So a few months ago I wrote a couple of very, very long posts about a game called T.I.M.E. Stories – a game primarily distinguished by the fact that you can only play it or its expansions once. Since writing those posts I have since bought and played three more T.I.M.E. Stories expansions, and I thought it might be worth looking back at the game now I’ve spent some more … well … time with it.
Long story short, I’ve not really changed my opinions very much, I have very mixed feelings about the game and still feel it only really fits quite a narrow and niche group of players. That said, I do have some specific comments on the expansions, and since T.I.M.E. Stories expansions are as distinct from one another as – well – any other instalments of serial fiction, I thought they were worth reviewing in their own right. I also have a couple of general comments based on a greater familiarity with the game, and on having looked more deeply into other people’s experiences.
Those General Comments
Back when I wrote my original post, I think I probably underestimated quite how much some people love this game. I should stress that I’m not saying that in a disparaging way, just that I was genuinely surprised by how strongly some people seem to have responded to it. The only review I watched before playing was from Shut Up and Sit Down and their experience pretty much mirrored mine – it was fine in some ways, not so fine in others, and the abrupt ending to the introductory scenario left the whole thing feeling a bit hollow and anticlimactic.
Watching and reading a few more reviews on the interwebs, however, I’ve been genuinely amazed at the intensity of people’s reactions. They used phrases like “mind blowing” and “most immersive board gaming experience”. And as far as I can tell they were doing it completely unironically. Even more surprising (from my perspective) was that several of the reviews specifically singled out for praise elements of the game that I’d found needlessly frustrating. (I mean, I say surprising, I’m not a total narcissist, I do get that people sometimes have different opinions from me, it’s just that it’s often surprisingly hard to predict exactly where differences in perception will crop up – this is why politics is so complicated).
More specifically, some people absolutely fucking love the rule that you’re not allowed to show your cards to other people. To them the fact that you’re constantly percieving the world through the distorted mirror of your friends’ interpretations of the way their receptacles (the characters your time traveller controls during the scenario, for thsoe who’ve forgotten) would see things is what absolutely makes the experience. As one reviewer put it, a player might pick up a card, look at it with a growing expression of shock and horror, then put it back down saying “whatever you do, do not go there” (I think he was describing a hypothetical scenario, rather than actual play since he didn’t quite explain how this player would implement the game mechanical effects of the card). Said reviewer seemed super stoked by this idea.
Personally, I would absolutely hate to play a game like that. As would all my friends. But in retrospect my original review didn’t pay enough attention to the possibility that other people might enjoy that style of gameplay more than I do. Hidden-information games are, after all, fun (and I do enjoy Spyfall, for example) and I do actually understand why I’ve-Got-A-Secret can be a cool game to play in some situations.
The other thing I’ve realised is how diverse people’s reactions to specific scenarios are (which is part of the reason that I think these three expansions are worth reviewing seperately). Virtually every review I’ve seen that has covered multiple scenarios has had a completely different order of preferences. SU&SD (who tend to be my go-to reviewers for the simple reason that I tend to agree with them) found Asylum cliched, confusing, and not unproblematic in its portrayal of mental illness. I felt the same (indeed I disliked it so much that it nearly put me off playing any more scenarios) but I’ve seen at least one reviewer who cites it as their favourite. Conversely Prophecy of Dragons was the scenario which convinced me that the game was worth playing regularly (or at least as regularly as scenarios came out) but at least one reviewer cited it as the scenario that made them worry that T.I.M.E. Stories had gone completely off the rails. That same reviewer felt the fourth scenario (Under the Mask) saved the game by putting the emphasis back on story, cutting the gimmicks, and delivering a compelling narrative. Other reviewers found UtM dull and flavourless but loved Prophecy.
Basically there’s an extent to which T.I.M.E Stories (and incidentally I’m beginning to really resent having to put a dot between all the letters in “T.I.M.E.” every time – sorry, every t.i.m.e. – I type the name of the damned game, and I know I could copy-paste it but it’s the principle of the thing) isn’t really one game and its expansions so much as a set of loosely interconnected games with similar mechanics. It’s sort of like the Telltale Games series on PC. Just because you like the one about zombies doesn’t mean you’ll like the one about knights (actually it’s a lot like the Telltale Games series).
