Time of Opportunity
The Roman Ludi Saeculares of 248 were an astonishing spectacle. Featuring exhibitions of hundreds of animals ranging from giraffes and elk to lions and rhinoceroses, as well as gladiatorial matches, banquets, and theater, the commemoration of the thousand-year existence of the city was intended as the greatest expression of Roman longevity ever shouted from the rooftops.
But while these festivities represent a date historians would eagerly dial into their time machines, the Roman Empire of 248 was anything but triumphal. The host of the games, Emperor Marcus Julius Philippus — more commonly known by his epithet Philip the Arab — was beset by scandal and whispered rumor. Not only had he overseen the death of his predecessor while serving as his bodyguard (awkwaaard), but he had also paid the Sassanids of Persia a tribute of half a million denarii to leave the Empire’s eastern border alone. In the same year as the millennial games, dissatisfied legions rose against Philip to appoint a new emperor of their own, spurring opportunistic Goths to flood across the Danube. Philip the Arab died in battle after fewer than five years as emperor. And that was considered an above average tenure for an emperor during the Crisis of the Third Century.
Barbarians. Famine. Civil war. Plague. Assassination. Inflation. Any game about Rome’s half-century of near disaster will have to grapple with a wide range of issues. And even though Wray Farrell and Brad Johnson’s Time of Crisis somehow touches on all of them, that’s only the second-best thing about it.
Time of Crisis is the sort of game that plays with its eyes wide open. As in, it understands all the way down to the bone that moments of desperation aren’t just about teetering on the brink. They’re about opportunity. After all, while the Crisis years were bad ones, coughing up an average lifespan of two years per emperor, they were also years that produced unlikely dynasties that never could have realized their ambitions without a few screaming barbarians upsetting the order of things. They were the years that produced Valerian and the Gordian dynasty. They were the years that produced Diocletian.
This is where your family of governors and generals comes in. With the central authority of Rome all but shattered, you’re now in the business of forging a legacy. To this end, you’ll raise armies, bully votes in the senate, and hopefully sway the populace into supporting your claims to the fate of Rome itself.
When I say that the game’s central means of accomplishing this is deck-building, there’s no need to take it as a poor augury. This is deck-building more akin to Hands in the Sea or Mythotopia than anything else. At its most basic, there are three “spheres” of influence — military, senatorial, and the public — with each played card providing points to spend within that sphere. Red cards let you raise generals and armies, march across the empire, and tackle your opponents. Blues are about slippery backroom politics, in particular the removal of pesky governors in favor of your own favored cousins. And yellows are about motivating the locals to build useful structures or help out in a fight.
Crucially, Time of Crisis isn’t even slightly interested in the usual randomness inherent to deck-building games, which is why your final act each turn is to select the hand you’ll use after everybody else has gone. The rub is that anything in your discard pile is unavailable until your draw pile has run dry, forcing you to measure out the right balance of high-value cards and weaker fare. Take too many powerful cards at once and you’ll give yourself a fantastic turn but risk having nothing useful later on; take the wrong ones, no matter how powerful, and you may find yourself fighting the wrong sort of battle. A wad of military cards is often useful, but at the wrong moment they might amount to very little compared to what you could accomplish with a whisper in the halls of the senate. There’s nuance aplenty to explore, and we haven’t even gotten to the really cool part.
The cool part is that Time of Crisis is an incredibly simple game, at least for the level of verisimilitude it’s striving for. And a huge part of that is the way it offloads its trickiest rules onto the cards themselves.
First of all, it’s essential to understand the way these cards are doled out. There are only nine of them, three per sphere of influence, and for much of the game they’re gated to the number of provinces your family administers. At the outset, certain cards are simply out of reach until you either claim new governorships or increase your public support in the provinces you already have. This lends a distinct power curve to the proceedings, with late-game families employing tricks that their earlier selves could only dream about.
