Designer: Frédéric Henry
Publisher: Asmodee/Hazgaard Editions
Time: ~15 mins
Review by Nathan Beeler
Time in a Box
Some games are heroic figures. They climb strongly onto the shoulders of their cube pushing predecessors, stand arms akimbo, and shout to the winds, “I am here!” These are the games that capture the imaginations of most of my gamer friends and compel them to stay with board gaming as a hobby. These are the games that win awards and make it onto convention lists. I love these kinds of games, more especially when they’ve got really novel mechanisms or themes.
Some games are much smaller in scope. They’re hobbits, if you will. They aren’t trying to conquer the world as much as live happily in their little niche, being very agreeable company when the mood is right. In my life and with my gaming lifestyle, having a plethora of these kinds of games available is just as important as having the giants to grapple with. Timeline, by Asmodee/Hazgaard Editions, is a simple beautiful little game of the latter variety, and it is a welcome addition to my gaming shire.
Reinventing The Wheel
The game play of Timeline is rather trivial (pun intended). Each player is given a few cards, out of the deck of 109 cards that constitute the entire game’s components, which are splayed on the table in front of them. These cards, at least from the Timeline: Inventions version, primarily show wonderfully rendered drawings of things that have been invented throughout the history of mankind. On the backs of the cards are the same art and verbiage, as well as a year of invention (or approximate year), and an inventor if appropriate. Players are not yet allowed to look at the backs of the cards, however.
In the middle of the table is the space for the timeline, which gets seeded with one card flipped to reveal its year. On a player’s turn she chooses one of the cards remaining in front of her and places it in the correct spot on the timeline. At the start, this means she thinks it was invented before (to the left) or after (to the right) of the seed card. After deciding where to place the card, it is flipped to reveal the year associated with it. If it had been placed in the correct spot on the timeline, the card is left there, further increasing the size and specificity of the timeline and putting that player one card closer to winning. If incorrect, the player discards the card and replaces it with the top card of the draw stack. As more and more cards make up the timeline, players need to be more and more specific with their placement. This lends just a smidgeon of strategy to the proceedings: should a person play a card now that he’s less certain of in hopes of guessing correctly, or give up on it and concentrate on the ones he knows he can get rid of before their eras get bogged down with cards? Fun but non-taxing decisions abound.
The game ends after a complete round in which someone places their last card, ensuring everyone gets an equal number of turns. If more than one person goes out by the end of a round, those players are given another card and they play on until exactly one person wins. That’s the whole game.
The Third Time is Not Always a Charm
The game plays quickly, and surprisingly carries quite a few moments of dramatic tension. How accurately could you place the invention of whiskey? The rubber eraser? The metric system? Much like Wits and Wagers or Times to Remember, Timeline works best when players are forced to make educated guesses that may be wildly inaccurate. The moment before the big reveal, when a player has made her guess known, you will inevitably hear “oh, I bet it’s much earlier than that” or “I dunno, but I’d go two cards over”. Everyone has an opinion when it’s not their turn, which keeps everyone involved all along. Placing the card in context after the fact is fun, as well: cave paintings didn’t come about until well after the discovery of fire because they needed fire to see what they were doing, we reasoned too late. The cork necessarily predates the corkscrew, but we didn’t realize it took a leisurely hundred years to stop cutting the cork away with a knife. These are fun and, dare I say it, educational moments.
However, the game is fairly well ruined when players know the answers with certainty. Even for the biggest brainiacs, this won’t be much of a problem the first time through the cards. But familiarity breeds…well, familiarity. And this is far and away the biggest problem with the game: the replayability of a given set is fairly low. There are only 109 cards in the Inventions set, unlike the 700 questions in Wits and Wagers. Once you know that the Thermometer was invented in 1593, you’re unlikely to try to place it in the late 18th century again. You may not remember the year exactly, and you may not even place it correctly in the timeline. But you will no longer be amazed to the point of laughter by how far off a guess was.
