Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Game 356: Time Lords


We interrupt your schedule of 1984 whales to retrospect the very first published computer game designed by strategy game auteur Julian Gollop, famed for Laser Squad, and later the X-COM series.

Only a few weeks ago, Time Lords was unknown to me; I had assumed Rebelstar Raiders for the ZX Spectrum to be his first, and intended it as the first game in a short Gollop retrospective to be posted in my 1985 phase. Wargaming Scribe, recruiting partners for a proper play-by-email session, alerted me of this earlier title on the comparatively more powerful BBC Micro, which Gollop initially designed as a board game, albeit one that required a neutral game master to keep track of and divulge information to the players, and that fellow student Andrew Greene subsequently converted to a computer program.

Time Lords is clearly meant to be played as a multiplayer title. Solo isn't quite as pointless as Andromeda Conquest, the last game that Scribe and myself crossovered, but it's still an incomplete experience, and most of the tactics are only available and/or meaningful when there are other Time Lords cruising around the multiverse. Rivals may trade information, scheme and betray, lay traps and generally interfere with one another, fight deathmatches, and even cause universe ending time paradoxes.

As X-COM is one of my favorite games of all time, obviously I had to add this to my retrospective, and certainly couldn't turn down an opportunity to play it more or less as intended - a five-player 4D contest for dominion over time and space.

Read Scribe's take and perspective too, which also includes a few more Doctor Who memes, and one killer Star Control reference that I want to kick myself over not thinking of first. Or, if you're coming here from The Wargaming Scribe, half of this post will be covering familiar ground, so click here to jump to where the action is.

Front-loaded with 30 pages of ingame instructions, Time Lords is a bit intimidating. The gist is that you, a Time Lord, represent one of five alien races, who for fifteen eons, have seen their empires rise, expand, fall, and most importantly, go to war with one another (and sometimes themselves). Your goal is to explore history, and alter it to the benefit of your client by observing crucial wars and changing the outcome in their favor.

Cyan robots invade Scaro from Mundas and fight the humans while magenta ant people emigrate to Neston. Numbers indicate relative power.

At Scribe's recommendation, I launched a solo game and immediately forfeited, revealing a postgame timeline of the universe before doing solo mode tests in earnest. This, along with re-reviewing the instructions, helped me begin to understand how things work, if not necessarily to figure out how to win.

In the below map, the history from two of the five planets are charted (five would be much too confusing to look at), and annotated with my own lines:

The "Kaleds" (subtle, huh?) shown here in Cyan begin on planet Mundas to the right, and maintain a presence for the entire 15 eon game. By E3, a subgroup migrates left to planet Scaro, while the original group ex-ter-mi-nates the newly arrived yellow "Cyburmen," ending their brief colonial era. Similar attempts by humans and more Cyburmen are squashed on the subsequent eons. Meanwhile, the Scaro colony of Kaleds kills Cyburmen on E5, but are themselves eradicated by magenta Zarby, who go on to be the dominant form of Scaro life. Kaleds are nothing if not tenacious, though, and a brood from planet Vortys (not shown) arrives the next eon, lasting long enough to spread multiple colonies back to Mundas. They coexist with the original settlement for awhile, until one of them is mutually eradicated with the red Nestine Consciousness, and the other is wiped out on E10. The Zarby on Scaro peak at E11, when a costly war with the Nestine knocks them down from level 8 to level 2.

At this point it's too late to find out, but what if, on Scaro, E6, the Kaled-Zarby war had been tilted in favor of the Kaleds? The Zarby dynasty would be cut off, the migrations to Mundas would never happen, and perhaps the Kaled, victorious, would spread themselves even farther than they already had. Or perhaps the Kaled on Scaro would just lose a later war, or even infight among themselves, ceding this planet to another race?

Here's a much simpler what-if scenario. Had the Kaled lost their first war with the Cyburmen on Mundas, E3, they'd have been a forgotten footnote in universal history instead of an ever-expanding menace, having been eradicated before they could even begin to spread. It's nearly impossible to predict how the timeline would have looked instead without them - this early victory on Mundas was a proverbial butterfly flap that set off a hurricane of deterministic chaos.


Changing wars is the only way to improve your race's standing, and if you are in the time zone of a war, you may spend some resource points to tip the scales one way or another; the greater the power imbalance, the more points you'll need to cause an upset, but there's a random element as well, ensuring you can't simply calculate the proper amount. You only get one chance per war, and revisiting previously explored time zones is not allowed. But when you run out of resources, that's it, you're done.

