I’ve written before about how much I enjoy the Rory’s Story Cubes system. While not really a “game” in the traditional sense, the cubes offer storytelling opportunities for all kinds of activities including solo adventures, language classes, idea generation, parties, team building exercises, and improv. So it’s not surprising that when I heard there was a board game based on the Story Cubes, I jumped to see what it offered. Would it be more fun than the basic cubes, or would it ruin a good thing with bloat and unnecessary complication? It turns out that the answers lie somewhere between yes and no, and whether or not you love Untold will depend on your expectations and the people you play with.
How It Plays
Untold: Adventures Await (just Untold from now on) is a storytelling game in which you roll Story Cubes and program them into various story elements in order to create a narrative tale. It shares some elements with roleplaying games in that the group is crafting the narrative as things go along, but the focus here is on crafting the story, not on completing or surviving a quest. It’s more like being the DM/GM who crafts the narrative, rather than being the characters who travel through that narrative.
Despite being fairly open-ended, there is a structure to Untold. You begin by choosing the setting for your story, introducing the dilemma that will drive the plot, and crafting the characters. Then you play through four more “scenes” that take the story to completion. (Or to the cliffhanger and “To Be Continued,” if you want to keep going later.)
More specifically… The game board has room for five tiles that will determine the scenes for your story. These tiles are dealt randomly onto the board from their respective piles at the beginning of the game . Each tile has recessed spaces to hold the cubes, and icons that dictate what sort of story element should be represented. For example, a tile might ask players to specify a location, a person, a threat, and/or an action. The icons are clearly shown and explained on each person’s player board for reference.
The first tile for Scene #1 is flipped over and you set up the main dilemma for your story. All nine cubes are rolled and the group decides which cube should go in which slot on the tile. It’s totally up to the players what to do, here. For example, you might roll a sheep and decide to put it in the location space, declaring that the story takes place in a pasture. You might decide that the bug you rolled represents monster fleas that are attacking your sheep.
Once you’ve set up the main storyline, each player will craft their character using the provided character sheets. You want to do this after setting the scene so that your characters better fit the emerging storyline. Characters get names, jobs, motivations, powers and abilities, companions, and areas of expertise. Players should also take some time to discuss the connection between the characters and how they ended up together in this moment in time. You can do this off the top of your head, or you can roll the remaining Story Cubes to help spark your imagination.
The remainder of the game is played by rolling any cubes not already placed on the board, placing them onto the scene cards, and spending tokens in order to ask questions and take actions. Each tile specifies how many question and/or action tokens can be used for that scene. To ask a question, take a token from the scene card and ask something that will clarify the story. Questions must begin with Who, What, Why, When, Where, or How. Ask the question then roll any cubes that aren’t on tiles for the answer. Maybe you ask, “Where did these fleas come from?” One of your rolled cubes shows an alien face, so you declare they came from space. There aren’t any turns here, it’s just players taking tokens and asking questions until either the tokens run out or no one can come up with anything else to ask.
Taking actions works much the same way. Take a token and then declare an action. Actions must be declared as, “I try to ______ by _____,” or “I want to ______ by ______.” Describe what it is you’re attempting to do in detail. To determine the outcome of your action, flip a card from the Outcome deck. You may succeed or fail (there are degrees of success and failure). Then you must describe your outcome according to the card you flipped. Some outcomes require a reaction from a character. If that’s the case, draw a reaction card, decide who it represents, and describe the reaction.
Players also have a stash of personal tokens that they can spend during the game. These allow you to interject an idea when someone else is working through a question or action, add a flashback to the story for more clarification, modify a Story Cube to an icon of your choosing, or pause the game while you work through any concerns you may have with the way things are going.
You’ll move through the next four scenes adding plot twists, bravely confronting the enemy or tackling a threat, revealing the shocking truth about the threat, and the final showdown. As the game progresses the pool of cubes dwindles, so the number of questions you can ask goes down. In the last scene all of the cubes have been allotted, so you can’t ask any questions, you can only take actions. The game ends when the last action is taken during the final showdown, even if you haven’t fully resolved the story.
There are some questions the group can discuss at the end, such as, “What are the loose ends and plot hooks for future episodes?” and “What impact does this episode have on the overall series?” You can also note your character’s personal highlights from the story. When you want to play Untold again, you can either start a new story from scratch or continue a prior story, creating a series.
Untold Adventure, or Untold Misery?
Okay, so the description above sounds like Untold has a lot of rules and “stuff” going on. And when I first saw the rulebook (and its tiny text), I feared Untold would end up like so many games that take a simple system and try to turn it into a bigger “game.” Timeline: Challenge comes to mind, or Queendomino. Both were victims of “more is just more” game bloat that wrecked a gloriously simple system by trying to be “bigger.’
But Untold isn’t like that. Yes, the rulebook is big for such a simple game, but like the game it’s mostly narrative. Everything described above boils down to, “Roll the cubes and decide what they represent. Then use your tokens to fill in the surrounding story elements.” At the end you’ll have a narrative that your group built together. That’s really all Untold is. You can also argue that it’s not so much a game as an activity. Whatever. The question is, “Is it fun?”
