Timeline : do you remember your history?

Some people love history, others couldn’t care less. Some people are great at remembering dates, others horrible. I love history but I am atrocious at dates. Luckily exact dates are not integral to archaeology (unlike history, as an academic field) so I’m fine. Now, despite being really bad at dates I got more and more intrigued by a series of small card games completely based around the dates of different events. This series is called Timeline and is currently published by Asmodee. It’s a neat little educational game which is great fun and might even teach you something in the process. So fire up your memory banks and reach back to your school years and well, your own experiences – it’s time to play Timeline!

Timeline comes in several different themed packs. For this post I will be using Timeline: Historical Events and Timeline: Science & Discoveries since those are the ones I own at the moment. And of course I’ll give you a rundown of the other themes out there.


Basic gameplay

timeline-historicalboxTimeline is a very easy concept, with very easy gameplay. The difficulty lies in actually remembering or guessing when something happened. As the title suggests you are basically creating a timeline with cards. The game consists only of small cards. Both sides feature an illustration and title. Depending on the theme these could be events, inventions, movie or song titles, etc. Only one of the sides feature an additional box showing the year this event happened, item was invented, or movie was released.

It is suggested that you started with four cards each, and for your first game – absolutely! You can change it up however you want once you know how the game works. These are dealt year side down to each player – no need to hold the cards! The deck is also put with year side down within reach of the players. The top card is turned over and put in the middle of the table. Yes, year side up. This is your starting point. Time to make a timeline!

timeline-setup
Setup for two players, with four cards each. This game starts with The Death of Joan of Arc in 1431. The top card of the deck is The 1st Crusade.

The first player (according to the rules that’s the youngest player) picks one of their cards and tries to figure out if it happened before or after the starter card. They place the card on the side they think and then flip it. Hopefully the year matches! The next person does the same but can now also choose to put it between two cards if they think the year falls in between the ones on the table.

timeline-ex1
A few turns in. The active player is trying to place 1st Oil Well. They probably know the year cause they are aiming right in the narrow slot between 1857 (Invention of the Elevator) and 1860 (Pony Express). Let’s see how they did…
timeline-ex2
They did very well! 1859 fits right in that gap and so the card is added to the timeline.

If you are wrong and the year is in fact not in the right position you discard that card and draw a new, not looking at what year the card is from of course. This means that you did not get rid of a card that round. Why is this important? The whole point of the game is to get rid of your cards! At the end of each round you check to see if someone placed their last card. If someone did and they’re the only one, they have won the game! If two or more players place their last card the other players are out and the ones who placed said last card draw a new one each. It keeps going like that until someone is left as the only player with no cards at the end of a round. That’s it. Easy peasy!

timeline-ex3
The player is trying to place The Execution of William Wallace. They have seen Braveheart and remembers it’s medieval times. But was it after the Black Death?

 

 

timeline-ex4
No it was not! It was 41 years earlier in fact. Since they guessed wrong the William Wallace card is discarded, and the player draws the top card of the deck. It seems to have gone well for out players up until now, so if you remember the setup the new card will be the 1st Crusade.

 


Strategy, Themes, and Thoughts

timeline-discoveriesboxNow this is not a game with must strategy involved whatsoever. But having played it with a bunch of different people by now I’ve noticed a tendency to do the opposite of the smart thing when playing for the first time. Since this is a game of getting rid of your cards people seem to tend to want to see easy progress as quickly as possible. How do they do that? They play their easy cards first. This is not a good idea. In the beginning it will be relatively easy to place cards in your timeline even if you only have a very vague idea of where they belong. I’m really bad at American 18th and 19th century for example, but at least I know it’s before the start of World War I (since that’s 20th century). Then maybe I should place that “Taming of the Wild West” card I have before anyone else butts in with their cards in the same century. Which brings me to the second thing to keep in mind: look at the other players. If you know where some of their cards belong and think they don’t – try to trip them up by placing a card of yours that’s close in time (if you have one that is). We never really play the game like that, but it is an option! So yeah, get rid of your hard cards first. If you know any years exactly – like how I always remember the sinking of the Titanic (1912), or the Battle of Hastings (1066) – definitely hold on to those til the end (unless maybe you want to try to be mean and use such a card to mess with other people). For example, the appearance of Homo sapiens is something you can save til the end cause it will be really easy to place, but you’ll throw in the Battle of Hastings relatively early cause you can see that your opponents have a lot of viking and early medieval cards. Now, it could happen that two (or more) cards have the exact same year on them. If that is the case it does not matter where you place the second card in relation to the first (of the same year that is). As long as they end up next to each other you’re good!

