Teaching Time: 20 mins
Playing Time: 90 mins per session
Setup Time: 20 mins
Value For Money: Low
Solo Play Review
T.I.M.E Stories is a high concept idea that I really want to work, essentially a mid box game providing a system into which a range of scenario modules can slot in. In short its a video game console for boardgames. Of course the difference is that you really can't play your video games without the console making the increased cost of the machine easier to stomach, so is the base set of T.I.M.E Stories useful or necessary enough to justify its cost?
Game play consists of setting out cards to form locations and moving markers from location to location, reading and viewing descriptions and taking actions, accumulating objects represented by cards to interact with other locations and complete missions. Each action sucks up time units, run out and the game ends, resetting so you can try again. The inlay of the base set works with the tokens and cards to allow play to be suspended and completed later.
Although the game lists 2-4 players it is completely playable solo, simply requiring that the solo player use 4 "vessels" (the main rules suggest using 2 each when playing 2 player any way). A handful of role play elements are lost when cards ask you not to read them out aloud but to start acting in a peculiar manner, but the extended play time and convenience of solo play for this game easily pay back for any loss.
The first main problem is the idea of suspending the game. From starting a new mission to completion runs something like 3 hours, at least when working alone, assume longer if choices need to be discussed. The box lists playtime as 90 minutes per session, which is odd since with the "save" option session length can be any period of time you choose. The 90 minutes on the side of the box seems chosen arbitrarily because putting 180 minutes would put people off. So the whole point of half the ticket price becomes to be able to pack away and "save" between sessions, justifying that claimed 90 minutes. The game takes a lot of table space but not enough that I've ever felt the urge to pack away between sessions, even when playing for several days. In particular, to win a mission of T.I.M.E Stories usually involves making a "speed run" from one end of the game to the other, which is usually primarily a memory test. As such "saving" for more than a day or so is usually so detrimental to any chance of success as to mean you might as well just pack up and start over next time.
Aside from the actual inlay the game box contains the cards of a starting mission, the board, some counters, markers and dice. The board is largely unnecessary since much of the game play management ends up occurring in card stacks off of it so it becomes largely just a play mat for some of the card stacks. The dice are custom and nicely produced but could have been provided in smaller, cheaper versions in each module to cut down the base set price. The tokens are provided in almost comical abundance considering the number actually used in the game. Ironically fewer would probably have worked better, saving digging through for the correct tile, I've never yet used all of any of the token types in any module. Many of the counters could be totally removed and replaced by cards that are used by the modules anyway.
In short a lot of the base set could have been folded into the modules and saved everyone a lot of money, so in all honesty this version of the boardgame "console" is probably a failed experiment. If you regularly travel to a gaming group the "saving" concept might be a big deal but if you do T.I.M.E Stories with its box size and player commitment is a slightly odd choice over a more traditional RPG or boardgame.
So, that part aside what of the game itself. First of all that variable session length is a tricky pickle. If you play a session based RPG a games master can make sure that your session ends at a suitably interesting moment. With T.I.M.E Stories you have to set a session length limit and stick to it, which is tough if you feel you're close to victory but you never quite know how far from victory you are. During my first session I felt compelled to press on for several hours, but not compelled in a joyful "we're so close" manner so much as a "lets just get it over with so we don't need to do this again".
The sadder and deeper issue is the "time units". In a good RPG missions take as long as they take, side missions and branching stories are what define a skilled games master with entire sessions passing to minor tales if the group is enjoying them. In T.I.M.E Stories the player's most significantly limited resource is time, meaning that as soon as a passage is identified as not central to the main story it must be ruthlessly cut out as pointless. This undermines the sense of joy in exploration given that all exploration for its own sake is a drag on your chances of success. When a discovery contains nothing but a role playing opportunity any interest in the challenge presented is poisoned by the sense of stolen time units. I want to indulge in every side street and off shoot, which the game constantly fights me over.
