24th Apr2019

‘Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail


For those who have been following our regular coverage of GMT Games products, you may have noticed a theme. GMT produce deeply strategic, often complex but always incredibly powerful simulations that explore real periods of history. In the games that we’ve covered, we’ve already been to Vietnam, Algeria and to the American Revolutionary War, but despite its popularity, we’ve never covered a GMT game set around Rome before. Today, that changes, thanks to Wray Ferrell and Brad Johnson’s Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil.

A very interesting thing to note about Time of Crisis before you decide whether or not to read on is the fact that unlike some of the games I referenced above, this one is fairly light to learn, albeit with most of the strategic depth that GMT are famous for. At the heart of Time of Crisis is a deck building and hand management mechanic that links to a psuedo area control mechanism on the board. There’s very little to stumble over in the basic flow of the game, although as the board state develops, smaller rules and nuances begin to emerge.

In short, Time of Crisis deals with one of the most tumultuous periods in Roman history, during which the ruling families vied for the status of Emperor and worked tirelessly to establish themselves as the most powerful among all others. The players each control one such family, each of which are represented in game by no more than various tokens in a chosen colour. The objective of the game is to score the most legacy points – victory points in any other game – but here they represent the amount of historical importance that will be assigned to your family in the annals of time, making them feel like a logical and thematic link that I quite like.

When set up, Time of Crisis present an impressive but fairly Spartan table presence. A very large and beautifully painted map of the Roman Empire as it was in the third century takes centre stage and depending on player count, a number of tokens will be placed upon it. At four players, each player chooses a start province and places a Governor and a General in post with a small army. Around the board, the players will place their personal player mats, each of which presents a very clear breakdown of the available actions and leaves spaces for both available and used cards.

Each player builds a starting deck of nine cards, comprising of three cards each for military, senate and populace strength. All of these opening cards have a value of one and no additional text. From this starting deck, the player will choose five cards with which to take their turn, and will be able to take any of the actions (as listed on their player board) that they can afford. Each subsequent turn, the player will have access to all cards in their available pile, and much as in the first turn, they will choose five to form their hand for the next turn.

This becomes more and more relevant as the players build out their deck, which is achieved by spending political points. A key rule that confused me for a while (it’s not ambiguous, I simply missed it) is that political points relate to how many provinces the player controls (sometimes subject to modifiers.) As a simple example, a player who holds two provinces will have two political points, meaning that they can buy a new card with a value of two. The cards available for purchase are placed in face up piles based on their cost/power level and colour. There are piles for two, three and four strength cards.

The main difference between the base game and the expansion, The Age of Iron and Rust, is that the expansion adds twice as many of these cards to the base game. Players can choose whether these decks are randomly shuffled together, or organised separately, and personally, I prefer the former. Managing nine face up decks is one thing, but managing eighteen is a little unwieldy. Either way, the basic premise is that the players each begin with a small, weak deck, but as the game continues, their capabilities will expand. One of the available actions is to trash weaker cards, so deciding when to spend some action points doing so becomes quite key.

Just as important as the points value of each card (which allows things like moving armies, recruitment, placing governors, building structures and so on) is the text that appears on them. Cards provide both their points benefit and whatever is written on them, making the more powerful cards doubly beneficial. As an example, some of the early cards allow players to gain two senate points and place a Qaestor, which helps them to protect their provinces from rival Governors. The level four cards have some much more complex and very powerful benefits, making getting them into your deck a key priority.

The structure of Time of Crisis is therefore fairly simple. Play cards to earn points in the three specific areas, and then take actions in those areas, then, assuming that you have expanded your territory and/or taken control of Rome itself, spend your political influence on more cards to improve your hand. This loop is simple at first – overthrowing weak, neutral governors is easy and the rewards feel quite strong, but once the board is populated with player controlled provinces, things become much harder and offboard alliances are rife.

In addition to the other players, Time of Crisis features a number of event cards and barbarian factions who can encroach upon the status quo. In the main, barbarian tribes and mobs serve to destabilise regions, which can make overthrowing the current government and taking control easier. To protect themselves, players can spend points on legions and engage in battles – both against the barbarians and the other players.

Whilst I feel that Time of Crisis is definitely at its best when played at the full quota of four players, The Age of Iron and Rust expansion also includes three named Automa Emperors, each with his own player board and set of behaviours. These Emperors can be used to aggressively challenge any number of players, to the extent that they make up the numbers in a multiplayer game, or provide a very stiff solo challenge. As always, the quality of the GMT Games’ Automa players is second to none and take my word for it – these Emperors are hard to beat.

Whilst I’ve already mentioned that Time of Crisis is simple to pick up and learn, it has a lot more to it than meets the eye, especially with the expansion content that adds so many more cards, the Automa Emperors and, finally, different kinds of ways to rule your empire. On that note, players will score points both for the provinces they control and the amount of time they spend as Emperor – again adding to the thematic idea that their legacy is growing stronger with each passing year.

Military Emperors can gain legacy for fighting, but run the risk of death in battle, whilst popular Emperors can be seen walking among the people, gaining benefits for doing so, but facing the challenge of managing volatile Roman politics from a remote location. The individual cards all bring their own interesting and unique nuances, as do the buildings that can slow a barbarian horde, quell an angry mob or provide more influence through faith thanks to the expansion of Christianity.

All said, Time of Crisis is a powerful, but nonetheless simple introduction to grand scale wargaming. It features tight, intelligent deckbuilding and card play alongside powerful onboard strategy, as well as offboard scheming and negotiation. It takes about two to three hours depending on the version (short or long) played and despite the inclusion of an event card (Diocletian) that forces the game to end, I’ve never seen it run the distant in that way. Overall, Time of Crisis is a superb addition to the shelves of any wargamer looking for something a bit different, but without any compromise in terms of overall strategic depth.

A copy of Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil and the expansion The Age of Iron and Rust was supplied for review by GMT Games.

One Response to “‘Time of Crisis: The Roman Empire in Turmoil’ Board Game Review”

  • Denis

    Regarding political points it’s not quite that.
    Your political points are equal to the sum of support you have in the provinces you govern.
    The number of provinces you govern indicates if you buy a card at its normal cost or the double: if you govern 3 provinces, cards 2 and 3 will cost that many political points, but card 4 will cost 8 political points.