The possibility of memorization is not the only downside exactly, but it is the biggest by far. A smaller gripe that came up was trying to figure what exactly was meant on some of the cards. Did “screw” mean the principles of the screw as put forth by Achimedes? Or did it mean the metal woodworking fastener? The former is clearly from ancient Greece, while the latter seems to have appeared much later (wikipedia suggests 15th century). Did “pencil” mean the modern wood encased graphite instrument, or simply the use of lead to write on papyrus? Did “the cannon” include the older Chinese fire lances? The official listed date of 1313 doesn’t seem to be found anywhere on the internet. But these are minor quibbles, and ones easily overlooked in such a light and fun game.
Necessity is a Mother, Alright
For the more major problem with Timeline, namely the lack of replayability, there seems to be two obvious solutions: add more cards or play infrequently enough to forget the content. Asmodee/Hazgaard Editions make no mystery about how they’d solve that problem, as they have at least five other Timeline sets beyond Inventions planned: Discoveries, Historical Events, Monuments, Arts and Literature, and Music. Some of the cards from those sets are included in the Inventions game, presumably to give players a taste of what’s upcoming. They could also be included to show that integrating the sets is completely seamless. Even the tin the game comes in fits easily on top of its lid, a design practically begging to be stacked with other sets. Timeline: Discoveries already exists in French, and an English edition is not far behind. Asmodee says they are aiming for a schedule of one set per year.
The more of these sets that exist the better, since reception to the game has been universally positive among my friends. I’d like to bring it out more often than I could based on a schedule dictated by my ability to forget*. After playing it half a dozen times in a weekend, though, I’m afraid I’ll be forced to set it aside for a while. Timeline slides comfortably into a very small but important gap in my gaming needs, in that it plays very quickly and scales well all the way up to eight. My coworkers and I played it three times over the course of one lunch, and even the least game friendly among that group said it was a “very nice game”. No one has yet jumped out of their skin with praise over Timeline, though all so far have enjoyed its distilled educated guesswork essence. It’s a pretty fun game, even if it’s not amazing. But it is really just a little game, in a wide world after all.
Don’t just take my word for it…
Dale Yu: I’ve played the game five times now, and I’ll admit that I do have a pretty good idea where a lot of the cards should belong now. I probably will have to wait a month or two before playing it again as a result. Of course, I played the game five times in the span of a week, so there was not much time to forget specific dates. Because there were a few dates that really surprised me, they definitely stuck out in my mind when playing again. That being said, each game has been a lot of fun – the game plays quickly, and it has been enjoyed by everyone who played it. It’s not the sort of game where you necessarily care who wins or loses, and every game has had at least one moment where the entire table was surprised/amazed to discover when something was invented.When I initially read the rules to this, I thought it was going to be a game that I could play with my kids (aged 10 and 8), but the needed knowledge of history is too great for them to handle. This doesn’t mean that they can’t play – I have, in fact, played a game with them… but they’re pretty much reduced to guessing blindly at most things. I mean, they knew that “Navigation” or “The Wheel” probably happened a long time ago, but they weren’t so good at knowing when “Les Miserables” was written or when penicillin was invented. They still had a great time, and I’m hoping that maybe they learned a random trivia fact or two along the way, but this is probably something you’d have to be at least in junior high to have the necessary history background to play.
I would definitely like to see a game with more cards in it – as most of our games had us going through between one-third and one-half of the deck. So… in my five games, I’ve probably had a good chance at seeing each card at least twice.
As a final aside, my brother picked up a French language version earlier in the year, and he noted that it was sometimes interesting to have to try to guess what the object on the card was from only the illustration… That would also provide an interesting twist on the game, though I think it is going to be better in my native language!
Jonathan Franklin: I’ve only played it once, but it was a good ride. This is a nice tense little game, in that you can be a year off and in some cases that is irrelevant, while trying to decide whether the phonograph is before or after the light bulb, for example. Blue jeans before or after the Gold Rush? Aside from the replayability issue, some cards are easier than others, so there is a dollop of luck in whether your knowledge matches the cards you are dealt. I don’t know how many non-gamers/geeks really care whether the hypodermic needle was invented before or after whiskey, but if you know people who do, this is a great game for them.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!… Valerie Putman
I like it… Nathan Beeler, Dale Yu, Jonathan Franklin
Not for me…
* I just lost “the game”.