The trickier part is that to change the outcome of a war, you must first determine the time and place of a war. And initially, your map of time and space is a blank slate - 75 separate time zones representing the events of 15 eons on five planets remain totally obscure to you. Even your race's homeworld is initially unknown! In a singleplayer game, you effectively get only 25 moves. In a multiplayer game, you effectively get fewer than 25 moves unless you choose to play very recklessly.

Prior to the proper match, I played several singleplayer games, to try to get a sense on where and when the most wars could be found, and to develop a good methodology for finding them.

Scores are determined by combined power levels across all time zones and planets. In this match, the Cyburmen never had a chance.

To win solo play, you must not only make your race the most successful in the universe, but utterly dominate the rest of them. I never came close, and I'm not convinced that this is possible without phenomenal luck. For one, you have no influence over any events except the outcome of war, and should a rival race enjoy ages of peaceful prosperity, there is absolutely nothing you can do to knock them down a peg - you can't instigate war, only change the outcome of wars that do happen. Second, sometimes my race just seemed destined to lose key wars no matter how many resources I spent trying to change them. Third, civil wars can break out, often do when your race colonizes a lot, and there's no good outcome for a civil war. And fourth, your empire can just decline or even die out for no reason.

Apart from visiting time zones and contacting races, there are a few other tactics which seem largely to completely pointless in single player mode:

  • The time scanner reveals the full events in any time zone, but this is usually more expensive than just warping there. It is useful when you are at the site of a war and wish to scan the future to determine its outcome before investing resources to change it.
  • Fortifications may be deployed when warping to a new time zone to protect yourself from ambushes, but since there are no other time lords to ambush you, you might as well just deploy the minimum allowed.
  • You might find a companion in the time zone of your race's first war, but as far as I can tell, all companions do is aid in battle against rival time lords.
  • Four segments of a time key are hidden somewhere, generally where ever combined alien civilization points are at their highest, and when all of them are found, secrets of time and space are revealed to their discoverers. Finding them all by yourself seems a dismal prospect.


Multiplayer only requires that you be the most successful in the universe, and someone's got to hold that distinction at the end of everything. Multiplayer also means up to five time lords warping around the universe, and things potentially get a lot more dangerous, and therefore interesting. When two lords visit the same time zone, a fight can break out, even if one of them "left" it previously! You could find your past self ambushed in a time and place that you had visited many turns ago. And death to a time lord will undo everything they accomplished in subsequent turns, including possibly bringing a previously killed one back to life! Actions that create a time paradox, such as killing your killer's killer, will unravel the spacetime fabric and end the game.

Multiplayer also unlocks a few tools that aren't even available in solo mode.

  • Beacons, left behind in time zones, will alert you if events there get altered.
  • Traps, also left behind in time zones, will quietly warp rival lords elsewhere, giving them false information and wasting their turn even if they realize it.
  • Your time scanner gains a secondary mode that detects the presence of time lords in a five-eon range, but does not reveal any events.

The competitors for this PBEM match are:

  • Jason Dyer, interactive fiction blogger of Renga in Blue, represents the boring humans.
  • Dayyalu, Scribe's PBEM partner and frequent commenter, plays "Cyburmen."
  • Argyraspide returns from the Wreck of the BSM Pandora to play the Zarby, a race of ant people.
  • Scribe plays "Kaleds," ostensibly a misspelling of Dalek, but perhaps unintentionally an accurate spelling of something else.
  • This leaves me with the "Nestine," a tentacled inter-dimensional hivemind.

Turn 1

I begin by using my scanner's secondary mode to scan the opening eons for rival time lords, picking worlds at random until I find a safe one. This is expensive, costing me 12 of my initial 129 time points just to scan three worlds, but ensures I don't step on any toes too soon, and perhaps it may come in useful later, should I decide I wish to hunt down a rival player on their first turn, and consequently undo everything they've ever accomplished.

  • The Human Time Lord's first move is Scaro, E1.
  • The Cyburman Time Lord went to Mundas, E4.
  • Earth's early eons are unmolested.

Experience from solo play tells me that planets see their first wars around eons 3-5, so I scan Earth E4.


