let’s do the T.I.M.E. warp again

So last week I wrote a long-arse blog post about T.I.M.E. Stories in which I managed to say an awful lot about the game’s context, structure and place within the wider framework of games that exist and are things, but basically nothing about how it actually works, what you actually do in it or the scenario that comes in the box.

In a way, this was probably quite board game reviewing but I actually think that the structure and position of T.I.M.E. Stories is so unusual that it genuinely eclipses more prosaic facts about plot and gameplay. I mean, perhaps I’m wrong but I think between “this game uses a flexible resolution system involving custom dice and a variety of tokens to simulate combat as well as other in-world challenges” and “this is game is designed so you can only play it once”, the latter point is probably the more pertinent.

That said, let’s talk about those dice.

How T.I.M.E. Stories Works

The core mechanic of T.I.M.E. Stories is actually really elegant and interesting. Ignoring the whole framing device for a second, the players are exploring a space that is presented entirely through a custom deck of cards. This is genuinely pretty awesome.  Some cards represent items you find, some form a map of the location you’re exploring, others represent specific areas within that location, and these cards are particularly well-designed because their backs fit together to form beautiful (or, sometimes, slightly tacky I’ll admit) vistas showing what the place you’re visiting is like. It’s a structure for a game that I’ve never seen before and that I think has a massive amount of potential.

The game is designed for up to four players and each player takes control of a “receptacle” (in terms of the framing device, this means person from the time period to which you are travelling into whom you have beamed your consciousness, but truthfully they’re just your RPG character) and it is through your receptacles, their game stats and unique special abilities, that you interact with the world as described in the deck of cards.

As you explore, you will find items, meet people, face challenges, and solve puzzles—of these, the people tend to make the least impact, since items come on cards you keep, whereas people are usually just described on the back of one card in an area and can’t really be interacted with in a meaningful way. Pretty much everything you do in the game eats “T.I.M.E. units” and when you run out of T.I.M.E. units you fail the run and have to start again.

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The game’s mechanics are a funny mix of very elegant and a bit clunky. The way that a deck of cards can become a spooky asylum or a fantasy city or a town in the middle of a zombie outbreak is genuinely remarkable. The way that you lose a random number of T.I.M.E. units every time you move between locations based on the roll of a “T.I.M.E. die” just seems pointless and uninteractive. There’s something rather clever about the way the game’s conflict resolution system manages to represent anything from fighting a minotaur to picking a lock to (in one slightly faily encounter) persuading an orderly not to sexually assault you, all through a very simple system involving dice and cardboard tokens. On the other hand, the very flexibility of that system makes it feel extremely generic so although the system adequately models fighting a monster or swimming down a tunnel or arguing with some thieves it doesn’t model them in a way that feels particularly rich or satisfying.

There’s also an extent to which the game’s strong reliance on randomised elements is at odds with one of the key selling points (at least for me) of its time-looping gameplay. The way every game of T.I.M.E. Stories I’ve played so far has worked is that the first couple of runs have been fact finding missions in which we have worked out what’s where, who she would avoid, and who we definitely have to talk to. It’s only the third or fourth run that you’re usually making a really concerted effort to win the game (which, harking back to my first post, is why it’s so frustrating that the game berates you for not winning first time) but the problem here is that the randomness of the resolution system can make a run fail even if you’ve basically done everything right. And I suppose, for some people, there’s a risk/reward element at work—do we buy the potion of water breathing so that the dwarf doesn’t have to risk rolling to get through the tunnel or do we skip that and hope he gets lucky. But, for me, that’s a sort of no-brainer. It’s always worth spending two T.I.M.E. units to avoid the chance of losing five T.I.M.E. units later and then failing the run. You’d only want to take the risky shortcut if you were really pushing for a speed run and (as I mentioned in my first post on his subject) you won’t even know whether a speed run is relevant until you’ve completed the game at least once.

And, to be honest, that’s pretty much all I can say about the base mechanics of T.I.M.E. Stories. In a sense, what you get in the box is a game engine rather than a game and so, to an extent, it’s hard to review it on its own. Without a scenario, it’s just a bunch of meaningless cardboard, which brings us to:

Scenario 1: Asylum 

I talk about Shut Up and Sit Down a lot on this blog and about half the non-spoilery things I want to say about the Asylum scenario they said themselves in a review they posted the better part of a year ago. In particular, they observed that a) it’s a bit depressing that with an infinite expanse of past, future and alternative history to choose from, their first setting choice was “creepy asylum” (and, even more depressing, that the next two were “zombie outbreak” and “D&D”) and b) that in the 21st century it’s a little bit problematic that the scenario’s portrayal of mental illness isn’t more nuanced than “cannibal child” and “sexy nymphomaniac”.

