Sometimes names are misleading. Take, for example, the product Vitaminwater. It’s a fruit flavored beverage containing vitamins and water, both scientifically proven to be beneficial, and combined into ONE WORD! Energy drink? Surely. Life-extending elixir? I’d bet the house on it! Alas, no! Ironically, the vitamins in Vitaminwater are so common and in such few quantity that the average person consumes the same types and amounts from normal daily nutrition. Plus it contains as much sugar as a can of soda. So what one might deduce is a healthy drink based on its name just happens to be another sugary fruit juice.
In a similar sense Time Barons is an illusory name, though admittedly without the health risks. Although perhaps the assumption is my mistake? Sort of like purchasing Vitaminwater – caveat emptor and all that. But when you trot out the phrase ‘time barons,’ many will immediately conclude they’ll be time traveling. Which is extremely appealing, because few board games deal with the subject. Alas, as you begin playing, things soon become apparent that the design happens to be just another card combat game.
You do progress through time linearly – not back to the future – but there’s no sense of advancement. There’s no development or incremental improvement. Not a tech tree in sight and certainly nothing close to promoting a legion to a knight to infantry to a tank. You enter each new “era” simply by deciding to spend the action points to do so, not because of any achievement. You can always fall back on old school tech, but you’re not hopping back and forth through time. Rather it’s more like directing its course as an omnipotent puppet master pulling humanity’s strings. And in that sense, you get to toy with all the lowly people. Even your own.
Time Barons is all about tableau building, card activation and managing affairs as best as possible while they crumble around you. You begin your chronological journey with one home site and ten followers. These represent trifling dupes you will attract and protect to secure victory, except when you exploit them for your own gain. You also start with five Level I cards and the rest of the deck is separated and stacked by their four Levels, broadly representing generic epochs. Your goal is to wipe out all opposing followers, or retain the most after exhausting three draw piles.
To manipulate events and followers you spend three action points each turn. These include drawing a card from your current Level (or lower), gaining a follower, rearranging all of your devotees between sites, playing a card for it’s specified action cost or upgrading to the next level. To upgrade you must expend a number of points equal to that Level. So since your ordinary allowance is only three per turn, that means you’ll need a card or site ability that grants additional actions in order to reach the zenith of technology. Otherwise known as Level 4.
Cards are either sites, events, attachments or reactions. The first three require at least one action to resolve, and they affect play in familiar ways. Sites remain in your tableau, until destroyed, providing abilities you can trigger, some of which require a minimum number of followers. They can also inflict damage on your opponents. Any followers on a destroyed site are eliminated. Events are one-off affairs that provide a nice boost, or impede other players. Attachments are affixed to existing sites, for better or worse. And reactions counter other cards. With the included expansion you can also tuck cards under sites for various benefits and the addition provides more variety.
Regardless of type, all of these cards routinely chip away at your foe’s assets or bolster your own – killing or gaining followers and damaging or repairing sites. The entire affair is largely conventional, though a hotly contested one. Sites constantly rise and fall, while followers regularly congregate and perish. It’s a vicious and brutal cycle. Yes, there are clever combos and tactical experimentation. But for its intensity, it’s all routine fare. The design excels with its blistering pace and unabashed interaction.
Time Barons is sharply contentious, which may seem abnormal for a tableau building, quasi-development game. Yes, you want to establish varied sites to diversify opportunities, and there are civilized structures like hospitals, libraries and robotics labs. Despite that, it’s nonetheless an unrepentant tactical combat game. Every bit of purpose to all of your infrastructure is to either directly attack your opponents or support that central cause, even to the point of sacrificing your own people if it will serve that greater good. It’s a purified military-industrial state. It requires a singular focus found in few designs, which is refreshingly welcome. When that ruthless efficiency is mastered, it fosters quick, brisk sessions that gets you quickly into the action and delivers it a frightening pace by blowing away the chaff – along with your enemies.