TIME Stories is a bit of a conundrum to review. My group has finished the Asylum mission (we failed it spectacularly) so I feel like I know enough to review the game. On the other hand, there are other missions available and coming that I have not played. I know that most of the framework will stay intact but I don’t know what will change from one mission to the next. Just know that this review is based on playing what came in the original box. Anything beyond that will get a separate write up.
Also, know that you can read this without seeing spoilers. I will hide any spoiler-y content in sections you have to click to see. On to the review.
In TIME Stories, you take on the role of time traveling agents who are trying to prevent some time-destroying catastrophe. During the game you will uncover different scenes, explore them, and decide how to handle what you find. You may find people to interact with, items to examine or use, or new areas to explore. You will do this exploring until you run out of time. Then, if you have not completed your mission, you will reset the game and give it another go with the knowledge you gained the first game. Repeat this process until you have finished the mission – in failure or success.
While the game may want you to believe that it is a storytelling game, it is really more of a puzzle to figure out.
WHAT I LIKED
The Mission System
The base game contains your first mission (represented by a deck of cards) and the basic framework of components that you can plug new mission into. New missions are important to keeping this game going since a mission loses it surprise and discovery elements once you complete it.
While the game may want you to believe that it is a storytelling game (it’s in the title), it is really more of a mystery or puzzle to figure out. There are certainly story elements along the way that you and your group can latch onto but the story is not the focal point. You are presented with bits of information that you have to piece together, figuring out what is important and what is not. The game draws you into this by encouraging players not just to read the text on the card they are exploring but to paraphrase and describe what they are experiencing. Really fun.
Speaking of exploring, the way the game facilitates this is through a unique visual mechanism. When you enter a room you will lay out a set of cards side by side that form a picture of the room. Players then get to decide where they will go to explore. The artwork on these cards is amazing and the way it creates an environment to explore is really engaging and interesting.
MIDDLE OF THE ROAD
The Multi-run Mechanism
A mission plays out over multiple “runs”. Players spend time as they explore and interact with their environment and when they run out of time, they reset and take another run at it. Our first run was really interesting. It felt like we were exploring this interesting and compelling environment. Our second game felt very similar but we knew enough to get items we needed and avoid things we didn’t need. Still fun. Our third run didn’t feel as good. We thought we knew exactly what we needed so we rushed through grabbing these specific things and skipping all else. So by the third run, the game had lost the compelling part of the first and second runs: discovery. It did gain the element of efficiency, but it still didn’t feel as good as run 1 or 2.
Combat in the game can end with an agent dying. If this happens they must wait 7 Time Units before they can return to the game. While this is preferable to being completely out of the game, they still have to wait a while before coming back in (potentially 7 rounds). To put this in perspective, that is almost a third of the time you have allotted for a run in Asylum. Even though I think consequences are a good thing this seems a bit too much. Especially considering that you can randomly stumble into a fight your character cannot win, and get stuck there only to die and be out of the action. The player can still interact with other players, voice their opinions, and participate in decisions which mitigates this a bit.
WHAT I DISLIKED
The Game Identity Confusion
I feel like TIME Stories has a bit of an identity crisis. It wants to be an immersive exploration game and an efficiency game and these two things are at odds with each other. The exploration game says, “take your time and find everything” while the efficiency game says, “find the fastest way to finish”. The game invites you to explore but then penalizes you if you explore the wrong thing, or too much. I feel like we will play our next mission differently, trying to balance these two things.
The Warm Up Mission Feel
The Asylum mission felt very much like a warm up for future missions. We were learning how the game wanted us to play. The rules were presented clearly enough but it was unclear how to win. I felt like we were learning more than just story. We were learning how the game ticked. It felt a bit like we were playing a tutorial for future missions.
If you don’t want the game to feel this way you can check out our Lessons Learned post. This is a non-spoiler way to give you a leg up in the game.
The game invites you to explore but then penalizes you if you explore the wrong thing, or too much.
Spoilers Lie In Here
The Unexpected Point System
There is a point system in the game which the rules do not mention at all. This dictates some items you get to carry forward to future missions. You can also completely fail the mission. We did not consider this as an option since the game kept allowing us to try and fail, then try again. Admittedly, this is on us, but was still something we had to learn about the mechanisms of the game – by completely losing. The ending didn’t feel good to my group.
The Dead Ends
While I get the narrative place for these, there should have been a narrative way for us to figure out not to take them – especially since there is a scoring mechanism at the end. Maybe we missed a few clues to this but I feel in the case of the top hat man it was very misleading and very costly. He said the word “agent” and mentioned a circle. How could we have known not to spend the 5 TU? On the other hand, the dead ends provided some interesting ambiance in the story.
Come on Bob, give us a break. How can you expect us to succeed in a mission in one run? Don’t be such a jerk. I understand that each run costs a bunch of money, I do. Promise. But you could have done more research on your end to help us out. Bob!
I liked TIME Stories a lot. It is unique in the world of board games right now as it provides a flexible framework to discover different stories through. I wish I had known a bit more about how the game worked before we played but I am really looking forward to taking that knowledge into the next mission. None of the things I disliked will keep me or my group from forging ahead and experiencing what the next missions have to offer.
Just know that TIME Stories isn’t a pure story game. It isn’t an exploration game either. It is a puzzle and efficiency game with some story elements. If you can set your expectations there you will have a great first experience with the game.
Marcy Case Update
My group has now played our first run of the Marcy Case mission. This has confirmed to us the warm-up nature of the Asylum mission. We feel much more confident making decisions in this mission because of what we learned playing Asylum – not from its story but how the game wants you to play.