Hybrids are a good thing. In the biological world, it is the offspring of two plants or animals of different species or varieties, that typically take the best elements of each to make a better creation. In the board gaming world, a hybrid in essence, fulfills the same goal of taking two separate genres and merges them together to make something better than the sum of their parts. For example, taking something as mundane and regularly used as deck building and adding that to a more commonly used mechanic in wargames such as area control. From this merger comes a truly delectable and enjoyable experience as is found in Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil 235-284 AD from GMT Games.
There is a recent trend in war gaming that is creating a bridge over which traditional Euro gamers have crossed and taken more of an interest in card enhanced war games that base their play experience on traditional Euro mechanics. Blasphemy you are saying? Well, you either have been living under a rock or simply don’t get around much as since 2011, the hybrid wargame has arrived on the scene and is becoming more accepted by traditional Euro gamers. I am such a case. I love wargames. Have played wargames for many years but went away from them and gravitated more toward the Euro game with their glitz, glamour and simple to grasp mechanics such as dice rolling, hand management and set collection.
Enter 2012. Now bursting onto the scene comes the likes of the COIN Series of games from GMT Games that perfectly create a hybrid in the world of gaming where familiar mechanics meet crunchy area control and direct conflict to create a very mild and easy to grasp wargaming experience that has great conversion power. It drew me back in and I am here to stay.
Now that this new hybrid is accepted, and is even gaining ground in the board gaming world, comes a new form of that hybrid that expands upon that great feat of perfectly marrying two different genres and provides us new fruit in the glory that is Time of Crisis!
“When Caesar read about the life of Alexander he wept. His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. ‘Do you think,’ said he, ‘I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?'”
What is Time of Crisis About?
Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil 235-284 AD, designed by the team of Wray Ferrel (Sword of Rome) and Brad Johnson (City Planning, Conspiracy), takes a non traditional wargame approach to civil war in the late Roman Empire. The game sees 2-4 players (best with 4 IMHO) control competing Roman dynasties, attempting to rule the vast Mediterranean Empire that has otherwise fallen on hard times (these hard times began with the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander by his own troops in 235 AD, initiating a 50-year period in which there were at least 26 claimants to the title of Emperor, mostly prominent Roman army generals) through the use of skillful consolidation of power among various provinces. This consolidation will be accomplished through the direct influence of the local provincial senates, gaining the military leaders cooperation and assistance as you attempt to take over control and oust pretenders to the throne, and most importantly convincing the common people of Rome that their future still exists and will be remembered throughout the annals of history, if you are allowed to be their Emperor. Remember that the other guy is going to be doing and saying the same things as you, you simply must do them better to prevail!
Starting from control of one province and a few low-value cards, you are challenged to establish your base of power during this fragile period of Roman history. You must build your armies, take control of valuable provinces, develop your support, and defend yourself against barbarian incursions, inopportune events, and the machinations of your political opponents.
Time of Crisis is really very easy to learn and playable in about 2-3 hours. It incorporates popular game mechanisms such as deckbuilding and hand management, but also delivers a true light wargame experience. This game finally fully closes the loop between deckbuilding card games and board games. Your cards are used to fuel actions and players can purchase or trash cards from their decks to make them more powerful and efficient for plans in later turns. The game is such strategically that you have many decisions to make about how you will go about building your very own empire. You can specialize in polishing your silvery tongue to manipulate the local Senates of provinces that you have designs on conquering, or you can simply go for it through the use of brute force as you wield the raw power of your Legions and Militia to dominate your opponents. You also can take more of a passive road to conquering the Mediterranean by being a man of the People. The key is choosing a strategy and then building your deck to accomplish that strategy. But beware as you cannot focus on only one aspect and expect to reign.
Types of Cards – the game has three different types of cards that players must use properly and effectively to win at fomenting their own civil war. These card types are broken down into either Military (red), Populace (yellow) or Senate (blue).
Military – These cards are used to move troops around the board, to either invade other player’s provinces or to fight off barbarian invaders, recruit or reconstitute legions, disperse unruly mobs that will oust your planted Governors if ignored or to build defenses such as a Castra. These cards are valuable as one of the main goals of the game is to remove your competition by force. The key to victory in combat is options to mitigate randomness in dice rolling, a common vexation in all wargames. Cards like Flanking Maneuver are indispensable in this respect as you will be able to reroll your dice should you fail. Very powerful!
Populace – These cards are intended to be used to increase the support level for your reign in various local senates, recruit militias to assist in the defense of the local populace, to remove Mob counters through the process of holding games and to build various improvements that provide various benefits such as a Basilica, Amphitheater or Limes. You will be unable to control your local provinces without the support of the people and the Populace cards will help you to build that support.
