Cardboard Children – T.I.M.E. Stories (Spoiler Free)

Hello youse.

We were all sitting at my kitchen table, and I was laughing so much it hurt. I was in physical pain. Sure, I was a little bit drunk. But me and my pal were absolutely roaring with laughter, and it wasn’t just the wine – sometimes wine gets us a little bit melancholy. Believe me on that.

I can’t tell you exactly why we were laughing – that’s the frustrating thing. But something so completely perfect was happening in a board game, something so clever and surprising and awful and wonderful, that we just couldn’t control ourselves. My character in this game had come to life in such a brutally real way that all you could really do was laugh, and laugh a lot.

T.I.M.E. Stories is absolutely fantastic. Let me try to tell you why.

T.I.M.E. Stories

There will be absolutely no spoilers in this article, so don’t worry about that. My challenge is to somehow express to you why this game is so wonderful without telling you how it does what it does. Perhaps I should tell you what you might need to enjoy it fully.

You will need:

A reasonable attitude towards the value of an experience. If you’re going to get annoyed about the fact that this game will set you back about 40 quid and that you and your friends will only be able to enjoy it for about four hours or so, then you should probably just f*@k off. Lots of board games are 40 quid and can be played for about a hundred years, but most of them aren’t anywhere near as thrilling and memorable as this game is.

You will also need good friends. You’ll need funny friends. You’ll need open-minded friends. You’ll need friends who elevate a gaming experience. You’ll need friends who are imaginative and don’t poke holes in everything.

You will also need a table. Obviously.

Okay, so how does it work?

Essentially, T.I.M.E Stories is a co-operative choose-your-own-adventure game. You and your pals are time travellers, leaping into the bodies of characters in history. You enter a scenario, inside these “vessels”, and the characters you control have certain skills and flaws. These skills will make some players better than others at completing certain tasks, and the flaws will make some characters an absolute liability at certain points in the story.

The story, in the base game, is a puzzle of sorts. Like a point and click adventure game, unfolding through a deck of cards, you visit places and choose who to encounter. You get dropped into the situation with no information, and you just discover discover discover the game as you play it. The story, non-player characters, items and tasks are all inside the deck of cards – but you only experience these cards by solving or negotiating earlier cards.

Everything you do in the game takes time. And time runs out. When it does, you “fail” your run and get booted out of the story. And then you go back in, with all the information you already know, to try to complete it more quickly.

I don’t even really want to fully explain how it plays. Just understand this – there are moments, many moments, that will make players gasp at how cool this game is.

FOR OTHERS

Okay, here’s a thing.

I imagine that the people who will be most critical of this game are proper hardcore board gamers. You know the ones. You know the ones. Those people will view the game as some kind of structural task. If you look behind the curtain of this game, sure, you’ll see the flaws. But if you play this game not like some board game bore, but like just a normal person, you’ll be staggered by how clever the experience is. If you enter into the spirit of the thing, the newness of it, the sheer daring of it, you’re going to feel your heart start to pump. And you’re going to laugh.

I wish I could tell you why I was laughing. In a nutshell, there was something my character was known for, in the fiction of this story. But that thing was transferred through the game’s systems into my head and mouth so perfectly that it was just a delight. An absolute delight. And it was a small thing, but the kind of small thing that hardly ever works that well. It was a piece of story and game design so bloody brilliant that it would turn any player of that character into a role-player. I was blown away by it, and by how much it tickled the entire group.

TIME

Time, as we know, falls wanking to the floor. And yes, this game is short. And it’s one and done too. You play the adventure once and it’s gone, because you know all its secrets. Further cases are rolling out, whole new stories, but these will be another 20 quid or so a pop. And if they’re anything like this first story in the base game, they’ll be worth every penny.

It’s not just a story. It’s a set of characters, beautifully designed. It’s a collection of interlocking places and encounters. It’s a box of surprises. It’s a whole load of beautiful artwork. It’s an experience that completely fills a room with laughter and handclaps and weird accents.

It’s also simplicity itself. The most beautiful thing about T.I.M.E. Stories is that there’s no sense of it bending over backwards to offer something new. It’s not rammed full of complex systems you need to learn and explain. It’s a game that remembers that STORY + SOMETHING COOL TO DO = MAGIC.

STORY + SOMETHING COOL TO DO = MAGIC

It’s that easy. More designers could stand to remember that.

ROBERT FLORENCE + T.I.M.E. STORIES 4EVER IDST

34 Comments

  1. BTA says:

    This sounds exactly like the kind of game my friends and I (specifically me, really, with this time travel setting) would love. The only thing that complicates things is that my regular group is more than 4 people, so as this’ll take a number of playthroughs it could take a long time to get through since it’ll have to be a separate thing, hmm.

