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Time Commanders

"The stakes are high; battle is imminent."

Time Commanders is a BBC historical Game Show presented by Eddie Mair (and later Richard Hammond) between 2003 and 2005, known mostly for using the Rome: Total War engine to depict its battles.

The show offered contestants a chance to reenact historical battles in an attempt to do better than the original combatants. The teams of four were divided into two groups: the Generals, who had an overview of the battlefield and directed overall strategy, and the Lieutenants (later called Captains), who were in charge of the army itself.

Playing a video game by committee is about as hard as you'd expect. Throughout the show's two seasons, only half of the episodes ended with the players victorious, and in many cases the teams were outright slaughtered. Indeed, part of the show's appeal is watching just how spectacularly the teams can fail.

During the episodes, a pair of military historians (Aryeh Nusbacher and, on a rotating basis, Mike Loades, Saul David, Mark Urban or Adrian Goldsworthy) watch over the battle commenting on the team's tactics, as well as discussing facts about the real battle, including the military culture and weapons of the sides involved. At the end of every episode, they then discuss what the team did right, what they did wrong, and show how the real battle went.

If one thing's certain from this show's run, it's that the most unlikely people to lose a battle will lose—and the most unlikely winners can win.


This show provides examples of:

  • Alternate History: Quite a few outcomes result in this, such as the Romans winning the Battle of Teutoberg Forest.
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: The players command the army of Spartacus at the Battle of the Silarus River.
  • Artificial Stupidity: Averted. The show does not use Rome: Total War's AI, or indeed even any of the single player campaign missions. Rather, Time Commanders uses custom-made maps with technicians controlling the enemy forces, acting out what the opponents would have actually done in Real Life.
    • Rome: Total War players have pointed out a number of telltale signs that the game AI is not in control, including cases where the game AI consistently behaves stupidly, yet the enemy in Time Commanders reacts wisely (such as the Germans pulling back forces getting attacked by ranged units during the Battle of Teutoberg Forest).
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The generals were granted access to an overhead projection of the battlefield, along with a number of blocks to represent armies. Naturally, about half way though the battle the location of the blocks bore absolutely no resemblance to what was actually happening in game. Later episodes got rid of the blocks entirely and simply gave the generals a normal minimap.
    • The Testudo formation is a famous Roman tactic, meant to prevent attacks from archers. Attempting to fight an actual battle in that formation, treating it like it's some kind of impenetrable shield? It goes as well as you'd think...
  • Badass Family: The Eagers family, who fought the Battle of Stamford Bridge. They not only proved quite eager, they thoroughly curb-stomped the Norse.
    • Action / Team Mom: Jane Eagers, who assumed the role of the team's commander-in-chief and was very good at it. "KILL! KILL! KILL!" Wow.
  • Badass Preacher: The team of vicars selected for the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, after the initial skirmish, were well organized, motivated, and worked as a team. They're one of the teams who not only won their battle, but won a battle that was historically a massacre for their side!
  • The Big Board: A large screen in front of the players provided a view of various parts of the battlefield, along with a bar to show how they were doing; one too many times, though, the generals would ignore this and focus instead on the PC monitors intended for their lieutenants/captains.
  • British Brevity: Lasted for a grand total of two seasons, the second being half the length of the first.
  • Catch Phrase: "The stakes are high; battle is imminent."
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: More often than not, the players were on the receiving end of this, but there were notable (and awesome) exceptions. Exactly half of the show's episodes ended in a defeat for the players.
  • Geo Effects: This might well be a Deconstruction. More than one team failed miserably because their generals were convinced that taking and holding the high ground on any battlefield would translate to an automatic victory, regardless of their army's composition or the enemy's. As the historians point out, the high ground of a battlefield is important, not always as ground to be defended but as ground to be denied to the enemy.
    • Aryeh Nusbacher called out several generals for having a Perverse Sexual Lust for hills that ultimately got their forces slaughtered.
    • Played straight, however in the battle of Watling Street, where the team inadvisably moved off their well-protected defensive position on the high ground, getting their team utterly massacred by Boudicca's screaming horde of Britons.
  • Idiot Houdini: Not all the teams who won did so out of superior strategies and teamwork. Some of the teams (like the one who fought in the Cynocephalae episode) pulled through with bumbling tactics that got lucky.
  • Idiot Volleyball
  • I Know Mortal Kombat: Usually averted; for most of the series, the producers explicitly avoided letting people with previous gaming experience on the show. However, in the Battle of Troy, the show did get a group of gamers, including some who claimed to play strategy games. They barely pulled a Pyrrhic Victory out of the fight, with little of their own force remaining.
    • This has been inverted as well; some episodes had teams of military men or people with military experience playing the game.

      In the first season, a team of instructors from the Bristol Army Cadet Force took command for the Battle of Chalons. They were utterly defeated.

      In the second season, actual officers from the British Army and Royal Air Force comprised the team playing the Battle of Hydaspes River. All four not only had plenty of modern military experience, but were learned in battles of the ancient world. They still got crushed.
  • Large Ham: Aryeh Nusbacher and (especially) Mike Loades can get particularly enthusiastic as commentators. In the second season, Mike Loades even gets to provide demonstrations for the viewers at home of how the weapons of a given episode's battle were used.
    • Aryeh's hamminess is best seen in the "Post-Mortem" phase of the show where the historians demonstrate on the tactical board how the battle of the episode went in history. In the Leuctra episode, Eddie Mair advised the team to stand back.
    Eddie Mair: Sometimes Aryeh gets quite animated while doing this. People have been on crutches for weeks!
  • The Millstone: Some of the teams that failed often had someone (or multiple people) playing this role. Chances are, if you're facepalming during an episode, it was due to one or more Millstones in the team.
  • Oh Crap: Richard Hammond gets a good one in during the Battle of the Hydaspes River, when the Indian Army's elephants are about to plow into the rear of the team's Macedonian Phalanxes.
  • One Steve Limit: Two of the gamers on the team during the Battle of Troy were actually named Steve, thus the host had to use a nickname for one and the last name of the other Steve to aid in clear communication.
  • The Pollyanna: Chris Starbuck, one of the generals during the Battle of Chalons. Among other things, after getting his team's army utterly annihilated, he quipped "Well, we came in second!"
  • Poor Communication Kills: The lieutenants tended to misinterpret, argue with or completely ignore their orders ... which is damn close to Truth in Television for many ancient armies.
  • Product Placement: Averted due to the BBC's policies. The Creative Assembly were credited with making the "Battle Engine", but no reference to the Total War series was ever made. In addition, the first season aired a year before Rome: Total War was actually released.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: In addition to the battle of Troy, the battle of the Silarus River ends with Aryeh Nusbacher criticising the team, stating that despite winning a battle that their side was historically massacred in, they lost too much of their force to be able to sustain the rest of the campaign.
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: As the historians discuss at one point, many of the teams fall prey to "cultural preconceptions" about how ancient battles "should" work—either from basing their expectations and tactics on movies (like Ben Hur), or trying to apply modern (or pre-modern) tactics to ancient warfare (see Geo Effects above).
  • The Starscream: The Lieutenants and Captains, being in command of the technicians controlling the army itself, would often take over and head off by themselves, completely ignoring the generals. Sometimes, especially in teams that were Idiot Houdinis, a Starscream Captain or Lieutenant sometimes doubled as the one to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
  • Taking You with Me: As their forces routed and the enemy began to surround them, some players would hurl their remaining units at the AI general in an attempt to bring them down. It didn't help.


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