Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sands of Time in a nutshell

 I realized today that most of the posts in this blog go deep into the weeds of the design, but there isn't a basic overview of what the game is all about.  So this post is intended to provide a 30,000 foot view of the game.

Sands of Time is a civilization-building game set loosely in Classical Antiquity.  The game's action takes place on a board that emulates a Roman-era map.  The board is divided into 28 territories, and each territory produces a resource, either crops or gold, which players will use to pay for actions.  Players will fill the territories with citizens (peasants or warriors) and structures.
The Game Board

You get points in the game from Chronicle cards.  You have 7 such cards, and each Epoch, each Chronicle can be scored in one of six categories.  Each card gives the condition that you have to meet to score that card in a particular category. The higher cards are more difficult to achieve but are also worth more points.  The categories represent the sort of things you'd expect the head of a civilization to be proud of -- size of your empire, advances, great buildings, rare and precious resources you acquired access to, etc.  

Chronicle cards

However, it's not enough to just do great stuff; you also have to pay "achievement tokens" for your chronicles, which represents the idea that you must have an established reputation in a particular area before your proclamations of your own greatness will be believed.

Action Cards

The game lasts for four Epochs; each Epoch ends with a scoring phase, and each is divided into Generations, which represent the lifespan of an individual ruler.  Each Generation lasts for a certain number of turns (not known in advance -- you never know how long the king will live!), and in each turn, players have 12 available Action Cards, and simultaneously select two to execute.  If, in a subsequent turn, you re-use an Action Card, you incur some Unrest.  As previously mentioned, most of the actions cost Resources, and the cost is usually either your empire size (because a big empire is hard to manage), or your Unrest level (because an unhappy empire is hard to mobilize).  

Sample Advance Card
You can upgrade your empire by adding Structures to your territories, or by implementing Advances.  The game doesn't have a tech tree per se, but advances come in three main categories (roughly "expansion", "building", and "culture/more advances"), and when you replenish your hand, you choose which category you'll draw from, so you have some ability to specialize or diversity, as you prefer.  And each advance has a "basic" and "enhanced" side, so if you wish you can upgrade your advance to make yourself even more powerful in that capability.

Related to this, the game doesn't assign players to a specific historical civilization; rather, your selection of starting territories, and the advances that you choose to implement, will steer you towards certain chronicle categories, and by maximizing your achievements in those categories, you'll be entitled to score the highest chronicle cards and get the most points.  Because there are six categories, and because you frequently want to score in more than one category at a time, the possible range of viable strategies is enormous, and the diversity intrinsic to the system allows you to implement many strategies in more than one way.  (As a simple example, a "building" strategy can be executed by building a big population to produce lots of gold, or by using warriors to raid neighboring players' territories for gold, or to implement advances and structures that reduce your building costs to practically nothing, and so on...)

I think the game has several distinctive features, which I don't think I've seen these in other games previously:

  1. Emphasis on history-making as the vehicle for scoring.  You have to accomplish great stuff, but you also have to brag about the great stuff you did if you want it to be remembered for posterity.  This is amplified by the "heritage" system -- after you score a chronicle in a category, you're entitled to draw some achievement tokens in that category for the rest of the game.
  2. Unrest level sets your action costs.  Makes thematic sense.
  3. Circular board projection.  This prevents players from "hiding" at the edges and walling themselves safely away from the world, AND it promotes player interaction; most likely, even in a 5p game, your empire will be in physical contact with that of every other player in the game.  The game encourages this with the "caravan" system -- each of your caravans that touches another player's capital or city entitles you to receive an additional achievement token during the "produce" action.
  4. Nifty turn mechanic.  This game has been through numerous turn mechanics, and the one we settled on does a good job of reducing the down time to just about zero, and keeping the overall game length reasonably short given the game's scope, while still giving you great flexibility as to what you accomplish each turn.

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