Time Agent

TimJim/Prism Games, £30
Designed by James Hlavaty
2-6 players, 4-6 hours
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

Time Agent is the latest game from the prolific TimJim/Prism who broke into gaming last year with Outpost and rapidly followed it with Mystic War and Fast Food Franchise. Yet to come are The Age of Exploration (Columbus and friends) and Suzerain (a game about feudal ruling dynasties). Call it sympathy, but even though I don't regard any previous release as an overall success, I have always spotted good design ideas in each one - the card system in Mystic War, the linking chainstores in Fast Food and the overall concept and execution of Outpost. I therefore expect that we shall see some worthwhile games from them in the future when it all pulls together. Time Agent is the best so far and its heinous crime is simply that it is far too long at about 4-6 hours (we gave up, satisfied, after three). It is also rather expensive at £30 but the bits are pleasing. I know the former consideration won't bother many of you, so for the marathon gamers it could be an essential purchase whereas I, predictably, have my reservations.

The idea is actually rather good, though I'm sure it bears some similarity to previous time travel games. My only experience has been SPI's Time Tripper which was a typical SPI game in every way, but I somehow missed out completely on Yaquinto's TimeWar which could well be along the same lines as TimJim's - I'd be pleased to receive a summary. The main idea in Time Agent is to send your men back into the past and change history to improve the present for your civilization - you might for instance reverse the course of a war, an assassination or cause the arrival of some alien race which will benefit you and hurt someone else. There are up to six players each with different alien characteristics and desires to change specific events. As most of these aims are mutually exclusive, it sets up an impressive level of interaction between players. The six races (you take two each in a three player game which is a hassle) each have different start positions which, as far as we could assess, seemed reasonably well balanced but the Fioli do have some useful tricks.

The focus of the game is the time matrix, and this is a classic piece of design. If you can imagine a pyramid with the remote past at the top point and other historical events along the top two sides progressively coming closer to the present, which is represented by the base line. All over the pyramid are face down hex tiles broadly sorted into periods which, when visited and flipped, reveal time lines that can be travelled along in various ways. The face up tiles look very much like 18xx tiles for an Underground Map (now there's an idea...) and, as they get flipped, the time network builds slowly into an impressive sight. The idea is to go back to these hexes and turn them round so that the time line is fractured, alter events to score victory points or, shock horror, avert the invention of the Time Machine. This act, in the best paradoxical tradition, stuffs everyone and we end up with an Empire, a Whig Government, non- shrinking Mars Bars and a successful youth cricket programme. Or something similar.

The latter point actually relates to one of my minor criticisms in that all the historical incidents depicted are fictional, typically things like the Buralti Expansion, Veneb Philosophy or the Kyril Defeat. I understand why this game has done it (because we haven't yet invented a time machine and science fiction sells) but can anyone explain, when we have such a rich world history, why most of these type of games have to go the science fiction or fantasy routes? I mean, can you imagine heading back to 1815 and reversing the result of Waterloo? Or preventing the death of Einstein? Or changing the outcome at the Bay of Pigs? To me, someone rather into alternative universe theory and history, that would be a game and a half, but the general pattern is for the Zytal-Buralti Wars to rear their ugly heads. Perhaps it is just less hassle to make it all up.

Agents can be thrown into the past at any point, but it costs a small fortune to go directly back to the invention of the time machine and agents have to be paid for while they are in the past, on the grounds of massive energy usage. More common is for an agent to be sent cheaply to the recent past and have him work his way down the time lines one at a time. Time Tunnel anyone? Play proceeds in this fashion with players changing events or screwing up the efforts of rival agents, all the while earning victory points.

The overall feel, even with the science fiction background, is spot on, even exciting, and this was what carried us through the first game. The actual systems are fairly mechanical and, because of resources and VPs being tracked, more than a little fiddly. There is an odd feeling of repetitive play that sets in around the two hour mark, but this is purely because that is probably how long the game should last. What I wanted to see, throughout the game, was more tiles being flipped to have the matrix unfold rapidly and a generally quicker resolution. It is one of those games in which you want to be able to make the big play, but it always takes too long to do. I would estimate that a full game, with critical events changing back and forth, could easily take four or five hours, perhaps even six and that, ignoring my preference for short games, is just too long for what you get.

I suppose what I like about Time Agent is the theme, the hidden time hex matrix, the varied victory conditions and interaction, the mechanism for launching agents into the past and the overall presentation. What I didn't like was the time the whole thing took, the occasionally vague rules (especially on movement) and some of the fiddly sub systems. With some trimming, editing and speeding up, this could be an exceptional system and it isn't half bad as it stands. And, destroying the Time Machine aside, there's not even a sniff of a time paradox in the whole game.

On to the review of Peloton or back to the review of En Garde.

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