T.I.M.E Stories modules feel much like the solo game books of the 1980s which I grew up on and have a deep love of. The issue with those books was the tendency during play to skip back to alternative choices when things went wrong, making a mockery of the idea of multiple game paths. However, in a game book costing under £10 with 0 set up fitting in your pocket the resultant problem that you only read through it once is not so much of an issue. In a boardgame with a £40 base set, £20 modules that asks for half an hour of set up its a much bigger problem. Its not unique to T.I.M.E Stories, the recent House Of Danger had the same problems. Additionally each T.I.M.E Stories module is totally stand alone, using different characters and elements which actually magnifies the issue. In the similar Arkham Horror The Card Game a "failure" opens a new path, evolves characters and leads to new places. In T.I.M.E Stories choices feel light and impermanent, choose this path, choose that path, it barely seems to matter long term.
To conclude on the core set, it might come across with all this that I don't like T.I.M.E Stories which is a pity because I do like it. I've bought every module so far as soon as they came out and I'll continue to do so until they stop. While I've enjoyed some more than others each time I've found myself fully engrossed in the experience of the game during play. However, there is an element that I feel is not made clear to buyers up front. The base set is over priced for the game play provided and doesn't justify itself until you've found at least three or four modules that you enjoy. The first scenario costing £40 is too much, but if you get to four costing £115 and think of them as £29 each it starts to justify itself. T.I.M.E Stories therefore is a bad £40 game, a good £100 game and a great £200 game but only if you enjoy each module, which is a problem since not all modules will be for all players. If you consider £100+ a reasonable outlay and enjoy playing through a linear narrative T.I.M.E Stories is amazingly well presented and nothing really comes close to competing with it. If you want something compact and self contained with high replay value, with lots of built in interactions it will disappoint.
The modules are the core of the game and can be spotty in feel and quality. I'll review them separately but I'll cover the one included in the base set here. I'll try to avoid spoilers but they may occur from this point onward.
T.I.M.E Stories: Asylum
My first issue with Asylum is that it is a horror scenario. The T.I.M.E Stories modules fall about 50/50 horror and non-horror and it happens that I feel the non-horror ones are of a generally higher quality. That aside the decision to include Asylum as the base set scenario shows a disregard for the fact that horror is a divisive issue. The second module is the fantasy tale A Prophecy Of Dragons, some people dislike fantasy (though I suspect they are not the target market of an RPG boardgame) but even those who dislike fantasy rarely find themselves upset enough to need to stop playing part way through a scenario, not something that can be said for horror. In my opinion the T.I.M.E Stories base set box does not alert the buyer sufficiently to the nature of the base module. Worse, if you want to play T.I.M.E Stories without experiencing a horror scenario there are a range of modules that allow you to do so, you're just forced to buy the first one. On my first playthrough, expecting a mystery or detective style story set in the roaring '20s in an Asylum, I chose to play with my wife who is a fan of mysteries, detective stories and tales set in the '20s. She is however very much not a fan of horror. The horror contained within Asylum is not a tense thriller or even that of a stalking presence within the building, rather it is quite graphic "body horror". As such she was so turned off from the T.I.M.E Stories series that she refused to play A Prophecy Of Dragons or any future module, which is a shame.
In Asylum you are one of a selection of asylum residents. The game mixes strangely serious mental illnesses with rather caricatured problems. So for example, on one side you have paranoid schizophrenia, anxiety attacks and PTSD and on the other the rather titillating "erotomania", a cannibal who is essentially a vampire and the nonspecific "bitter". I'm not personally offended by the insensitivity shown to mental illness issues but the mix of real world and totally ridiculous illness here still sits uncomfortably. You search the asylum, find something amiss and deal with it. Success or failure in this scenario ultimately turns on a single puzzle, but one which has no alternative route or solution meaning that if players happen not to get it they are essentially screwed.
In short Asylum as the scenario players first encounter is divisive, arguably offensive and not a strong playing experience. It doesn't represent what is eventually a very good series, but if you do enjoy it you'll love what comes after it.
As an addition I know that some people are concerned that they might play T.I.M.E Stories in the "wrong" order. Only some of the modules fit into the over arching story line and none of them connect in a strictly linear fashion, but some introduce plot elements not mentioned in others so just to help:
Play in order - A Prophecy Of Dragons; Lumen Fidei; Brotherhood Of The Coast.
Play in any order - The Marcy Case; Under The Mask; Expedition: Endurance; Estrella Drive.