BattleCONtinuum: A Look at Temporal Odyssey
At first glance, you might assume that Level 99’s forthcoming dueling game — coming to Kickstarter later this week — was the brainchild of D. Brad Talton, Jr. After all, Talton is one of modern gaming’s undisputed champions of two-player punch-’em-ups, with both the BattleCON and Exceed systems in his corner.
Instead, Temporal Odyssey appears courtesy of up-and-coming designer Chris Solis. But don’t let Solis’s newcomer status dissuade you, because this is one of the slickest two-player duels I’ve witnessed in a long time.
Temporal Odyssey is a game of ideas, and I mean that both mechanically and temporally. As a time-hopping Traveler, your goal is to whitewash your opponent from history — except every time you beat them, they simply take a time-jaunt and avoid making the same mistakes.
As nice an idea as this is, the actual time travel concept is the frailest of Temporal Odyssey’s inventory of ideas. Time travel has always been an awkward concept, even in books and television where the creator has absolute control over the narrative, and outside of Anachrony’s gussied-up loans from your future self, we’re unlikely to see many games sweat the heavy lifting of concepts like “rectifying your mistakes by altering the timeline.” Sounds like too many tokens to manage anyway.
Here, all this time-jumping fluff is precisely that, a backdrop for some really intense battling, drafting, and combo-tuning. Getting your Traveler pummeled forces you to lose “stability,” as does sacrificing too many troops or letting your opponent lay claim to powerful artifacts. Lose all your stability and the next time your Traveler is bloodied will be their last.
Essentially, it’s a battle to the death, death, artifact explosion, henchman homicide, and then another death.
Okay, so here’s how it works. The game opens with your Traveler, no slouch in his own right, plus some starting cards — a pair of henchmen, a defensive structure, and a handful of spells. It might not seem like much to go on, but it isn’t long before you start drafting new cards from one of the game’s four decks. The process is nicely straightforward: you draw three, then keep one, banish another, and place the final offering atop the deck you drew it from. Just like that, you’ve left two cards within reach of your opponent while claiming the one that best complements your strategy. It’s some of the lightest drafting out there, especially since you don’t spend any time passing hands, while still offering a broad decision space and an apt capstone to the action of each turn. In a way, it’s reminiscent of how Codex doles out its cards at the end of each player’s turn, except here both sides are working from the same pool.
Once you have some characters on the table, you can begin putting them to work. As is the norm for games of this type, characters can use special abilities or directly attack enemy units — yadda yadda yadda, we’ve seen this a hundred times before. However, where Temporal Odyssey gets clever is by letting you end your turn by layering your fighters into “groups,” with a protective leader out front and a cushioned supporter in the back row, safe from most attacks until the leader has been wiped out.
This accomplishes two major things. First, it provides all sorts of minor combos right from the get-go. If your Traveler is getting battered, why not pair her up with an armored character? That trait will be shared across both members of the group, diminishing the amount of damage you take from each attack. Or, if your opponent is pinging at you with glass cannon units, hide behind a Turret that deals retaliatory damage every time someone in its group is attacked. There are plenty of abilities that only come into their fullest value when positioned in a group, encouraging you to squirrel away your most valuable assets behind bristling defenses.
Secondly, it sidesteps the whole “assign defenders to each attacker” thing that’s been the norm ever since Magic: The Gathering gorged itself on every nerdy kid’s lunch money. In Temporal Odyssey, your turn is paced by four action tokens, which you can spend on everything from enlisting new units to using abilities and attacks, and the flow of your turn will never be interrupted by an opponent mulling over whether he should have his Wanderer or Guntram the Malefactor absorb your blow. All those defensive decisions were made at the conclusion of his last turn. All that’s left is a defensive line for you to pick apart bit by bit.
As such, the tempo just feels right. On your turn you’ll bounce from an attack to summoning a new unit — and using its immediate ability — straight into another attack, all without missing a step.
Meanwhile, you’re also juggling an experience system that bestows nifty little perks to your units whenever you kill off an enemy character and a spell system that grows more powerful as you acquire matching element icons on your cards. These are cool touches more than anything, little ways to optimize your characters from a ragged band into a truly imposing fighting force, and they add an extra element to consider whenever drafting a new card. Should you take that really cool fighter, or an artifact that gives you an important pair of icons? With a limited pool of actions, sometimes improving what you already have is superior to adding more stuff.
If it sounds complicated, it really isn’t. The rules are something like four pages long. Best of all, nearly everything is intuitive, triggers at logical moments, and has clearly-defined effects.
Much of this is accomplished by offloading the trickier rules onto the cards themselves. While you’re only presented with a few options whenever you draft a card, each of the three main decks — cutely entitled Past, Present, and Future — provide very different but distinct options. For instance, if your defenses are established, it might be a good time to dip into the Future deck. These guys are all about slowly becoming more powerful over multiple turns, gaining free experience upgrades and churning out cheap units from the token deck. The Past is more about repeating the effects of cards you’ve already played, while the Present prefers to live in the now, handing out instant effects. Each deck has their place in the grand scheme of things, and it’s possible to tweak your approach by drafting from the right pool for the current board state.
If my enthusiasm hasn’t been obvious, I’m rather excited by Temporal Odyssey. It might not actually make good on its whole temporal warfare angle, but it makes for a deadly contest of drafting, combo optimization, and outwitting your opponent.
If anything, its emphasis on pulling off nigh-broken combos reminds me of Omen: A Reign of War, which has been one of my favorite games for years. Once, I carefully arranged a huge spell boost that dealt one hundred damage and bestowed an extra fifty hit points on my Traveler. While it didn’t exactly shatter the space-time continuum, you can bet it altered the landscape of the current duel, and it was easy to see how many of my other cards could be similarly leveraged.
Temporal Odyssey is coming to Kickstarter later this week. When it comes to two-player dueling games, this has a good chance of being one of the best.