Sunday, June 30, 2013

Timeline Diversity Review

Timeline is a trivia game where you are attempting to place events in their proper order.  It has numerous sets, covering different types of events.  The sets are Inventions, Discoveries, Historical Events, and one set even has a mix of all of the above.  Diversity is the set I'm reviewing specifically, which is the set with a mix of all the different types of events.

Timeline was published by Asmodee in 2010 and was designed by Frédéric Henry.  I had heard about it for a while, and it looked interesting.  I'd take an active interest in it off and on, watching the various sets go in and out of stock on my wishlist.  Finally one night at my FLGS with my girlfriend, I decided to pick it up, thinking it would be a good quick game for us.  We went home and immediately played it, and I think it's the only game she's ever asked to play again right away.

Rule Summary

Timeline comes with a set of 100 small cards.  Each card has an event of some sort, and an illustration.  On it's back, it also lists the date.  To set up the game, the deck of cards will be shuffled, with all the dates hidden.  Players will receive their starting hand of cards, and place it in front of themselves with the dates hidden.  Then a single card from the deck is played with the date showing, to seed the timeline.

Ready to play!

From this point on, players take turns trying to insert their cards into the timeline correctly.  The first turn is to decide if a card took place before or after the seed event.  Towards the end of the game, this escalates into trying to figure out exactly when in the 1960's your last card should go.

If a player places their card correctly, their turn is over.  If they placed their card incorrectly, they must draw a new card.  The objective of the game is to get rid of all your cards.  The first player to do so is the winner.

Timelapse of play

How accessible is the game to new players?

As you can see from the unusually short rule summary, this is a very easy game to pick up.  It's a trivia game at heart, but it does a good job of covering a broad range of history and topics.  It's a game I've been able to effortless get to the table, no matter who is playing.  Everyone enjoys it, and everyone has a good time.  Timeline doesn't seem to favor any particular period or topic of history.  So unless someone is a serious history buff, they won't be running circles around the other players.

Why is the game so accessible?

Timeline has something very special that keeps people from groaning at another trivia game.  You aren't getting answers flat out right or wrong.  You are attempting to place your answers relative to the other answers people have given.  If you are really stumped, you can try to reason your way through it.  It's actually quite fun to attempt to reason out where you think an event belongs, and it keeps everyone in the game.  In fact it makes for good theatre, watching the other players attempt to figure out when things happened, and silently making your own guess.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

I'm not sure where I fall on this question.  Personally I haven't noticed the experienced players doing better in Timeline.  Everyone plays the game by trying to guess at where the events fit into the timeline, as opposed to memorizing dates.  This is after 20 plays too.  However, they are 20 plays spread over 3 or 4 months.

But theoretically, someone could begin to memorize the dates.  There are only 100 cards, and you'll begin to get familiar with them after 4 or 5 back to back plays.  If you made an effort to, it could be quite easy to memorize the dates.  Some events it's hard not to weakly memorize the date, because it comes as such a shock to you.  It probably depends how seriously your group takes this game.  My group doesn't take it that seriously, so we haven't had anybody get super competitive and begin trying to memorize all the cards.

Why is the player experience so uniform?

These happened sometime during
800 years of the Roman Empire
I think one thing that helps Timeline prevent people from just blatantly memorizing the cards, is the spread of dates.  There seems to be a lot of dates clustered in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Many by as close to a year or two.  It's just very difficult to memorize that many dates, that close together.  Especially since you aren't trying to place these events absolutely, but only relative to other events.

That isn't to say the events on the far ends of the timeline are super easy.  When you are getting out towards the -2000 BC range, it's a lot of guesswork.  The events are also not the prime events of history either.  There is no "World War II ends" event.  Instead you have "Sparticus Revolt".  You may know the Sparticus Revolt happened sometime during the Roman Empire, but that's a huge span of time!

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

I find that unlike other trivia games, where you are purely wrapped up in having been right or wrong, in Timeline you are mostly inquisitive.  It's a competitive game, but there is a real sense of curiosity around the table that almost supersedes any desire to win.  You will find yourself genuinely surprised by the answers sometimes, and honestly proud of the people who got them right.  Plus you'll cringe when you came way closer to being wrong than you felt comfortable.

