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SPIEL '17 Preview: TimeBomb Evolution, or Time for a Rainbow-Colored Rematch

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Whenever a sequel appears for a successful game, it is almost always more complicated than the original title. Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride, and Pandemic all have many examples of this dynamic, with each sequel following an equation like "Base Game + Somethin' Somethin' = Newish Snazzier Game". This equation shouldn't be a surprise because complicated things are less likely to become runaway hits than simpler things. Movies tend to follow the same formula as a sequel is usually "Most or All of the Characters/Things You Originally Liked + Something New". It's hard to make the soup simpler when you keep adding things to the pot.

In mid-2015, I previewed Yusuke Sato's TimeBomb after being introduced to the game at Tokyo Game Market in May 2015. TimeBomb is a straightforward hidden identity game, with SWAT agents needing to find the right number of successes among each player's hidden cards so that a bomb doesn't go off, while being misdirected in their efforts by terrorists who are hiding on the SWAT team. You can start playing the game immediately and use the first couple of moves to teach others how to play. If someone goofs and sets off the bomb accidentally, say "oops", shuffle the cards, and play again.

In 2016, Sato and publisher New Board Game Party introduced TimeBomb II, which used a similar formula while giving players a hand of cards that they would play to locations in a quest to uncover the terrorists' three hideouts.

Now Sato and New Board Game Party have released TimeBomb Evolution, with the game having debuted at TGM in May 2017 and now being prepared for release at SPIEL '17 in October. As before, TimeBomb Evolution follows the formula of the original game, with SWAT members looking for 4-6 "Success" cards (with that number being based on the player count) and with terrorists hoping to survive four rounds if they don't manage to set off the bomb any earlier. In more detail, here's how the original TimeBomb works:

To set up, you take as many "Success" cards as the number of players, the single "Boom!!" card, and as many "Safe" cards as needed for the deck to equal five times the number of players, e.g., thirty cards total with six players. Each player takes a secret role card at random, with four SWAT cards being in the mix for six players and three SWAT cards for four or five players. After looking at your role card, look at the five cards you were dealt, then shuffle them and lay them out in a line with the backs being face up. Choose a start player at random.

The start player takes the nippers and "cuts" one of the cards in front of another player. This player reveals the card, then uses the nippers to cut someone else's card. This continues until 4-6 cards have been cut, with this number equaling the number of players. You then take all of the face-down cards, shuffle them, then deal four cards to each player, with players once again looking at their cards, then shuffling them and placing them in a face-down row.

This process continues for at most four rounds. If all of the "Success" cards are revealed before the end of the fourth round, the game ends and the SWAT team wins. If this doesn't happen — or if the "Boom!!" card is revealed at any time — the game ends and the terrorists win.
TimeBomb Evolution removes all the boring "Safe" cards that do nothing except draw out a sigh of disappointment when you reveal one of them instead of a "Success" and replaces them with six sets of colored bombs.

Learning the game ahead of Tokyo Game Market

To set up TimeBomb Evolution, you choose as many colored sets of cards as the number of players, shuffle them, remove a number of cards equal to the number of players from the deck (without revealing them), shuffle in 4-6 "Success" cards, then deal five cards to each player. Choose someone to start with the nippers and you're off!

The big difference compared to TimeBomb is that the deck doesn't have a single "Boom!!" card that serves as a terrorist victory if it's revealed; instead, if four cards of the same color are revealed before all the "Success" cards, then the bomb goes off and the terrorists win. Now instead of all the tension in the game being instantiated into a single card, the tension is spread all over the place. On the first few card reveals, the color is meaningless, but once you see the second instance of a color, everyone starts paying attention and saying things at the start of the round like, "I have a 'Success', but also two red, so don't cut any of my cards!" Do they mean that, or are they lying, perhaps hiding multiple "Success" cards so that the SWAT team won't find them?

This simple change gives everyone more of a stake in the game because even having a hand of nothing but colored bombs gives you information about what others don't have, and you can sometimes use this information to get clues as to who might not be telling the whole truth.

What's more, TimeBomb Evolution includes variant rules that ups the challenge even further by giving special abilities to both the "Success" cards and the colored bombs. Under these rules, when you reveal a "Success", you place that card on a colored bomb that's been revealed to provide protection. That color will no longer win the terrorists the game when the fourth card is revealed. That's good for the SWAT team, right? Yes, except perhaps when a terrorist is the one who gets to place the "Success" card and they choose a color with only one card (thereby outing themselves as a bad guy) or choose a color that will perhaps lead to SWAT members revealing cards from a player who they would otherwise ignore.

The counterweight to this benefit comes from a half-dozen bomb effects. Yellow bombs, for example, can't have protection placed on them, and when a blue bomb is revealed, you must remove a "Success" that is currently providing protection, thereby possibly causing an immediate explosion. Green explodes when only three cards have been revealed (instead of four), whereas purple blows up immediately if two purple cards are revealed in a row. Red cards throw randomness onto the table because if someone reveals a red bomb, you don't get to choose whose card to cut next; instead you reveal a numbered card and circle around the table that many spaces, then cut a card in front of that player. You might want to have cut a card held by someone else, but too bad! (I've also played with this rule incorrectly, teaching that you pass the wire nippers to the player revealed at random. This is a less random way to play, I think, since the new player holding the nippers still chooses whose card to reveal, so consider it a variant of the variant.)

Round four begins; only one more success to go...

Pink bombs are the most dispiriting because for each pink card revealed, you can reveal one fewer card in the fourth round — assuming you make it that far. If you're SWAT, you find a few successes and think you're grooving, then you realize that you need to find two more "Success" in five picks. Whoops! You just revealed a pink, so now you have only three more picks to find that pair of successes. Good luck.

I've played Timebomb Evolution five or six times now on a review copy from Japon Brand, each time with five or six people. The heart of the game mimics that of the original, with some games ending in 1-2 minutes when something goes horribly wrong in the first few turns, and others coming down to the wire, but this version has your head spinning in new directions because more of what's happening each round matters to you, especially once you start using the effects of the variant. This variance is magnified by cards being removed at random at the start of the game. Do you even have three green cards in the deck any more? Do you have to worry about that color? The only way to remove the uncertainty is to see the cards in hand, thereby verifying the threat, but whether you can get anyone else to believe you is another matter.

Even better, the games play out differently depending on what happens when. In one game, we revealed a couple of blue cards in the first five moves, which was bad since two more blue cards would lose the game for the good guys, yet we also were thrilled that those blue cards didn't cost us any protection since we hadn't yet discovered any "Success" cards. Wait, why were we happy about not finding success? Ah, never mind — take joy where you can find it!


P.S.: Immediately after I finished writing this preview, I checked Twitter and happened across this announcement of a new version of the original Time Bomb from Arclight Games. The bright rainbow colors are everywhere!

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