This isn't immediately valuable to me, but the presence of an early war could indicate a companion, so I warp there, deploying maximum protection. Sure enough, a K9 is found there, and amazingly, so is a segment!

One useful action for gathering intel is to contact a species. Doing this prompts them to reveal their history on that planet, including any wars or migrations, and the higher the civilization level, the farther back their accounts will go. Contacting the Nestine here reveals that they came from Scaro one eon ago. But you must only do this once per time zone - talk to a second race and the first will kill you.

I end the turn by placing a time trap, not being entirely certain of how these things work.


I can consider the following assumptions to be likely:

  • Earth is the Human homeworld.
  • Scaro is the Nestine homeworld.
  • Vortys is the Kaled homeworld.


Before the next turn begins, Scribe (Kaleds) claims to know where my homeworld is and offers to tell me in exchange for a scan or two. I offer to divulge my turn's findings, but he withdraws, believing my position to be too strong to bolster with more information. Assuming Scaro is my homeworld, I can conclude a few more things - Jason (Humans) also knows, and has been trading info with Scribe. Furthermore, I expect to be ganged up on.


Turn 2

Well, at least one of my predictions didn't come true, as Scribe's Time Lord got eaten by ants this round. Got to consider them aggressive and dangerous. Afraid this won't make for a very interesting AAR on his end, possibly mine neither if I'm not careful and/or unlucky.

Scribe has offered a generous pledge of data and permanent non-aggression to anyone who manages to bring him back to life by killing Argyraspide on his own opening move on Neston-6. I'm not quite ready to take up this offer.

For now, I travel to Scaro E3, the time zone where the Nestine came to Earth from, where I find a war, but no companion. I invest a bunch of points to ensure we win this war even if another Time Lord meddles, and set up both trap and beacon for extra protection.

And 'Contact' confirms my Scaro origins.

Turn 3

Jason of the humans was killed by the ants this turn, and I'm probably next. What to do now - intercept him at Neston-6 and try to end this madness? Seek out another companion first? Or just keep calm and carry on?

I pick the latter for now, but continue to move cautiously. Argyraspide attacks at his expense, and to no tactical advantage as far as I know. Even if he kills me, perhaps by continuing to spend my points on advancing the Nestine while he spends his on hunting down Time Lords, I can get enough of a lead to still come out ahead. Unless he kills the me from an early turn before doing that.

I know from the last turn that the Nestine have spread to Neston, so I scan there.

My colonists coexist with the Kaleds for three eons until they war with the humans and probably lose, so I visit and spend another chunk of points to win instead, taking the usual precautions.


Turn 4

Argyraspide got into another fight with humans, and I notice that the time trap I set on my first turn is gone, indicating he might have triggered it and gotten zapped into the past while hunting for calamari.

I can't put this off any longer - attack!

Well, that was unproductive.

Turns 5-7

No combat, just continued exploration. I go back to the Neston timeline I had been exploring on turn 3 and continue to tilt wars in my favor. Eventually, as points start to run out, I start easing up on the defenses.

Changing Neston's fate on eon 5

Fingers thrive for generations to come!

But near the end, a costly civil war takes them down a few pegs.

Turn 8

Dayyalu of the Cyburmen, who had been fairly quiet up until now, warped to Neston-6 where I had tried to intercept Argyraspide and killed both of us even though we both had companions and he did not.

The game goes on, but not for us. Argyraspide's casualties Scribe and Jason get resurrected, and continue the game. The events of my last three moves - very beneficial events too - are undone.

Over the next few turns, Jason and Scribe explore uneventfully while Dayyalu hunts for them, eventually finding and killing Scribe again. The game then ends with a Kaled victory.

Post-conclusion, I gathered everyone's save states to piece together a meta-timeline:


What we see here is that Scribe never affected the board, died twice, and won anyway. Whereas I made a large gain early on from sniffing out a weak Zarby position, and even took first place for a little while, but lost it thanks to an attack that I couldn't have prevented, took every available option to defend against, and that didn't even benefit the attacker.

I kid, but still,

GAB rating: Bad. I don't think any of us particularly enjoyed this game - Dayyalu and Scribe panned it as well, though our criticisms differed to an extent. I actually liked the challenge of trying to locate the right dimensional nodes to twiddle on a limited scanner budget and incomplete information - it was like solving a logic puzzle with aspects of Minesweeper and Conway's Game of Life. Granted, I practiced this a fair amount before doing it for real, and was lucky that my initial Earth scans led me back to a particularly critical Nestine-Zarby war. Jason and Dayyalu, on the other hand, never had a fair shot to begin with - their options for advancement were limited from the start, and the gameplay much too basic for that to change.

