Dale Yu: Review of Time of Empires

Time of Empires

  • Designers: David Simiand, Pierre Voye
  • Publisher: Pearl Games
  • Players: 2-4
  • Age: 12+
  • Time: 60 minutes
  • Played with review copy from distributor, Asmodee NA

Time of Empires is the newest release from Pearl Games, one of the design studios that I have been interested in for years.  “In Time of Empires, take charge of a civilization and lead it through the ages from antiquity through the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution to modern times.  Each age lasts for centuries in reality but only 9 minutes in this game!   Other players have accepted the same charge you have and will be grappling with life through the action phase simultaneously with you in real time. Your two 30-second sand timers will trigger your actions — expanding your territory, building wonders, and discovering new technologies — while a soundtrack keeps the tempo of history.”

Though it is not vital to play the game, there is a phone app available for the game to help with the timing.  If you do not want to use the app, the soundtrack can be found online at the Pearl Games home page as well.

In this game, there is a central board made up of various triangular terrain tiles.  Set up the board based on the player count as shown in the rulebook.  Each player has a starting tile outlined in their color with many neutral tiles in between.  Each tile has 3 territories on it, with a capital space at the intersection of the territories in the center of the tile.  Elsewhere on the table, make room for the four other boards: Wonder Board, Leader Board, and two small Technology boards.  Put them in locations where all players can reach the boards reasonably.

Each player gets a player board which has 4 building areas on it, each with 5 wooden buildings placed on them.  In general, these wooden buildings cover up production icons.  As you build buildings and place them on the map, you will generate more resources when you produce.  Players also get 20 tokens, starting resources (1 idea and 1 brick), and 2 sand timers with caps in their player color.  Each player also gets a starting hand of four basic technology cards. To start the game, each player places one of their population markers on one of the territories on their starting tile on the central board.  

The game will be played over 3 eras, each lasting exactly 9 minutes in real time – well, once you play the full game… the rules do strongly suggest that you play an untimed era or two in your first games to learn the mechanisms and not be unduly rushed in the game.

To prepare for the phase

  • Place technology cards for the era onto each of the 4 slots on the 2 Technology boards
  • Choose a wonder card for the era at random and place on the corresponding era space on the Wonder board
  • Clear the Leader board, then take this era’s Leader cards and place one card per type at random in the matching slot.  If you have 4p in the game, choose one random card from the leftovers for the fourth slot.
  • Exchange the sand timers, give each player two and put your colored caps on them.  By switching sand timers each era, this should negate any advantage from certain timers being slightly less full than others.
  • Each player generates a number of scholars equal to the number of visible scholar icons on the blue culture area of their player board.
  • Each player now places their Construction bonus token for the age onto one of the four possible slots on their board. This will lead to bonus scoring for this area at the end of every Era remaining in the game.
  • Tap to start the next era on whatever device you are using to play the soundtrack

Once the era start, the game runs for 9 minutes with only two specified breaks.  In general, players can take actions at any time.  To do so, they place an exhausted sand timer on a free action space, flip the timer over so that the sand starts to fall, and then they immediately take the action corresponding to the space they just occupied.  You must complete this action before you do anything else – meaning you cannot place both of your timers at the same time, you must finish this first action before you place your second timer.  Once your sand timer is exhausted again, you can move it to take another action.  In fact the rules tell you to move your own timer immediately.  If you do not do so, another player can move it off the board for you in order to place their own timer in that spot (i.e. you cannot keep a space occupied just because you don’t want to move your timer).

The actions are:

  • Produce ideas – place your timer in the green area of your board and gain ideas equal to the number visible just below
  • Produce bricks – place your timer in the orange area of your board and gain bricks equal to the number visible just below
  • Deploy Clans – place your timer next to the deploy icon in the yellow area of your board, place as many clans as can be seen in the bottom part of this area and place them on a city or capital that you already have a clan on, max of 4 total on any city/capital
  • Move Clans – place your timer next to the move icon in the yellow area of your board; make as many moves as you see move icons in the lower part of this section. A move can be between adjacent territories and/or cities/capitals.  You cannot move more than 2 clans into a territory. You cannot move into a city which another player owns.  You can move into a territory with opponents pieces; if so, simultaneously remove one from each side.  If at least one piece survives, that piece takes control of the clan space.
  • Discover a Technology – place a timer on the discovery/build icon on the leftmost section of your board, choose a card from your hand, and pay ideas equal to that seen in the upper left corner of the card. Place the card on top of the stack underneath the timer, and then immediately resolve the text of the card
  • Construct a Building – place a timer on the discovery/build icon on the leftmost section of your board, and spend the bricks shown in the upper right corner of the card beneath it to build the type of building shown.  Place that building in any territory that you currently occupy, though you cannot build multiple buildings of the same type in a single territory.  Discard the Technology card which was just used.
  • Take a Technology Card – Place your timer on one of the four spaces on the Technology boards and take the card on the top of one of the two stacks on that board.  The back of the card will tell you which sort of building that particular card will allow you to build.  A single player may not occupy both action spaces on a Technology board.
  • Construct a Wonder – place your timer on a space on the wonder board, then take a scholar from your player board and play it to the top of the stack of the corresponding wonder. A single player may not occupy both action spaces on a Wonder board section
  • Influence a Leader – place your timer on a space on the Leader board, then take a scholar from your player board and play it to the top of the stack of the corresponding leader.  Immediately gain the Leader effect next to where you placed your scholar.