Aaand I look back and notice that I’ve spent the best part of a thousand words saying “newsflash, different people like different things.” I am awful at blogging.
Before I move on to the individual reviews, I do have one final throwaway comment to make about the game’s monetisation model. I’m still a bit torn about a game that’s designed around expansions that cost £18 and can only be played once, since I’m used to getting more play out of most games. But I have just realised that in the past few months I’ve bought a truly staggering number of expansions for Eldrich Horror, and since I’ve yet to beat the same Old God twice, I’m not totally sure that I can say All the Eldrich is any better an investment than All the T.I.M.E. Stories. In fact I’m pretty sure it’s worse if I look at it objectively.
Anyway, on to those scenarios.
There will be some spoilers from here on. I will do my best to flag them up.
Under the Mask
I’m doing these in the order I played them, which isn’t publication order (The Marcy Case was unavailablefor a long time). The first scenario we played after Prophecy of Dragons (and the last one we were able to get our hands on for several months, because the game seems to go out of print with a slightly worrying regularity) was Under the Mask.
I don’t remember a huge amount about Under the Mask, partly because it was a long time ago and partly because it doesn’t have anything like as many obvious hooks as the other games. Indeed it was in listening to other people’s reviews in order to remind myself about the scenario that I discovered quite how polarising it seems to be amongst players.
Under the Mask is a bit of an anomaly amongst T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios. Virtually every other story is basically just a well-explored narrative genre lightly dusted with the game’s framing device. Indeed of the four other scenarios, three seem to be inspired directly by specific tabletop roleplaying games (Asylum is explicitly a tribute to French RPG Malefices, the new expansion Expedition: Endurance is clearly a Call of Cthulhu scenario and Prophecy of Dragons is Dungeons and … well, you get the idea) and the one that isn’t is about zombies. And zombies are in everything.
By contrast, Under the Mask feels strangely low-key, and also unusually well integrated into the broader context of time travel. One of the reviewers I watched for research suggested that they were disappointed that the game wasn’t more like the late ’90s Mummy movies – you never get attacked by anything undead, never encounter a swarm of flesh-eating scarabs, and you’re never cursed by anybody. Instead you do things like visiting the dyer’s district and giving people wooden toys for their children. Personally (having been, I admit, a bit twichy about the potential for cultural appropriation), I was really happy that the designers seemed to have decided to treat Egypt as a real place where real people actually lived, rather than as some kind of movie set. Although I suppose it’s a bit ironic that this team of French game designers produced a simplified but ultimately sympathetic and down-to-earth portrayal of New Kingdom Egypt while presenting 19th-century Paris as a Grand Guignol full of satanists and evil doctors.
Under the Mask includes (and this is a very minor spoiler, but it’s a spoiler for literally the first scene) a cute mechanic whereby your characters can switch receptacles mid-run, taking over the bodies of people they encounter on their travels. Leaving aside the dubious ethical implications of this (there is no indication of what happens to the receptacles you leave behind), it’s an interesting attempt to engage with the game’s actual premise (something basically none of the other scenarios do). The net result is that in Under the Mask, pretty much uniquely amongst T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios, you actually feel like body-jumping time travellers attempting to solve problems in the past, rather than body-jumping time travellers who have chosen for some inexplicable reason to play a specific session of a tabletop roleplaying game. I suspect that it is this distinction which accounts for the scenario’s mixed responses amongst reviewers. If you specifically want T.I.M.E. Stories to do what it says on the tin, it’s great, because for the first time you really feel like you’re playing T.I.M.E. Stories instead of T.I.M.E. Stories Does D&D or T.I.M.E. Stories Does Zombies. If, on the other hand, you liked the fact that the other scenarios were basically disconnected genre pieces, I can see why you’d be disappointed.
I have to admit that, much as I aesthetically appreciated the game’s commitment to Ancient-Egypt-As-Real-Place instead of Ancient-Egypt-As-Theme-Park, I did find Under the Mask a bit forgettable, perhaps precisely because it didn’t have a clear genre to hang its ideas on. I’m speculating wildly here, but I feel like most of the other scenarios were designed by people who were genuinely super enthusiastic about whatever they were about – creepy asylum horror, zombies, whatever – while UtM seemed a bit more constructed. More like they’d been casting about for a setting and said “oh, how about we do one in Ancient Egypt”, and somebody had dutifully sat down and written a scenario set in Ancient Egypt, which was nicely realised and researched but which didn’t have the same raw fire and enthusiasm that some of the others had.
