You might have noticed that I’ve revisited two games quite a lot on this blog, one being Arkham Horror in its various guises, and the other being T.I.M.E. Stories. You might recall that in my initial review of Arkham Horror: the Card Game, that I said my preferences between T.I.M.E. Stories, Eldrich Horror and Arkham Horror were to some extent intransitive, in that depending on the context I would prefer Eldrich to Arkham, Arkham to T.I.M.E., T.I.M.E. to Eldrich (it might have been the other way around).
The thing is, I’ve now played rather more of both Arkham Horror: the Card Game and T.I.M.E. Stories, and one of those games is looking a lot better and the other a lot worse by comparison. Spoiler – Arkham Horror: the Card Game is looking a lot better, T.I.M.E. Stories is looking a lot worse.
In this post I’m going to be talking about the most recent module in the T.I.M.E. Stories sequence, Lumen Fidei, about what the game seems to be doing, and how that stacks up against what Arkham Horror: the Card Game seems to be doing. Which I hope some of you might find at least a bit interesting.
Spoilers for Lumen Fidei, obviously.
Lumen Fidei – A Vague Standalone Review
First off, I should probably give a quick summary of Lumen Fidei. Actually, first off, I should probably stress that different people react to this whole game series very differently from the way I react to it, and it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the bits of Lumen Fidei that make me seriously wonder if the series is in the process of jumping the shark have made other people think that it’s the best scenario ever. But I’ll cover that more when I get into my issues with Lumen Fidei, and start making comparisons to the Arkham LCG.
Anyway, as you might expect from the name, Lumen Fidei is a medieval-set story with a strong emphasis on religion. More specifically, it’s set in 1419 during the Reconquista. And the setting was one of the things I really liked about the game – I’m a fan of slightly weird medieval church stuff, and I like that they’re going to less obvious settings than they did in the first few scenarios. Although the – for want of a better term – time of knights and swords and horses is a fairly common setting for historical adventure games there’s an interesting specificity to the setting, it’s actually very late in the medieval era and focuses on a conflict that doesn’t much get talked about. Annoyingly, people whose reviews I’ve looked at online seem to keep claiming that this scenario is set during the Crusades which it, well, isn’t. The Crusades were basically over a couple of hundred years before the year in which the game is set.
The players are – well this cuts to the basic thematic issue with T.I.M.E. Stories in general – cast in the role of time travellers possessing the bodies of people from the past, who are then themselves cast in the roles of the entourage of a papal legate who is, well, this gets a bit unclear. The legate is on a mission to speak to somebody who is under some kind of vow of silence and who has some kind of information about some kind of magic stone. And the players’ mission is to – again it’s a bit unclear – to escort the legate? To get the magic stone? As always there’s an extent to which the goal of the scenario is just to get to the last location and find the card that tells you to read the Mission Successful briefing.
There’s an interesting mechanic in which the whole party has a Faith score that varies depending on the party’s characters and actions. Each character (“receptacle” in the language of T.I.M.E. Stories, remember the premise is that the players are controlling disembodied time-travellers who take over people’s bodies) is assigned a religious identity as either “Christian” or “impious” (all the receptacles are from Christian backgrounds, which makes the religious conflict in this Reconquista-era scenario mostly to do with Christians vs Occultists which, honestly, is probably the right call). There are game mechanical bonuses associated with maxing out your Faith score one way or the other, with Christians getting an advantage for high Faith and impious characters getting an advantage for low Faith.
It might be worth taking a moment to talk about the way the game handles religion. Which I will naturally be doing via the medium of a huge digression about a 1990s TV show.
Back in the 1990s there was a beloved but tragically short-lived (tragically because lead actor died unexpectedly in 1998) sitcom called Father Ted. It was a whimsical and surreal piece about three Catholic priests who served a tiny parish on a small island off the Irish coast and who rattle from absurd situation to absurd situation driven partly by circumstance and partly by their own egregious personality flaws. So your classic British sitcom, basically. Owing to its subject matter, Father Ted drew a certain amount of criticism for its handling of religious issues, but the showrunners always said that they felt they were getting the balance about right as long as they got as many complaints from people who thought the show was too pro-Catholic as from people who thought it was too anti-Catholic. I’ll admit that this line of reasoning doesn’t necessarily stand up to close scrutiny, but I think it’s a decent rule of thumb to apply to Lumen Fidei.
