism.

7.8 Very Good

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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