There is a famous Lovecraft story about an ill-fated Antarctic expedition called At the Mountains of Madness which inspired a famous Call of Cthulhu scenario about an ill-fated Antarctic expedition called Beyond the Mountains of Madness. Expedition: Endurance sees Bob (remember Bob, your aggressively unsupportive handler?) dispatching your little group of Time Agents to discover what happened to an ill-fated Antarctic expedition. I mentioned above that Expedition: Endurance was basically a Cthulhu scenario, and while I appreciate that this was technically a spoiler, it barely counts as one. I mean it’s not quite as explicit as The Marcy Case where there are literally zombies on the first card you put down in the game, but I honestly can’t imagine anybody being surprised to discover that there are Lovecraftian elements in E:E – I mean it has Insanity cards, for pity’s sake.
The other reason I was a little bit blasé about spoilering the Cthulhoid elements of Expedition: Endurance is that I honestly feel that T.I.M.E. Stories scenarios are easier to enjoy if you know going in what to expect. The major problem I had with Asylum was that I didn’t have a clear idea what the story was going to be like. Certainly I wasn’t anticipating naked cultists and demons in a game about time travel.
In a lot of ways, I don’t have much to say about Expedition: Endurance. I basically felt that it was uncomplicatedly good. My most significant issue with Asylum was that I didn’t have a clear handle on what was going on, but in Expedition: Endurance I didn’t have that problem. A Call of Cthulhu scenario was going on. People were going mad and there were monsters and cultists and a mysterious black monolith. I knew exactly where I was with all that. And for what it’s worth I suspect I’d have liked Asylum more if I’d know its source material as well as I knew that of E:E.
Perhaps the feature of Expedition: Endurance I found most interesting was the way in which it seemed to explicitly build on the feature of the game that I hate and a lot of other people love – the “I’ve got a secret” feature. One encounter involves a player being given a card that does something mysterious and a bit unspecified. The card not only says that they can’t show it to the other players, it also says that they keep it not just for the rest of the game, but for all future games of T.I.M.E. Stories. This suggests some very weird things about the way Space Cowboys (the designers) expect people to be playing their game. Do I have to bring this card if I play it with a different group of players? At a games evening? At a con? If I skip town and change my name? A tiny part of me really hopes they go all the way with this and start putting this one card in all their other games too (“If you have Item 2 from the T.I.M.E. Stories scenario Expedition: Endurance, draw a card”).
Your characters can also lose Sanity (like in Call of Cthulhu) and gain randomised Insanities (like in a certain style of Call of Cthulhu). Again, these often exploit the presumed way in which the game is played. For example (and this is a bit more of a spoiler, but I think it’s interesting – skip the next couple of paragraphs if it bothers you) one of the Insanity cards is called Paranoia. The game mechanical effect of the Paranoia card is explicitly “You cannot take the last action suggested to you by another player”. Which I can completely see being balls-out-amazing for people who enjoy the immersive style of play in which you get an incomplete picture of the game world through the other players’ descriptions, but which would have bugged the shit out of me if we’d drawn it (we actually managed to avoid insanity entirely through a mixture of genre savvy and a carefully deployed husky).
Even more bizarrely, there are a set of cards which you are explicitly not allowed to look at even after you finish the game. You can look at them if they come up in play, but if you look at them afterwards the rules explicitly say you are penalised (they take away some of the post-game rewards you are supposed to get but which my group never bothers to track). Spoiler: these cards consist almost entirely of oblique hints about future scenarios, or callbacks to earlier scenarios.
I actually really enjoyed Expedition: Endurance, but at the end we kind of felt we’d have got more out of it if we’d played it more in the spirit in which it was intended.
The Marcy Case
This was the first expansion released and the last one I played. Funny how things work out sometimes, isn’t it? I do feel that it was the scenario that I enjoyed the most, but I’m not sure how much of that was to do with the game and how much was to do with the fact that T.I.M.E. Stories definitely grows on you the more you play it. Its quirks become more expected and therefore less frustrating, and you have a much clearer idea of what you can and can’t expect from it. Once you get used to the idea that the core gameplay loop is “get information, fail, get chewed out by Bob for doing a completely expected part of your job, get more information, fail again, get a third lot of information, win” it’s both engaging and satisfying.
