GameDesign Journal: Time Lock

Tracking progress of a time travel boardgame design several years in the making.
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The Beginning...

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Ever since I read The Green Futures of Tycho when I was a kid I've been a sucker for anything to do with Time Travel and have sought out boardgames with that theme. The two I've played, Time Agent and Chrononauts, I've really enjoyed.

Back in 2009, while I was designing Deep Space Disaster for a design contest, an idea struck me for a Time Travel boardgame. It would involve some aspects of Time Travel stories that weren't represented in the games I've played before. Could I bring this game to life?

The ideas have been floating about my mind since then. Yes, YEARS. Sometimes it has kept me up at night with the possibilites of tiny tweaks to the mechanics. I would work on it on and off, sometimes working feverishly on the ruleset for a week straight, then putting it away on the top shelf for several months and trying not to think about it.

I've finally gotten to the point of trying to put together a prototype. To try to keep my momentum going and get this thing off the ground I've decided to start this blog to coalesce my thoughts, get some feedback, maybe a little colaboration, and maybe drum up some interest in the project so I actually finish it!

Initial Idea

The initial idea for the game way back in the summer of '09 would be that each player plays a time traveller. They travel back and forth along a path (the timeline) collecting items from different time periods. The twist in the game is that a person could travel to a point in time before another player and swipe an item "before" another player, even if that other player had already picked up the item. This had a problem though, as all a player would have to do is go to the earliest point an item is available and no one would be able to get there before them. Also a player could encounter another player at a different moment in time in their "life." So on a player's 5th turn they might travel to a spot where another player landed on their 1st turn and encounter him and he would only have the things that he had on his 1st turn. Players would need to know exactly when and where each player was for each turn of the game, otherwise how would you know if you were in a spot before someone else on the timeline?

I thought my idea was unique, though, and decided to press on even without having the answers right away. I posted a message in a forum asking for ideas for different collectable items from throughout time. Of course the BGG community came through with all kinds of ideas that I was able to make use of... and someone asked an interesting question... will players be able to change the timeline?

Challenging Changes

That got me really thinking. Of course, travelling through time you're going to end up making changes to the timeline, but how to accomplish this? I loved the mechanics used in the time travel games I've played, but those were done. I needed something new.

After several brainstorming sessions and sketches I settled on a new idea for the board and a whole new mechanics and objectives for the game. On the left side of the board we have a row of spaces (points of time) in the distant past. We might say that this is the only timeline where a viable civilization was able to spring up from. From there there is a "pivot point." Players can alter the timeline so much that it actually diverges into two seperate unique timelines. Those two timelines have a row of boxes as well, and then each has another pivot point where they can each diverge again or possibly come back to a common line. And so forth and so on. So time fans out from the initial point to a whole lot of possibilities.

The basic draft map of how history plays out

Players each play a Time Traveller character with a unique power and stats. At the beginning of the game they will also get some cards detailing what their objectives for the game are. The objectives include items they can collect for extra points, Artifacts to collect to lock the timeline, and a particular timeline they are trying to achieve.

Players will still be gallavanting through time, but actions they take will alter the timeline from that moment on and into the future. But what makes each timeline different? Well, there are different "eras" in the game (denoted by color), and depending on what timeline is currently active determines exactly when an era begins and ends. So in some timelines technology has advanced much quicker, and thus eras happen sooner, while another would have technology advancing slower, and thus the eras occurring later.

But why is that important? Items players are trying to collect are only available in their particular era. Items are easy to find and pick up (free for an action) and cannot be stolen via "get there first." Also, there is a unique "Artifact" from each era. The Artifacts somehow affect the cosmos making time travel possible. If a player can collect his 3 Artifact objectives he can perform the Time Lock, thus shutting down Time Travel, locking the timeline in place, and ending the game. Artifacts are very difficult to find (they are unique!), so a roll is made, the target number determined by when in the Era the player is trying to find it. Also Artifacts can be stolen by "getting there first." So there is a little bit of a gambling element. Risk trying to find the Artifact early when it shows up thus blocking out others from getting there first, or finding it easier later in the Era but giving others the opportunity of stealing it. Oh yeah, and if the timeline changes enough, there is a possibility that you could lose your Artifact! It just fades away and disappears from your hand.

Need to stop time travel? Perhaps one of these artifacts can help.

Picking up an item could alter the timeline in a certain way, and so would modify the die roll for the next pivot point. Also, dropping an item in certain Eras (ie: modern tech during the 20th century) could cause technology to advance more quickly, and thus modify the pivot point another way. The changes would be a ripple through time so even if a change was small enough so as to not change the first few pivot points, it might have enough of an effect to change one in the far future. Also, characters have a "historical knowledge" to modify the pivot point roll of a particular Era.

