Like Sands Through the Hourglass
Longtime readers will probably be aware of my search for non-traditional civilization games. That’s why I was so eager to take a look at Jeff Warrender’s The Sands of Time, which flew under my radar a couple years back. Its approach could almost be described as abstract, crowded with cubes and cylinders alongside the more immediately evocative building tokens. Perhaps most notably, it manages to come across as the story of civilization as told over a long period. A millennium, maybe two.
And if nothing else, it definitely manages to be “non-traditional.”
The turn structure may be the second thing that demands notice, but it’s what sets the tone for everything that follows.
The first is more customary: the layout of the board and the many wooden pieces that will soon jostle for access to its landmasses. The map is based on the shape of the world as passed down by Herodotus, with the Mediterranean acting as the commercial and literal heart of Terra’s wheel-like body. The American continents are omitted, a reminder that the ancient world as we usually conceive it was limited to the three continents within reach of the Romans. In gameplay terms, this is perfectly arranged for friction between competing empires, absent of corners or considerable bottlenecks. This friction arrives early, and often comes to dominate the game beyond those first few turns when land and resources seem plentiful.
But it’s the turn structure that demands real attention. More than attention; this is the moment it becomes apparent that The Sands of Time isn’t sticking to the usual format. Being a board game, there are turns. Those turns are nested within generations, usually two to four a pop. Those generations, in turn, are nested within dynasties. Three dynasties and the game is finished. In between generations and especially in between dynasties, things change. Populations boom, overcrowding may inflame unrest or disease, resources spoil and are gathered anew. The period of transition between dynasties carries a particular weight, for reasons we’ll discuss momentarily. In all cases, this has a clarifying effect. Where most games use the passage of discrete eras, Warrender’s focus is squarely directed at the lifespan of that peculiar organism we call a human, which in turn highlights the behaviors of the super-organism we call humanity. Some generations accomplish only a little; others leave their mark on the world two or three times over. But between many of them in succession, the surface of the Earth practically crawls with change. Remarkable what can be accomplished by something as simple as imbuing a game’s turn structure with a bit of flavor.
The third thing that demands notice is the game’s approach to action selection. Compared with the first two, it’s a bit like trying to enjoy your morning bread while inhaling the rich scent of your ancient city’s rather lax treatment of open sewage.
Plenty has been said about the difficulty of learning The Sands of Time. I would know. Every time I mentioned on social media that I’d been playing it, the chorus swelled. “Oh, hope you didn’t have to teach that.” “I tried to read the rulebook, but what a bear.” “I’ve heard it’s easier to operate a functioning rover on Mars than to learn Sands of Time.”
Let’s clear the air. Yes, it’s harder to learn than it might first seem. No, it isn’t rocket science. The general structure is fairly tidy. Every turn sees each empire deploying two action cards. There’s a wide selection to choose from, covering the range of human experience from raiding and building to establishing trade routes and pondering the universe. What makes this process tricky also happens to double as one of the game’s most interesting trade-offs and a statement about the way differing generations regard their own labors. Certain action cards have shaded boxes, which offer bonuses once that card’s sphere has been unlocked. Warrender presents three realms: civics, politics, and culture. Unlocking a sphere can be accomplished by researching the proper advance, or more commonly by playing an emphasis card. This hogs up one of your two actions for the turn, but once played sticks around for the duration of that generation.
Here’s an example. The raid action lets you move your soldiers into neighboring territories to steal food or gold. Normally this is limited to one target. But if you’ve unlocked politics, the game’s domain of military action, you can raid every foreign province where you have soldiers. Suddenly an action that once provided two or three resources can result in a far greater haul. This extends to many of the game’s most important actions. Want to build a city rather than one of the eleven regular structures? Emphasize civics. Advance along a technology track you haven’t already invested in? Emphasize culture.
This generates not-insignificant overhead. It’s already a heady task remembering the functions, costs, and provisos of all those action cards. The presence of alternate operations often feels like overkill. But the advantages of such a system are profound. Since you don’t know whether any given generation will stick around for two, three, or four turns, sacrificing one of your actions to play an emphasis card could present a minor blip or a major disruption. The inverse is also true. Emphasis cards reward those who continue to play to that sphere’s strengths by improving your standing on the corresponding heritage track. Military brats grow up to be cantankerous veterans, while the children of philosophers tend to remain know-it-alls when they’re full-grown. This ties into what you can research and how flexibly you can score. The question is whether it’s better to take the actions that benefit your civilization the most — regardless of which category they fall into — or focus on a single sphere for those bumps to your heritage.