If history and dates scare you, don’t give up just yet. Remember that this game is all about events and occurrences in relation to each other, so even if you don’t know the exact year you may most of the time be able to use logic. The wars of the 20th century for example (part of the Historical Events deck) are very easy to relate to each other even if you don’t know the years. The start of WWI comes before the end of the same war, which comes before the start of WWII etc. Very simple logic right there! Of course you might then have to relate those cards to the invention of the shopping cart or something else which is way trickier. This is why I find the Historical Events deck easy, but Science & Discoveries hard.

Which in turn brings us to the themes! There are currently seven themes in English, plus a “bonus” one so to speak:

  • Science & Discoveries – (used to be labeled as only Discoveries) is what is says on the tin. It’s a lot of scientific inventions, concepts and discoveries, together with more “classic” discoveries, most followed by the words “by Europeans”. Then there are a few really random cards that I feel would fit much better in Historical Events, such as the storming of Normandy during WWII.
  • Inventions – I have not played this but I gather the title speaks for itself. Like I said before, Historical Events has several inventions involved as well but since the games are supposed to be compatible there’s hopefully no overlap.
  • Music & Cinema –  is mostly a bunch of movie and song titles. I have not played this one yet either but I am going to hazard a guess that this is a hard theme. The absolute majority of the cards will be from the past 100 years making it a very tight timeline. The art for this one seems a bit iffy since it’s a theme dealing with people we easily recognise, and the art doesn’t actually work that well.
  • Historical Events – is simply a mix of things that has happened in the past, with the focus on well “events”. But there is plenty of discoveries and inventions as well. Plus at least one movie, a book, and the Woodstock Festival.
  • Diversity  – is simply a mix of everything. I assume a little less focus on “proper history” and maybe some more pop culture thrown in. Should be fun!
  • American History – a lot of presidents and wars it seems. And something I personally would be incredibly bad at.
  • Americana – is more popular American culture, rather than school type history.
  • Star Wars – is what I mean by the bonus theme. It is not possible to combine it with any of the other themes, for obvious reasons. In this game you are supposed to place moments from the three original movies (episoded IV, V, and VI) in order, which of course can’t be done with years but instead with a simple sequence of numbers. It is a completely licensed game so instead of having the usually nice but sometimes dodgy illustrations this theme comes with proper stills from the movies. Should be easy for a big Star Wars fan, but hard to get people to play with you if they’re not equally big fans. 

There are also a few other themes in other languages. There’s both the History of Russia and Korean History, in their respective languages. There’s the three French language ones Sports et Loisirs (= Sports and Hobbies), Québec (Quebecois history), and 60 ans de télévision à la RTBF (60 years of Belgian tv). And finally the two released this year according to BGG: Polska – Polish history (in Polish of course), and Cannes & Cinema – movies at the prestigious Cannes festival (smaller with only half being in English and the other half being the same cards but in French). There is also a game called Timeline Challenge which makes the game bigger and harder, and can incorporate all the basic Timeline games as well. But that is a game for another review (if I even get my hands on it that is). For this post we’ve sticking to the basics.

You may think that a game like this has very limited replayability – I even thought so myself! But then I realised that I am incredibly bad at remembering dates (I’m an archaeologist, not a historian after all) and if I learn any I will probably be set to play it again in a few months – having forgotten half of what I learned again. Since it’s all about placing the cards in relation to each other, no game will be alike. You have to remember pretty exact years to make it too easy and boring cause eventually you’ll sit there with mostly 1800s cards (been there, done that. It was super hard) and you’ll only remember the first newspaper photo (1880). The beauty of these games lies in their compatibility with each other. You can combine any number of Timeline games to get more variety (except of course Star Wars). They all follow the same style of illustration, but they have the year in a coloured box matching the theme colour. That was you can easily separate the cards into their appropriate tins after you’ve played a mix game if you want.

timeline-mixing
Mixing is fun! And it also increases the chance of cards having the same exact year on them. Apparently the Great Fire of London was the same year that Isaac Newton put forth the theory of universal gravitation.

