- Asylum (comes in the base game)
- The Marcy Case
- A Prophecy of Dragons
- Designers: Peggy Chassenet, Manuel Rozoy
- Publisher: Space Cowboys/Asmodee
- Players: 2-4
- Ages: 10+
- Time: >2 hours per scenario
- Times played: This is really hard to quantify. I have played each of the first three scenarios to completion as well as at least one or two others in prototype form.
So, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s getting a bit late to review one of the “most anticipated” games from Essen 2015, but I had previewed it for a number of years running after I was allowed to playtest the game. Having seen a bit more of the game than the average Essen 2015 gamer, I knew that the breadth and depth of the gaming system wouldn’t be truly seen until players had a chance to see how the game system works in a variety of different adventures.
Also, there was a lot of hype about the game when it came out, and I think many people that were interested in the game were ready to buy it based on the previews available to that point. I think that the present moment is a pretty good time for a review on the first few scenarios because there are still some gamers that haven’t yet made the plunge on the game, and there haven’t really been many longitudinal reviews
Now, if you’re looking for specific details on those scenarios – you won’t find that in this review. Why? Well, mostly because each of the scenarios are linear puzzles. Once you have played them (and figured out the “puzzle”), you really can’t go back and play it again and have the same exceptional experience. This is really no different than many other scenario based games such as Descent, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, and Legends of Andor. Thus, in this review, I’ll not spoil any of the scenarios so that you can discover them on your own.
So the overarching story of T.I.M.E Stories is that you and your teammates are members of an intervention team set some point in the future. You step into a “shell” that then projects your mind into a receptacle in a previous era. Thus, you can take on the identity of someone different each time you travel back in time. Your team works together to try to solve the problem of the scenario.
Each scenario is contained within a deck of cards. It is important to remember that you should never shuffle the deck nor should you ever look at the cards prior to playing the game. As I mentioned at the top, most of the scenarios are linear and possibly only played once. Thus, you don’t want to accidentally learn something which will spoil your experience.
Each mission starts with an information session at the T.I.M.E Stories Base Location. While there are some basic rules that are in effect for every game of T.I.M.E Stories, there are some individual tweaks that are outlined in this opening debriefing. The starting location will also instruct you on how to set up the deck of cards. In general, there will be a section of cards that are Items – these cards remain face down in a deck, and as you play the scenario, you will reveal Item cards to help further the story. There are some map cards that are placed in the map area found in the upper left hand corner of the board. There are also a number of character cards which provide the statistics for the different identities that you might be able to take in that scenario. The rest (and bulk) of the deck are reserved for locations. The first card of each location has the location name printed on it. At the bottom of the card, it tells you how many other cards are used in this location.
As you get started with a scenario, each player learns the story of the scenario, and then players choose the character they will portray in the adventure. Each character has specific abilities (such as health, defensive strength, fighting, magic, agility, etc.) – the types of abilities will differ based on the particular scenario. Sometimes the different characters will also have special abilities, and the group should take some time to discuss how the characters might work together based on their different strengths and weaknesses.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a map in the upper left of the board, and the instructions from the Base will often tell you where to place the group pawn, to thus represent the location of the group. The Base will also let you know where to place the Time Marker – this is how many Time Units (TUs) are available to the team to accomplish the goal of the scenario. This limit of TUs is referred to as a “run”. Most likely, you will need multiple runs in order to solve the mission. (More on this later…)
The players should then go through the locations deck until they find the location corresponding to the starting location and lay out all the cards from that location FACE DOWN on the board. Whoever is the current Time Captain then takes the first card and reads the description to all players. Usually, the text on this first card is a descriptive story of what the players are seeing on the illustrations on the cards.
At this point, the game is ready to start. I’ll describe the general flow at this starting location, and this is essentially the same pattern that will follow at just about any other location in any scenario in the game. (There may be times where the rules are altered, but these exceptions will be outlined on the first card of those exceptional locations…) Each of the cards in the location represents a different portion of the location.
EXAMPLE: You find yourself on a dense forest; there is a strange dark black moon in the daytime sky. To your left, you see a large log that is on its side on the ground. You think that you see the ears of a teddy bear poking up above the log. Next to it is something that looks like a speeder. In the center, you see the back of some white armored soldiers. In the distance, you see a building that looks suspiciously like it houses a power generator. (The artwork on the pictures would show a mural of Endor split up over three or four different cards.…)
When you lay out the cards, some might be sealed – that is they will have the picture of a particular character or a token on the card. These cards can only be accessed if you have that character in your group or if you possess the matching token. Otherwise, the players each decide which card they would like to explore, and they place their personal token above the card where they will go. Multiple players can go to the same card.
