Welcome to the T.I.M.E. Agency, new recruits! That’s Temporal Insertion into Major Events, for you know-nothing upstarts.
Are you ready to get your brain sucked into the past, where you’ll possess someone and take control of their actions in order to discover and put a halt to whatever dastardly time-altering deeds are going down?
You better be. In the world of T.I.M.E. Stories, humanity needs your help to maintain the timeline and save the world – past, present, and future!
How it Plays
T.I.M.E. Stories is a game that emerges from the rapidly expanding branch of gaming that focuses on story exploration over competition or strict mechanical structure. Comparable to games like Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, these novels-turned-boardgame have all the details written out ahead of time, and it’s up to the players to explore, discover clues, and resolve the plot before time runs out. T.I.M.E. Stories proves unique in this genre thanks to its merging of story-based elements with traditional tabletop tropes such as rolling dice, having actions and resources to collect and spend, and playing out on a board.
Billed as a “Decksploration Game” by the publisher, the game relies on scenarios which consist of a deck of cards that represent characters, locations, and items. While the core rules of the game carry over from game to game, each scenario might offer new abilities and rules to play around with, not to mention entirely different locales, goals, and backstories. Each scenario, players will send their minds through time to take over “receptacles” (aka people that already exist in the time and location the scenario belongs to) with a little information and not much time. They’ll have to explore, solve puzzles, put together clues, and discover what the problem is that needs to be solved. Then, of course, they’ll have to solve it. Items will be collected, characters will be talked to, and enemies will be fought.
The basic mechanics are actually pretty straightforward; as a team, you have a limited number of “Time Units” (TU) you can spend before everything resets. You spend TU for three different things: to explore the different areas of a location, to take on a challenging task that requires rolling the dice, and to move from one location to another.
Each location is cleverly made up of a set of cards that forms a panorama. For each TU spent, you can move to one section of the location and read what’s on the back of the card. Players can split up to explore a location more quickly or stick together, but only the players actually at a section get to read the card; they can then paraphrase what’s on the card to the other players. There might be a clue to remember, a puzzle to solve, or an item to pick up. Certain sections will be closed off until certain “keys” are found, represented by tokens that are stored on the board.
Certain cards will have “tasks” such as locked doors, enemies to fight, or people to convince; you can spend TU to attempt those challenges. Based on whatever skill is appropriate, you roll dice. Shield tokens represent how many successes you need, as well as how much damage you might take if you don’t finish off the challenge right away. Most tasks allow you to keep spending TU to keep rolling dice until you finish off all the shields. Of course, it’s entirely possible you might die – or rather, your Receptacle might die. Don’t worry – after a set amount of time, you can come back into the playing field.
When TUs are spent, each player gets to choose what exactly they do – so, for example, two players could fight an enemy while the third and fourth continue to explore different sections of the room, all for one TU.
When you change locations, you roll a special die that will determine how much TU must be spent before you reach the new location. A special section of the board called the “Plan” shows a large scale map with locations marked, and as you explore you will often discover new locations.
When you run out of TU, everything resets, and your team must start from scratch again. However, this time you will be armed with the information you learned, and in some cases, item cards carry over from loop to loop.
Ultimately, discovering the task necessary to win the game is up to you; when you finally complete it, you get to read the “Mission Successful” card for a dramatic conclusion. It is technically possible to fail completely, and you will get rated based on how well you did.
The first scenario included in the game involves an insane asylum in the 1920’s, where something mysterious is going on. Best of luck, Temporal Agents!
Books Don’t Have Scoreboards, and Other Mysteries
There’s no doubt about it that T.I.M.E. Stories is a unique and fresh vision from publisher Space Cowboys, but it does not make it across the sea and onto our tables without passing through a few storms of controversy. Is it truly innovative, does it provide a valuable gaming experience, or is it simply a cash grab set up to ensnare gamers and suck their bank accounts dry?
This is a challenging review to write thoroughly, because to really grasp the game requires understanding of the content; but, as promised, this is a spoiler-free review. I don’t want to give anything away, because spoilers will in fact ruin a lot of the fun. So, keep in mind, to really get it, you kind of have to play it.
That is perhaps the game’s greatest asset as well as its greatest bane. The game provides a thrilling experience; it’s a lot like reading through a choose-your-own adventure book, except it’s cooperative and more open ended. There is great joy in discovery here; you turn over leaves and find surprising things under them, you run into villains at unexpected times, and you find yourself making tough choices because you don’t want to waste time but you also don’t want to miss something important.
Oh, the places you’ll go, the corners you’ll round, and the twists and turns that will surprise you. Turns out, it’s even fun to get caught by a red herring because you’ve experienced something and maybe even made a fool of yourself over something that, in retrospect, should have been quite obvious. The failures add to the story you’re living through. Eventually you’ll see pieces start to fit together, and in your next loop you’ll know exactly what to do.
The time-loop mechanism works really well here for that thematic reason. There’s just too much to do to fit it all in one go, especially since you have no idea what you’re supposed to do the first time around. The limited Time Units you have put the pressure on, forcing you to work efficiently because you want to do and see as much as possible before the reset; the more information you have, the better you can do in the next run. It perfectly captures the feel of being a time-traveler stuck in a loop, struggling to grasp a foothold in time so that your efforts become permanent. As you loop, events will unfold in the same way, but now you have knowledge, and knowledge is power. You’ll know where to find important items, which items are worthless, and you may even be able to take shortcuts.
Yet while there are multiple paths to explore including a selection of red herrings and dead ends, the scenario is ultimately linear. There’s one starting point, one ending point, and the stuff you need along the way. You may pursue things in whatever order you so choose, but given the nature of the game you will almost definitely see just about everything there is to see. As you loop time and time again you will explore every nook and cranny to make sure you’ve got everything important.