This is going to get particularly detailed and spoilery, so stop here if you’ve not played The Marcy Case, are intending to play it, and care about that sort of thing.
The titular “Marcy Case” is a weird mashup of Terminator, Heroes and the Walking Dead. You’re told to “save Marcy, save the world”, that you have to go back in time and rescue a young woman because she’ll be important to the future timeline, and also there are zombies. The situation seems fairly straightforward – you have to go back to 1992 and find a girl called Marcy who is somewhere in this small US town. The zombies are a bit of a complication (and one that Bob doesn’t tell you about, for basically no reason) but really we all know how to deal with zombies by now, don’t we (aim for the head, don’t make too much noise, definitely shoot anybody who even looks like they’ve been bitten). The real twist in the tale is that as you explore the town you will find four different girls, all of whom could be Marcy, and you have to work out which is the one you’re after.
This “spot the Marcy” mechanic is … tricky. As a puzzle it’s quite satisfying, there are suitably cryptic clues scattered throughout the ravaged town that allow you to narrow down your choice, and when you work out which Marcy is the real Marcy you feel genuinely clever. Where it gets more problematic is when you look at it from a perspective of either verisimilitude or … umm … squickiness.
Because “which Marcy is the real Marcy” is the core puzzle of the game, it is important for Marcy’s identity to be hard to determine. This means that they can’t let you just ask them their names because … well … that would spoil things rather quickly. So all the “Marcies” are in a drugged stupor when you find them. They’re also kind of all identical looking, distinguishable primarily by the bracelets they wear with codes like “Subject VPX-234-182-JLN” (I made that code up). Various bits of data give you information about the different code numbers, so you might learn that subject VPX-234-182-JLN is only 16 when you know Marcy is 17 (this is a made up clue as well although Marcy really is 17, of which more later), so then you know that Marcy isn’t the right Marcy and you can safely … umm … leave her to die in a zombie apocalypse?
Yeah, this is where some of the squickiness starts.
I should say from the outset that I understand that T.I.M.E. Stories is working with a very limited set of resources. All of the rules, special effects, locations, mechanics and people have to be represented by cards, and half of those cards, by default, are labelled “Item” even if what they actually represent is a rules change or a character. I should also say that I understand the fact that in any rescue scenario, the person you’re trying to rescue will inevitably wind up being a voiceless McGuffin, and that you want to make the central puzzle challenging. But when you spend most of the game picking up these girls, all of whom are specifically designed to be difficult to distinguish from one another, all of whom are drugged so that they can’t speak, all of whom are slowly dying in front of you and only one of whom you are in any way incentivised to care about saving, and who are all literally represented game mechanically as “Items” … well … it all just gets a bit too objectificationy for me to be totally comfortable with it.
Even apart from all that, though, the fact that the Marcies all seem to be physically near identical seems just plain implausible. You go in knowing only that Marcy is in town, that she is seventeen, has been abducted by parties unknown. You get to see one photograph, but it’s from when she was ten, so it’s not really much use for identifying her as a teenager although it does tell you that she probably has red hair. You find a number of girls who could be Marcy, all of whom seem to have been part of some kind of shadowy experiment at the Secret Military Base. They are all in their late teens. They are all redheads. They are all identified by ID-Numbers, and this is the only way that the Secret Military Base Scientists ever refer to them.
Just … what was the plan here? What the hell kind of research are you doing at this place that specifically requires you to abduct four identical-looking red-headed teenage girls? Some of the in-game information suggests that they’re doing the obligatory supersoldier research that all Secret Military Bases do, something about “muscle strengthening” or the like. But what made them think they needed red-headed girls to make it work? There’s one clue that says they hypothesised that the procedure would only work on people under the age of 19, but why would they think that in the first place? Why is 19 magic? Different people’s bodies develop differently and at different rates. I mean I know that the real answer is so that you can find out that one of the Marcies is 19 when you know the real Marcy is 17, so you can eliminate her from your enquiries, but it’s never really justified in-character.