  2. waltC says:

    You know, the author here writes as if he’s never read a really good book in his life…;)

    “It’s not just a story. It’s a set of characters, beautifully designed. It’s a collection of interlocking places and encounters. It’s a box of surprises.” Sounds just like many really good books that have no time limits and cost less and are certainly quite a bit more detailed. Lots of adventure/RPG games for the PC do all of this, too, and for much, much longer.

    It’s also throw-away, no replay value, apparently, has time limits, and is a very short game. Apparently requiring more than one person to play, as well; friends who must act and behave a certain way for everyone to fully enjoy the “experience.”

    Parcheesi or Monopoly, anyone?

    • gunny1993 says:

      I don’t think books or PC RPG games are a good example of your points, all those media are in almost every case designed to be enjoyed alone and other people come in after the fact to converse about the media.

      A tabletop RPG, now that makes more sense, that is meant to be enjoyed by multiple people, all who subscribe to at least a partial idea of similar fun have unlimited replay value and are far cheaper.

      • Emeraude says:

        At the same time, this kinda sound in some respects like a deluxe box one-shot scenario for a tabletop RPG.

        Granted, some good tRPG scenario – those not tied to data kept secret from the players in order to work at least – can be satisfyingly replayed several times offering very different results each.

    • X_kot says:

      Given some of your complaints, waltC, I wonder how you feel about Risk: Legacy (or the Pandemic version), where you irrevocably alter the game components as you play. Or Brenda Romero’s Train, where a player’s first experience is the most important. Is “replayability” an essential part of a game? Isn’t that just the capitalistic notion of “value” creeping in?

      • Targaff says:

        For the specific examples you’ve given, I think the obvious counter has to be that you are never going to be done with a game of Risk Legacy or Pandemic Legacy in four hours – both are lengthy offerings that will last many sessions. In my experience the boardgaming community does tend to frown upon raising cost as an issue (take the Nemo’s War kickstarter, for example, where responses to complaints on that front have essentially been “if you want it you’ll pay it”), yet with the exception of Rab’s piece here, every review I’ve seen of T.I.M.E. Stories has expressed the caveat that you should really, really be sure this is something you want before splashing out for it – especially when you’re getting asked to pay a not insignificant amount on top of that for each piece of cardboard DLC that hits the market.

        • X_kot says:

          I suspect part of the reason Rab wrote this article is because those other reviews beg the question, “How much is an experience worth to you?” A person writing a review on a blog has a (potentially) massive audience and cannot account for the different values in that group. Would Rab recommend going to an amusement park with a group of friends rather than getting this game? How about buying lottery tickets? All I know is that he had a hell of time with T.I.M.E. with the company he keeps. It’s on me to decide if I can have a comparable experience and if I can afford it, not him.

    • iucounu says:

      Ok, but let’s compare it to a more shared experience: four friends going out to watch a movie together at the cinema. In London, this costs more than £40, lasts less time, and is far less interactive. I think this sounds neat. (Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective springs to mind: more expensive than a book of Sherlock Holmes stories, but more fun for a group.)

    • Deano2099 says:

      And how many of those books and CRPGs can you enjoy with friends, and friends actually being present, both physically there and mentally actually engaged with both the story and each other, simultaneously (unlike say going to the cinema, where you have individual experiences, and discuss it after).

      A tabletop RPG is similar and perhaps even superior, but has even more stringent requirements on the type of group you need, and someone needs to do lots of prep work to run it.

  3. Emeraude says:

    Ok, color me interested. You made me checks this out.

    Thanks.

  4. Matt_W says:

    Great review Rab! I’ve been keeping my eye on this one for a few months now. It sounds like something to move up my to-buy list.

  5. nanotramp says:

    I played this on Saturday and had a great time with it, all of the group did. The one downside of this game is there is zero replayability with it. Once you have finished the story, that is it. Unless you luck out upon finding the optimum path to the conclusion on your first play through, you’ll most likely have seen pretty much all this scenario has to offer.

    You might be able to play with 3 new players and then just keep quiet and let them make all the choices, but the beauty in TIME stories is how the players talk about the places they find themselves in and the people they meet, without that I imagine it’s a pretty hollow game.

    I have the two released expansions and I can’t wait to play them, but I am going to savour them and make the most of them.