What that ultimately means is that each scenario is really only going to be enjoyable once. Even if you do leave a card or two unturned, it will not seem worth it to replay the entire scenario just to see those cards. (In fact, we did have a couple cards we didn’t see, and when we finished the run we just flipped ’em over to see what they were. Definitely would not have been worth playing again just to find those things out). As I mentioned above, most of the fun comes from the surprise and the exploration, all of which is disintegrated after the first play. The puzzles and exploration elements are interesting, but the story isn’t emotionally moving. Unlike a really good book, you won’t feel the need to experience it again and again.
All of this is okay, as long as you’re aware of it. The experience is so entertaining it leaves you thirsting for more, but you’ll need to buy expansions. We’re promised four expansions a year, but therein lies the “controversy.”
The cost of each expansion is MSRP’d at $30, which feels a little steep. The whole pitch is that the core game is a “console” that you plug different games into. But that brings with it some expectations; namely that after in a big upfront investment, each “game” should run relatively cheap. $30 for an expansion versus $50 for the core game doesn’t really meet those expectations, especially when you think about each scenario being played only once. Six to ten hours of gameplay or so for each, played over multiple sessions, but that still seems to fall short of the normal average cost-per-gaming-hour-per-player. I’m sure discounts will be found, and I expect there to be a large secondary market since you don’t really need to keep a completed scenario around. Still, I know that cost will frustrate many people. Try to think of it like this: it’s at least comparable to a night out at the movies, which could easily run a group of four up to $60 for tickets alone.
Fortunately, there are other ways to extend the life of the game. First of all, think of all the time you’ll spend discussing scenarios with friends who’ve also completed the same scenarios. Which path did you choose? Did you get tricked by this thing? Did you find this secret? How long did this puzzle take? I would argue that this kind of game will encourage plenty of discussion and laughter and shared memories that just add to the value of the game outside of actually playing it.
But if you’re looking for a more practical way of adding value, Space Cowboys has released a scenario designer’s toolkit. Now, I have no idea what’s in it (I haven’t finished the second scenario, and apparently there are spoilers in the kit), but I could see the potential for a huge selection of fan-based scenarios. Sure, some will be bad, but the best ones will rise to the top, and that’s the sort of thing that can extend the life of the game in less cost-prohibitive ways.
Let’s get back to the game itself. Thematically, I should warn you that this is aimed at adults. Obviously, different scenarios will contain different content, but if the first scenario is any indicator, you’ll be immersing yourself in stories featuring many dark elements. Nothing pornographic or immature, but this isn’t exactly a kid-friendly adventure. I mean, if you look at the art that is currently publically available, you can get a sense of what the content is like. And unlike say, a wargame, the darker content isn’t abstracted as much given the storied nature of the game. Just be aware of that. Perhaps future adventures will be more family-friendly than the first, but the core game comes with what the core game comes with.
I have some minor grumblings about the rating system at the game’s end; while the game itself encourages exploration, the rating judges you harshly for your inefficiency. These are counter-intuitive, and though I get the idea of adding a sense of urgency to your actions, the rating proved so tough that it almost became meaningless. I’d prefer to just leave it alone; the story seems to provide enough urgency as it is.
One sticking point about this game is that, depending on your group, it might be tough to actually complete a scenario. This problem lies entirely in the “meta” and not with the game itself. But, if a scenario takes 10 hours to complete, you’re likely going to need to break it into multiple sessions. I don’t know about you, but I have trouble getting the same four people to come every week, and often there are five or six people; seems kinda harsh to exclude a few, and it really works best if you have the same group.
On the other hand, this allows the game to become a special event. I had to arrange special nights to play with another couple, and you know what? It was a lot of fun. They came for dinner, we talked about life, and then we went upstairs to the game room to save the world several weeks in a row. Ultimately, the game experience was completely worth it to go to the effort to arrange these nights; it’s only unfortunate that the scenarios are such one-time things that I can’t do this with a few different couples. Well, I suppose I could with different scenarios. I guess it is what it is.
The components certainly do the job they were designed for; there are plenty of tokens that can represent a variety of things depending on the scenario, not to mention health tokens, shield tokens, and Key markers. You’ve got a deck filled with beautifully illustrated cards, and a board with an incredibly clean layout that lets you very easily take in a lot of information at a quick glance. I do wonder if maybe the different colors of generic tokens should have had different symbols put on them for color-blindness.
The box insert is supposed to be designed so that you can “save” your game, even in the middle of a run. In our experience runs were short enough that we always broke our session between them, but perhaps future scenarios have longer loops. In any case, the “save game” system works all right, but the rest of the insert is actually kind of terrible. The slots to store the to
kens are ridiculously shallow making it difficult to fit all the bits in neatly, and I’m not sure why they’re so shallow. There’s plenty of room in the insert, and it’s a bit tedious to try and stuff all the tokens in so they fit, especially if you don’t have skinny fingers. The section for marking how many TUs you have left is awful – it’s REALLY hard to get the tokens out. For all the marketing about how nice the insert is for saving games, it leaves a lot to be desired. At least the slots for the dice, keys, cards, and player tokens work just fine, though overall the plastic does feel a little flimsy.
All told, T.I.M.E. Stories is a great game. It provides an incredibly immersive experience filled with adventure, exploration, puzzle-solving, and even combat. It forces you to work together with your friends, racing against limited time to save the world. The thrill of discovery is strong here, and the game system is simple to learn so it gets out of the way while you focus on the story as it unfolds. Expansions might seem a little steep price-wise for now, but the prospect of fan-created scenarios and a likely secondary market for used scenarios will help keep costs down. I can’t wait to start my next adventure.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee and Space Cowboys for providing a review copy of T.I.M.E. Stories.