Tides of Tiny
Eighteen cards. Four tokens. One pad for keeping score. A single golf pencil.
That’s everything there is to Tides of Time, the first foray of Portal Games into the wild but diminutive world of microgames. It’s a surprisingly tiny effort from a company that isn’t exactly known for skimping on the cardboard. But does it skimp on the gameplay? That there’s the question.
At the outset of its first round, Tides of Time looks like the world’s simplest drafting game. Each player is given a hand of five cards and told to earn as many points as possible. Choose one card to graft into your empire, pass the remainder to your opponent, and back and forth you go until both hands are gone.
The cards themselves could hardly be simpler. In fact, they’d basically have to be blank. The illustrations are sumptuous, absolutely striking, almost as though someone is trying to divert your attention from the fact that the cards really boil down to a suit and an ability. Nearly always, these abilities revolve around ways to score points. For instance, putting the Jinn’s Shackles into your empire means that every instance of the jazz-hands suit will give you three points at the end of the round. The Blood-tear Spring will give you seven points, but only if you have more leafy sprigs than your opponent. Once you’ve got five cards in front of you, tally up your points. There you go.
But then Tides of Time does something interesting. With two more rounds to go, it has both players pick up their hands and make an entirely different decision. Rather than just starting a new draft, each player must choose one card to throw away, removing it from the game entirely, and another to add to their kingdom. Forever. You might even say that this card has survived the tides of time.
Going into the second round is entirely unlike going into the first. Now your opening strategy is laid bare, both for you to capitalize on and your opponent to undermine. They might, for example, have claimed the King’s Nest, a suit-less card that breaks all ties in their favor. Now those cards that award points for having the most of something are more likely to trigger on their behalf. Or perhaps they’ve enshrined the Mana Well, guaranteeing that the rest of their efforts will be directed towards the gathering of crowns, castles, and jazz-hands.
This is where things start to look clever. Where the game began as a straightforward draft, the successive rounds are all about making your previous acquisitions gel with whatever appears in your hand from that point forward. Meanwhile, the goings-on of your opponent’s kingdom become about five times more important once you realize you’ve just inherited a genuine shot at frustrating their long-term goals.
Then the second round ends with players repeating the process, adding another twist to this already kinked-up labyrinth of agitating decisions and second-guesses.
It isn’t uncommon for drafting games to allow preemptive strategies and tactics of denial, but Tides of Time excels at being a close-matched duel of wits within as few as 10 minutes. Sure, it’s at its best when both players know all 18 cards like the home screen of their smartphones, but the cards are so plain that I doubt anyone would really struggle to remember them after a couple games. And that’s the beauty of the whole thing: there’s hardly anything there, but it’s distinctly clever in spite of its slender frame.