EXAMPLE: You might be within the Death Star, looking a some different corridors. There might be a picture of a door with a keypad next to it. R2D2’s picture would be at the bottom of this card, and you would only be able to choose this card if you had R2D2 in your party, because thematically, you would need his computer interface thingamajig to come out and unlock the door for you…
Once all players have chosen their card, the selected location cards are picked up and read by the players at each location. Each player can then summarize what they read on the card – i.e. try not to read the text directly but instead convey the story in their own terms. Note, that thus far at this location, the team has not had to spend any TU. Entering a location, picking a card and reading that card are all “free”.
What’s on the back of the card? Almost anything! It might be an fight/encounter. It might be a challenge or test that has to be passed. It might be information, either text or visual. It might be flavor text. It might be a store where you can buy/sell things. It might be a secret passage to another location. It might be at item card that turns out to be ice cream or something else useful like a key or a map. In any event, you read the card to yourself, present what you find to the rest of the team, and then talk over what you want to do.
At this point, the choice is fairly simple. The entire team can choose to pack it up at this location and go somewhere else (more on this later). OR, the team can choose to spend 1 TU, and then each team member will get to do one of the following things:
- Roll a die – this could be for a fight or to pass an agility test or who knows what. But in general, each time that you need to roll the dice, it’s an action done as the team spends 1 TU.
- Move your pawn – this would be to move your pawn to a different card in this location, pick up that card and read it.
- Do nothing –
Note that each team member gets to do one of these things for that TU spent. If you’re in a battle, it may be that your initial roll is not enough to kill off the opponent. If you want to roll again, the group will have to spend another TU (and everyone else gets a chance to do something else… which might include moving to your location so they can use their action to roll on the next TU!)
There are some cards/battles/challenges that have a lock symbol on them – if you see this, you are not allowed to leave the card until the battle or challenge has been completed. This may cause you to spend multiple TUs trying to fight your way thru the battle…
If no one is stuck in a location, the team can also decide to leave and go somewhere else. The list of locations is generally limited to those named locations found on your map (in the upper left of the board). If the group decides to move on, the current Time Captain chooses the next location, rolls the time die which will end up costing the group between 1-3 TU, and then the cards for the next location are found and placed on the board. The Time Captain token moves to the next player who then picks up the first card from that location, reads it aloud, and players again enter the location to choose where they want to go first.
This pattern continues until the scenario is solved (and the players win) or the team runs out of TUs. In the case of a win, congratulations to everyone. There is usually some sort of scoring rubric to help your group judge how well they did. At this point, pack up the scenario and put everything away.
However, if you managed not to solve the scenario before time runs out, this is where the real “magic” of the game comes in for me. You will be directed to one (of a few) end of scenario cards. Depending on how you “lost” the game, you might be sent to a specific card. But, in general, what happens is that you get to do a reboot on the game. Remember from the theme that you have simply been projected into a receptacle in a certain time – so there’s no reason why you can’t do it again!
And, as you’ve experienced it yourself in the game, you’ll be able to parlay your memories and previous experiences to help you in your later attempts. Some of the experiences may be made permanent by the game – certain items, maps, and other objects might have the Time Stories logo on them. Anything that has this logo remains in your possession for future attempts. This will probably save you time in a second run because you won’t have to use TU to go find that thing again!
More importantly, you’ll have your memories to rely upon. Some of the game comes down to optimizing your travels through the different locations. Having bumbled your way through on the first run, you can hopefully learn from your mistakes and do things better on the next run.
EXAMPLE: You know that you find the location of the Well of Souls – but the last time you tried, you ran out of time before the sun could get to the right spot. When you restarted, you no longer had to go to Nepal and participate in the drinking contest; the Ra Headpiece remained in your inventory between runs. That will save your team at least 4 or 5 TU as it saves you a whole location and the consequent die rolls… You also need to find a stick, but you didn’t keep the one you had. You remember that there was a stick merchant in the bazaar, and your team makes a note of going to the bazaar first to get one of those before heading for the mini city model. And, of course, when you go to the bazaar, everyone on the team remembers not to go to the rightmost card which had some crazy guy in white that challenges you to a duel. Sure, it only took one die roll to successfully shoot him with your gun, but it didn’t give you anything else, so there’s no reason to go do it next time…
So, each run in a scenario is not an isolated event, you have plenty of things that carry over into the next run. So much so that I think it would be nearly impossible to “solve” some of the scenarios on a first run because you simply don’t have enough time to get to all of the locations that you need to see in order to win. Only be gathering information and items from a prior run will you be able to accomplish all the things you need to do – from both saving time in collecting things as well as avoiding time intensive dead ends.
This sort of metagame can lead to some interesting decisions, especially nearing the end of a run. The team might decide to go back to a particular location to do more exploring; not because it’ll help them in the current run, but only so that they don’t have to go back in a later run. Because the Time Stories logo is printed on the “keeper” materials, you know right from the get go which things you get to keep for another run, and this may allow you some freedom to leave them for the next time and use your few remaining TU on things that you know you are about to lose.