But for how basic everything is, there are yet still many elements that just don't work out. I have no idea how beacons could ever help you, given that you can't return to the time zone where you set them. The whole time key segment hunt seems like a big distraction, and if fortifications and companions are supposed to aid you in combat, this was never evident.

Combat is by far the biggest weakness, and yet, as implemented, is integral to the game. The consequences are harshly punitive, eliminating the loser from the game (seldom a good feature in a multiplayer game), and potentially undoing all of your work, and this factor compelled me to play with as much caution as the rules would allow, for whatever good that did me. The dice roll mechanics are obscure - we're told that companions and fortifications improve your odds, but we're not told by how much nor what the baseline odds are, and the only pattern I noticed was that no aggressor ever got killed in this match.


I've sometimes wondered if it was possible to sensibly incorporate time travel into a multiplayer game - it's been done in many different puzzle games, and a number of strictly solo experiences played around with slowing or reversing time, but the introduction of other players, who mustn't be directly affected by your own temporal manipulations, makes this a problem. Sci-fi strategy titles like Command & Conquer: Red Alert and Civilization: Test of Time have their time-traveling shenanigans, but were in fact just mundane 1D timespace powers like teleportation and stasis infliction, dressed up in chrono-technic greebles. Gollop, as it turns out, managed to envision and design a practical time traveling ruleset in high school. He just didn't manage to make it into a good game.

Time Lords might not be good game, but it is an interesting, novel idea that, at least in terms of gameplay, doesn't feel derivative, nor does it feel anything like the primitive X-COM ancestor that I had been at first expecting. Scribe and myself did hash out some what-if ideas to hypothetically salvage the high concept, but I don't think either of us had much confidence in what might have been. And in the end, it seems Gollop, who revisited and improved on Rebelstar Raiders until it became X-COM, but never once looked back to Time Lords for inspiration, didn't have much confidence either.


  1. Wow... interesting for sure! I too had never hear of this one. As pointed out the Kaleds are the race that mutated and gave rise to the Daleks via Davros. Sorry if that is a pedantic comment! Cool little critter from the early days though!

  2. "lost it thanks to an attack that I couldn't have prevented, took every available option to defend against, and that didn't even benefit the attacker."

    I'm so, so sorry. Again, I had no idea about what I was doing.

    1. It's all good. Sorry if that came across as resentful - I was more harping on about the game's bad design than of your actions, which were clearly part of the game's intent.

  3. Gratifying to finally get sort of a sense what was going on. If I played again I'd still be miserably confused, though.

    Is there _any_ kind of stratagem for finding companions / pieces or is it pure luck?

    I was also hoping you would explain beacons, heh. Maybe even the authors didn't know.

    1. So I just did a test play in solo mode to see if I could find the segments, without caring about anything else, and I actually managed to find them all, plus one companion. My strategy was to travel to each planet on eon 9, search wherever I found large combined civ levels, and also search on eons adjacent to ones where big civ levels were found. For whatever it's worth, I found all of them between eons 7 and 9, and I found them on three different planets. And I had plenty of TP left over to go visit all the wars and change most of them to my race's benefit.

      I still didn't win or even come in first place, though, even with all that information the segments got me. In fact I came in third. The board state is just too immutable. And this strategy would be risky in multiplayer, since I had to spread my fortifications very thin in order to reach so many different eons.

      Beacons, as I understand them, disappear when events change the state of the eon where you left them. Let's say you go somewhere and see that the humans win a war against the nestine there, but you leave a beacon. Later, I go there, we meet without killing each other, but I change the outcome of the war so that the nestine win. Your beacon disappears, telling you that I changed history there. Or maybe I fail, and your beacon stays there. But I'm not sure what you'd do with that information either way, since you can't go back.

    2. I believe finding segments is a distraction, at least for 5 players. If you find them all, you probably have a good idea of the map.
      Also, they can be lost if time changes. I found one in my first turn (I did not mention it in my AAR for the sake of narration), and when I came back *poof* gone because Nestine.

      Same with the companions, I feel like the best strategy is "if you jump on an early war, try to look for companion for only 2 Time Points. It paid off for some of you.


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