For what it’s worth, both this discussion of Asylum and the following discussion of Prophecy of Dragons will contain some spoilery elements so if you do intend to play the game, skip the bits in the spoiler tags.

Non spoilery summary: on one level, I can see why they chose Asylum as the introductory scenario.  It’s set in a closed environment in a recognisable world and your characters, being patients, have very limited access to, well, anything. So it means that the scenario doesn’t need much in the way of special rules. I understand that the Marcy Case, for example, has quite a lot of extra rules for things like zombies and shotguns, while PoD has an actual magic system.  Asylum is, almost by definition, vanilla T.I.M.E. Stories: you are some people in a place, looking for some stuff, and trying to do a thing.

Without giving too much away, I wasn’t mad keen on Asylum. Even giving it a pass on its extremely problematic portrayal of mental illness, it’s just a little bit unsatisfying. I think it suffers partly from being an introductory scenario and therefore needing at the same time to be simple and also to showcase all of the things you normally do in the game. This means it has to do an awful lot with very little.

I think a secondary problem with the introductory scenario is that it’s, well, the one you play first and because you only play a scenario once it means that all the little things that make a game annoying the first time you play it are indelibly linked with that scenario in your mind. To be more specific for a moment, I think enjoying most complicated board games requires you to a) identify which rules you’ve been playing wrong and, just as importantly, b) identify which of the rules you’ve previously been playing right you’re going to conveniently start forgetting in the name of fun.

In the first camp, with T.I.M.E. Stories, we had our failure to understand the combat rules. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Asylum winds up as kind of a horror scenario and you do spend quite a lot of time fighting things. The way combat works in T.I.M.E. Stories is that you roll some of their special dice and if you roll any skulls you add up all the skulls you’ve rolled, plus all the skulls on the creature you’re fighting and if you’ve got more skulls than your character’s defence score, you take a wound. For the whole of our play through Asylum (and having checked the internet, we were by no means alone in this) we misapplied that rule and, instead, took a number of wounds equal to the number of skulls rolls in excess of the defence score. This made combat brutal to the point of being frustrating. And I feel retrospectively a little sad that I will forever consider Asylum a frustrating scenario in part because of a rule I’d just got wrong.

On the flipside of this, a rule that we originally got right was the rule that says that only the person whose “receptacle” actually explores a card gets to look at it. In fact, the complete rule is that the player whose receptacle explores a card is the only one who gets to look at it and they are supposed to summarise the card in-character as their receptacle.   Which makes no sense at all because the whole premise of the game is that your receptacles, like the name suggests, are just receptacles you are inhabiting. And, frankly, if I wanted to spend the evening roleplaying a sexy nymphomaniac I’d … well I’d play Vampire: The Masquerade.

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Not only is it borderline not okay to randomly ambush your players with the idea that they’re expected to roleplay stereotypical versions of mental illnesses, but it also just isn’t clear how you’d do it, since a lot of the time what’s on the card is actually game mechanical text. I mean, what do you say “oh la la mes braves, I ‘ave to make a quickness test avec un difficulty of trois or I will ‘ave to discard one of my items.” (and it suddenly occurs to me, I hadn’t mentioned the Asylum scenario is set in France, so that sentence probably made even less sense that it was meant to). More prosaically, the whole structure of T.I.M.E. Stories is about exploring a lavishly designed space. The cards have art on them which is often quite nice and flavour text which is, well, okay written about as well as you’d expect for writing in a board game, but which is still part of the experience of playing the game. Nothing is gained and a great deal is lost if you try paraphrase information in character instead of reading the flavour text verbatim and showing everyone the lovely picture.

Of course, a final frustrating niggle here is that there actually is a very minor and very specific gameplay reason to allow only one person to look at a card at a time, which is that very, very rarely the artwork on a card contains important clues and, therefore, spotting those clues becomes a gameplay challenge for the person who looks at the card. The problem is, in Asylum, this happens exactly once. And in PoD it happens exactly zero times.