As I mentioned at the start, most of the scenarios are fairly linear in the sense that there is only one solution to each, and once you know the solution, you really can’t un-see that in your head. Thus, you’ll really only get one play of the scenario. I suppose that if you were a completist, once you solved the scenario, you could try to optimize your play to “win it” in the fewest number of TUs/Runs. That might be an interesting exercise, but there really won’t be any more “A-ha!” moments in those playthroughs.
Given the important role that memory can play, I’d recommend that you try to set aside a longer game session to play through a scenario all the way to completion in a single day. First, it’ll be much easier to remember the pieces of information that you simply need to remember (i.e. what locations contain which things, which keys go in which doors – and where both things are found; which cards are dead ends or traps, etc.
If you’re unable to do so, the insert in the box provides you a great way to try to save the current game state so that you are able to resume the scenario where you left off. But, clearly, that’s a suboptimal way to keep track of all the information you need to remember. Additionally, you’ll have to ensure that you have exactly the same roster of gamers when you pick the game up because you surely don’t want to include someone in the game when you’re already half way thru! And since you really only get one chance to solve the puzzle, you should set yourself up with the best possible circumstance to do that.
Knowing that, the only thing that I would caution someone interested in T.I.M.E Stories is to not spoil any of the adventures in your quest to learn more about it. It’s also why I’m trying to write this review without including any substantive facts about the game as I try to tell you about it. You really don’t want to know too much (or really anything) about the puzzles in the scenarios because you’ll only have one chance to solve that puzzle, and it’ll be a shame if you knew the answer before you even saw the puzzle!
This one-play only nature does bring up an interesting conundrum –namely, how do you ask for help if you get stuck or if you need a rules clarification? Unfortunately, I don’t know if there is really a good answer to this. There is a FAQ available online, and while much of the answer is hidden in spoiler text boxes, you still might end up learning something new just from reading the questions posed in the FAQ. I think that the designers and developers have done a pretty good job of designing a base rule set that serves as an overall architecture to the game and then having the cards explain the variant rules specific for each scenario. I won’t say that the rules and cards are 100% perfect, but our group was able to come to a group decision with any of the rules questions that we came up with – and we were happy enough with our resolution of the issues as they came up. After we finished each scenario, we did consult the online FAQ to see if our interpretation of the rules was correct, and in each occasion, we had collectively figured out what we should have done on our own.
To date, there are three scenarios available for the game. The Asylum is included in the base box. The Marcy Case was made available at the initial release in Essen 2015. Prophecy of Dragons came out 1Q 2016. A fourth expansion is soon to be released this summer, Under the Mask, and yet another hopefully at Essen 2016.
I have played all three of the currently available scenarios (as well as playtested some of the yet to be released scenarios), and each of them has a different feel. Each of them is a puzzle to be solved, but the type of puzzle is different in all of the scenarios that I’ve played, and I love that variety. To me, it shows the strength of the system in that you can use it in so many different ways.
If I had to rate them, I would say that my group had the best experience with the Marcy Case, followed by the Asylum and then Prophecy of Dragons. That being said, we have had great experiences with each of them, and if they were the sort of puzzle that you could re-solve, I’d happily re-do any of them. However, since that is not the case, each scenario that I’ve played has just whetted my appetite and make me look forward to the next release.
One final note – though i’m usually not a proponent of house rules, I will say that our group has made one change to the published rules. We have played two of the scenarios with more than the box limit of 4 players. As the game is a cooperative game, we just let two people “share” one of the characters. They could still only see the cards that their receptacle went to – but it gave us one more voice in the group to discuss things, and I think it allowed us to enjoy the game with our “normal” group of 5 players.
Thoughts from other Opinionated Gamers
Lorna: I’ve only tried the first scenario so far and as a 2 player game. I used one of the variants proposed on BGG instead of the official one using 2 characters each. I think it worked fine that way. Kudos to the artists as the artwork conveys the theme quite nicely.
Chris Wray: I’ve played the first three scenarios. Asylum had the best theme, and I loved the first 98% of the case, but the ending left me (and my group) less than impressed. Asylum was certainly the shortest of the cases. The Marcy Case was fun, and a bit more involved than Asylum, but once again, I was less than impressed by the ending. A Prophecy of Dragons has risen to be my favorite case, and I think it is the scenario that truly shows off the system’s potential. It felt more open than the other scenarios to me, and they finally nailed the ending.