To track where each player was at during each turn the player starts with 20 markers with a number corresponding to the turn number. When a player moves to a space, he places his marker on the board to signify he was there. Any item he picks up an item it goes on a tracking sheet, also on that number. So at any point of time you can see what a player had during that turn. A player can move to a spot where he's already been and help himself, as it were, by getting a bonus for any rolls that he makes there. Also a player can move to a spot where another player has been and have a little battle to try to steal an item (of course, like I said, the target player would only have the items he has collected up until then!)

Persnickity Problems

There were a few problems I hadn't worked out yet, though. There was nothing to stop a player from just simply moving to the earliest spot in an era and get there first, making those spots prime territories while other spots languished. I didn't want that. I played with ideas for some kind of time machine fuel that would limit movement, but nothing seemed to click. The mechanic for determining the current timeline, which I really liked, seemed to be a little too erratic when one of the win conditions is to set a particular timeline.

Also, some of the items a person could pick up would be a weapon that could improve a player's fighting ability. This would make the beginning of the game a mad rush to grab weapon items, again not what I was looking for. I was playing around with the idea of being able to pick up companions who would help you in some way, but again nothing was feeling right. Last but not least, I could not settle on a name. I wanted Time to be somewhere in the title, so someone searching for time travel games would see it, but everything that had to do with my concept seemed to be taken. At this point I put the game away for several months.

One day I started thinking about the game again and it suddenly struck me how to solve the erratic timeline problem. A player could, as an action, "Fortify" a pivot point so as to put a permanent modifier on it. So a player could start to fortify certain locations before attempting their final push to move the timeline where they want it. They would, of course, need the 3 Artifacts to shut down time travel. This also made the "shut down time travel" strategy viable. But again, what was to stop a player from just going to each prime spot and bulldozing through the game? And another thought occurred to me... how would player order be determined? It could matter quite a bit who went first or last during a turn. Another couple of weeks of deep thought went by before I again put it away.

Simple Solutions

After almost a year of not thinking about the game, and trying to put it out of my head when I did, I had a vision of how to solve the fuel problem. It was like Doc Brown hitting his head and seeing the Flux Capacitor! Players would start with a hand of cards (what cards? Ordinary playing cards). The number on the card is the amount of "Temporal Flux" available to the player, ie: the number of spaces they can move. Each player, at the beginning of the turn, selects one or more cards that they are going to play and they are all revealed simultaneously. The player playing the smallest number (potentially travelling the shortest distance) selects what spot on a turn order track they want, and so on. Ties are determined by suit ranking (I marked a set of cards with rankings 1-4 to make breaking ties easier). Players can play more than one card if they want to do a big jump across the entire timeline, but the more cards they play the lower on the ranking to choose a spot gets. This solves the problem of players running around willy-nilly and gives a price for movement. Each Era also has a face up card. At the end of the player's turn they take that card into their hand. If the card is a 2,3,or 4 then they also get a bonus face down card. This adds an element of risk... get the easy to grab 10 over there, or the 2 with a bonus card at another spot. Low cards are also not necessarily worthless as they give you a better chance of selecting your spot in the turn order. Face cards are worth 10 but can also be played to do a "fortify" action, and Aces are a Temporal Anomoly card with it's own special rules for randoming movement. It was amazing how it all fell into place and seemed to fit perfectly. It also gives me room to give characters a special power dealing with their Temporal Flux cards (Marty McFly dumping an item into the Mr. Fusion to get more fuel, for example). How it plays out during the game has yet to be seen.

Current Components

Item and Artifact tiles are completley done and I've even printed out a nice set. A plain basic board design is done, but I haven't got up the gumption yet to try to tackle making a physical copy. It's going to be big. Temporal Flux cards, the player's fuel source, are done. Tracking sheets are designed.

Components left to design are the objective cards, Character sheets (need to finalize my thoughts on their special powers) and the player's turn markers.

Destined Destinations

There are still a few things I haven't made a firm decision on yet...

Weapon cards may be too powerful. My thoughts right now are to either not have them as one of the goals for extra points, or have a weapon card as the ONLY item goal for a goal card, where a goal card would normally have several items to collect for extra points. The player would have a disadvantage in gaining points for collecting items, but would have an advantage if they got the weapon item in fighting other players and taking their loot.

Companions are also still in the idea stage. I'm thinking of making them like an item, you can pick them up from their particular Era, and they would have their own Historical Knowledge modifier to help rolling for pivot points. If a Companion is not returned to their Era before the end of the game then they count as negative points for you.

Also need a somewhat balanced scoring system. Items, Artifacts, Items that are part of your objective, Artifacts that are part of your objective, and for each section of the timeline that matches your objective.

I'm not entirely happy with the name of the game. If you have any ideas let me know!

Now to work on that prototype!
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