Insights and Impressions for Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284AD

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Carl, the other half of Swords and Chit here. Time of Crisis from GMT games has been a recent hit on Vassal with some other gamers I do online play with. David has played once in person at our local FLGS shortly after they reopened their game room (which has since been closed). He will add comments to this insights and impressions as well.

I want to emphasize that my impressions are based on multiple plays of the game. We rarely have more than one or two “decent” plays of a game before doing a first impressions writeup. David also has only one play. All of our plays have been with four players.

David and I each have one play of the base game. My two other plays include The Age of Iron and Rust expansion.

This was one of the earlier games I purchased on my road to wargaming. I entered the pool with GMT due to having other non-war games in my personal library that are published by them. The time period fit with my initial interests, and it could play up to four.

So let’s dive in.

David

Well, after I interject. The one play where I took part was a partial play, cut short due to time constraints on my side of things. The play was not bad by any means, but between horrible placement, barbarian brutality, and a ruthless opportunist in Carl…well, things were really limited for my experience. Enough so that when I sat to try and get things written for this, I wasn’t sure I would have enough to say (nor do enough justice to the game) so it went onto the back burner while I awaited a repeat play. Carl getting some plays in himself helped things, opening a chance to get this one featured while also encouraging us to revisit this game soon.

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Insight #1 – Time of Crisis is a Gateway Wargame

I list this for several reasons. The first is that many war gamers would most likely not classify this as a true wargame. There are no CRTs or DRMs. At its heart Time of Crisis is a deck building game which includes combat.

That is OK.

My last two games have been part of the gateway drug being fed to another friend who has expressed interest in wargames. It is not too difficult, it has a fair amount of chaos, you can mess with others plans, and it is doing its job.

David

There’s something of a comfort food approach to mechanics such as deck building. It paves the path, allowing an easier transition for players unfamiliar with area control and wargame approaches. I still absolutely love those types of mechanics in my games, and look forward to some similar things in games like A Few Acres of Snow and Mythotopia. Not only does it help give me some familiar territory to tread, but it also makes it easier to persuade someone like my wife (who does not share my love for wargaming…yet) to give a game a try, because it isn’t a hex & counter game with tables and charts and buckets of dice to roll.

Insight #2 – Barbarians as Far as the Eye can See

There are five different factions of barbarians in the game. They live on the edge of the map. I’ve looked and I believe everywhere is susceptible to barbarian invaders. There are areas that are safer than others.

In and of themselves barbarians in the game are not too bad. The issue is that each player rolls dice for their turn’s crisis, which can often activate a barbarian nation. Depending on how the dice roll, your provinces can be up to their necks in barbarians (with a knife at the throat).

There are ways to mitigate this. It’s not always easy. The key point is that if during the support phase of your turn you have active barbarian tribes in your province you lose popular support for your rule.

David

I had no idea how ruthless the barbarians would be. I chose a spot in the north-central part of the map, being third to place, as it was equidistant from the other two players already on the map. This proved to be costly, as there were multiple barbarian threats (not to mention Carl, who placed last and chose a spot 2 territories away from me to start) that happened to come alive around the same time to deplete my border troops. It took me from being on the offensive and flipped me into staying alive mode. It was a hard lesson to learn, and I will not underestimate them a second time.

Insight #3 – Every Choice Comes at a Cost

This is true of almost any game. It seems especially prevalent in Time of Crisis. There are three different areas of influence. They each enable different primary actions. The cards themselves often modify the action being taken, or provide a bonus to the individual playing it, or a penalty to the victim of their choice.

Purchasing cards is fueled by the number of provinces you rule, not the point values of the cards you played. There’s a card that can give additional purchase power.

That same purchase power allows you to thin your deck, at the cost of 3 influence. That is the same price as a medium strength upgrade card. There is value in thinning your deck, especially as the game progresses. It just hurts to do so as you are giving up the opportunity to add power to your deck as well.

Normally you need senate cards to overthrow a governor. There is a card that lets you use military cards instead.

I could go on and on. The too long, didn’t read version of this insight is that there are a lot of options, none of them are inherently bad, but by making a choice it adjusts the trajectory you are on, and it can sink your ship.

David

Like most good games, you can never do everything you want to accomplish. Sometimes the sacrifice is in trying to build up enough to buy a specific card, allowing that to tailor future turns. Other times it might mean conquest in order to gain more territory to hold or to wrest some from a pesky opponent. Other times it might be investing in the areas you currently hold to make them stronger. For a game with seemingly limited options, there’s a ton of room to play around within the sandbox once you see how it all clicks together.