Why is the game so enjoyable?

I think what helps make Timeline so laid back is that players are attacking these trivia questions solo.  People aren't completing directly, trying to answer the same question.  You won't feel stupid being the only person who didn't get it, or having been way off from everyone else.  It's just you and the question, and no pressure.

The other thing that helps is having a hard of cards, and you get to pick the one you want to try to get right on your terms.  I find this especially clever because honestly, how much difference does it make if you get your 6 questions randomly 1 at a time, or 6 randomly all at once?  You still have to answer them all.  But psychologically, it's an interesting trick to make the game more enjoyable and less tense.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

There isn't a great deal of strategy or tactics to Timeline.  It's just a light, family friendly trivia game.  But there are some subtle things you can try.  Their effectiveness is just in question.

For example, it is usually smart to try to dump your 20th century cards quickly before the era becomes too cluttered.  You can always see the top card of the draw deck too.  So you may try to dump a card you have no chance of getting correct, in order to grab an easy card off the top.  But these are relatively minor tricks, and to be perfectly honest, I haven't really seen them win anybody the game.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

The clothing can be a
huge clue for these cards
As I partially covered in the accessibility portion of this review, the dilemmas in the game are interesting.  Deciding which card to play can be a mostly arbitrary process, especially as your hand size shrinks.  However the process of playing the card is fully engaging, for everyone at the table.

For example, you might be trying to place The Three Musketeers.  You might not know when The Three Musketeers was written exactly.  But you may know that Alexander Dumas was a post Napoleonic Era author, which will help.  Many of the cards also have helpful artwork.  Sometimes you can use elements of the picture, like the clothing people are wearing, to try to pin down when the event happened.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

Many of the cards do have wonderful hints built into them.  Either contextually due to the historic event, or through the artwork.  But a few odd balls have absolutely no external frame of reference.  At least not for me.  For example, one card is the discovery of an ancient city.  That exists in an utter void for me and most people I've known.  We had no capacity to try to reason our way through the event, and the artwork betrayed nothing.  There aren't a lot of cards like this, but when you get them it can really take the wind out of your sails.

I'm pretty clueless on these

Physical component design and limitations?

Hate these small cards
There is one thing I don't like about Timeline.  I'm not a fan of the tiny cards.  These are the same tiny cards you typically see in Fantasy Flight Games.  I also find they functionally interfere in playing the game.  It's quite difficult to shuffle 100 tiny cards.  Additionally, the artwork and the dates are not showcased well.  The game says it plays up to 8 people, but realistic I think the max is 4 on account of visibility of the timeline.  I have a really hard time imagining 8 people crowded around these itty bitty cards, having a good time.  Even with 3 or 4 players, somebody will always be looking at the timeline upside down, and the small cards can make it difficult to read the dates.

What could have been better?

Timeline could have really used full sized cards.  The game would have been much friendlier towards the purported 8 players with full sized cards.  Additionally I would have liked to see the dates printed on the top and bottom of the cards, facing outwards.  Possibly the sides too.  This would have greatly alleviated how awkward it can be to try to play the game sitting around a table, and having to read the dates upside down or at odd angles.

Imagine trying to play from this angle

Long term prospects?

Timeline is a game I play a few times a month, occasionally with longer breaks.  It's a game we always enjoy, and it's one my girlfriend especially enjoys.  However, I do live in constant fear of overplaying it.  It's not really a game everyone is constantly asking to play.  The first time you recognize a card from a game or two ago, it almost immediately sours you to Timeline.  So it get's shelved until we forget about the cards some.

Problem is, we sometimes forget it completely, and it just gathers dust on the shelf.  Still, it's a game I doubt I'll ever trade or sell because as soon as I discover it in my collection again, I want to play it.  Then 5 or 6 plays later it's time for it to go back on the shelf for a month or two.  I do really want to get more sets of Timeline, so that this won't be such a problem.  It's a fun game, and I feel no shame investing more money into it.  Especially since each set only runs you $10-$15, which is a good price point for a game like this.  That it stores in just about any nook or cranny of my game shelf also helps.  If it were a big expensive game taking up space that I only play 3 or 4 times every other month, I'm not sure it would have stuck around.

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