Senate – These cards are to be used by players to recruit new Governors to be placed as provinces are brought under your control or to recall a Governor that is losing his grip on the area. But, the most important use is to oust your opponent’s Governors and supplant them with your own loyal leaders. These card’s events are also very useful in dealing with threats from invading Barbarians as you can bribe them into inactivity or even add them to your growing Legions.
Map Board – The map board is mounted (which causes some constriction in the smallish 2″ box which once I added a GMT tray, required me to fan out the cards to fit it all in) is also fantastically gorgeous and represents the entire Mediterranean area stretching from Spain and Gibraltar to the west, North Africa and Egypt to the south, Britannia and France to the north and Syria and Turkey on the east, with Italia at the center of the world of course! You will notice in the picture that the map is large and there is plenty of room for counters. The board is set up as a simple area movement which assists with keeping the game on the lighter side while providing a grand panoramic backdrop for players to practice at ruling. No need for complicated terrain modifiers here as it would simply bog down the grand but quick playing experience.
Counters – The counters are largish and very well done with simple to read information. Most of the counters only contain a portrait, such as a General or Governor, and the counters that do have numbers on them (such as Legions, Militia and Barbarians) only rely on one such number which identifies the battle value of the unit. In the case of a Legion, a 3+ means they hit on a roll of 3 or higher (5+ when they are reduced), while a Militia hits on a 5+ and Barbarians hit on 4+. Another great element is that the counters are rounded and don’t require clipping, although you will need to remove the sprue contact point fluff that seems to stick out like a sore thumb.
Overall, the components are fantastic and really create an atmosphere that allows for players to focus on the strategy of the game rather than worrying too much about more information than is needed. Once again, the beauty of this game is in its simplicity and play value.
Deck Building – The 9 cards in a players starting deck consist of 3 cards of each of the different types with a 1 value. These cards provide the players with points to spend on specific actions such as recruiting Legions, moving armies, placing Governors, building improvements or increasing support. As you might imagine, 1 value cards are not very powerful as they only give 1 point and players must work to build the power of their hands if they have any realistic thought of becoming the Emperor.
Players select from their available hand of cards, 5 cards to start with and then can take actions to gain additional points to use to purchase more powerful cards at the end of their turn or discard 1 value cards to make their decks more efficient and powerful.
Players can select to purchase new cards from the above pictured 9 cards increasing from 2-4 influence in the same three colors. As you can also see, each of these improved cards contain written text that can be used in addition to creating influence. Some of this written text allows for rerolls in battles (Flanking Maneuver), the placement of a Quaestor marker that makes replacing Governors more difficult (Quaestor) and flipping barbarians to their inactive side (Tribute).
These improved cards are very necessary and players must buy as many as possible in order to be able to take more actions each turn. In the end, the player who can more efficiently manage their turns and take more turns as well as more powerful actions than their opponents will be victorious.
My favorite part of any deck building game is how the design handles deck thinning. Deck thinning is a simple mechanic that helps players to hone their decks to focus on a specific aspect or strategy by removing lesser powered or no longer useful cards from their decks during the game. In Time of Crisis, this is accomplished with the player simply paying 3 political points to trash cards of lesser value or that are no longer needed. This is a very slick way of handling this important aspect as it forces players to think about whether trashing a single card is worth that large of an investment, as 3 points is nothing to sneeze at. Remember, you can flip over a reduced Legion unit for one point or add a new General and create an army with a Legion for 1-5 points. I liked this choice. It requires a lot of thought and consideration between a long term gain in the form of a new and more useful card for trashing a less valuable card in exchange for an immediate gain of new forces to attack and gain valuable ground.
Hand Management/Action Selection – In addition to playing cards for points to enable certain actions to be taken during the immediate turn, players must be aware of what cards are remaining in their decks after they draw up their hands. The reality is, like in our world today of unlimited wants but limited resources, I may want to continue attacking and gaining ground but the reality is that I may not have any more red Military cards available in my deck. And furthermore, I will not gain access to those Military cards that I just used again until I use all of the cards in my deck. This is one of the cruxes of the game. You must plan out your actions properly and each turn must be beneficial to your efforts as you cannot afford to get a bad hand that doesn’t allow you to make progress toward gaining power in Italia. Wasted turns, due to poor use of or planning for your cards, will lose this war for you. I also really like the events that are written on the more powerful cards as well as they allow you to plan for various strategies to either directly assault your opponents or to slowly undermine what it is that they are trying to do. One example of this grand design is the use of the 3 value Populace card titled Mob. I love to use these cards in rapid succession over a few turns, to place several Mob counters in my opponents most vulnerable and important provinces. Typically, these are provinces that I have an eye on and have a plan to reduce their current stability and governance level so that I can more easily supplant their Governor with the use of my Senate cards. These Mobs must be addressed and removed or they will lead to more Mobs as they will grow each turn if not removed. They also will reduce the Political Points generated by provinces which effects the number and value of cards that my opponent can purchase. Finally, if left unchecked, they will build to the level that if the number of Mob counters exceeds the current support level, their Governor will be replaced with a Neutral Governor. So, as you can see, the use of your cards, and the choice of what actions to play and when, are key to a good strategy to overtake the Empire and place yourself on the throne.
