Most creative people know what it’s like to have a project that just falls to the back-burner. Side projects never evolve to the next level, time constraints stop your afterhours dabbling, or life just gets in the way. When Jon Perry and Aaron Pickering were high school kids, cutting out index cards and testing their idea for The God Game, they didn’t think anything would ever happen with it. In a unique series of events, their one-day project evolved into Time Barons, a game that became a critical and sales success.
Jon Perry and Aaron Pickering didn’t run in an ordinary group of friends. Their Pasadena, California high school was an incubator for game design talent. Derek Yu, creator of the indie megahit Spelunky, has been a friend since the second grade. Pickering, Yu and Perry played and designed games together from a young age. As Yu says, “I remember I’d go over to Jon’s parent’s place when we were kids and play Hero Quest. We’d collect those Marvel Comics cards pretty hardcore. I’ve still got an entire Series 4 of them somewhere. The Garbage Pail Kids cards, as well.” The friendship explains how Yu came across The God Game. Perry says, “It sat in this little tin that Aaron had. I think it came along with Aaron on a camping trip that we were on as adults. It was on this reunion of old friends. I think that’s where Derek first saw it. It turned out to be pretty fun, even though I hadn’t thought about it or looked at it for years at that point.” The camping trip play sessions piqued Yu’s interest and began the process of refining The God Game prototype into Time Barons as we know it today.
The God Game didn’t languish in the obscurity of a tin box forever, in large part because it was a fun project for Perry and Yu to tinker on and an excuse to stay in touch. Before any of their recent projects, Yu and Perry made freeware games like Eternal Daughter under the name Blackeye Software. They’d design the games together, with Yu handling the art and Perry the testing and logistics. The process on Time Barons worked similarly to those older collaborations, as Perry explains it: “Derek and I kinda took it over. We were working at a pretty slow pace. Just once a year we’d tweak it a little bit. That sped up a lot within the last two years. We actually worked on it for a year and art finally got done.”
Making the jump from videogames to card games presented some unique challenges. They were both familiar with the digital markets to release a videogame, but there are other barriers to physically producing and shipping a finished card game. Wisconsin based company The Game Crafter was the solution they needed. As Yu says, “I heard about The Game Crafter through another videogame developer friend of mine, Sarah Northway. She published a game called Laws and Disorder on there and told me about it. I think the fact that they’re print on demand is very attractive to someone who’s just starting to make a card game or a board game. You don’t have to worry about buying inventory or the distribution.” With the card game logistics handled by The Game Crafter, they released the first version of Time Barons in February of 2014.
The premise of Time Barons is intentionally vague. A central mechanic of the game involves moving your “followers” around from protective site to site. The game ends when one player wipes out all of the opponents’ followers. The Time Barons website explains, “You are one of the TIME BARONS, shadowy figures who have shaped mankind’s destiny since the dawn of time. People are simply pawns in your quest to defeat the other barons and become the ruler of a unified human race.” When asked for additional explanation Yu reveals a bit more, saying “we left it purposefully ambiguous what a ‘Time Baron’ is since they’re supposed to be mysterious, behind-the-scenes manipulators. It’s very possible that a Time Baron could be a single, immortal person or simply a title that’s passed down from generation to generation along a lineage. It could even be a cabal. The player can decide what it means for themselves!” The open-ended narrative frame allows for a wide range of fun and experimental cards.
The full version of Time Barons comes in a conveniently small box. A free .pdf of just the cards is also available online. The game pieces are pleasantly substantial; the followers are represented by large blue tokens and each tech level has its own brightly colored stack of cards. The quirky art style of the illustrations will be familiar to anyone who’s flipped through the in-game journal in Spelunky. Games last around a half hour and pit two players against each other in a tense confrontation. Players are allotted three actions in each turn to move followers, play cards or upgrade their tech level. It’s a simple game to learn, but it offers surprising depth.
The biggest design change from The God Game prototype to Time Barons the final product was the addition of four levels that the player upgrades through. Each one represents further technological progress through the ages. Yu explains, “The upgrading was something we added later on. When we were working on that I definitely thought about Starcraft, tech trees, and real time strategy games.” The option of using an action to upgrade new tech levels adds a layer of strategy and an additional wrinkle of replayability. It also has a pace that feels like a videogame. Perry noted that it is exciting from the start: “That was a really early goal. I wanted the game to start right away. Without any build up. It has some build up, because you upgrade now. I think the game really needed that addition. But right from turn one you could be attacking, defending or doing something significant.” The goal was fully realized; the player begins with five cards and a range of choices.
Time Barons appealed to Derek Yu because its approach to game design aligns so well with his design philosophies. Yu says, “Spelunky captures a lot of things I like about games, in general. So does Time Barons. When you play games your whole life, you look for that element of surprise from the things you play. Right now, Time Barons is the game I want to play when we get together. There are still things that we’re figuring out about it. The people that play Spelunky and the people that play Time Barons are finding things about the game that I didn’t know about at all. That’s great.” This emergent, replayable element is the primary reason the game has caught on. Time Barons achieved The Game Crafter’s rank of “Naquadah Seller” awarded “In recognition of a stunning number of sales”. Still, it stands to reason that many fans of Jon Perry and Derek Yu’s previous endeavors are yet to discover this hidden gem.
With the game’s popularity and the versatility of its rules, there are already plans for a first expansion to the game. As Yu reveals, “For the expansion, we were originally going to add some fairly radical new mechanics, but after thinking about it we felt like there were a lot of avenues from the original game that could be explored further without introducing anything too different.” Perry adds, “we’d also like to expand the positional strategy portion of the game so that you really have to think about where to put your followers and where to focus your attacks.” The cult fans will be glad to hear about these natural extensions to the game’s core ruleset. Still, the designers emphasize that these plans are tentative and may shift as they work out the expansion.
Considering their long friendship it isn’t surprising that Perry and Yu looked to a previous game when naming their card game imprint. Time Barons was published by Quibble Games, a throwback to the characters from their freeware title Quibble Race. There is reason to hope we will see more from Quibble Games. Perry says, “I wanted to have an imprint, because I have other ideas and Derek has other ideas.” There are plenty of fans that would love to see those ideas come to fruition as elegantly as Time Barons.
Marshall Sandoval writes about games and their developers.