Game: Timeline: Inventions

Release Year: 2010

Publisher: Zygomatic

Designer: Frédéric Henry

Player Count: 2 to 8 players

Play Time: About 5 to 15 minutes

Rules Complexity: Very simple

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History was always my worst subject, with me being more of a STEM geek who gravitated towards math and programming. So color me surprised when Timeline: Inventions hits the table and... it's actually not terrible.

In fact, it might even be good! Maybe.

I grabbed Timeline: Inventions at the very start of this year—January 10th—as a lightning quick filler game that I could play with my girlfriend whenever we had 5 to 10 minutes to kill. (Turns out, there aren't many games that play so quickly.)

What awaits in this compact card game? Welcome to Timeline: Inventions.

I bought mine off Amazon for $13 plus tax, so not a free review copy, and it's the 2020 version published by Zygomatic and playable with 2 to 8 players.

With that out of the way, let's dive into the review!

The Gist of Timeline: Inventions

Timeline: Inventions is a trivia-style card game where you start with a hand of cards that depict various human inventions (e.g. "Invention of the watch") and your goal is to play your cards to a central timeline, making sure to slot your card into the right spot according to the year of the invention on that card.

Each card has two sides: one with the year and one without the year. You don't know the years of cards in your hand, which are only revealed as you play them to the timeline. All cards in the central timeline have their years visible.

As players add cards to the timeline, it continues to grow. Cards can be added anywhere along the timeline.

If you play a card to its correct spot—which can be on either end of the timeline or between any two cards within the timeline—then that card stays in the timeline. Otherwise, it gets discarded and you draw a replacement.

Players play in turn order and the first to empty their hand wins.

The Core Experience

At first glance, Timeline: Inventions appears to be a trivia game that tests whether you know the years in which inventions happened. But it's not a trivia game! Timeline: Inventions is actually a game of reasoning and relativity.

This small deck of cards contains a better game than I'd originally expected.

Suppose the central timeline starts with: "Invention of the seaplane, 1910." One of the cards in your hand is: "Invention of the cannon." Where are you going to play it? To the left of the seaplane card, indicating that cannons came first? Or to the right, indicating that seaplanes came first?

Well, maybe you know that the American Civil War took place sometime during the 1800s, and maybe you know that cannons were used during the American Civil War. If that's the case, cannons had to be invented before then.

Even if you don't know exactly when these happened, you probably have some idea, right?

So, you play your cannon card to the left of the seaplane card... and flip it over to reveal that the invention of the cannon took place in 1313!

Perhaps you thought cannons were invented in the 900s. Or the 1200s. Or the 1500s. It doesn't matter! Because it's not about knowing the actual year of the invention, but rather where it sits relative to other inventions.

And that's the beauty of Timeline: Inventions. Most trivia games fall flat because you either know the answer or you don't. Here, I love that you can have zero knowledge of actual years yet still play and reason your way to victory.

Surely, the teddy bear came before the cinematograph? I mean, this thing is a complex bit of technology. It probably came around the turn of the century, but maybe a few years after? Right?

Still, it's not easy. As the central timeline grows, the gaps between years grow smaller because there are more cards in play, which tightens the margin of error. It's easy when your only options are "before the seaplane" and "after the seaplane," but much harder when the timeline has "Invention of corn flakes, 1894" and "Creation of the teddy bear, 1902" and you think your card's invention happened somewhere around 1900.

Close but no cigar! I would've said the cinematograph was invented around 1910, but it was 1895. D'oh!

It's a game arc I can appreciate. The tension increases with every successful add to the timeline, with some anxiety when everyone is down to their last card. It's more tense with more players since the timeline grows faster between your turns, shrinking the gaps between years and reducing your margin for error.

And it's all packed into 10 to 15 minutes or so. At two players, it can be as quick as 5 minutes if few mistakes are made.

The Repeat Experience

The biggest flaw with Timeline: Inventions—at least with my version—is that it only comes with 55 cards. Back when it first came out, it came with 110 cards, but the card count was cut in half at some point.

And that's a shame for two big reasons.