Depending on the number of players and how good people are you can increase the number of cards each player receives from the beginning. This means that the game scales really well. Sticking with our two featured decks I can give you some examples. I got Historical Events as a birthday gift when visiting my parents, and I got them to play. Now, this is a testament to how easy this game is: I can successfully play it with my parents! The rules are incredibly easy to understand and then it’s just down to luck of the draw and some historical knowledge or memory. Finding a game that works with my parents (who are confused by UNO sometimes) makes me really happy, but back to the matter of scaling. We of course started with the recommended four card hand. It went rather well! In a three player game this means you’ll end up with a timeline of about 10-15 cards (depending on how good people are with their hand of course). I think we bumped it up to five the next day when we played again just to make it a little harder. Then I had two friends over for game night. Again we started with four, but we quickly increased the number to make it more and more difficult – and more fun! Three players with six cards each makes for a long timeline. But your can play with a way more players, especially if you combine decks! And then I got Science & Discoveries, and oh man! Turns out it is way harder, and even if my friend and I made it a small two player game we never exceeded the starting four cards. Because we never even got through a game without failing at least once each, and most of the time just being lucky. So really, it’s all down to theme and number of players how many cards you should use. Start with four to get a feel for it and then increase. And with a mix of two or more themes… who knows?

Overall I think Timeline is a great series of games. Quick and easy to both play and teach, and you’ll probably want to play through the entire deck in one sitting. It’s also nicely portable. Each theme comes in a tin about 11 x 11 cm, but if you are really running out of space in your purse or suitcase, you can remove the cards from the box and put them in something else, effectively cutting size down to about a third. Maybe take out the insert of one of them and put three different themes in there if you want to have a lot to choose from, or combine, while on vacation? So yeah, as you have probably figured out the cards are quite small. I personally like the size cause it means you can make long timelines without running out of table space. But I’ve heard grumblings about them being hard to read when there are a lot of players etc.

timeline-inside
The inside of the Historical Events tin.

Overall the graphic design of the cards is excellent, but the illustrations kinda vary. They are all the same style which is good, and most of the time they are pretty nice. But when it comes to well known people they get kinda weird. Maybe they’re not allowed to use their likeness? I don’t know. What I do know is bones, and their bones illustrations are horrible! So… gnarly when they don’t need to be! I do appreciate the series of matching hominid cards though, where you get the skull and an estimate of how the hominid would’ve looked. There’s also a card in the Discoveries deck about the discovery of bacteria, but the illustration is of mould. That is not bacteria. It’s a fungus! But yeah, overall it’s a really nice looking game.

timeline-hominids
Hominid cards with very weird looking skulls.

I only have a few complaints with this game. At its core it’s great, so this is mostly nitpicking. Apart from the aforementioned issues I have with some of the art it all comes down to the problem of simplifying something to the point of a few words and also choosing years. There have been some instances of not really understanding what they meant with a certain discovery/invention (the first cartoon for example), and when the year is not known exactly they tend to make it the closest 100 or 1000, which is kinda tricky when you have cards from the same time with exact years. A lot of the cards from Discoveries obviously have the added “by Europeans”, which inevitable brings us to the discovery of America by Europeans. And let me tell you right now: always go with Columbus on this one. But fine, I get it. The vikings in Canada are always ignored. A simple “Discovery of Canada (by Europeans)” I could forgive I suppose (and there is such a card), but when they specify Newfoundland I really want it to be vikings. I might honestly have to alter the year of that card. Cause that is exactly where they have found a viking settlement!

timeline-artexamples
My favourite illustration of them all: the Abolition of the Death Penalty in France. Such a striking image. And of course two of my peeve-cards from Discoveries.

And of course there are a few errors. For example, the dolmens did NOT appear in 800, they are megalithic tombs from the late stone age. That means thousands of years ago. And the card for Charlemagne being crowned emperor says 1939… that should actually say 800! But… a reprint is on its way and hopefully they’ll fix these issues. But you can always just change it yourself, which I’ll probably have to do.

So, in short: buy this game. It’s cheap, small, fun, a great filler, and anyone can play it. And with new themes you can always make it bigger, harder, and more diverse.

THE SPECS

  • Title: Timeline
  • Designer: Frédéric Henry
  • Publisher: Asmodee
  • Players: 2-8 (but you can do more)
  • Time: about 15 minutes
  • Type: cards, educational
  • Size: small
  • Release year: 2010 (Inventions)

BGG link (Historical Events)

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