T.I.M.E. Stories is an adventure game in glossy board game packaging.
Like Pandemic Legacy, it’s a one-shot board game, near-pointless to replay once you’ve won; you’re engaged in investigation, uncovering fixed, scripted information. (Unlike Pandemic Legacy, the process of play doesn’t irreversibly alter the game pieces; you could trade it on afterwards). There are expansions using the same rule-set but with different settings, characters and stories, so potentially it’s a narrative game platform as much as anything. The box cover is mostly white space, emphasising the potential for varied future stories rather than any one story in particular.
The frame is that you’re agents of a time-police agency, working to prevent rifts in the fabric of time caused by mystic tampering. Time travel works in a Quantum Leapish way: travelers inhabit ‘receptacles’, bodies of contemporary people, rather than moving their own bodies through time. When you jump, there’s a narrow window of action before the mission ends, but if you fail – which you almost certainly will – you can go back and replay the mission using the knowledge you’ve gained.
Players all move together to a room on the map; this room is then subdivided into different encounters (like interactive objects within a room) and can split up or join together to investigate them. This aspect of the game feels very similar to Emily Short’s Seltani piece Aspel, and it has some of the same problems; more on that in a moment.
Aside from this, we are on very familiar trad-IF design ground: iterative protagonists in a time-limited, puzzle-oriented adventure game that is gated via geography, with a little bit of triangle-of-identities thrown in for good measure. The co-op board game delivery is essentially window-dressing – admittedly, very slick window-dressing that enables the publisher to charge sixty bucks for it. (One of the major differences between video game and board game culture is that board game aficionados complain way less about paying for things.)
The trouble is that classic adventure-game design is a very, very well-explored space, and by that metric, the base story of Time Stories isn’t really very interesting or proficiently designed. The puzzles are mostly of the one-use-key variety. There is a combat / skill check system, but this is more often a time-waster than a tactically interesting challenge. There are a lot of red herrings – and you often have to spend quite a lot of time and effort as an entire group to discover that they’re red herrings, or things of very marginal use. There is a long sequence of combat encounters which wastes a lot of in-game time, but which is only rewarded with an bonus-points item which you lose when you restart. There is, at one point, a maze – not a difficult one, but my whole group groaned in annoyance when it showed up. The meta-puzzle isn’t all that hard to solve, but most of its difficulty comes from obfuscation – and it’s also a puzzle where once you’ve solved it, you don’t know that you got the answer right until you dig through the deck and pull out the numbered card you chose.
The collaborative aspect actually exacerbates much of this, rather than making it easier to solve puzzles as a group. The game encourages you to keep cards hidden from one another, and paraphrase rather than reading verbatim. Items get lost when you restart, including items whose only purpose is to carry information – which means that you need to do a lot of note-taking, but this is difficult to manage when you can’t see all the cards and everybody else just wants to move along. Perhaps there are plans to use this in more interesting ways in later episodes, but the base game would lose nothing and gain much from being played with open hands. A story that was more driven by the concerns, motives or perspectives of individual characters, or a game that had conflicting mechanical motives, or a puzzle arc simple enough to advance without sharing information, or even a story that was so rich that you’d want to replay from different angles – any of these might have justified this better. But as it stands, it’s just a bad, bad decision.
And the multiplayer aspect doesn’t really create any interesting dynamics to compensate for this. Most co-op games rely on tactical choices to justify group play; you balance your own strengths and ideas against the priorities of the group, and you talk it over to assign roles. But the adventure-game style of play isn’t very tactical – it’s based on unique, hand-crafted, unpredictable situations. Adventure-style exploration/puzzle play can be fun with a group, but it’s just as fun with a group steering a single player-character. With four PCs we often found a lot of characters with nothing important to do, because we could only work on leads in one location at a time. The ability to pick different characters on each replay seems like it’d be really interesting – but in fact we didn’t see a huge advantage in changing them around, and stuck with the same characters after the first change. It feels sloppy. It is sloppy. It’s the most cumbersome co-op board game I’ve played.
Then there’s the question of what the iterated play really adds: what benefit is there, really, to making players replay when they run out of time, as opposed to playing in a single sequence? Well, it pads the time to play a lot. It lets you try alternate paths or solutions – kill this guy or negotiate with him – but most of these choices have relatively minor effects. With a more widely-branching system, the cycling might have been justified.
Another possiblity: there’s a shared feature of most timed / iterative IF games – in many of them, stuff is happening in the background while you take your actions. In, say, Varicella or Make it Good, the reason why you have to keep replaying is that NPCs are moving around the world, carrying out their own agendas, and the solution requires you to intersect with those plans in certain ways. In Asylum the world is static aside from the actions of the players and the timer; the timer is a constraint that doesn’t add anything but annoyance.
The story that comes with the base game, Asylum, takes place within a lunatic asylum in 1920s Paris; your investigations quickly turn up evidence of occult rituals and vaguely Lovecraftian-lite monsters. These are pretty commonplace themes for board games; the sensationalised freak-show it makes out of the asylum’s patients is not unexpected, but it’s still pretty gross.
There’s an encounter, fairly early in the game, where if a female character approaches a medical orderly then he attempts to sexually assault her (it doesn’t actually use those words, but there’s little ambiguity about it). This is a locked encounter, meaning that you’re trapped in it until you roll to overcome the challenge; you’re likely to run into it on your first playthrough, and since players typically pick characters by gender when they’re starting out a new game, it’s more likely to happen to a female player. The game is listed as being for ages 12+, for the record.
The basic mechanic of how the time-travel works is pretty uncomfortable, too; the possession / mind control aspect, the discarding of failed timelines. You’re exposing these unwilling people to danger on your behalf, treating them as disposable receptacles, but at the same time they’re not empty shells – they retain much of their personalities and disorders, which justify their individual skills. As asylum inmates they’re already people whose agency and personhood is disregarded by their society, and the time-travelers double down on this. This is a huge elephant in the room, and in a piece concerned with Story you’d think it’d form a central theme; but it’s never really acknowledged. You never really discover anything more about your receptacles through play; this is not a character-driven piece, and it’s not really a piece that’s interested in institutional abuse or loss of autonomy as anything more than scene-setting.
But it’s hard to say what it is interested in. The story itself offers no surprises: you expect to find occult stuff, and you find that it’s Lovecraftian occult stuff, which in a game is the least surprising outcome imaginable. The puzzles are… fine, but they’re the kind of puzzle you’d design if you were thinking ‘fuck, we need some kind of a puzzle here.’ I’ve looked and looked for the heart of the thing, and I can’t find it.
The narrative elements of Asylum are… competently executed, for a board game. At the level of sentence construction – a comfortable zone for board game writing – it’s a downright impressive level of craft, disciplined and terse. At the larger scale, though, its aspirations are deeply, tediously conventional. It’s not a piece which is trying to exceed the narrative expectations of board games; it’s positively eager to conform to them. The story you uncover in Asylum is not any deeper, richer, more original, or more well-observed than anything you might find in Arkham Horror or Betrayal at the House on the Hill or, yeah, Pandemic Legacy. And this is a huge problem, because better narrative is kind of a major hook and selling point for this game. Stories is in the freakin’ title. Uncovering a crafted narrative is what justifies the entire gameplay structure.
I understand the instinct to go with unambitious, conventional content when you’re feeling out the design principles of a new system. I’ve done it myself. Maybe the present and forthcoming expansions of T.I.M.E. Stories will have compelling, distinctive narratives; structure that makes restarts and group play rewarding rather than an inconvenience; or puzzles that take advantage of the structure rather than being impeded by it. But it is not off to a strong start.