Over the last five years or so, Gale Force 9 as established themselves as the premier design house for licensed properties. From huge nerd fandoms like Star Trek and Firefly, to somewhat more niche licenses like Homeland and Spartacus, the good folks at GF9 have shown themselves more than capable of creating games that reflect the feel and themes of those properties with uncanny accuracy. That’s what made me so excited when GF9 landed the license to Doctor Who back in 2015. If anyone could make the hit BBC property work in board game form, it was these people. A good Doctor Who game has been something of a white whale for gamers, so the excitement was palpable. Then came the waiting.
GF9 went through a fair bit of upheaval in that time, particularly with the unexpected passing of one of their lead designers. How much that had to do with the development of this game is anyone’s guess, but the upshot of all of this is that the Doctor Who game, ultimately titled Time of the Daleks, didn’t see shelves until the tail end of 2017, a full two years after its announcement. The anticipation is a key part of how this game will be received. A large sweeping adventure game was probably the expected outcome, but instead we got what amounts to a lighter dice-based game, heavily reminiscent of Elder Sign. If you’re disappointed at the outcome, I don’t blame you. But that’s not to say Time of the Daleks is a bad game. Far from it, it still manages to recreate the feel of the classic sci-fi series, even if the game is still marred by some iffy design choices.
The gist of the game is that the Daleks are invading the Doctor’s timeline, all of the incarnations at one time. This requires the different regenerations of the Doctor to travel around time and space, solving problems to thwart the Daleks and get ever closer to Gallifrey, the Time Lord homeworld. Problems are solved through a dice mechanic, where Doctors and their companions add dice to a pool, fine-tune that pool to adapt it to the specific situation, and then use items and other cards to reroll or change the facing as necessary to get the desire results. If you still manage to fail the roll, the Daleks creep closer to Gallifrey. They will erase the Doctor from existence if they manage to get there before any of the players get there, but if one player reaches Gallifrey, the Daleks are defeated and that player wins.
The dice resolution mechanic bears more than a passing resemblance to Elder Sign, but it ends up being a surprisingly fun way to do things. The different die faces all represent different methods the Doctor might use, from tactical prowess, scientific know-how, to good old-fashioned running. One of the defining characteristics of Doctor Who is its relentless belief that we can do better than violence, and the Doctor’s creativity in problem-solving is elegantly represented by the different die faces. While that representation doesn’t actually have much game impact, I think it’s actually a great way to cover the many different qualities of the Doctor. Rolling the dice themselves is also satisfying, because figuring out the best way to focus the dice pool, and how to spend re-rolls and other power-ups, is right on-point. Just last night I had a game where I had to take a big wild risk to actually succeed, and it paid off. Those moments work very well with the license.
By far the most fun element in this game is the companion mechanic. Each Doctor begins with a companion, and you can accumulate more on every adventure. You can just draw from the decks to get one, but many companions are actually linked to others. In other words, if you have Amy Pond, you can search through the Earth Companions deck to find her husband, Rory Williams. Not only that, but certain Doctors work better with certain companions. Clara Oswald, for example, works best with the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors, giving her a bonus when paired with either one. This is frankly an absolute delight. Just as in the show, the Doctor is at his best when paired with a good team of companions. They open up lots of new tactics and possibilities, and it is so satisfying to have a team that works well together.
The companions also give the regeneration mechanic a lot more meaning. From time to time the Doctor is forced to regenerate, meaning that each player takes the next Doctor in sequence and uses their mini and card from now on. Just like on the show, this has some far-reaching effects for the companions. What was once a good combination might not work so well anymore, and some companions might find themselves leaving the group, or even being removed from the game permanently. Regeneration therefore feels like a loss, and a sometimes necessary sacrifice, which is just right.
Unfortunately the regeneration mechanic highlights one of the glaring weaknesses of this game, which is its disturbing lack of content. When originally announced, Time of the Daleks was to include six incarnations of the Doctor: the First, Fourth, Fifth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth. This would have been great, because it covers all of the fan favorites and the most visible modern examples as well. But the price tag was $75, which was not inconsiderable. Rumor has it that the BBC itself asked the design team for a cheaper base game, and so the Fifth and Tenth Doctors were cut and set aside for an expansion. This means there are only four Doctors here, and so regeneration, with the full four players, just means that everyone is passing their card and mini to the next person in line. It robs an interesting mechanic of a lot of its power. Not only that, but the content in the game, the adventures and companions, are all limited to those present in the four Doctors in-game. That means we don’t have legitimate classics like Rose or Jamie, and that seminal moments like the Caves of Androzanni or the Empty Child (“Are you my mummy?”) are absent. This really limits the scope of the game, which otherwise does an admirable job of bridging the two eras of Doctor Who. Hopefully the game does well enough that we get those other Doctors, because it will only get better with more content.
The other unfortunate design choice is the end-game, where only one Doctor wins but they all can lose. In a good half-dozen games I have been all over the map with this design choice. Its biggest weakness is that it just doesn’t feel right. While different incarnations of the Doctor might be a little adversarial with each other, they ultimately will work together. But Time of the Daleks has the enormous possibility of one player being competitive enough that they can sink the game to make sure the Daleks win by denying another player the victory. This actively works against what we know of the Doctor, although it’s not THAT easy to do. One might think it would be easy enough to work together and just say that everyone wins if one Doctor makes it to Gallifrey, but that also proves to be an imperfect solution. After some experience, I’m not at all sure the game provides enough challenge to really make the Daleks a threat every time. Sure, a couple bad rolls will make the game a lot harder, but there are so many items and companions, and it’s easy enough to get a good pile of them, that you will generally succeed more than you fail. That’s fine when there’s some mild competition between players, but not when the game is entirely cooperative.
At one point I was wondering what the designers were even thinking with this. Does this game even know what it wants to be? But as I’ve played with my wife, who likes to win but doesn’t like really cut-throat games, the semi-cooperative gameplay has made a little more sense. The key is to play it as a co-op until the Daleks are no longer a serious threat, then think of the victory as a friendly bit of competition between the Doctors. This works for me thematically, at least well enough. The victory condition produces a couple of important mechanical side effects, forcing players to take bigger risks when they are behind, thereby making the game a little more interesting. It also makes players think long and hard about crossing the time streams to help each other solve really tough problems, which is as it should be. But I confess, the decision-making process to get to those outcomes still feels weird to me. Surely there has to be a better way to design this to make the game not have any dissonance at all. Lots of games require the players to kind of know how to make it fun, but this is a situation where that could have easily been avoided.
In terms of production, Time of the Daleks is all over the place. Visually the game looks really nice. I like the cardboard shapes all over the table, because it looks like the Time Lord symbol, and it is a nice visual to all of the pell-mell time streams in the show. Graphically the game is also very easy to use, and very attractive as well. The minis are terrific, and I really like they were able to capture the physicality of the different regenerations of the Doctor. But the actual physical quality is lacking. The cards feel really thin, as do the cardstock TARDIS consoles. Compared to the other games from GF9, this is a disappointment.
For many people, disappointment will be the key takeaway from Time of the Daleks. For as good as it is, and I do like it a lot, it remains merely a good Doctor Who game, rather than the definitive one we all wanted. But the game we have is still a lot of fun. It does right by the series, and does an especially good job of recreating the relationships between characters that will really mean a lot to fans of the show. Crucially, it is a pretty straight-forward design, making it more accessible for people who wouldn’t normally care about hobby games. Being a huge fan of the show, I’m hardly an unbiased voice, but then if it pleases a fan, mission accomplished. I only hope it does well enough that we get more Doctors, particularly when Jodie Whittaker takes on the iconic role later this year.