Some gamers, particularly Christian gamers have, as I understand it, been a little bit bothered by the fact that a significant fraction of the Christian religious figures you interact with are raging psychopaths or violent assholes with a sideline in abduction and implied sex trafficking. And I kind of get that, especially since the vast majority of the Muslims you encounter are at the very least harmless if not actively serene and noble (there’s one scene in which you encounter some people in Granada beating up an old man for being a “filthy Christian” but that’s as far as it goes). I think this is partly a consequence of the fact that most of the Christians you encounter are members of actual military orders and, while these matters are morally and pragmatically complex, large groups of armed men with no real oversight or accountability do have a tendency do horrible things. It’s probably also a consequence of the fact that “spooky corrupt occult Church” is a way more interesting backdrop for a gaming scenario than “basically well-meaning Church that engages in a number of activities that look bad from a modern perspective but which should really be seen in their historical context and without which one can make a strong case that there would have been even less check on the ambitions and violence of the crowned heads of medieval Europe.”
And while I can understand why some Christian gamers might be put off by the “all witch-burning and warmongering” vibe that you sometimes get from the Christian elements in Lumen Fidei, I can also see more sensitive non-Christians being a little bit bothered by the way that – outside of the specific abductions and murders – the game tends to just thoughtlessly equate Christianity with moral goodness. Your characters lose Faith for stealing, cheating, and generally being dodgy, while they gain it for helping others. Perhaps most interestingly, in one of the reviews I listened to in preparation for writing this post, the reviewer described his first attempt at the game as a “straightforward good” playthrough, which is to say they took the Christian characters, sided with the Papal Legate, and avoided the Faith-reducing options. Weirdly, he seemed to identify this as the “good” playthrough despite also fully accepting that the Christian faction is not actually in the right in the story.
There’s a whole weird mess of cultural baggage attached to this that it would take way more than this article to unpick, but centuries of Christian cultural influence has left us with a language in which “Christian” is almost literally a synonym for “moral”, which makes it very hard for the game mechanical representation of Christianity in this game not to code as “good” despite the actual behaviour of the Christian characters. All sorts of little features of the presentation of the Faith mechanics reinforce this coding. The “Christian” side of the Faith scale is the top half rather than the bottom, it’s represented in a friendly blue colour rather than a scary red colour, is symbolised by a weirdly non-denominational cross (it’s not a crucifix, it’s almost a Celtic cross) while the “impious” side is an explicitly Satanic inverted pentagram. So there’s this odd situation in which all of the stylistic choices present the Christian side of the conflict as the good guys, while all of the narrative choices present them as the bad guys (this is basically the Father Ted balance). This makes it especially difficult for the players to make choices and take sides when called to.
Which brings me to the next part.
Lumen Fidei is centred around a conflict. Or possibly two conflicts. Or three conflicts. Or four conflicts. And they’re all sort of unhelpfully conflated, and not necessarily well articulated. On its most basic level, the game is centred on the conflict between Christian and Muslim rulers in southern Spain in the 15th century, but this conflict is actually barely touched upon by the scenario. There’s also kind of a general conflict between “good” and “bad” – the villains seem to be honest-to-shit vampires after all. The more pertinent conflict is the one about the magic green stone that you are possibly sort of being sent back to retrieve, and which the papal legate your characters initially escort is supposed to be looking for. But the conflict that gets the most playtime in the scenario is actually the conflict between the T.I.M.E. Agency, their rivals the Syaans, and a new faction called the Elois.
This is the aspect of the scenario over which I most strongly disagree with most of the reviewers I’ve looked into. Pretty much everybody whose responses I’ve read or listened to is really pleased that the game is getting deeper into this kind of metaplot. I am … not.