During the era, players are pretty much free to take the actions they want as they are able to take them. There are two moments in the round, at exactly 3 minutes and 6 minutes when you will hear a baby crying in the soundtrack.  When that happens, all players stop what they are doing and immediately create scholars as seen in their blue area of their player board.  Over the course of each era, players will generate scholars three times (at 0, 3 and 6 minutes).

When the era is over, a gong will sound on the soundtrack, and the game moves into the untimed scoring phase. There are six steps to be done in this phase:

  • Destruction – all buildings in a territory which do not match the clan color in the center of the territory are destroyed.  The destroyed buildings are placed onto the destroyed buildings area of the player who destroyed them.  Players score 3VP per building they have in this area.
  • Construction bonus – for each area of the board which has a construction bonus token, score points on the token for each building built in that area.  Note that this means the token placed in the first era will score three times over the course of the game.
  • Leader cards – Give each Leader card to the player who has the most scholars placed underneath it, ties broken in favor of the player who placed earlier (closer to the bottom).  The Leader card gives permanent bonuses to its owner for the rest of the game.

  • Wonder cards – each wonder card has a scoring criteria on it. The player with the most scholars (ties again to the earlier placed) score 2VP for each time they meet the condition. All other players at the wonder score 1VP for each fulfillment.
  • Cultural Influence – each player scores VPs as visible on the blue area of their player board
  • Siege of Cities – whoever controls the most territories around a city moves a Clan from their reserve onto the city in the center.  Ties are broken in favor of the player with the most buildings.

Setup the board for the next era, and play until three eras are complete. Sum the points of the three scoring phases and the player with the most points wins. Ties broken in favor of the player with the most buildings on the central board at the end of the game.

My thoughts on the game

Time of Empires is apparently going to be the last Pearl Games release (at least based on the news I read on BGG that the design house is closing down).  I will say that I have been a pretty big fan of the games from this company, and I’ll miss them going forward.  In this last release, there is a bit more frenzy and chaos as opposed to the careful planning in Troyes.

The catch here is the real-time nature of the game, coupled with the restrictions brought about by the hourglasses.  This is truly a game of hurry up and wait.  As the rounds start, everyone will try to get started as quickly as possible.  Then, once the actions are done, you’ll have to sit around and wait for the sand to fall through your hourglasses… and then rush to do it all over again.  For maybe the first two or three cycles in each round, everyone will be trying to move their hourglasses at the same time; but as the round moves on, people will not be able (or not remember) to move their hourglasses right as the sand empties out, and then players will be slightly off cycle on when they want to place their hourglasses.  

As with many games that have sand timers, they are not all identical in timing (mostly due to variance in manufacturing).  The game has a clever solution to this common issue by having removable caps on the hourglasses that can be switched up so that the hourglasses can be switched around to even things out if it is felt that the sand timers are inequitable.

One thing the rules try to fix, but not in a way that suits me, is what to do about two people simultaneously trying to place hourglasses in the same spot.  In our games, this is almost always a fight for one of the Leaders – whichever is perceived to be the most useful.  It has happened that all four players tried to get to the same spot right as the round started.  The rules tell you to be polite and whatever, but there isn’t a way to solve this problem.  And timing is important here as the tiebreaker goes to whoever has the lower leader in the stack.  I suppose you could rock-paper-scissor for it, but that would take time away from your 9 minute round….  

