I think it’s pretty clear that I have a rather large passion for games, no matter whether they’re on my table or on my screen. One of my great favourites – and currently just about the only thing that I’m playing on my Vita – is a game called Spelunky. I have put countless hours into both that version and the one available on the 360, constantly pushing further and further into the game’s four randomly generated worlds. Thousands of games have been played, the vast – and I mean VAST – majority of them ending in abject failure. I’ve completed Spelunky only four times, and that’s doing it the comparatively easy way. There are a huge amount of secrets hidden inside that bloody game, and I still find myself going back again and again. It is awful, brutal and wonderful, and it all came from the mind of a guy called Derek Yu.
Now Derek is back with his first foray into the world of tabletop games, a co-design with another first timer, Jon Perry. It’s called Time Barons and it’s currently available over on The Game Crafter. Oh, and it happens to be one of the greatest two-player games that I’ve ever made.
There are many good games that are brilliant for two: Agricola ACBAS, Le Havre: The Inland Port and Balloon Cup all spring to mind immediately, but Time Barons has swiftly raced to the top of my list of games to play when there’s just two of us at the table. It too is awful, brutal and wonderful, and I bloody love it.
The story is that you and your opponent are the titular Time Barons, shady folks who manipulate the world to turn things their way and gather followers – after all, even secretive Illuminati types like to be recognised for their deeds. Those followers are pretty disposable though, and you can be sure that you’ll be wiping plenty of them out before the game is done. Each player begins with ten followers and a single Homeland card sat down in front of them, with four numbered decks (Roman numerals, we’re being classy here) in the middle which contain a selection of card types – we’ll cover those in a moment. To vanquish your opponent, you’ve got to do one of two things: either entirely wipe out their followers, or have more followers than them when the I, II and III decks have been depleted. As you may expect, this is one of those “simple objectives with deep gameplay” affairs that I hold so dear to my heart…
Each turn, you have three actions to spend on getting the upper hand over the enemy. Cards each have a cost in their top right corner, using up those valuable points quite quickly, but you’ll need to get them out if you’re to build your empire and gain more and more followers. Most of the time you’ll be playing Sites down in front of you, many of which have abilities that can be used if you have a set amount of followers sat on that specific card. With more Sites come more options, so it’s often a good idea to spend an action and Relocate your followers to build up powerful attacks that will take down your fellow Time Baron’s own Sites. Each one has a defensive Integrity that, when met or exceeded, destroys the site and anyone sat there, so there are plenty of opportunities for aggressive back-and-forths – after all, this is a game where ruination is key and any damage that is done also results in lost followers.
The other card types are relatively straightforward. Events are one-offs that aid you or harm the other player, while Reactions protect you from something nasty happening during your opponent’s turn. The final type, Attachments, are a great addition to the game that bolster the powers and abilities of the Sites that are currently in play – and not just your own. Some drain an enemy Site of followers through a plague or sabotage the usage of a Site’s ability, and it gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling when you throw one of these out onto the table to screw over your opponent.
I’ll admit that the Time element of the game is somewhat tenuous, but it sort of makes sense to the story. Each of the four decks represents a different era, the first being solidly Medieval, working up through the ages to the tiny but spectacularly overpowered Futuristic deck IV. Three of the decks are actually unavailable to you at the start of play – actions must be spent to level you up and unlock the decks for use, the action point cost being the level you’re moving up to, so two actions to get to II and three to III. Of course, with only three actions per turn, you’ll need to build an engine that gives you extra actions if you’re ever going to hit the dizzy heights of drawing cards from that heady Level IV stack. One thing to recall though; you may draw from any deck that’s your level or below, so your play area is always gong to be a glorious mish-mash of followers dotted about buildings from various eras. Sure, you might have a load of hi-tech gear at your disposal, but there’s nothing wrong with battering down your opponent’s shiny Robotics Lab with some well placed old-school Catapult action.
I can’t quite put my finger on why I enjoy Time Barons so much, but I think it’s mainly down to the range of options that are available to players each game. Every time you play it feels like a tiny little war, and it’s incredibly well balanced considering that this is coming from a pair of first timers. While the cards through the ages do get progressively stronger, you don’t necessarily have to engage in an arms race for the more powerful items – it’s entirely possible to win the game using only cards from the first deck, laying into your opponent with brute force. All told, it’s a very impressive example of quality game design.
It’s also a nicely put together package. The Game Crafter has had some issues in the past with quality, but in the last couple of years they’ve really pushed to improve their products and Time Barons is an excellent example of this desire to make better stuff. Derek’s art style exactly the same as seen in his much-loved Spelunky, and the cards are laid out clearly with easy to follow instructions and symbols that mean you’ll rarely have to refer to the rulebook for clarification. I believe that it’s still up in the air as to what’s going to happen with Time Barons, whether the guys are going to look for a publisher or go down the self-publishing route via Kickstarter, but whatever happens with the game I firmly believe that it should remain pretty much untouched. I’d probably change the art on back of the cards but aside from that it’s a beautifully constructed game that looks good and plays brilliantly.
Simply put: But This Game Now. You honestly won’t regret it.
Time Barons was designed by Jon Perry and Derek Yu and was released through their own label, Quibble Games, in 2014. It’s only for two players with games taking around thirty minutes, and is only available from The Game Crafter. The game will set you back $20, though the cards-only version is also available for $10 – just remember that shipping from TGC can be horrifying. Any publishers out there looking for a truly excellent two-player game – you need look no further.