    • thekelvingreen says:

      The limited replayability seems to be a trend of late. Tragedy Looper has it to an extent — although you have lots of fan-made scenarios in that case — and then there’s the Legacy versions of Risk and Pandemic that go even further and encourage or require you to damage the game as you play.

      I can see why some people react against it; there seems to be something inherent to the concept of board games that suggests you should be able to play them again and again. That said, I don’t think it’s a bad idea in itself, and we’ve had decades of computer games to teach us that games can be played just the once and still enjoyed.

      • Archonsod says:

        Tragedy Looper is fully replayable – in fact the printed scenarios should be considered more of a tutorial for how specific elements of the tragedy set work (the main issue there of course being that as a result there’s something of an assumption that the players will always take the same roles).

        I’m not sure the replayability should really factor in though. It’s like the original Lone Wolf adventure books or Fighting Fantasy. I’ve still got several old favouites from each series in my library, and still play through them from time to time even after thirty years. In fact it’s something of a nonsensical argument – if a story was only interesting the first time you experienced it there’d be no market for novels or home cinema.

      • malkav11 says:

        I have no problem with limited/no replayability, per se. There are some really brilliant experiences in boardgaming that can only be had for so long. The Legacy games are an example, as is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. What makes Time Stories problematic for me is that it’s that experience once, for one or maybe two sessions, out of the box. Sherlock Holmes is cheaper (when in print, at least) and has ten cases in it. Some are more substantial than others, but it’s still something that will take some time to work through and you’ll have had ten lovely mystery solving experiences. Pandemic Legacy has 12 months worth of unfolding game evolution and theoretically as many as 24 games of it in it if you lose regularly enough. Etc.

        By comparison, Time Stories offering a whole one scenario in the base box and charging another $20+ per additional scenario is ludicrously expensive, even with the production values on display, given that by most accounts each scenario is a single evening’s gaming. It’s a cool concept and it’s one I’d dearly love to be worth it but between the price and the misgivings about the robustness of the experience I’m just not sold.

  6. Morph says:

    The first two times we played this it was as fantastic as this article says. Our third attempt was when the game fell apart in front of us, and I’m not sure I’d recommend it now.

    Hard to explain why without spoilers, but after a couple of games grappling with awkward rules (but enjoying the roleplaying), we managed to break the game entirely. Cards with poor explanations, and a situation that entirely had no rules.

    Also there’s the obvious fact in retrospect that repeating things multiple times becomes a bit boring and highlights the lack of choices you really have.

    Still there were some good puzzles and by all accounts the second mission is an improvement.

    • Archonsod says:

      We never experienced either of those problems during our run through. I suspect you possibly misread or misunderstood a card or two at a key point. In fact the problem in the two expansions so far is something of the opposite – all of the rules etc are explained on the cards which aren’t exactly the best format for reference material.

      There’s one specific element which necessitates revisiting locations in Asylum, though since pretty much everything you need to get there is kept between runs it’s at most a mild inconvenience (and thus far there’s a lot less of that in the other two cases).

  7. Therax says:

    My group played through this game and its included scenario in an afternoon. A lot of people reference Choose Your Own Adventure, but I’d say it’s closer to gamebooks like the Fighting Fantasy series. You make some decisions, you engage in challenges like combat, and then you make some more decisions. The challenges aren’t particularly interesting, at least in the base scenario, tilting towards “succeed or die.” Just like the paperback gamebooks, I always felt that were mostly getting in the way of the meat of the game, which is exploring the scenario and solving the puzzle or mystery at the heart. (How many people actually fought out every encounter in a Fighting Fantasy, assiduously restarting from the beginning every time they died?)

    I would also say that the scenario itself isn’t particularly well-written. It again reminds me of Fighting Fantasy and the like. To put it another way, the writing is pretty decent by board game standards (not a hard bar to meet), below-average by the standards of a Choose Your Own Adventure title, and rather poor by even video game standards, let alone the writing I’d expect from a decent movie or TV series.

    On the whole I’d recommend against a purchase myself. I received my copy as a gift, and even if I’d paid for it, I wouldn’t have too much complaint about the price. The art and production values are quite satisfactory. Bottom line, after finishing it, I really wished that we’d spent our afternoon playing something more engaging.

  8. sdfv says:

    “If you’re going to get annoyed about the fact that this game will set you back about 40 quid and that you and your friends will only be able to enjoy it for about four hours or so, then you should probably just f*@k off.”

    Saying “this is expensive but still good and worth the money” is reasonable. Saying what you did above, like poor people are trash for not appreciating expensive art, makes you sound really nasty.

    • JB says:

      “like poor people are trash for not appreciating expensive art”

      That isn’t what he said, at all.