The last few things I have to say about Asylum are spoilery so, watch out, spoilers:

As you might have noticed, because of the nature of the game and its role as introductory scenario, a lot of my frustrations with Asylum are hard to disentangle from my frustrations with T.I.M.E. Stories. One or two, however, are explicitly not. I said earlier on in this section that I understood, on one level, why Asylum was chosen as the introductory scenario. But, on another quite significant level, I think it was an abysmally poor choice. The premise of T.I.M.E. Stories, as you may remember from the previous article, is that you are time travellers attempting to prevent temporal faults being created in different historical, futuristic and alt-reality eras. Asylum almost entirely ignores this premise.

Indeed, if you read the scenario designer’s notes on Asylum, one of them highlights that it’s primarily a tribute to a French language RPG called Maléfices. And one level, it’s nice that T.I.M.E. Stories has that flexibility built into it. And, indeed, I think part of the reason for the time-hopping, world-jumping, Sliders or Dr Who style framing device is exactly so that you can have whatever subgenre you like. I’m damned sure they’ll do a western one at some point. But as an introductory scenario for people that are trying to decide if they like your time-travel based game, where you play time travellers who are trying to stop temporal rifts being created by travelling in time, it’s just a little bit weird that nothing in the scenario makes any reference to time travellers or temporal rifts. As you explore the asylum it becomes increasingly clear that there is weird shit going on but the weird shit is very explicitly, well, French occult RPG weird shit. Not time travel weird shit.

The doctor in charge of the asylum is some kind of occultist doing some kind of ritual and, by the way, there’s an actual manticore in the greenhouse for no damn reason. The scenario ends with you confronting a naked chick in a pentagram while she tries to summon a demon and, hang on, what happened to the thing where we were time travellers and there was some kind of temporal fault thing? Does summoning demons cause temporal faults now? Why didn’t Bob tell us that? And, also, why is this person telling us that we are part of the ritual? If we’re part of this ritual and you need us to summon the demon that’s apparently what you’re trying to do and what we’re trying to stop, why did we have to fight actual monsters and find five pieces of a cryptic pentagram key to get down here? You want us to be down here. Gah!

Anyway. That’s enough about that. On to scenario 3.

Scenario 3: Prophecy of Dragons

I’ll admit that I was bit hrrm about PoD in that, once again, it felt like it was using the T.I.M.E. Stories framework to tell a story that didn’t really make sense in a game about time travel. It’s spuriously set on a “distant planet” where, for some reason, magic and dragons and wizards are all things. I suppose the big difference is that it’s up front about it and, having played Asylum, I was slightly more tuned in to the idea that the framing device was just a framing device and, really, this was basically a D&D scenario.

PoD tweaks the core mechanics of T.I.M.E. Stories by adding ranged weapons and magic. These are both fairly straight forward systems that bolt quite naturally onto the core game engine although because the structure of the game requires these rule additions to be made on cards there isn’t much room for detail or context. We had some trouble, for example, trying to work out whether you could use a ranged weapon to attack an enemy whose card had not been revealed by another player. This touches on a  wider issue T.I.M.E. Stories has which is because each scenario is unique and only played once that effect you have with new games where you play it wrong the first couple of times basically never goes away. Every scenario has new rules, those rules are a bit vague, and so you’re probably not going to play them right. Weirdly I think the best mentality to have for T.I.M.E. Stories is to treat it a bit like an RPG. Assume the rules are basically guidelines and, when you’re not sure how something works, make a call that prioritises fun for everybody.

I enjoyed PoD much more than I enjoyed Asylum and, again, a problem with the format is that I don’t know how much of this is my being more used to T.I.M.E. Stories and how much of it is PoD being a better designed scenario. I think, strangely, part of it was just the transactional structure. One of the interesting things about T.I.M.E. Stories is that all of the scenarios are very specific and, having bought PoD, the scenario that’s clearly kind of like D&D, I was completely up for playing a game that was kind of like D&D. The problem with the scenario in the box is that, whatever you expect out of a time travel based game, it probably isn’t going to be a peculiar French satanic horror scenario set in a mental health institution, so that scenario feels quite forced on you.

Similarly, part of the reason I think I liked PoD more than Asylum was that we settled into a better rhythm for playing the game. We’d stopped doing the “only one person looks at a card” thing and we’d started interpreting the combat rules correctly so everything was much smoother and much less annoying.  Also I got to play a dwarf with an axe, which was a much more comfortable experience than a shellshocked WWI veteran with half his face missing.