In other words, playing an emphasis is a gamble that might pay off big, make your society overly rigid, or have barely any effect. And it’s the smaller of the game’s two gambles.
The bigger wager is the scoring itself. And it’s here that The Sands of Time stands apart from its peers.
There are six categories to consider, each highlighting a different way your civilization might expand. Geographical size, population, how many trade icons or lyres or fountains you’ve amassed — that sort of thing. Quite nicely, these don’t fall into the trap of assuming that geographical girth is the only measure of a great civilization. There are advantages to holding lots of terrain, but also drawbacks once the migrants begin pouring across the border and enemy raiders size up your flimsy security. For every massive empire, it’s also possible to command a well-developed… well, not a city-state. Even starting out you’ll hold at least a cross-section of a continent. But it’s possible to win despite being comparatively small by focusing on advances and structures.
How you score those categories is another matter. First it’s necessary to play the chronicle action. This lets you frame one of your chronicle cards for all to see, effectively declaring which category you’re hoping to score. The unknown detail is how many points you stand to gain if you meet your target. When the dynasty concludes, all chronicles are revealed and points are tallied. Higher awards demand greater achievements, including higher standings on the corresponding heritage track.
This system could encompass an entire essay of its own, including the way it permits some minor bluffing, encourages both specialization and diversification, and scales upward over time to keep everybody invested even after an infirm start. But the more interesting detail is how it acts as a distillate, revealing both the game’s strengths and its weaknesses.
Here’s the good news: the system works as intended, and moreover ties into the game’s careful focus on the accomplishments of its actors. By publicly declaring one’s intentions, an empire also opens itself up to counterattack, whether overt or subtle. It’s reminiscent of how the Romans prided themselves on maintaining cities that needed no walls, so secure were their centers of commerce and culture — until a few generations later when all those temples and arenas served as ideal quarries for hastily erecting fortifications. Declaring that you’ll score a ton of points because your capital boasts so many fine structures is fine and dandy, provided you can keep it through the conclusion of the dynasty. That’s the space The Sands of Time revels in: one where the slender difference between history’s winners and might-have-beens is an unbridgeable chasm.
At the same time, expect to do a whole lot of bean counting. In one instance, I was focusing on urban growth, represented by the fountain icon found on many of the game’s structures. In the final dynasty my target was thirty fountains, which, if met, would award a whopping twenty-eight points. Nearly every territory swelled with aqueducts, colosseums, and even wonders. I also researched agriculture, which transformed my irrigation projects into sources of more beautification, and engineering and public works to similarly adorn amphitheaters and roads as objects of envy. The only task was to gather, ah, how many more fountains, again? Let me count. Three more! No, four. No, wait, Geoff just conquered one of my colonies. Now I need five more. Or was it four?
The Sands of Time is a slow game. Slow enough that it’s right there in the rules that players should hustle through their turns. With icons and bonuses pouring in from so many sources, it becomes downright sluggish as chronicles are prepared. Keeping track of everything is no easy feat. Even upon growing conversant in the game’s iconography and decision space, we often found ourselves missing important details. Someone hadn’t remembered to gather that extra resource thanks to their irrigation, or accidentally took a bump in unrest when they forgot that sanitation increased the capacity of their cities, or didn’t count their lyres properly due to an odd advance, or didn’t differentiate between the map’s shading between plains and mountain regions versus those shaded for varying player counts, or wound up one trade good short because the press of components on the board were obscuring what they thought was an icon that was actually a blank space.
To be clear, the problem isn’t only that it’s a lot to take in. Rather, it’s a lot to consider for a mouthful of grass where one anticipated beef. It’s here that the map has its revenge by tattling on everything that upstaged it previously. Although civilizations expand and raid and exchange the occasional territory, it’s rare to see large swaths change hands, or great turnarounds, or fizzled empires. There’s no room for an expansionist like Alexander, a divider like Caesar, a visionary like Jesus. The status quo is more placid than that. By and large, civilizations flourish where they were planted, never suffering upheaval or embracing reinvention. For all the game makes you learn, it remains woefully static.
This might come across as condemnation. To be clear, it isn’t, or isn’t only. The Sands of Time remains imperfect, but what imperfection it is, casting history as a profoundly human story, one composed of individuals and generations and dynasties, each with their own values and aspirations and handiworks. At times the tale meanders, and at others it’s told too straightly. But although my search continues, this isn’t one I regret spending a few grains of my life’s hourglass with.
A complimentary copy was provided.