It’s probably to the game’s credit that so much of this is fridge logic. My experience of playing Asylum was one of being constantly jolted out of the game by confusions and frustrations, waiting somewhat impatiently for the point at which the game would start making sense and getting increasingly annoyed when it never did. The Marcy Case, by contrast, left me with a very clear sense of what was happening. There is a Secret Military Base. They are doing Bad Science Experiments at the Secret Military Base. This probably unleashed the zombies that we are currently fighting. They also probably have Marcy, but there are several different test subjects and we don’t know which one she is. It was only about half an hour after we’d finished the game that I realised how little of what I’d understood to be the plot had actually been supported by the game we played. The most hilarious moment being the point at which I realised that, from the actual information presented to us in-character, there wasn’t only no real information about the experiments the secret military base was doing on Marcy, there was no real evidence that (a) any of the girls were Marcy at all or (b) the zombie plague had anything to do with the experiments that the Secret Military Base People were doing on their interchangeable redheads.
There is no evidence for (a) because you identify Marcy by process of elimination. You learn that three of the four girls can’t be Marcy, so the fourth one must be. But this doesn’t actually follow at all. After all, we know that the SMBP, by accident or design, captured at least three girls who were identical to Marcy but were not Marcy. There’s no especial reason to believe that they didn’t capture four. There is no evidence for (b) because you find a fair number of notes from the experiments that the SMBP are doing on the girls, and the notes tend to say things like “subject VPX-234-182-JLN showed early promise, but life signs are now fading” or “subject OMG-221-940-FML is too old for the process to work correctly.” None of them say anything like “subject HNZ-008-811-PEW shows signs of turning into a fucking zombie.” More than that, the Marcies (along with several other characters you meet in town) are all “infected” with a condition that causes them to die after a certain number of time units pass. None of these characters turn into zombies. The one character you meet who does turn into a zombie is also the one character you meet who isn’t flagged as infected. So actually not only is there no evidence that the experiments being carried out at the Military Base are responsible for the zombie uprising, there’s actually a small amount of direct counter evidence.
I’d also point out that if the experiments the SMBP carried out on Marcy were responsible for the zombie uprising, that would be yet more reason to suspect that she was not amongst the Marcies you rescued. If the zombies were created by the Marcy experiment then it follows that a Marcy would have been patient zero, so there would be a pretty good chance that the real Marcy was out there somewhere shambling around trying to bite people.
I am probably overthinking this. Although I do like the idea that the scientists in the secret military space were carrying out their sinister experiments and then got interrupted by a zombie apocalypse that occurred for totally unrelated reasons.
As I suggested at the start, I’ve not really changed my mind about T.I.M.E. Stories. It has a whole lot of flaws, a whole lot that is frustrating, and a whole lot of potential to be a really engaging and fun experience.
Normally what I’d say about expansions is “if you like the base game, you’ll probably like this”, but T.I.M.E. Stories is different in that respect. Each story is sufficiently different that your experience of previous games will be a relatively poor guide to your experience of this one. I can’t really tell you whether you’ll enjoy a particular T.I.M.E. Stories expansion or not. Nor can I tell you if any of the existing T.I.M.E. Stories expansions are worth buying the base game for if you were put off by the idea of Asylum as the introductory scenario.
I think as a general rule of thumb, I’d say that if you already own base T.I.M.E. Stories you should try whichever expansions feel most like they’re about the sort of thing you like things to be about. If you like zombie scenarios that make no sense when you think about it, you’ll like The Marcy Case. If you like Lovecraftian horror or, even more specifically, tabletop Call of Cthulhu, you’ll like Expedition: Endurance. If you like the idea of being a time traveller in a version of Ancient Egypt that’s big on dyers’ districts and short on mummies, you’ll enjoy Under the Mask.
If you don’t already own base T.I.M.E. Stories, this is a slightly tougher call. I’d recommend getting it either if (like a great many reviewers) you’re fundamentally enthused about the whole idea of the game, or if you actively like the idea of Asylum, or if you think you’d be interesting in checking out more than one or two of the expansions (it probably isn’t worth buying a base game with a scenario you don’t want just to play an expansion with a scenario you do want, that you’d have to buy separately).
So that’s my thoughts on all the T.I.M.E. Stories expansions I hadn’t played last time. They seem to be putting out about one new story every three months, so stay tuned for the next one of these some time around Christmas.