Area Control/Area Influence – Players may replace the Governor of a province by gaining enough votes in the Senate through the play of enough influence from Blue Cards (Senate Actions). The required number of votes to do so is determined by first doubling the province’s support level and then either adding or subtracting votes needed based on whether there are soldiers defending the capital city, in this case add one to the support level for each unit, or invading the capital, in this case reducing the support level by one for each unit.The player attempting to change the Governor must then play blue influence cards and for each point spent they will get to roll one six sided die. Success is then determined based on the number of successes rolled being defined as 2+ on the dice, or 1+ in the case of a neutral Governor. So, in the picture below you can see that I spent 5 influence points to roll 5 six sided dice needing at least 2 successes of 3+. Wait, I said it was 2+ didn’t I? Well you will notice the little Quaestor marker in the province which increases the success number needed to 3+. Luckily, I rolled 2 successes and was able to supplant my opponent’s Governor with one of my own.
This struggle for the political control of provinces is important as it will provide the controlling player with Legacy points (victory points) at the end of each round for the number of provinces he controls as well as provide political points based on your level of support in those provinces to purchase new cards and to trash weaker 1 value cards. I really enjoyed this side of the battle as it was very challenging to go about trying to steal away your opponent’s provinces. I also loved trying to improve my provinces stability by increasing the level of support and by strategically adding Quaestor markers to discourage attempts.
Dice Rolling – As is the case with nearly all wargames (a notable exception is Combat Commander which uses a dice-less card system), dice determine the outcome of battles. This is nearly unavoidable. But, in Time of Crisis, you have ways to mitigate those dice by bolstering your odds. This includes making sure that you have more Legions than your opponent , and that those Legions are healthy, as when reduced they will hit on a reduced 5+, as this will lead to more dice being rolled and greater odds of hitting. I also encourage all armies to have a Militia unit along for the ride as it is much cheaper to lose this unit than a Legion.
You can also focus on building a hand filled with Castra and Flanking Maneuver Military cards in order to improve your odds. The Castra will reduce a hit from your enemies if you are attacked and the powerful Flanking Maneuver will allow you to reroll all of your dice after the dice have initially been rolled, if you are the aggressor. These cards will greatly impact the outcome of your battles and must be properly used to ensure victory. I also really enjoyed the exploding dice concept as well included in the game, where if you roll a 6, you will get to roll that dice again, adding to your hits in combat. A neat element of chance that can swing battles massively, but is fun as you when your opponent happens to roll 2 or 3 sixes, you just have to tip your cap, grin and bear it and realize that this represents the fortunes of war. For we all know that the dice can be a cruel, cruel mistress!
In the end, the player that has become the Emperor and has scored at least 60 Legacy points after all other players finish their turn that round, is named the victor. End game scoring takes into account the number of turns each player spent as Emperor and rewards bonus points to the players. 1st place gets 10 Legacy, 2nd place 6 Legacy, 3rd place 3 Legacy and last place receives no such reward.
What I Really Liked About Time of Crisis?
Crisis Checks – Handling of the Barbarian Invaders – I really liked the way the Barbarian Invaders are handled with the design. You simply roll two dice, one white and one black, and consult the Crisis Table to determine what tribe moves against you and how they move. You then simply flip one Barbarian counter of the determined region from inactive to active and roll the dice again. If the result of the black die is less than or equal to the number of active Barbarian counters in that tribe’s homeland, a number of counters equal to that black die roll will invade. Their invasion path is determined by the white die and is very difficult to predict, although you can and should be planning for this inevitable attack. Great uncertainty with the Barbarians and I will say that early on, they can really wreak some havoc but later in the game, the threat lessens as your armies have hopefully grown enough to effectively deal with their invasions and will turn from a crisis to an opportunity to gain Legacy points.
Deck Building – I loved the deck building aspect in this game. I loved it because when coupled with the card selection each round, it really matters what you have purchased to improve your deck. If you are simply planning on wiping out any resistance with your mighty military, you had better be buying higher value Military cards early on. If your goal is to simply gain support in each province, then you had better prioritize Populace cards. But, the problem with this is that no one strategy can stand alone. You have to be able to gain support, take support away from other players and attack and defend your interests. If you have not planned to do all of these things, you will not win. Plain and simple. The deckbuilding is so good because it has to be somewhat balanced.