The framing device of T.I.M.E. Stories is that players work for an organisation called the “T.I.M.E. Agency” which sends people back through history to do … stuff? To do various missions that are mostly RPG scenarios, basically. In about scenario three (Prophecy of Dragons), you learn that the T.I.M.E. Agency is opposed to another organisation called the Syaans. Who are bad, possibly? Although since you don’t know anything about the T.I.M.E. Agency or what they stand for or what their goals are, and they don’t tell you anything about what the Syaans are doing either, or why you might want to side with the T.I.M.E. Agency over the Syaans, or the Syaans over the T.I.M.E. Agency it’s sort of hard to say. At the end of that scenario, you confront a Syaan who tells you that the T.I.M.E. Agency is secretly the bad guys and that they are secretly the good guys. Although he doesn’t particularly tell you anything about what either side actually stands for, and you don’t get any opportunity to act on the little information he does give you.
The Syaans crop up every so often in other scenarios, frequently with hints that the Syaans are really the good guys and the T.I.M.E. Agency are really the bad guys. But you never get anything specific. People say vague, handwavey things like “oh but how much do you really know about the people you work for” to which you really want to say “absolutely nothing – the people I work for are little better than a lightly-sketched framing device and I have no real interest in them or their agenda, I just want to play this scenario as a stand-alone story.” This isn’t helped by the restrictions of the medium – every significant interaction with an NPC has to be handled with a card, each card can have maybe a hundred to two hundred words on it at the absolute maximum. There really isn’t room for a detailed exegesis on the goals, agenda, and methods of time-spanning possibly-supernatural conspiracies, which means that all we ever get is innuendo and foreshadowing.
I think that the reason so many reviewers are pleased that Lumen Fidei places a greater emphasis on the metaplot stuff than the previous scenarios is that the game has spent so long teasing these things that it feels kind of cool to get something that feels even slightly like a resolution on it. In Lumen Fidei you finally get the chance to actually engage with this plotline, and that’s great. At least it’s great in theory.
Although Lumen Fidei says on the box that you are “undertaking a diplomatic mission on behalf of the papacy”, you’re really engaging with a somewhat loosely explained conflict between three NPCs: Michel d’Ailly, the papal legate; Yasmina, the djinn (who is also apparently a Syaan and who claims that Michel d’Ailly is also a time-travelling agent of some kind, although he possibly, doesn’t remember), and Saul Kalhula, the evil vampire wizard guy with the magic green stone. Each of these characters seems to be at the same time a historical figure (a papal legate, a courtesan, the leader of a mysterious army of black-clad warriors), a supernatural being (an angel, a djinn, and a vampire) and the representative of a time-travelling conspiracy (the Agency, the Syaans, and an as-yet-unmentioned group called the Elois). Depending on the choices the players make, you get the option to side with any one of these factions at the end of the game, which very slightly changes the ending that you get.
Again, this should be amazing. And some people clearly do find it amazing, and honestly more power to them. But the thing is that, from where I’m sitting, being asked to take sides between three different factions of time travellers when you functionally know nothing about any of them, including the one you ostensibly work for is perilously close to meaningless. Saul Kalhula is clearly evil and also randomly a vampire, and siding with him is basically a failure state. That leaves your choice as between Yasmina and Michel. Yasmina tells you very explicitly that she is a Syaan (and also a djinn, which is kind of unclear – the framing device of the game is explicitly SF and all the really specifically supernatural stuff kind of comes out of nowhere) but promises to tell you more about the organisation you work for if you will help her to subvert it. She also tells you that Michel d’Ailly is a T.I.M.E. agent, but that he has forgotten it. Michel himself tells you nothing of the sort, and just acts like he really is a papal legate investigating a magical stone. Which makes it a bit pointless to pick his side. And it gets even weirder if you do side with him, and he turns out to be the actual Archangel Michael (again, this is really odd for a game that is supposedly science-fiction based).