Once you get past that sticky part, the rest of the round is pretty frenzied, as players all try to accomplish their goals in the nine minutes.  You have to be pretty trusting with your fellow gamers, as the rules for each player will become asymmetric due to the leader cards as well as the special action on the technology cards as they are played down to the board.  There’s no way that you’ll be able to double check what powers everyone has, so you just have to trust that they’re playing by the right rules.  Heck, there are times when I’m not entirely sure that I’m playing a card correctly, but also, I just have to do so in good faith and do the right thing.  The biggest thing is the fighting – we’ve settled into a pattern that the attacker simply takes care of the mutual piece elimination and returns the defeated pieces to the owner, also hopefully telling them where the pieces came from.  I suppose that the defender could ask to be notified of each fight, but this would take time away from getting other stuff done – so no one has ever asked for that.

There are a lot of things going on, and you have to figure out how to do all sorts of things each round.  My timers take around 40 seconds to empty, and you have two of them, so in a 9 minute round, you end up with maybe 20 actions?  (You’ll never be fully efficient in flipping them over immediately – trust me).  As I mentioned earlier, there is usually a robust fight for the leader cards; the ongoing extra benefits are quite strong, and it is almost always worthwhile to try to get at least one card per round.  In addition, the leader tiles also give a little extra action with each scholar placed there – so even if you don’t win the fight, you’re still getting some value for your hourglass placement there.  But… if you’re going to fight for the leaders, you need to have scholars – whether that’s from buildings in the blue area of your board or digging for cards that give you scholars as their bonus action…

And, if you’re going to build buildings, you’ll need to spend actions to draw the cards, actions to get light bulbs to play the cards down, and then more actions to get bricks to eventually build the building.  And, of course it takes an action each time to play the card or build the building.  So… you’re looking at probably 5 to 6 actions to build a building (1 to draw, 1 to get lightbulbs, 1 to play the card down, 1 to get bricks, 1 to actually use the bricks to make a building, etc) – though special abilities or card actions can reduce this.  Also, as you build more buildings, you get more stuff per action; but then again, the later cards become more expensive, so everything ramps up at the same time.

And then let’s not forget about the area control.  First, you need to expand a bit to build buildings – there are at most 2 building spots per hex, so you have to expand a bit to drop those buildings down.  But, then when you’re spread out, you’ll need to watch out for attacks – the 3pt bonus per round for a destroyed building is huge, so there will be plenty of marauding as people try to swoop in and take control of an area where you have buildings.  There is always a bit of clever maneuvering right around the perceived end of a round where players try to make their attack right before the gong sounds (and before their opponent can retaliate with a move back in with their own clan members).

And to compound the level of difficulty, you’re trying to manage how to get all these things done at the same time when you’re limited to one new action per hourglass cycle!  Watching what your opponents are doing might influence what you choose to do next, as there are a number of things where timing is more important – but that also assumes that you have the time and ability to look around and see what else is happening.  I tend to get so focused on figuring out the steps needed to accomplish whatever goals I have set for myself, that I sometimes miss out of everyone else’s actions – I find myself continually surprised in the scoring phase at the end of each round when I see just how poorly I did!  :) 

There is a pretty solid app that is used as both the timer and scorekeeper for the game. It’s a free download for either iOS or Android.  It makes management of the game pretty easy.  I normally don’t like games that rely on an app – but in this case, the app is more of a helper as opposed to a necessity.  You could play without it – but man, I couldn’t imagine doing so as it just makes everything so much easier.

The only other advice I’d give is to definitely follow the recommendation in the rules about playing at least the first era of your first game without the timers.  There is a untimed version where players just take a turn playing two hourglasses and taking the actions.  This gives everyone a chance to learn the game flow and become familiar with the possible actions.  Trust me, you’ll have a lot of questions, and you’ll have the time to look up the answers when the clock isn’t ticking.  The Technology cards have some complex rules, and while the Era 1 cards are the easiest, it’s still good to see how they work.  Unfortunately, this won’t help you with some of the wackier cards in Era 2 and 3, but you’ll hopefully know enough of the game rules to figure out what to do with them if you draw them at random.

Overall Time of Empires is a wild and wooly game that plays loose and fast.  And you have to be willing to accept that – if you’re a rules follower or stickler, this isn’t the game for you.  Things are going to happen that you won’t have time to examine or question.  You (nor anyone else) will have time to ask for clarifications on anything that comes up – you just have to play through it and hope for the best.  There are no re-dos.  Just keep your head down, do the best you can for nine minutes and see what happened at the end of each era.  With three rounds of 9 minutes each, the game can easily be set up, played, and torn down in under an hour.  There’s a lot of action in that hour, and you’ll be along for a wild ride throughout time in that short interval..

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!
  • I like it. Dale Y
  • Neutral. John P, Steph H
  • Not for me..

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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