Insight #4 – Watch What Your Opponents are Doing

I hate stating the obvious. In our last game none of us had seriously looked at the 4 point populace cards. One of them is the Demagogue card. If someone with that card becomes emperor, it can hurt.

There are other fine balancing points to consider. Yes, you can take over a region that another player governs, but if you don’t eliminate the army camped out in the capital, it makes it really easy for them to recover and reclaim the province.

Populace cards can also be used to build improvements. As long as you governor a provence you get an additional point for each improvement built, up to a total of three. Over the course of a number of turns this adds up.

So watch your opponents, use their actions and purchases to inform your own. And never get locked into a plan which you could pull off, but will be short lived due to what the enemy has been doing.

As David likes to say, no plan survives contact with the enemy. This is very true in this game.

David

Not only does it feel like you need to read your own board state and objectives you want to achieve, but you also need to consider everyone else (and those bloody barbarians…) and how things might change on the board by the time it is your turn. You don’t want to be sitting without any way to use the cards you placed into your hand, after all, nor do you want to be left wishing you had grabbed X instead of Y. Take it from me, it sucks when that happens. Also of special note: getting early point-grabbers can play huge dividends in the long run if enough people pursue different approaches. Those few points can make all the difference…

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Insight #5 – Play the Game with the Expansion

The game is fully playable without The Age of Iron and Rust expansion. Do yourself a favor and add that in if you have it. This opens up the decision space and makes for a much more interesting and dynamic game. The card market doubles in size, new strategies open up, and old strategies are still valid, but the game will play out differently.

Having played once with the base game and twice with the expansion I appreciate the expansion and what it adds. Some people may find things become too chaotic. I like chaos. It is part of what tired me out with traditional Euro engine builders. I don’t think there is a guaranteed way to win at this game, but there are lots of lessons to be learned about different ways one can pull it off. I’ve seen a win based primarily on building improvements. I’ve seen one based on opponents struggling with barbarians to keep their point base intact and ignoring the emperor. I’ve seen everyone attack the emperor, but early card purchases and a thinned deck allowed the emperor to continuously throw mud in in our faces.

David

I can’t contribute here except to say that the highlight for me will be the addition of a solo bot opponent – one I’ve heard great things about!

Closing Thoughts

Time of Crisis had been played once up until two weeks ago. A group that had been playing a lot of 18xx online grew tired of financial shenanigans and were willing to play ToC online via Vassal. Everyone has wanted to start up another game immediately after finishing a play.

This is based a great deal on the variety of options that Time of Crisis and its expansion present. There are new things we want to try. It hasn’t grown old. The main reason it had been unplayed as long as it had was due to Covid-19 and me and David being in an exploratory mode of discovery. We have found a lot to love since starting our wargaming journey. There have also been duds.

Time of Crisis is not one of them. It allows someone like me, who really wants something with at least one foot in the wargame space to play, an option when at game nights with non-wargamers. I can play this with most anyone. There are a lot of nuances to the rules, but they work themselves out given a few plays.

Expect to see a full review of the game in the future. I need to get David up to speed on the expansion, and we want to try the game at different player counts just to see how that changes the dynamic. My guess is four is the magic number. We’ll figure it out.

David

Long before 2020, this game was on my radar because it has the hybrid of mechanics in there. It was a matter of time before we got to play it, and it took a random visit to our FLGS on the resumed game night to get this played (on a whim) with two other victims (both of whom were ahead of us on points when we called the game). It was the sort of gameplay experience we’ve tried to minimize this year with varied results: an unplanned, unprepared fumble through how to play while we’re attempting to play the game. And to be honest, even though I had the brutally short end of the stick via the experience, it was a fun and interesting game that I can’t wait to play again. I remember Carl letting me borrow the game a month or two prior to look at the game, strongly encouraging me to not play it solo until we had played it.

Part of me wishes I had broken down and played it. Not because I think it would have allowed me to be much better at playing that night, but because I could have done a better job at getting us up and going faster and with fewer hiccups as we fumbled through. That, and because I still really want to play this one. You know what game + expansion will be going onto my wishlist for the holidays? This one. Not only because I enjoyed it immensely. Not only because it could feasibly allow Carl and I to play via email without the need for Vassal. And not even because I am really itching for a solo play. But because I am convinced that if my wife plays it once, she’ll be willing to play it more than that because the game has such smooth, engaging gameplay.

Will it be any good with only two? I can’t wait to find out. Carl and I are planning a month of Ancient-period gameplay in January, and this one is almost guaranteed to see plays that month (if not sooner).

3 thoughts on “Insights and Impressions for Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil, 235-284AD

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