Whoever you side with, you get very little actual information about what the hell is going on, or who any of the factions actually are. Ironically the group you wind up with the most information about is the Elois, who at least tell you straight up that they’re about chaos and personal power, which isn’t much, but is a heck of a lot more than you’re told about the Syaans or the T.I.M.E. Agency. You do get a QR code attached to the Item card that leads you to your ending, which comes with the portentous warning that the game developers will record every time one of the codes is scanned, and that their records may affect future games, so you shouldn’t just scan every code to see what happens. The code takes you to a website that gives you an extra debriefing sequence which (at least in the version we played) amounts to little but yet more vague foreshadowing and a code that apparently allows you to access yet another part of their website, but which I was unable to actually find. So it’s possible that I did, in fact, get access to the information about my employers that Yasmina promised me, but I shouldn’t have to pack up the game, scan a QR code, get a different code, go to a different website, and type in that code, just to get some basic information relating to the decisions that I am already being asked to make.
Aaaand now I’ve employed a bit more google-fu, and I’ve managed to find the bit of the website that you have to key the code into and it’s … completely unrelated flash fiction about the first scenario, Asylum.
Just what? What the actual what?
The thing that’s getting to me here is that this is very much not what I thought I was signing on for. And to be fair, perhaps this is my fault for going in with the wrong expectations, but back when I was at my most enthusiastic about T.I.M.E. Stories what I liked about it was that each scenario provided a unique experience. And this seemed to be a feature that the game actively pushed – every scenario has its own rules, its own art style, its own story that is usually wholly unconnected to the wider arc about the T.I.M.E. Agency and the Syaans and whatever. I can accept there being Cthulhu in one scenario and zombies in another and wizards in another while yet another has no mystical or hypertech elements at all (apart from the time travel) as long as I accept that the whole mechanism of time travel and possession is just a framing device. The more I am expected to pay attention to that framing device, the more I’m going to be bothered by the fact that it doesn’t make a lick of sense. I signed on for a different adventure every time, not for a different chapter in a single overarching, incoherent story about twenty-fifth-century time-travellers trapped in an eternal conflict with mysterious magical time travellers and also actual vampires and also maybe angels are real.
And the thing is, had I gone in with a different mindset, I could see “time travellers vs wizards vs vampires” as a great setting for a game. Just not for one that sells itself so much on variety. If the emphasis of the scenarios from now on is going to be the gonzo meta-setting, then that’s the genre from now on. I believe that the next scenario is going to be about pirates and I was quite looking forward to it because pirates are great. But post Lumen Fidei it can’t really be about “pirates” any more. With the shift of emphasis towards the meta-narrative, the new scenario is going to have to seriously blow my socks off with its piratical theme if it isn’t going to feel like it’s fundamentally about “a conflict between several different factions of time travellers one of which, let us not forget, appears to be actual vampires, against a backdrop of pirates.” And I’m way less interested in that.
Basically it feels like Lumen Fidei, instead of trying to make me care about the fifteenth-century religious conflict between two real-world factions the scenario was built around, was expecting me to already care about the time-spanning conflict between three made-up factions that the series thus far had done far too little to set up. And partly this is just a quirk of my attitude to this particular kind of storytelling – I am extremely hostile to vague hints, hate to feel that I’m being strung along, and get especially angry when a story is filled with foreshadowing that doesn’t foreshadow anything except more foreshadowing.
Perhaps the best indication of how little I or anybody I played with cared about the broader meta-story of Lumen Fidei is how we reacted to the two sequences in the game in which Yasmina asks us to side with her rather than the T.I.M.E. Agency. By this point we have been working for the T.I.M.E. Agency for something like six scenarios, and have been explicitly working against the Syaans for at least half of those. All Yasmina really says when you encounter her (and I’m paraphrasing here, but not by much) is “hi, I work for the deadly enemies of the organisation you work for, want to team up?” All she says at the end when she asks you to betray the T.I.M.E. Agency for her is “will you betray the T.I.M.E. Agency for me?”