    • Fade2Gray says:

      Mr. Florence apparently can’t accept people having different perceptions of value than his own in this case. I agree, it was a very nasty statement, and not in the har har ribbing sort of way. Made me completely stop reading the article.

      • Philotic Symmetrist says:

        I also agree. I’d be fine with the value proposition if it’s worth it but if this is an example of the “reasonable” attitude required to enjoy the game then I’m out.

        The extensive personality requirements are also a little off-putting. If I wanted to introduce my friends to a novel or innovative gaming experience I don’t want to be stressing about whether they’re ‘playing it right’, or have the attitude that if they didn’t enjoy then that’s somehow their fault.

        • Raoul Duke says:

          Agreed. I read that part and it immediately put me off. Basically, “this will be fun if you can get together a group of really great people who are inherently fun to be around anyway”. No, really? When I get this sexy and exciting group together, what do we need the game for, then?

    • Rhodokasaurus says:

      He’s not suggesting poor people are trash, he’s just saying if you don’t think playing a never-heard-of board game, once, is worth $60 you should go fuck yourself, you uncultured piece of shit.

      I mean, it’s more about priorities than anything.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      I’m wondering if this was somehow meant to be a joke?

      Because otherwise it seems to be the type of intolerant aggression that RPS frowns upon when its users engage in such behaviour.

      It also comes across as incredibly narrow minded, as though anyone who can’t spare quite a reasonable sum of money for a fairly limited experience is in some sense unreasonable and to be dealt with by summary abuse.

  9. Xantonze says:

    I recommend watching the SUSD review, as they point to several flaws that make the overall experience far less stellar than it should be.

    link to shutupandsitdown.com

    We played the 3 scripts available. It’s an ok game, but far less enthralling than, say, Pandemic Legacy.
    The scripts don’t renew the (pretty tame) gameplay, and the fact that you have to replay some parts again and again makes for the definition of “thinly spread”.

    • Xantonze says:

      Also, SHITLOADS of “grey spots” in the rules, card interactions not covered, etc. And since you won’t be playing a script twice, it can be VERY annoying to realize later on that you screwed yourselves on a rule spot.
      We encountered those on all 3 scripts, with various levels of aggravation.

    • Canadave says:

      Yeah, I thought of the SUSD review as I was reading this, since Quinns’ seems like the sort of person to whom this game would be appealing. Also interesting how he really knocks it for being poor value, while Rab basically brushed that off.

  10. Josh W says:

    When I played this, it was really fun to work out a perfectly optimal path through the various encounters, then talk nonsense codes about (despoilerised) don’t talk to the cat woman, go to the bench instead, because we can get the key to the boardroom, which allows us to get the egg cup.

    It’s a novel experience shared with friends, that can only be repeated once or twice. I think there’s probably a market for these, because when you have loads of awesome boardgames, sometimes you want something that feels time limited, for a special occasion, and the fact that you could be playing a game that is technically more fun does not come into the equation. This is us spending particular time to play this particular game.

    And it’s not just that it has poor replay value; the fact that you win by building memories over games also gives it the potential to form good memories. This is an experience you are trying to remember for the next game.

    In other words, as a social game that encourages interaction between players (pseudo-hidden information to encourage players to communicate rather than just reading for themselves), that encourages players to commit it’s details to memory (and so also along with it the weird things that other players said when communicating those things), it naturally makes an event of itself, and it’s built-in-obsolescence is as much a side effect of that structure as an engineered thing.

    If I think about games that build shared stories, it’s not up there with say mysterium, which is uniformly brilliant, but it does exist in the same territory. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in a few years someone cracks the code on how to make a game like this that is repeatable, perhaps because you build the deck from random events the first time, and keep building a longer chain of correct or incorrect events, almost like a dungeon tile game but with the capacity to replay previous games to get further in them.

    I think in principle that idea of having to remember what you did and do it the same but better is a great addition to cooperative games.

  11. Yglorba says:

    This sounds like it would make more sense as an indie computer game, where they could sell it for a more reasonable price on Steam.

  12. Hakusho says:

    After reading this i put T.I.M.E Stories higher up on my BGG Wishlist :)
    Still not sure if the money would be worth it, since i do not have that much games to play regularly.

  13. darkmorgado says:

    What niggles me is that the game only comes with a single story, and that all future ones will be sold as add-ons costing 20-30 quid each.

    I wasn’t exactly surprised when I discovered the game was designed by former Ubisoft employees who worked on Assassin’s Creed. It’s basically an attempt to try and shoehorn episodic gaming/ DLC into the board game format.