Let’s examine the yellow deck as an example. The first option is the lowly quaestor, a magistrate who makes it a little bit harder for your opponents to vote out one of your governors. It’s a mild effect, requiring aggressors to roll a little higher than they normally would, but in certain territories it can be the difference between retaining your position or being sent home in shame. Next up is the ability to rabble-rouse in someone’s province, raising mobs who must either be suppressed with violence or via expensive circuses lest they multiply and eventually oust a governor in favor of a neutral voice from Rome. In most cases it’s little more than an annoyance, but it can be a expensive one, forcing rivals to spend cards they could have otherwise used on structures or war-making.
And the last one? Well, let’s walk another path for a minute.
It probably comes as no surprise that one of the most effective means of gaining legacy for your family is by installing yourself as emperor. This is anything but easy, and often requires a hard military and political wrestle to secure. Not to mention, of course, that you’ll be putting one hell of a target on your back. But it’s worth it, effectively doubling your points each turn and lengthening your dynasty’s reign, which in turn puts you in contention for a healthy pile of bonus points at the conclusion of the game.
As emperor, your ambitions have been realized! At this point, your task becomes a largely defensive one. Why leave home when there are half-naked people feeding you grapes? Better to keep packing your army with new troops, putting out fires wherever they spark, and letting the legacy accumulate.
This is where that final yellow card comes in.
While it’s perfectly valid to whittle away at an emperor’s support base or confront his armies head-on, there’s another way. It involves carving out a section of the empire, staffing it with your own generals and soldiery, getting the public to play along with your aspirations, and then slapping down the pretender card. Just like that, you’ve declared yourself emperor, those provinces are now yours, and everybody else is a big fat barbarian cripple and come get me. Like that, the current emperor’s support is going to plummet unless they ride out to do something about it.
It’s a complete game-changer. In one of our matches, my wife managed to make Rome a political dwarf beside the grandeur of her Thracian Empire. One doomed imperial excursion later and the emperor’s chair in Rome once again stood vacant. It was a good few rounds before anybody bothered reaching for it again.
The other card spheres are similarly impactful. When barbarians invade — and they will invade, which may very well wreck the best-laid plans — you can bribe them into behaving peaceably or eventually even recruit them straight into your army. When battle rolls aren’t going your way, especially when your nemesis keeps rolling those damnable exploding sixes, forts and flanking maneuvers just might be your salvation. And when you have an emperor who needs uprooting, hiring his praetorian guard to slit his throat and then burning his likeness from every last book and painting in the empire… well. It’s the Right Thing To Do. Just don’t think too hard about it.
If it sounds hard, it isn’t. There are a handful of basic actions to learn, but almost everything else comes down to making clever use of the cards you’ve selected. And, well, persuading your opponents to attack the guy sitting on the throne, being bold at the right moments and cautious at the wrong ones, and gauging the upcoming situation whenever you select your next hand. What I mean to say is that the path is fraught, but it’s never overly complicated. Even first-timers stand a solid chance of faring well if they’re cunning.
There are about a thousand things I love about Time of Crisis.
I love that it embraces deck-building but in an entirely straight-faced way, tossing out the randomness of card pulls in favor of one more planned element to consider. Pawing through your deck as you try to suss out what the board will look like a turn later permits both shrewd moments of insight and total disaster. It’s the sort of game where every decision carries real weight, including the ones made way back on the very first turn. Alliances come and go, setbacks and successes swap places, and, in my experience at least, it’s almost always a tight contest.
That said, I love that its dash of chance — the event cards and dice, and especially those blasted exploding sixes — is just enough to give every battle or political ouster a mouthful of bite. I lost one game because two full armies failed to uproot an opponent whose legions came pre-battered. Those rolls had everyone at the table screaming. Fantastic. After all, what’s the Crisis of the Third Century without the possibility of Valerian getting captured by the Sassanid Shapur?
Perhaps most of all, I love that Time of Crisis is thick with history, with simulation, with the feel of playing at war and politics — that it does a superb job of replicating an incredibly complicated period of history in a compelling and legible manner — but all without ever feeling particularly complicated itself. As far as games of this caliber go, it’s downright breezy. Not to mention it’s one of the most exciting titles I’ve played in a long time. There’s nothing quite like making a grab for the emperor’s laurels and hoping you’ve timed it perfectly, battling barbarians to impress the senate, or marching into the heart of a pretender’s territory.
Short version? Time of Crisis is Diocletian reborn.