Basically, Yasmina offers you no good reason to turn against the T.I.M.E. Agency. But we sided with her without a second thought. Because the game had really never given us a reason to support the T.I.M.E. Agency either. Basically every scenario begins with our being berated by a guy called “Bob” for failing to do our job properly in ways we never had the opportunity to do differently (this maddening habit reaching its nadir in Lumen Fidei, in which he berates you for being late to a briefing to which he himself is late), briefed in a manner that that leaves us utterly unprepared for the mission we are about to undertake, and then launched into a scenario in which we muddle through a new and unfamiliar world in which we (almost inevitably) wind up in a final room where we confront a big villain and lots of monsters.
To put it another way, we jumped at the chance to side with a faction about whom we knew absolutely nothing, because we were sick of working for a faction about whom we knew nothing except that they were dicks. That isn’t investment. It’s pretty much the opposite of investment.
Basically we came away from Lumen Fidei not really knowing what elements of the game Space Cowboys were expecting us to invest in, or how we were supposed to interact with the game going forward. We chose, at the end of the game, to hand the powerful mystical artefact over to the eternal enemy of our employers, but while the instructions told us that the designers would be sure to remember which QR code we scanned, we were given no such instructions. Now that we’ve betrayed the T.I.M.E. Agency, what next? We’re clearly still working for Bob-the-jerk next scenario. And while the game did instruct that we should keep the green slime card from Expedition Endurance for “all future adventures”, we weren’t told to keep any items from Lumen Fidei. I mean maybe next time we’ll be asked if we let Yasmina fiddle with the emerald, but it’s not like these expansions come out regularly. If it weren’t for looking back at my own reviews (which I should stress I do mostly in an effort to keep these posts consistent with one another and only very slightly out of narcissism) I would be able to remember hardly any of the details of the games we’ve played previously because we play them three to six months apart, and I have better things to do than to diligently recall arbitrary pieces of information just in case they become important in a board game expansion that may not even have been written yet.
To put it yet another way, the whole thing just feels poorly thought through. Are these standalone scenarios in which the aim is to provide a variety of experiences, or a continuing storyline in which the metaplot is what truly matters? Is my character supposed to be consistent between the games? Is the me who controlled the wizard in Prophecy of Dragons supposed to be the same me as the me who controlled the feisty nun in Lumen Fidei? The card that says I get a bonus on a particular dice roll if I have played Prophecy seems to suggest that I am (it is?). But then what if I play this game with a different group of people? If my friends and I decide to play Lumen Fidei again to see what happens if you side with Michel d’Ailly instead of Yasmina, which version is canon in the next game we play? What about those “beacons” you’re supposed to get if you do well enough on a particular scenario? Can I take them with me to somebody else’s house if I get invited to play T.I.M.E. Stories with them as well?
And obviously part of this is hypothetical, although perhaps less hypothetical than you might imagine. Quite a lot of people play board games at clubs, events, and drop-ins, and since T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios are designed to be played exactly once, there’s an extent to which it makes a lot of sense as an investment for a games club, where more people can get use out of it. But mostly what bugs me about these sorts of questions is that it feels like Space Cowboys plain and simple haven’t thought about these things. And that bothers me for two reasons. Firstly, it bothers me because – as the Shut up and Sit Down review puts it, everything about the game screams “trust me”. The price of the core set an expansions have come down a bit since launch, but it’s still a fairly high price of entry for a game that can only be played once with expansions that can also only be played once. It’s a premium product, it’s packaged and sold as a premium product, and if you buy it you have the right to expect a certain level of quality and a certain level of consistency. T.I.M.E. Stories invites you on a journey, and there comes a point where it is reasonable to ask where that journey is going. And it is of course also reasonable for the designers to say that they can’t tell you where the journey is going, but that you can rely on them to take you somewhere great. But then ultimately it is just as reasonable to reach the point where you say “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you.”
The second reason it bothers me is because I’ve been playing a lot of Arkham Horror: the Card Game recently, and Arkham Horror: the Card Game has answers to every single one of the questions I have about T.I.M.E. Stories, and has thought absolutely all of them through.
