Human Era Board Game Review (Lay Waste Games)

5

Humans, cyborgs, and machines all vie for control over the universe in this time-travel social deduction game. In Human Era, players take turns meddling with time and space. Humans want to restore the original timeline (which they destroyed). Machines want to sabotage them. And cyborgs, well, cyborgs just want to be on the winning side. The Human Era is an attractive mix of abstract strategy and social deduction that nevertheless perplexed us, for reasons that we'll unfold below.

Human Era Board Game Details

Players: 4 to 10

Game Time: 30 Minutes

Age: 10+

Genre: Social Deduction / Abstract Strategy

How is Human Era Played?

Human Era is a simple game. There are a total of six eras, ranging from "The Beginning of Life to "The End of Time." There are things that go in each of these timelines, such as "amoebas" at "The Beginning of Life. At the beginning of the game, there are all sorts of issues: dinosaurs during "The Rise of Civilization," and cyborgs in "The Age of the Dinosaurs."

Human era board game
You have a wheel of different timelines and need to resolve the anomalies on each.

For humans, the goal is to resolve these anomalies by ensuring that the top card by each era is appropriate. Thus, they want to make sure that there's a dinosaur at the top of "The Age of Dinosaurs," and a Neanderthal at the top of "The Rise of Civilization," and so forth. For machines, they want to make sure that the timeline is muddled. This is complicated by paradoxes. An paradox happens when any one card is seen twice on the timeline. When that happens, the older card disappears. 

This is a really nifty abstract strategy mechanic, because it can create a series of chained reactions. If you currently have a T-Rex at the Rise of Civilization, you can play a T-Rex in the "Age of Dinosaurs," and the T-Rex at the "Rise of Civilization" will suddenly "disappear." But if you then reveal a Neanderthal twice, then one of the Neanderthals will also disappear. It all makes a lot more sense while playing the game.

At the beginning of every turn, a timeline is selected randomly. On their turn, the leader will select three players (including or not including themselves). This can be voted up or down, but if it's voted down, a random card will be drawn and played. Three players will hand in cards, in addition to a random card. The leader will shuffle and discard a single card randomly. The leader will then lay those cards on the one timeline in any order of their choosing. Ideally, they (if they are human) want to make it so that the top card at the end of their turn is the correct card for that era, after any paradoxes have resolved.

Human Era board game cards
The art is one of the highlights of the game, though there is such a thing as too much of one color. 

At the end of their turn, the number of "good" timelines will be scored. At 6, the humans win. At 0, the machines win. 

"Are the Cyborgs Dutchmen?"

This was asked in the middle of the game and makes some sense; the cyborg on the team is going to win as long as the game ends somewhere in the middle. The game ends at 10 rounds, which is tracked with cards. There's only one cyborg and there are two machines, which means that humans generally outnumber all of them. And that's where the problem arose.

We couldn't figure out how the game actually works.

Are We Stupid Or Does the Game Not Make Sense?

I love it when I have a controversial opinion on a game, because I never know if I'm missing something really critical. What I'm about to bring up doesn't seem to be discussed anywhere else, and everyone else adores this game. 

The leader gets three cards from the players (with one random mixed in, and then a random discarded). These cards are not secret. Everyone sees the cards laid down in an order and knows which cards the leader had.

That means the leader has to place them in an optimal order; the leader cannot sabotage the order of the cards because everyone can see them do it, and consequently would never select them for leadership or to add cards in the future. The only thing the leader can do is potentially pretend they made a mistake. It was always obvious which solution was optimal for any given hand, and consequently, leaders couldn't profess ignorance. 

Human Era box art
Way, way too much of one color. 

Machines and the cyborg can never outvote humans and they do not who is on their side regardless, and thus they have no real control in voting. The only control a machine or cyborg has is arguing to be on the team and putting in the wrong cards. However, if they all put in the wrong cards (and again, they do not know who the other is), it will be obvious one of them is bad (because only one card is random).

As we played, it seemed like it was impossible for machines to win at all unless humans were very stupid or the machines were very smart. In order to win, machines needed to coordinate -- without knowing who the other is -- to create a paradox so powerful that they could win the game in a single turn. They would have to win the game in a single turn, as leader, because if they failed, we would know who they were and ignore them the rest of the game.

When we searched the web for a solution, we saw that the developer had stated some alternative rules, which made it so that cards also needed to be laid down completely randomly. This makes the game actually almost entirely random. The developer themselves stated:

Then in further refining this experience through volleys of playtesting was that the machines and cyborgs were having a really hard time bluffing, unless the specific player was particularly skilled at bluffing. And let's face it, if you're not good at it, this is going to be a stressful and unfun experience when you get found out turn 1. So we added just enough randomness to help mask who is who. 

But that didn't work. In fact, we were already able to figure out who was a machine in the very first round in one game, because we only got bad cards, and thus knew to avoid those people the entire game. 

Ultimately, it seems as though the end experience is exactly what the designers intended: the designers wanted a game that was a random, social puzzle, with some element of social deduction. And I've said before that I hate social deduction games, so I should be willing to go with this. At the end though, the machines didn't enjoy the social aspect: they felt the game was brutally unfair. The humans didn't feel like they had won a victory, because it was so obviously easy to do. And we were all left wondering if we were just playing the game wrong.

Human Era Board Game Details
  • PRO: Attractive, unique art style and an interesting abstract strategy element.
  • CON: Just too random, and also, the game could have done with a few more components; the mostly empty box feels cheap.