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You Can't Go Back: My Favorite Time Track Games

Anthony Faber
United States
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If your eyes glaze over when you see a wall of text, you can hear a version of this discussion on the Two Wood for a Wheat Podcast, which also includes a review of Gil Hova's new (relatively) time track game, High Rise:

Time track games are based around an essential tension: you can jump forward as far as you like to grab something enticing, and only the first person to get there can use that location, but you can never go back to get what you missed. Or, in one variant, that enticing reward will cost you much more of your precious time than you would need to give up to claim a lesser bounty. This notion of temptation, of whether or not to sacrifice so as to be the only one to get a great reward, creates the kind of difficult decisions I love in board gaming.

Before I discuss my favorite games using this wonderful mechanism, let's establish some definitions here. Time 'tracks' don't have to be literal tracks (though they usually are) - a system which tracks time for players or pieces, as we'll see later on, is functionally the same thing.

Also, let's distinguish a time track from a rondel, which is related in that it shares the forward-not-back action selection structure. But where rondels are designed to limit the ability of players to repeat actions, and where players generally can go 1 to 3 spaces forward on the track depending on whether they spend to go further, time tracks have the element of an interactive race to different spots, which are then blocked or gone, and where you can leap ahead huge amounts if you want to pay the penalty for it, or else they directly measure time in a way that rondels don't.

Let's now examine the different kinds of time tracks out there, since time tracks are implemented in a wide variety of ways, especially considering how relatively uncommon they are. I've reduced them to three main types.

Last on the Track Moves with Action Spaces

Board Game: Tokaido
This variant is what most gamers associate with time tracks. On your turn, you move your player marker forward on a track (never back!) to an action space where you take the action and gain the reward of that space. The next action is not taken by the next person in alternating turn order like it is in most games, but by the person who is furthest behind on the track. Thus the same player could take several turns in a row if all the other players have jumped far ahead on the track.

This kind of time track ratchets up the penalty for jumping ahead, in that not only can't you go back to action spaces you missed, but you actually may lose multiple turns compared to the other players as well. Such games often give extra incentives to jump forward or penalties for hanging back so that the power of these extra turns isn't too strong.

For instance, in Glen More/Glen More II, every action involves claiming a tile, and you are penalized points for every tile you have more than the person who has the least. In other words, extra turns come at a cost, which it makes it more palatable to sacrifice turns to jump ahead. In Glen Hova's High Rise, the first person to pass certain milestones on the board gets their choice of a reward.

These incentives are critical. One reason we don't see more time track games is the difficulty of balancing the incentives for jumping ahead or staying back, without which we don't have the hard decisions we love. One reason I don't particularly love Tokaido, perhaps the most well known time track game in this category, is that you reap the full reward of hanging back without any disincentives, which means that players rarely jump forward very far, since losing turns is too painful.

Note that such a time track can be traversed just once in the whole game as in Tokaido, have all players reset start over at the beginning of the track each round as in High Rise or Egizia, or simply keep circling the track ongoingly until a certain endgame condition is met (Glen More II).

Alternating Turns with Action Spaces

Board Game: PARKS
This works as above but with one crucial difference: players alternate turns instead of the last player on the track moving. This eliminates lost turns as a disincentive for jumping ahead.

Examples of this variant include the lighter Parks, which changes up the formula by having two meeples (hikers) on the track (trail) at once, or the heavier Heaven & Ale, where taken spots become empty as valuable tiles are taken.

This kind of game doesn't require as much incentivization for jumping ahead, since doing so only sacrifices the potential opportunity to visit earlier action spaces, not precious turns.

Last on the Track Moves with Time as a Resource

Board Game: Patchwork
In this variant, the track doesn't have action spaces; rather, the track literally measures time. A player takes an action which uses a certain amount of time points - the more powerful the action, the more time points it requires. Then the last player on the track takes the next action.

Patchwork is the most obvious modern example of this kind of track, which Uwe Rosenberg has also recently returned to with Nova Luna. Martin Wallace's AuZtralia is another fairly recent example.

One famous game uses this kind of time track in disguise: Tzolk'in. The spinning gears are just time tracks (you could make each gear be a linear track and the game wouldn't be changed), with a different one available for each set up actions.

The twist is really that instead of spending a certain number of time points to get a reward and moving a worker that far up, instead you move one space a turn and get off the track any time for a reward based on how long you've been there. But the net effect is virtually the same.