The Arkham Comparison
I think the thing that appeals to a lot of people about the metaplot in T.I.M.E. Stories is the sense that things you do in Scenario A can come back in unexpected ways in Scenario B. The problem is that these unexpected consequences in T.I.M.E. Stories give the impression of being as unexpected to the designers as to the players. Scenarios are released piecemeal with very little sense of forethought or planning, and while some things seem to be setup for a later payoff (like the weird bits of glowing cube that you find in the first couple of scenarios) they often, well, don’t get any (the bits of cube, for example have yet to be referenced at all, although they do seem to appear in flash fiction on the website which, yet again, makes me concerned about the direction the game is taking).
Arkham Horror: the Card Game provides the same experience, but way, way, way better.
I really don’t like to use “professional” as a term of approbation or “amateurish” as a term of disapproval. Plenty of people are bad at things they do for money, and plenty of people are good at things they do for free. But the way that T.I.M.E. Stories handles this kind of long-form storytelling really is the bad kind of amateurish. They just seem to be throwing a lot at the wall and seeing what sticks, randomly dropping things that look like they might become important later to be picked up whenever they get around to it. By contrast, the way Arkham Horror: the Card Game handles these things is consummately professional, everything has a purpose, all the revelations are clearly set up and the storytelling is neatly embedded in the game mechanics.
In the FAQ for Arkham Horror: the Card Game, the game clarifies the difference between two different keywords or phrases: remember and record in your campaign log. It clarifies specifically that being asked to “remember” something means that this thing will come back by the end of the scenario you are playing, that you do not need to remember it verbatim, and that if it hasn’t come up by the end of the game, it isn’t going to come up at all. Conversely, recording something in your campaign log means that you write it down in, well, your campaign log. And the campaign log sticks around to the end of the campaign. And again, you know in advance how long the campaign is going to last, and you know in advance what the expectations are for game elements recurring.
I’ve listened to a couple of podcasts about Arkham Horror: the Card Game, because that’s the sort of thing my crazy rock-and-roll lifestyle entails, and one of the ones I listened to recently involved an interview with the lead designer, and went into a lot of depth about the design of both cards and scenarios. They talked in particular about two things that I thought were interesting.
The first was the card Strange Solution, which I think I mentioned in my initial post about the game. Arkham Horror: the Card Game is a customisable card game, in which players build decks from cards of their choice (within various restrictions based on the character they choose to play). Strange Solution is a card that doesn’t do a whole lot – it lets you draw some other cards, but you have to pass a difficult test to do it and the effect really isn’t worth the investment. But the card also has the intriguing text record in your campaign log that you have identified the strange solution and when the card was released nobody knew what that did. Which is fascinating. And the designers thought very carefully about how long they should wait before revealing what the Strange Solution actually does, they thought carefully about what kind of effect it should have. They considered the potential negative consequences of dragging things on too long, leaving people with a useless card and unanswered questions. They also considered the potential negative consequences of the Strange Solution card if it were to be referenced too far down the line, if there was an encounter in the third or fourth expansion cycle that referenced the Strange Solution card that was released in the first expansion, and which a newcomer to the game might not have, or indeed might never have heard of. The designers made the clear and well-reasoned decision to have the Strange Solution card unlock other player cards rather than interact specifically with the scenario, thus keeping the card at once relevant to all future expansions and also not required to enjoy future expansions fully. They, and I am aware I am saying this a lot, thought it through.
The second feature I found interesting was an in-scenario interaction. In one of the adventures in the Dunwich Legacy cycle you are escaping a train that is being devoured by a rift into another dimension (you can make a side argument about whether this is the kind of thing that really happens in Lovecraftian scenarios). In the sleeper car of the train, you get the option to steal a passenger’s luggage, which gives you resources that will help you succeed in the scenario, but which comes with the ominous instruction remember that you stole a passenger’s luggage. This does absolutely nothing. And of course it does nothing. You’re on a train being attacked by extradimensional monstrosities and being sucked into another universe. Most of the passengers are already dead. Whether you stole somebody’s luggage is a million miles away from being anything anybody needs to be concerned about. But the foreboding implicit in the remember keyword means you get a massive amount of tension around that one choice despite its being, when you think about it, a complete no-brainer. Hell, most of the reactions I’ve seen from people who played that scenario (in podcasts I’ve listened to and reviews I’ve read) actually seem to suggest that people chose not to rob the luggage despite there being no clear downside.