Craig V: On the surface, T.I.M.E Stories appears to be a fairly simple game system that translates the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style of books into an immersive board game format, but I know that arriving at the final product was a very long and complex process. I’m glad that Space Cowboys/Asmodee put in the necessary time and effort to make it work because the resulting product combines exploration, puzzle solving, roleplaying, memory, teamwork and more into an immersive and fun gaming experience. Each of the first three cases play and feel different because they each contain unique twists and mechanisms, so it’s clear that the system also allows for flexibility and innovation. Of the first three cases, I liked The Marcy Case the most, followed by Asylum and then A Prophecy of Dragons the very least for various reasons. Overall, T.I.M.E Stories is a new concept in board gaming that’s definitely fun to play, but the experience can include some frustration due to unclear rules and the effects of unlucky dice rolling or other compounded randomness. While I don’t enjoy every aspect game/system, I have really enjoyed the experiences of playing through each case with my friends and am really interested in seeing how the system continues to evolve. I’m already looking forward to seeing what awaits discovery in the Under the Mask case!
Michael Weston: I very much enjoyed the first case, but haven’t had a chance to try the others. In a way it’s just a “Choose Your Own Adventure Board Game”, yet it does it very well.
Erik Arneson: T.I.M.E Stories is an excellent and unique game experience. I’ve played the Asylum scenario which comes in the base game (successfully) and The Marcy Case (unsuccessfully). Can’t wait to dig back into it.
Dan Blum: I have just played the Asylum, and we didn’t quite finish it; we had it almost entirely right on the last run, and it was late, so we decided not to go through it again. I liked it a lot, and I would happily play other scenarios, but I don’t plan to buy the game. The lack of replayability is a big factor; admittedly I have bought games just as or more expensive than the scenarios which I get less play out of, but I don’t do that on purpose, so spending that much money on something which will get used for one several-hour game session rubs me the wrong way (I agree with Dale that re-running a scenario in the same session is the way to go). I also note that the kind of ending we had with the Asylum is somewhat frustrating; we wanted to actually finish (and had we planned to play more with the same group we would have wanted to get the character upgrades which I understand you get for successful missions), but even if it hadn’t been too late to continue I am not sure we would have been that enthusiastic about replaying a scenario of which we had already seen 95%.
Mary Prasad: I played the base game (Asylum) with 4 people. At least two people hated it (they were very vocal about it too), one other may have felt mere dislike, and the best I can say is that it was OK. Although I love the idea of it, and certain parts were fun, a few things were annoying (e.g. memory aspects) and the ending was a huge disappointment (I can’t say why without possibly giving something away). The thing that is really upsetting is that the game basically costs $50 plus an additional $30 for each scenario (basically a deck of cards) – this is far too costly for something you can only play one time! At least with Descent and other scenario based games, there are several scenarios in the box and you could generate or download others, get a compendium (book of scenarios), or buy several more, all for a much more reasonable price per play (not to mention that the figures are much cooler). I wouldn’t mind playing someone else’s scenarios but we’re not buying any more (our copy will be up for sale once we play the 2nd scenario, purchased with the base game).
Update: I just played The Marcy Case with 3; I’m not sure I feel a need to play other scenarios. It scaled fine to 3 rather than 4 but it suffered from the same problems as the first scenario. The one new person who played with us was fairly neutral about the game. I asked if he would consider buying the game – he also thought it was too expensive (I also asked him if he would like to borrow our base game to play the first scenario; he didn’t take me up on it).
Eric Edens: I like Time Stories. I like it a lot actually. I also hate many aspects of it and see it as a good attempt but falling short of what I hoped. The entire idea behind the in the box mechanisms being used by all future expansion stories is what keeps the game from being great. I am glad they tried to create a game system so that future versions could stay cheap but because of the constraints it requires on the design it keeps the game from fully exploring the ideas. Even in the newest installment, Prophecy of Dragons, one of the fundamental mechanics the game is built on is added to and changed in a way that I feel is great in that scenario but also counters the entire purpose of the original build. Without giving away any spoilers, a key piece of the initial game is the ability to “save” and come back to it later. This mechanic doesn’t completely work for what occurs in the P of D and requires an added step specifically for that scenario and in doing so adds a piece to the game I felt shouldn’t be there. I can’t say why here but you will understand my meaning when playing. Again it doesn’t break the game but it does highlight the original game mechanics flaws and I fear future installments will more and more require tweaks which will make the rules issues Dale had even more apparent. But again, you should play this game. It is introducing new ideas and new concepts to a gaming market desperate for newest and latest ideas. I love this game I just can’t help but see flaws. But I will play everything they release for it.
Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
- I love it! Dale Y, Erik Arneson, Eric Edens
- I like it. Nathan Beeler, Lorna, Craig V, Michael Weston, Dan Blum
- Neutral. Mary Prasad
- Not for me…
Mary Prasad is the only voice of reason here. I think the game is great. I also think it is one of the biggest rip-offs ever. It’s kind of broken. It’s kind of a scam.
You may want to elaborate and tell us what it is a rip-off of.
And if you thought it was great, why describe it as a ‘rip-off’ and a ‘scam’.
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