Cardboard Children – T.I.M.E. Stories Revisited

Hello youse.

I’ve covered T.I.M.E. Stories before, and I was very interested in the response to that review in the comments. I’ve also found the discussion about T.I.M.E. Stories across the internet in general to be, quite honestly, very entertaining. There’s never really been a game quite like T.I.M.E. Stories before, and so, almost four months after my initial review, I want to talk about it again. Let’s take another run and see how T.I.M.E. Stories feels further down the timeline of our lives.


Quick recap for anyone who hasn’t read the original review – I loved this game from first play. It’s a story experience for up to 4 players, and each player takes the role of a time agent sent into a scenario to solve some kind of problem. It’s pretty much like Quantum Leap. Co-operatively, players choose how to spend time, face challenges, and try to solve a mystery. The game leads to either Mission Failed or Mission Success end-states, with most of the failures stemming from time running out.

Players replay the scenario until they succeed, repeating the paths and encounters, until they manage a perfect run and find out how to generate the Mission Success game-state.

Now, the thing that makes this game so controversial is that there is only one scenario in the base box, and it isn’t replayable. You have to buy additional stories as they are released to be able to keep playing the game, and each of these stories are about 20 quid. The most recent release was “Under The Mask”, an adventure set in Ancient Egypt involving King Tut’s mask and some civil unrest.


However, I do want to talk about the story in more vague terms, because if anything, this story has solidified my feelings about the game. This is, with the right group of players, a genuinely special game experience.

The beautiful thing about T.I.M.E. Stories’ design is that things don’t have to stay exactly the same from story to story. Your game components, such as the tokens in the box, can represent many different things. For example, in one game a blue token might be some kind of illegal substance. In another it can represent a robotic time-device. It allows the game’s mechanics to stretch into different places, and lets the stories explore different dynamics.

What was most remarkable about Under The Mask was how different it felt from Asylum, the story in the base box. Where Asylum was a brutal, dark choose-your-own-adventure nightmare, Under The Mask is a bright, sunny, point-and-click relax-a-thon. Where Asylum has players going “OH NO! DON’T GO DOWN THERE!!”, Under The Mask has players saying “Hmmm, but if we buy this thing and take it to that guy, maybe he will have some information about that place over there…” Two entirely different moods, with the only differentiating factor being the stack of cards on the table.

Different artwork and graphic design from story to story makes a big difference too. It’s beautiful that as you remember the stories you visualise them differently. When I visualise Asylum I can see the dark rooms and the sinister shadows. When I visualise Under The Mask I can see the bright sands and the blue skies. The stories are taking their own places in my mind as surely as the different Fighting Fantasy stories I read in my youth did. (In fact, just the other night I was thinking about how beautifully a story like City of Thieves could be adapted for T.I.M.E. Stories. Can you imagine if there was some kind of licensing deal made to allow that? I think it would be my dream game!)

Much has been made of the repetition in the gameplay, as players will be forced to run a scenario a few times in order to reach a successful conclusion. But this never gets boring, in my experience, because the game is as much about efficiency as it is about pure story. Let’s take, for example, the story of Hansel and Gretel.

So you are Hansel and another player is Gretel. You go into the woods and find a cottage made of sweets and cakes and gingerbread. Great, right? You explore it, meet the witch, all the other stuff happens and then ultimately you shove the witch into an oven.

Now, first time you play this story, if indeed Hansel and Gretel was a scenario that was available, you might not even find the cottage. You might end up wandering the woods and run out of time getting caught up with red herrings and unnecessary story events. The next time you play, you might find the cottage, befriend the witch, and end up being cooked in some kind of delicious Player Pie. The third time, you might realise that the witch could be put in the oven instead, but run out of time before you manage to do that. In a final run, you might head straight for the cottage and just ram the witch headfirst into the oven before she has a chance to open her mouth.

The game is about experiencing the story and then compressing it into the shortest amount of time to reach your win state. You don’t lose story by doing this (you’ve already experienced most of it), you’re actually just editing it.

In fact – here’s my answer to those who think there is too much repitition in the game. If you feel like a lot of stuff is repeating, you’re probably not being a very good Time Agent.

I remain hugely impressed with this game, and any little doubts I had are fading away. Under The Mask is a beautiful scenario, because there is a shift of emphasis in the gameplay that is very clever and hugely rewarding. Again, I can’t discuss it, but just trust me on it. The story is tight, bright, and leads to a satisying conclusion. Navigation through the game’s world is full of decisions too, and table-talk is at max. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Get a group together, and try this game. It continues to deliver.

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  1. Tiax says:

    Oh well, if SUSD ever recommends the game I’ll give it a try…

    • gwathdring says:

      I love SU&SD, but it seems a bit odd to me to tie yourself to any one reviewer or group of reviewers–especially a group of reviewers that doesn’t always agree on which games to recommend!

    • Xantonze says:

      FIY, they did’nt like it, for good reasons IMHO.

  2. Zankman says:

    Those are some attractive Egyptian ladies.

  3. Archonsod says:

    One interesting thing I’ve noticed in this and Prophecy of Dragons (haven’t replayed the previous two yet) is that some of the dead end/red herring paths actually allude to the over-arching Time Agency storyline and it’s impossible to follow those leads and complete the mission in the initial run. So in a sense it’s not so much repetition as it is deciding which of the two stories you’re looking to pursue.

    • dontnormally says:

      How the fuck have you already played this? It’s not available to (immediately, without super lengthy wait) purchase.

      I don’t understand how regular people have gotten it!

  4. malkav11 says:

    I’m sure it’s a perfectly lovely experience but the business model continues to be a nonstarter.

    • Deano2099 says:

      It’s not an exploitative business model at all though. It’s just a premium one. There’s clearly £20 of effort in each of these scenarios – in designing, writing, testing and drawing (all that stunning artwork) – it’s clearly not a rip-off. Yeah, you only get 4-6 hours of play out of it. That makes it an expensive purchase. But there’s no way to do this more cheaply and keep the same level of experience. And if you make it replayable, you change the whole nature of the experience.

      It’s a lovely, lovely thing and maybe sometimes you go to expensive restaurants when you could go somewhere cheaper, and maybe sometimes you get the five-star hotel when you could sleep in the three-star one. And equally maybe you don’t, because money is too tight and there’s nothing wrong with that either.
      But everything in the design serves the game, nothing feels like it’s put in there to gouge you for money, in the way a CCG business model works.

      • malkav11 says:

        I don’t believe that it’s necessary to charge that much to make this sort of game experience because there are plenty of other narrative oriented, non-replayable games out there these days that are much more reasonable. But if it is, then maybe boardgames aren’t the right format for the Time Stories experience? Because it’s too much for too little.

        • Deano2099 says:

          It’s too much for you. It’s not too much for me. It would have been too much for me three years ago. Like I said, it’s a luxury experience. It could be done on the cheap (they could drop most of the art) but then you end up with a different experience. I’m fine with paying £18 for 4-6 hours of entertainment (I mean I play video games, that’s not uncommon).

          As someone else pointed out, it’s still selling, so there are plenty of us interested. Plus it only needs one person in a given gaming group to be up for spending that much and the others can still play. I like the fact that this sort of premium experience is actually available.

  5. Saul says:

    And yet it is apparently selling, because they keep making expansions. Personally, I’m much more interested in quality than quantity. I own plenty of boardgames that I’ve only played a few times (and a few that I haven’t even gotten to once, yet).