Again, compare this to the speed with which my friends and I were willing to side with Yasmina and the Syaans over Michel d’Ailly and the T.I.M.E. Agency. In Arkham, we genuinely struggled with the question of whether to steal imaginary luggage from an imaginary stranger despite our real and present need for the resources that luggage represented. In T.I.M.E. Stories, we gave no thought at all to the question of whether to betray the organisation our characters have been working for since the beginning. The difference, fundamentally, was that in Arkham we had real investment in our situation, and we had a genuine expectation that the consequences would matter, while in T.I.M.E. Stories we had no such assurances. By the time we got to Lumen Fidei we’d picked up dozens of things that said they would be referenced later, and literally none of them had. When we got to the end of that Arkham scenario, and realised that no, of course stealing the luggage of somebody who has probably already been sucked into another universe in order to stop everybody else being sucked into another universe doesn’t come back to bite you, how could it? We were able to be amused and impressed with how well the game designers had faked us out, because we had confidence that they hadn’t just forgotten and weren’t just making it up as they went along.
Basically the designers of Arkham Horror: the Card Game have thought in detail about things that the designers of T.I.M.E. Stories seem to have assumed (incorrectly) will just all come out in the wash. This even stretches down to the level of what you do and do not take between games. Where T.I.M.E. Stories assumes you’ll work out for yourself what it means to “secretly keep this card for your future adventures” (what if it’s from somebody else’s set? Am I supposed to steal it?) Arkham makes it crystal clear. A campaign is a self-contained entity consisting of a set number of scenarios, into which side scenarios can be inserted, it is defined by a campaign log. If you’re writing in the same campaign log, you’re playing the same campaign. Players take the control of investigators represented by specific decks of cards. If you wish to take an investigator from one campaign to another, you can. The investigator is the deck. The campaign is the campaign log. You could theoretically combine two campaigns into one by running the campaign logs together, but I can be reasonably confident that no future Arkham campaign will reference events from previous campaigns, because the designers have a clear sense of a campaign as a standalone entity. If I take my deck from home to somebody else’s game, the campaign is whatever is written in that person’s campaign log, my character is whatever is in my deck.
It’s clear, it makes sense and I know and trust that the designers have planned to deliver on the things they set up in a timely fasion.
And the thing is, I feel bad. Because part of me wants to point out that Arkham is still way more expensive than T.I.M.E. Stories (although this comparison is tricky because they’re designed to be played in different ways, and it’s hard to know how to compare two similar-but-not-identical products with wildly different release schedules) and has a much bigger production company behind it, so you’d really expect it to be slicker and more polished. But what the Arkham LCG has over T.I.M.E. Stories isn’t just that it has better production values (and it doesn’t entirely, the art in TS is often beautiful) but that it has a genuinely higher production quality. It isn’t just shinier, it’s sturdier, more flexible, more reliable and has better technical support. (As an aside, we didn’t come across it in our playthrough but according to some reviews, Lumen Fidei includes a misprint that can actually make it impossible for the game to progress, and the only way to find out about that misprint seems to be through a third-party FAQ on Boardgamegeek, not from the actual publisher).
The thing is, I didn’t actually hate playing Lumen Fidei. In fact I quite enjoyed quite a lot of it. It’s more linear than some of the other scenarios, but it’s well paced, well structured and has good puzzles. It’s just that Space Cowboys seem to be doubling down on the least interesting element of the franchise. Or at least, on the element that’s least interesting to me.
If you did pick up T.I.M.E. Stories, and you’ve liked the other scenarios, then this one is ultimately as worthy of your $25 as any of the others. And if you really like the metaplot stuff, you’ll probably genuinely love it, so it should be an auto-purchase (if this review filled with spoilers hasn’t ruined it for you).
For me, it was just … fine. And I’m hoping for a bit more than fine from my board games these days, especially from games with reputations as strong as T.I.M.E. Stories.