The answer here is yes, as long as you enjoy this sort of game and have a group who will enjoy it, as well. This seems sort of obvious, as any game needs people who want to play it in order for it to be fun, but for Untold this is critically important. The only thing you’re doing here is creating a story, so if someone isn’t into that, then the whole thing is going to suffer.
Untold needs active, creative participation from all group members in order to be fun. If people aren’t into sharing ideas or are easily embarrassed, they won’t have fun. Also, if one person gets bored or starts just throwing up silly ideas to be annoying or “edgy,” the fun’s going to die. Quickly. (Fortunately, if your game group consists of such jerks, you can play Untold solo when they’re not around.)
Similarly, if you have people who require a win/loss condition or deep strategy in order to have fun, Untold isn’t going to work. It’s a cooperative storytelling experience, not something where you can defeat your opponents, or even the game itself. For all that the game provides some structure over and above what is offered by the basic Story Cubes, this isn’t a turn-based game or something that proceeds linearly from A to B. Even though you progress through the scenes in order, it can get a little chaotic. People wanting a structured, strategic game should look elsewhere.
Those caveats out of the way, Untold has a lot going for it. My favorite part is the use of tokens in order to interject ideas, ask questions, and take actions. This is a great way to minimize the “quarterbacking” so often found in cooperative games. Making people spend tokens to voice their ideas keeps one loudmouth from driving the whole story. Similarly, having the ability to pause the game and discuss the way things are going keeps players from giving up or feeling uncomfortable if the story starts going off the rails or into questionable territory.
I also like how you can continue a story in another game if you want to. In that way, it feels a little like an RPG campaign. Your characters can grow and encounter different things throughout the series. You can easily bring in new people/characters, as well. And speaking of RPG’s, Untold can be an easy way to introduce people to the concept. No, you aren’t going to be tracking stats or rolling for damage, but that’s what makes it easy. You can introduce the idea of playing through a narrative without all the other baggage that an RPG requires. Untold could also be used by GM’s to craft their stories. Or at least jump start the idea process.
What makes Untold great are the same things that make the basic Story Cubes great. You can use the game in settings ranging from parties to classrooms to workplace team building. I like to use it for creativity exercises to spark my writing. The game is highly adaptable to all ages and mixed groups. Kids can play by themselves or with the adults, and adults can have a good time on their own, as well. It’s very open to house-rules, so it’s easy to fix anything that’s not working for your group/needs.
It’s also expandable via the other Story Cube sets. The game includes a full set of the base Story Cubes, but cubes are available for actions, travels, animals, mythology, mystery, space, fairy tales, and many other story elements, including some from licensed properties like Batman and Scooby Doo. You can simply substitute cubes in and out to give your stories more options, or bend them toward specific genres. Of course, even if you don’t expand Untold, your stories are only limited by what your imagination can come up with, so in that sense you don’t even need to pay for expansions. Just dig deeper into your imagination!
The game is approachable. Anyone who’s ever seen a TV show can follow the basic story structure, so there’s nothing here that’s difficult to understand as far as how the scenes flow from one to the other. Since the rules are pretty fluid, you can bend them to suit your group. There’s nothing more complicated here than making up a story and not being a jerk by monopolizing its creation. In that sense, it’s a great game for holidays or other activity times when non-gamers are present. (We’ve found it really fun to play on holidays like Halloween and Christmas when we can try to theme the stories to the holiday. It does make a good ghost story generator.)
As fun as Untold is, you do have to ask yourself is if it’s worth the money. I think so, but then again I like having everything neatly printed, nice boards, tokens, etc. Really, though, you can do everything Untold does with a set of Story Cubes, some paper and pencils, and some tokens scavenged from another game. It’s nice to have the structure, boards, and rules that guide you from point A to point B in the game, but you could just roll cubes and make up stories that way.
In other words, Untold doesn’t change the basic premise of Story Cubes that much. It’s still roll, choose elements, and build your story around what you want them to mean. Untold dresses it up in a pretty package and provides some ways to ensure fair participation, but overall it’s still Story Cubes. Whether that package is worth the money for you or not is something only you can say.
The cons for the game are pretty much what I stated earlier. If you’re looking for a “game,” you don’t like storytelling, or you’re not into group participation, this is going to fall flat for you. It may not be something you want to visit every night, either, because it can run long. It’s not supposed to. It’s only supposed to be 45 – 60 minutes. But if everyone gets going and starts really building the story, it can run longer. You’re having fun, but it can be the kind of thing where you look up and say, “Dang, how’d we spend an hour and a half on this?”
Untold did manage to avoid ruining Story Cubes with too much bloat. Yes, it’s “bigger,” but there’s a point to that bigness. That point lies in the group experience which is easier to direct within the framework of Untold. Story Cubes work in groups, as well, but it’s harder to keep people “accountable” and generous with just the cubes. It’s too easy for one person to monopolize the story with just the cubes.
Both Untold and Story Cubes will remain in my collection. I’ll use Untold when I want a longer story, or when I want a group experience. I’ll continue to use Story Cubes for quick idea generation or when I’m on the move. (The cubes do hold the advantage of portability, for sure.) So if you like to tell stories, want to work with kids on language and narrative, or just want to test your group’s creativity, I recommend you give Untold a shot. (Hmm… A shot rang out on a dark and stormy night while some gamers were playing Untold… Time to go roll some cubes.)