A few months back, I got a message from a user on Board Game Geek asking if I was willing to part with my copy of TimeBomb. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, Indie Boards and Cards had gotten a license to re-make the game, and they chose to change the cartoonish “bad guys blowing up stuff” theme to an unbelievably over-used “Cthulhu and cultists” theme. I was moderately surprised at the change, especially because a number of their games (The Resistance, One Night Revolution, Coup) revolve around a setting where secret bombers trying to outwit the authorities just makes sense. For whatever reason, they went a different way. But there is still the original Japanese version (which I didn’t end up parting with), and a French version from publisher Iello, that sticks to the “terrorist” theme, however objectionable that may be. Regardless, TimeBomb (or “Don’t Mess With Cthulhu”) is a quick social deduction game with exceedingly simple rules and some random elements that keep the game from being too heavy.
The game I would most closely compare it to is The Resistance. In both games, the players are split into teams, and the goal of the game is to succeed at their missions (for the good team) or sabotage the good team and make it through the game without being discovered (for the bad team). But where The Resistance has a pair of voting systems (and expansions with a variety of roles and special actions) that you use to try and suss out who is on what team, TimeBomb simply splits the players and then uses a bluffing mini-game of sorts to introduce information. You take the deck of “wire” cards, some of which are neutral, and some of which disarm the bomb, and one of which is an explosion, and deal it out so that each player has the same number of cards. You know what cards you have, but you shuffle them up, so you don’t know which of them is which. If you only have safe wires, then we can cut any of yours and the game continues… and if you have the wires we’re looking for, we can try to hone in on where they are. The problem is, everyone is going to claim to be safe or better, even the bombers. Maybe especially the bombers. Sometimes, you want people to think you have the game ending explosion, other times, you desperately need them to believe you don’t.
There are no special actions, shifting alliances, or other complications. On your turn, you choose another player, flip over one of their cards, and then it becomes their turn to choose someone. No one knows the other players’ teams, so you can never trust anyone; even the bombers are in the dark, so one can’t gain control of the wire cutters, give away their role, and try going to explosion city with the other bomber… suddenly everyone will claim to be their partner! This is where the game shines, because despite its simplicity, you get all of the bluffing, suspicious squinting, and blind accusations you would in any other social deduction game. Everyone has to lie and connive while trying to see past the other players’ lying and conniving.
Each round, after a certain number of cards have been revealed, the remaining cards are re-shuffled and re-dealt, so the entire situation is thrown into disarray. That lack of sureness, due to the cards, is helpful in preventing the game from becoming a stale exercise in pure deduction, and forces you to check and re-check how the players around you are behaving. I’d like to say that it serves well in that regard and has no drawbacks, but like the policy cards in Secret Hitler, sometimes the game plays you more than you play it. A bomber with the only remaining success card, but also the explosion, is in a tight spot, because they have to risk causing the other team to win in order to have a chance for their team, and a technician with the explosion needs to drive everyone away from his cards, but can’t explain why without tipping off the bombers. I find, though, that rather than feeling like you have been screwed by the randomness of these things, you just get a great moment of tension, and then, if it comes apart for you and your team, the game is quick enough that it doesn’t matter.
I do want to take a moment to revisit the “Cthulhu” re-theme: this is probably the worst part of the game you will encounter. Although this has lead to the publisher adding a few optional complications to the game (in the form of special actions that reveal cards or move them around), it is simply obnoxious that the original theme, or a less objectionable formulation of it, wasn’t kept. In a world where Call of Cthulhu has inspired everything from movies to horror games to cutesy puppets, we did not need the big green monster’s face slapped onto yet another item, especially one where the subject matter doesn’t really fit. I don’t begrudge the fellow who asked if he could buy my copy; the Cthulhu theme feels pasted on in the worst way, and if I didn’t play a version with bombs, cops, and terrorists, I would probably never even have considered the game.
That would have been a mistake, but what can you do? TimeBomb is a fine game, and I’m sure the Cthulhu version is, too. Because the mechanisms make the game, and the mechanisms in this game are solid. It is by no means a great game; the simplicity and unpredictability lead to it being a bit too light and quick for me when The Resistance and One Night Revolution also exist. But the quickly understood theme, push-your-luck search for the right cards for your team, and simple focus on reading the other players over complicated deduction all come together to make a perfectly fine game, especially to fill in with non-gamers who might be put off by a more complex or subtle social deduction game.