Despite the euro examples I'm giving, this kind of time track has traditionally been used in many combat games, where this system works particularly well. More on this to come when we look at my favorite games, which we'll jump into now.

Honorable Mentions

Board Game: Egizia: Shifting Sands
Tzolk'in certainly deserves all the acclaim its gotten for its use of time as a resource, and the intricacy of how each worker is on its own individual time track journey is wonderful, but to be entirely honest, this system breaks my brain, so I respect it more than I enjoy it.

Egizia, another strong design from Italian designers, might make my list if I'd played it more than once - it's a good example of how to do worker placement with a very straightforward time track, and do it well thematically with a river down which you can only travel in one direction.

Speaking of rivers and worker placement games, Rajas of the Ganges is a fantastic euro, and its implementation of a river which gives escalating rewards but with no possibility of going back is flawlessly implemented, but this time track is only one small piece of the game, so I don't think it's fair to put it on the list.

Parks might be the best gateway time track game, but it's not as wonderfully tense and cutthroat as some of these others. People say great things about Francis Drake, but I've never played it, and the track is only used for half the game. Anyway, here we go:

Board Game: Glen More II: Chronicles
5. Glen More II

I love spatial games, and I love time track games where your actions are giving you the components to build something impressive, not just do simple set collection.

Glen More II allows you to assemble a comboriffic tile grid, and has a nice system of tiles growing stronger throughout the game without having to reset the players on the track via a round system. This sequel adds a clan board which gives special powers and new ways to score, as well as giving you more expansion modules than most people will probably ever use.

Board Game: High Rise
4. High Rise

While mechanisms matter more to me than theme, I enjoy time track games where the track respresents something, not just a nebulous thing meeples move around. Much as I like traveling down a river in Egizia and Rajas of the Ganges, I like wandering the streets of a Manhattan-like city, scrounging up building materials at the price of some corruption, activating special powers, and building giant phallic structures whose size literally equals your score.

There's 15-20 modular action space tiles used in every game, and there's 50 in the box, meaning that each game usually has a completely different set of action spaces in front of you, leading to excellent replayability.

There are area control battles based on having the highest building in each neighborhood, and there are some nice decisions to be made about whether to build in a way that's best for area control, or to go for the special bonus granted for building in a specific spot.

The huge number of action spaces is both engrossing and AP inducing - this one is probably best at 2-3 players.

Board Game: Steam Time
3. Steam Time

Steam Time is a criminally underrated worker placement game from Rudiger Dorn. It doesn't use a traditional track workers move along, rather, worker placement spots are contained in strips or bands arranged from lowest to highest, with a few spots on each band. When you place it on a worker, you can't put it on a band which is lower than one which already contains one of your workers. These bands are then rotated at the end of each round, so that their order changes throughout the game.

The thematic justification for this mechanism is that you are traveling through time, and each band represents an era in time, and you can only go forward, and not back in time. Unfortunately, the game doesn't lean into the theme, which is perhaps one reason the game went largely unnoticed. But it does create extremely compelling decisions, as one decides which spots to give up on in order to get the spot one really needs. It's an alternating turns game, rather than the active player being last on the track, but jumping ahead can still cost you turns if other players do the same thing and the legally allowable worker placement spots run out before you run out of workers.

Besides the time track, the game also features a unique engine building system, wherein crystals you collect on your time zeppelin boost the strength of your actions, but in order to take powerful actions to score points you have to spend many crystals, so you are constantly building up and breaking down your engine as the game goes by. This game is often on clearance - give it a shot if you get a chance.

Board Game: World of Warcraft Miniatures Game
2. World of Warcraft Miniatures Game

I doubt that anyone was expecting this game to be near the top of the list. But as I mentioned earlier, combat games are one place where spending time points to take action really shines. In the last several years, we've seen this in The Dragon & Flagon, where fantasy characters brawl in a tavern, and Crystal Clans, a Summoner Wars-like spatial card combat game which features the spending of time points to take actions.

But combat games with time points goes WAY back - I first grew to love it in (old person reference forthcoming) the 1981 video game The Shattered Alliance, which featured fantasy battles including those from Lord of the Rings, and each unit spent a certain amount of time points to move or attack, and got its next action when its time point came up. Light cavalry was very fast and its actions used very few time points (though each attack didn't do that much damage), meaning it could move up, fire arrows, and move back before being attacked if its opposition was slow enough. Heavy infantry packed a punch but each of its actions tended to be very slow, and so forth.