All that said, I do think there are specific things that PoD does genuinely better than Asylum. Although, unfortunately, to discuss most of them I’ll need to spoiler again.

So, my biggest problem with Asylum was that it was completely unclear how the creepy cult activity was in any way related to the events you were allegedly trying to prevent. PoD is much, much clearer in this regard. You know from the outset that the person you’re trying to stop is actually another time traveller and that he works for some kind of evil time travel organisation called the … okay, honestly I can’t quite remember the name. This allows you to maintain the doublethink that’s required for the game to work: it lets you marry “basically just a D&D game” with “quite specific soft SF premise about trans-temporal body snatchers” without feeling too much like you’re fudging it.

This becomes especially true in the final act of the scenario. Once you’ve found the way in to Villain McVillainson’s castle, you get a secondary briefing and an actual save point. Your map gets replaced and suddenly the sky is full of swirly blue temporal rifts. Y’know, those temporal rifts that it was supposed to be your job to close and that weren’t mentioned at all anywhere in the first game. It makes the game feel like it has a proper three act structure and, even more interestingly, the first two acts (because of the time looping thing) are essentially the first half of the game played twice. Basically you start off with a scenario where you’re time travellers scouting a fantasy city in quite vague disguises. Then you have a scenario where you’re fantasy RPG characters breaking into a castle using the knowledge you’ve got from your first runs. And then finally those two streams come together and you’re time travelling fantasy RPG characters fighting a rogue time traveller in a fantasy castle full of weird time travelly stuff. It’s actually a really good dénouement.

Because PoD is sold separately, it has about twice as many cards as Asylum. And this makes a really big difference. Admittedly, it actually squanders quite a lot of its cards on things like random market items so you can buy swords and armour for your warriors but crucially what it mostly does with the extra space is provide multiple parallel paths through the initial stages of the game. Something I think you have to bear in mind when playing T.I.M.E. Stories is that it’s very easy to over-think things. Both of the times we’ve played we’ve spent a little more time than we were comfortable with doing something extremely difficult that turned out to be just another way of achieving something we’d actually already achieved.

For some reason, this bothered me a lot less in PoD. I think part of it was simply that I was more familiar with the medium and so I was more comfortable with the idea that, yes, this is the thiefy way to do this, this is the magicky way to do this, this is the fightery way to do this. But I also think that PoD could genuinely structure itself better because it had more cards to play with. There was a lot about Asylum that I felt was padding out gameplay by forcing you down dead ends or requiring you to search every nook and cranny (like the aforementioned five piece pentagram key). By contrast, the alternative pathways in PoD feel more like genuine alternatives and less like traps. I think it also helps that D&D archetypes make it very clear what sorts of people you need to be good at what sorts of things. It’s much easier to say, well either we take two spellcasters and go through limbo, or take two thieves and go through the tunnels, than to work out which combination of bitter nun, aggrophobe, and paranoid schizophrenic is most suitable to which path through an institution specifically designed to limit the freedoms of those people.

In conclusion

Holy crap, this was long. And, of course, I already did the “would I recommend T.I.M.E. Stories” thing back at the start of the very first post. I will say that I borderline did not enjoy Asylum and I borderline did enjoy Prophecy of Dragons and … I’m not 100% comfortable recommending a game that you have to actually buy expansions for to get to the bits that are fun. All of which said, since I have the base game, I will almost certainly keep buying expansions (or downloading fan made ones) because once you’ve made the initial investment and if you’ve got the right people to play it with, I think each additional deck (which costs around £15) is worth the price of admission. Especially if you compare it to pretty much anything else you could do over a weekend with your mates. I would however, say that if you don’t want to buy expansions, don’t buy the game. Asylum is very much not worth it on its own unless you are such a collector that you want a copy of T.I.M.E. Stories just to own it.

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2 Responses to let’s do the T.I.M.E. warp again

  1. Laura says:

    Mmm… Thank you for this post! I’m still not sure I would really enjoy this game, so I’m going to refrain from buying it. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s available in Spanish and my gaming group people are lazy and won’t play anything that’s written in English, which frustrates me a bit, lol.

  2. Lennan Adams says:

    This game sounds SO FUN TO ME. This one and the Arabian Nights game are my faves based on your reviews (and no practical experience otherwise, haha). I NEED some game-playing friends who aren’t my 10 yr olds, gaahhhhh… Great review, thanks Alexis. <3

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