Back to the Future, Past, and Present
Some games I appreciate for their elegance. Their brightness. Their sheer go-where-nobody-has-gone-before-ness. Others I appreciate because they’re garbage. Delicious, sugary, make-you-look-like-a-tire-swing-got-wedged-around-a-telephone-pole garbage.
See where I’m going with this?
Temporal Odyssey is a dueling game. Sure, the powers-that-be at Level 99 Games have advertised it as playable with up to four players, but don’t listen to that marketing guff for a single nanosecond. Especially since any time spent wrestling its four-handed abomination could much more easily (and more pleasurably) be spent playing two separate matches.
Before I say anything else, I want to be clear about something. Temporal Odyssey is not elegant. Oh no. Not in the slightest. Nor is it particularly innovative. Nor is it necessarily balanced. I mean, I don’t know about that part. Maybe it is. Maybe you could use it as a spirit level while crafting some cabinetry. Though it sure feels anything other than level when my opponent has shattered my defenses, hobbled my momentum, and is making Grandfather Time take notice of my dimension-hopping shenanigans. Or something like that. I’m fuzzy on the particulars.
Instead, Temporal Odyssey is the sort of game that makes me chuckle about how mean, how broken, and how legal a particular card combo is. If nothing else, it knows enough to provide some tools, load you up with cards that teeter between limited and oh so preposterous, and then get out of the way and let you do your thing.
And now let’s do something nutso. Let’s talk about the setup.
Each match of Temporal Odyssey revolves around your traveler drafting from three separate pools, representing the past, present, and future. Did I mention that Temporal Odyssey is about time travel? First of all, you should have inferred that from the temporal, so that one’s on you. And second, don’t worry, it’s only nominally about chronological mishaps. But we’ll talk about that later.
For now, the important bit is that there are three decks to worry about. And each is filled with three types of units, for a grand total of nine broad archetypes you’ll be cramming into your hand and eventually deploying onto the table.
Simple, right? Well, yes, that’s part of the appeal. But crucial to the experience of Temporal Odyssey is that each match only features half of the game’s options. For example, the past deck might contain Beasts, Ancients, Stalkers, Golems, Elementals, and Lost — but only three types at once. So while one match’s past deck will divide your attention between damage-dealing Beasts, the trade-off defensive skills of Golems, and the ability to manipulate TIME ITSELF (again, we’ll return to this) courtesy of the Lost, another game might swap out Golems for the resurrection powers of Elementals or Lost for the ability-chaining Ancients.
And that’s just the first deck. Add that together with the present and future and every match boasts new combinations of units, artifacts, and spells to exploit.
These cards trickle into your hand over time, with undrafted options disappearing into the aether forever (OR DO THEY?) or plopping face-up onto one of the decks until someone claims or dismisses them on a future turn. But it’s what you’ll be doing with those cards that makes Temporal Odyssey such a giggle.
As has always been the case with time travelers, there can only be one. The problem, however, is that any killing blow will be rewound like an old-timey cassette tape, returning your rival to their former state, whole and unblemished and unburned and unsmashed. To fully defeat them, you’ll need to first destabilize them. And that’s where Temporal Odyssey’s peculiar balancing act comes into play.
Four actions is all you get to spend in a turn. Whether enlisting units, launching attacks, casting spells, or tucking away artifacts, that burden is always present, demanding you stretch your space-dollar as far as possible. A horde of units will provide myriad options, but also opens you up to destabilization, and anyway you can’t attack with everything because each attack costs one of those precious actions. Rather, it behooves the prudent time-vacationer to parcel out their resources. A spell here, a defensive unit there, preferably with a crunchy ability like armor or retaliation, stacked in front of an aggressive unit to keep it safe from harm until it can bring its glass cannon to bear. Units can be grouped into complementing pairs, spells occasionally need to be recharged, and classic dueler hallmarks — summoning sickness! stunned units! matching sigils for boosting spells! — are alive and kicking, ready to be weaponized or subverted at your earliest convenience.
Nicely, your rival’s stability can be undermined in multiple ways, letting you pursue varying routes to supremacy, even though it comes across more like shredding hit points than actually futzing with the space-time continuum. Killing units, beating up their traveler, deploying pricey artifacts — all will get the job done with some effort. That last one smacks of a need to hurry along the game’s pacing, and it’s never not infuriating to lose some stability because your rival happened across the right trinket. But the fight isn’t over until you’ve been destabilized and killed dead, so it’s a misstep I’m inclined to overlook, albeit with a pair of rolled eyes when someone flings an artifact my way.
Of course, none of this would be worth a fig if Temporal Odyssey didn’t provide interesting cards to play with. And in that regard, this game knows precisely what it’s doing. I’ll give you two examples.
In one match, I was low on raw damage but comfortably outfitted with defensive troops. There was a tasty offensive bruiser atop the future deck, a mech called Ventus Wyvern, with an attack that could wipe out nearly anything in single wallop. But that power came at a price — namely, three of my characters banished forever. Fortunately, I had a spell called Blink Portal. For the low cost of one action, I could deploy any unit sitting atop its deck, ignore its coming-into-play effect, have it attack, and then return it to whence it came. Just like that the bruiser was mine, for almost no cost, with no downside, and then again a turn later because it was still hanging out on top of the future deck. Who needs to buy tough units when you can rent them?
Another time, I had a unit named Tara. As a Stalker, Tara’s deal was that she could drain an allied unit of damage. With a deep pool of HP, she was a great way to keep her fellows hale and hearty. Even better, when she attacked, she would transmit all that damage onto her victim. Which meant she was constantly cycling back and forth, retreating to absorb damage, then pushing forward to deal it back. It was like my opponent was fighting herself.
Crucially, both of these approaches could have been avoided, or at least mitigated. If my foe had removed Ventus Wyvern from the top of the future deck, my plans to continue re-blinking him would never come to fruition. And if the damage to my units had been spread out — or carefully targeted to kill them outright — Tara’s ghastly supper would never have materialized.
And those are just two of many viable approaches. I could also tell you about how I employed a Lost to make it nigh-impossible for my opponent to continue beating me, or when I assembled a battle line of unbreakable units thanks to an interlocking set of defensive abilities, or when I had a super-cheap Program steal a rival’s linchpin unit. Temporal Odyssey is a total mess, but at least it knows how to have a good time.
Still, that messiness makes Temporal Odyssey difficult to recommend. It’s novel more than innovative, pitching familiar concepts into a blender, forgoing the lid, and reveling at the absence-outline of your body against the wall. There are duelers with more to commend them, including more measured pacing and the absence of those awful destabilizing artifacts. Or, crud, a diminished reliance on hoping you find something cool in the midst of its three draw decks.
But its issues are also the very reasons Temporal Odyssey stands out from the herd. Powerful combos, preposterous reversals, spells with ultimate forms that only trigger once in three plays — but on the other hand, powerful combos, preposterous reversals, and spells with ultimate forms that trigger once in three plays. Elegant it is not. But while salad may be good for you, it’s junk food that feeds the
soul heart imagination gut.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. I once jaunted into the past to inform myself that I would be miserable as a medical doctor. Now please help justify future-me’s decision to tell present-me to become a board game critic.)