First, you can memorize every card. You'll do this naturally over the course of repeat plays, which isn't necessarily bad because, hey, you're learning something! But with a deck as small as 55 cards, you'll reach the point of full memorization sooner than later... and once you do, the game ceases to be a game anymore.

Timeline: Inventions consists of 55 cards. It's not hard to memorize all the years, especially with repeat plays.

Second, the year distribution is disappointing. Of the 55-card deck, 12 involve the 1900s, 13 involve the 1800s, 9 involve the 1700s, 10 range from Year 0 to the 1600s, and 11 take place before Year 0.

Those pre-Year 0 cards are downright silly, with the earliest card taking place in the year -2,000,000. When you get a card like "First cave paintings," it's basically a gimme—and the more gimmes you have, the more likely you'll win. It introduces an element of luck that undermines the core concept.

About 82% of the cards take place before 0 or after 1700, leaving a gap that's pretty spread out. You have an advantage if you get these cards that fall into that range.

But even ignoring the pre-Year 0 cards, there's a similar issue with cards between Year 0 and the 1600s. The range is so large that they're basically gimmes.

All of that to say, Timeline: Inventions loses its luster quickly. It's most interesting when you're trying to play cards like "Invention of the cinematograph," not "Emergence of agriculture." If all cards took place between the 1700s and 1900s, it'd actually be significantly more replayable.

To be fair, the Timeline series includes several other packs of 55 cards that you can mix and match to create one massive deck. And if you like the game enough, you might do that... but it feels manipulative and I don't want to support it.

What's in the Box?

Timeline: Inventions is a tiny game that comes in a tiny box.

But it's the kind of box that exists purely for display in a retail store. The box can be tossed because the game itself resides in a tiny metal tin.

The tin is convenient for travel, able to fit inside a pocket and stay protected. It's a little hard to open, though, and I struggle with it on the regular. (I generally hate tins and it's usually enough reason for me to get rid of a game I'm lukewarm on, as was the case with my previously owned copy of Forbidden Island.)

As far as what's in the tin? 55 cards and a minuscule rule booklet. That's it!

Setup and Table Footprint

Timeline: Inventions has one of the smallest footprints and fastest setup times of any card game. It is, after all, just 55 cards!

Shuffle them up, deal out 4 cards to each player, place the deck in the center, and draw the top card to start the timeline. Doesn't get simpler than that.

The cards on the left and right can be held in hand, so you really only need enough table space for those cards in the middle. Yeah, this game doesn't use much space at all.

That said, the table space needed will grow with more players because the timeline grows faster with every additional player. Estimate around 3 cards per player for the final timeline and you should be good.

This tiny footprint makes Timeline: Inventions a solid game to play while traveling, while in bed, while chilling on the couch, or even while at a restaurant/pub waiting for your food. (And with it being such a low-stakes game, it's no big deal to clear it away once food does arrive.)

That's my Samsung Galaxy S21 to show the scale of how small this game is.

The Bottom Line

Timeline: Inventions

Mediocre Score Guide
  1. Plays in 10 minutes
  2. Quick setup and small table footprint
  3. Simple, fun, and educational
  1. Finite replayability unless you combine with other Timeline packs

I'm torn on Timeline: Inventions.

As someone who likes games that involved logical reasoning, the core concept of the Timeline games is right up my alley. Fitting cards into a gradually tightening timeline is satisfying, and it's not quite a trivia game so it has wider appeal.

And given that I got this game for the sole purpose of being a 10-minute filler, I'd say it's pretty good for that. Fast setup, small table footprint, fast cleanup.

This seems like a pretty obvious play. But it's early and things will definitely get harder in a few turns.
There's always a bit of satisfaction when you flip the card and it's correct—even when it's a no-brainer.

But the replayability is a serious bummer. If only the year distribution was better and if only it came with twice as many cards, it could've been a real hit. I'll play—and enjoy!—Timeline: Inventions if someone else wants to play it, but I probably won't ever suggest it myself.

That said, if you've never played any of the Timeline games, you should definitely give them a try when you have an opportunity. Much better than I expected.

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