Decisions on Hand Management – What do I want to play this turn and how can I capitalize on what I have played this turn so as not to waste my next turn until I get my power cards back? There have been sometimes in the game that I have played a suboptimal hand mainly because I want to make sure I have something I can accomplish with my next hand. If I play all of my 3 and 4 value cards, that will leave me with only 1s and 2s to play in the next hand and I will not be able to do much….that matters anyway. You have to balance each hand, period. If not, you will fall behind. I have seen it, both my me and with other players. You cant simply play a god hand every other turn and expect to be competitive. You have to save some good cards over to your next hand so that it can matter. This type of decision making keeps the game interesting and keeps my engaged. I have to pay attention to the other players and what they are doing.
Combat – Combat is a very simplified method of rolling and comparing your rolls with the “to hit” values listed on your various units. This simplified combat is not boring though and decisions about force makeup as well as the use of card text is what makes this element strategic. It is about more than rolling dice. And the chosen method works well for this level of difficulty and keeps the mechanic fresh and entertaining. As mentioned earlier, I love the exploding dice. Roll a 6, roll again. If you roll another 6, you could turn a mediocre roll into a fantastic battle changing roll that snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. Great addition.
Chrome – One of the reasons that I enjoy playing historical wargames is because I learn something from playing. Something about the history, how things happened and the different personalities that had a hand in that outcome. The game adds some chrome including various historic Barbarian Leaders, Rival Emperors and the Diocletian Card. The Barbarian Leaders, including Cniva, Shapur I and Ardashir, are powerful and ferocious warriors that roll 2d6 in battle, have a special ability shown on the text of the card that brings them into play. Also, if players defeat the Barbarian Leaders they get a bonus choice, one to either increase Support Level in the province where the Leader was removed or buy a Military card for 2 points less than its cost.
The Rival Emperors, including Zenobia, Postumus and Priest King of Emesa, are neat as well and a little more powerful than the Barbarian Leaders. They roll 3d6 in combat and provide similar benefits as Barbarians by allowing a free increase Support Level in the province where the Rival was removed or buy a Senate card for 2 points less than its cost.
What I Didn’t Like About Time of Crisis?
2-Player – One thing I would say is that this is a 4-player game that has been provided with a 2 and 3-player option. The game is meant to be played as a 4-player game and will shine at 4. The 2 and 3-player games are fun and you can still enjoy the hybrid benefits, but the map was designed for 4. In 2-player games, we found that it was too easy to wall yourself off and not have to worry about attack from other areas. In the 4-player game, this sense of security doesn’t exist and forces players to think differently and in some ways play more defensively.
Dice Rolling – While I know it is an inevitable part of any wargame, I am not always a fan of dice rolling. While I see this as a negative, the design does a fair job of trying to mitigate the randomness factor but as mentioned, a serious defeat is only a few 6s away for any player!
Pretender – I just didn’t like the addition of the Pretender. In a struggle for each player to become the Emperor, this seemed to be a makeup for the fact that only one can become Emperor and added a level of complexity that I just don’t see as needed in the game. I will admit that I have done the breakaway action and it has caused some trouble for other players but it seems to be a little bit random and can be perpetrated over and over again with the play of a card.
Barbarian Victory Point Values – My only real concern with the scoring system was the victory points gained when a player fights and defeats Barbarian invaders. It seemed to me that as each player gets more power, and their armies become larger and more effective, that providing a benefit to killing weak and outclassed Barbarians didn’t fit with the game. I just felt it was too easy for the player to get points from defeating chumps. I remember one of our first games where I literally racked up about 20 Legacy points over three turns in simply bulldozing hapless Barbarians. The flaw I think is that you gain the 2 Legacy for winning a battle but also an additional 1 Legacy per Barbarian counter removed. I would have liked to see this VP award lessened as the players armies got larger and maybe even given only 1 Legacy for each 2 Barbarian counters removed.
I will admit that prior to this game hitting the market, and me seeing people playing and enjoying the game on social media, I really wasn’t interested in it. Not because I have no interest in the Roman Empire, ancients or wargames. But, because I have a focus on what I thought were meatier and more involved wargames. So, after seeing how it played and the fun that others seemed to be experiencing with this hybrid game, merging Euro centric elements and mechanics with those more traditionally used in hex and counter wargames, I was intrigued and picked up a copy. I can say unequivocally that my choice was a good one as I have come to really enjoy this game. I want to play it more. In fact, as I sit here and write out my thoughts on the game, I am drawn to want to play it again. In my opinion, that is how we typically judge a game, at least initially. Desire to play again, means there was something good there.
I believe that this game will appeal to Euro gamers and heavy wargamers alike. Its design is tight and simply works well. The mechanics used, and the way they are used, particularly the deck building and the hand management, are simply sublime and really make the gaming experience enjoyable. I would recommend this game to anyone and believe that it has a place in any gamers collection.
If you are interested, we posted an unboxing video which will give you a more in-depth look at the components as well as a video review sharing our initial thoughts following our very first play of a 2-player game.