The World of Warcraft Miniatures Game used a similar system while having a novel method of tracking each unit's time status. Each player controlled 3 heroes, which each cost a certain amount of points depending on how powerful it was. Your squad could cost 12 points, while mine might cost 26 points, but the catch was you needed only as many victory points to win as your squad cost, so in that example I would need 26 victory points to win and yours would need only 12. Points were accrued through killing enemy heroes and controlling central spots on the map when they were judged, which happened at every 5 time points.

Time was tracked through a click dial similar to that used in Heroclix; if I took a powerful attack which cost five time points I would click the figure up 5 numbers and not activate it again until that number came up on the time counter. When a figure died, it would click up a certain amount of time, and then respawn.

There was lots of clever calculation based on when you and your opponents could next move your figures, and cards you could add to your figures gave them a variety of choices in terms of attacks. and the time point/time track system thematically resembled the cooldowns of powers/attacks which one has in the regular World of Warcraft MMO.

Overall, the game featured clever team building, area control, and card play, and had a vibrant meta with lots of different teams being playable at high levels, and the option there to play both with constructed teams and booster drafts.

I know this because for about a year I traveled around the U.S. playing in large prize tournaments - Blizzard was using the game to promote the WoW MMO, and was throwing large amounts of money at it in the form of lucrative prizes. The tournament scene thrived for that year until Blizzard pulled the plug, having gotten whatever publicity boost they got from the game. Game sales quickly collapsed thereafter, as sales were mainly to either WoW loving collectors or those who played competitively, and after a year, neither group was buying much any more.

I mention my involvement in the tournament scene not to boast but to tell you that my selection of this game on this list was not to make an esoteric choice but because it's the time track (or dial) game which I've played by far the most of. If you like tactical combat games and you see this selling cheap somewhere, grab it. You might be surprised at how good a game this actually is.

Board Game: Heaven & Ale
1. Heaven & Ale

This makes the top spot not just because I adore the game, but because there are some twists to the time track formula that dial the tension up to unbearable levels in the late rounds.

Heaven & Ale is played on a standard time track with alternating turns, with jumping ahead incentivized by tiles on each spot disappearing as you claim them. In other words, if you slow roll, you can't hit an action space later - once the tile on that space is gone, it's gone.

But it's the introduction of 'scoring discs' which really makes things crazy. While the game calls them socring discs, they don't directly score points - points come from an esoteric kind of averaging of all the value of all the ingredients you've put together to make your ale. Rather, claiming a scoring disc gives you money or ingredient value boosts equal to the value of tiles you've already claimed of that ingredient. Once you score a particular ingredient, you can never do it gain in the game. Finite numbers of scoring discs are available on action spaces each round.

What this means is you are faced with a choice. If you score those discs early, it will boost your engine, and you won't be fighting to get those discs later on. But if you wait, the value of those scoring discs will be much greater as you collect tiles to increase their value.

So in theory, the best way to use them might be to get a ton of ingredient tiles throughout the game and then score all those ingredients via scoring discs at the very end. Except, and this is to me the central genius of the whole game, there aren't enough scoring tiles available for everyone to do this in the last round or two. If many people put off scoring those discs, someone is going to get screwed.

Those tiles are scattered throughout the track, so once people start taking them, you're going to have jump further and further ahead on the time track to get them. It's common for the last round to start where everyone is calmly going one space at a time getting ingredient tiles, and then someone jumps forward to take a scoring disc, and all hell breaks loose. Everyone then starts jumping further and further ahead to get that tile. It's like a run on the bank. You can end up skipping 80% of the last round track because YOU MUST GET THAT TILE. Meanwhile, the person who scored all their discs earlier for smaller amounts, can slow roll and eat up every ingredient tile on the board.

Sometimes players even negotiate - I won't jump forward and start grabbing scoring tiles if you won't, so that both players can get more ingredients first. But as soon as someone breaks the truce, everyone panics, and the race is on.

I love Heaven & Ale, because while the rules are relatively simple, the strategies are completely non-obvious, and very player dependent, particularly in regards to those scoring tiles. The German sadist in my loves how that due to a kind of threshold scoring system - you must exceed a certain ingredient quality threshold before you can score points - if you don't play very well, it's very possible to score 0 points for your beer. Surprisingly, most people I've played with are not humiliated when this happens, but determined to do better in their next play.

Well, that's it for me - what are your favorite time track games and why? Let me know in the comments below.

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