How do you review Vanilla? A baked potato? The color “Off-white”? Something that seems so unoriginal yet is so common because people still enjoy it. It’s a sort of “Effective Banality”. That’s what Tempus feels like for board gaming. Its mechanics seem so plain that I’m never excited going “Into” a game of Tempus but its theme is executed with such elegant mechanics that I always enjoy it. It’s like being given a bowl of vanilla ice cream after dinner; even if you wouldn’t have specifically gone out of your way try and acquire some, it’s still enjoyable.
Tempus does the seemingly improbably and makes a Civilization builder game elegant. The initial surprise immediately subsides when Martin Wallace is revealed as the designer. If anyone can make a Civ style board game elegant it’s him. The mechanics and components are enough to get the gameplay to come through as desired but not enough to overwhelm. The random cards offer enough unknown variables to keep the game interesting and varied.
The thematically odd but mechanically functional way that progressing through eras works encourages player to think multiple turns ahead. At the end of each turn the player with the most population on a particular terrain type advances an “Extra” step. Like I said, thematically bizarre but it just works.
I feel that if anything encapsulated Tempus it would be the saying it “Just works”. You quickly develop plans and start to care about spreading your population around the map. Civilizations in your area are immediately distrusted. Plans are made to try to take certain territories on certain turns, it just takes a quick glance at the board to try to figure out which turns are best to plan for. The fixed number of population tokens and cities also meant that victory points are finite.
Runaway leaders rarely happen because cities and population reproduction need to be carefully planned all the way to the last turn. There’s rarely any significant amount of frustration caused by early compounding leads.
At the end of they day you’ve cultivated and spread a civilization across a large area, and you’ve done so without books full of glossaries or appendixes. You just started with a few simple rules and kept going, one step at a time. That’s what the game does that’s valuable, being vanilla is ok as long as there’s still a reason to exist. Tempus gives you a game with the joy of spreading Civilization but without the rules of other games it’s like. It’s thematically loose, moderately exciting, but elegantly executed.