Recently, I saw Star Wars: Episode VII; I won’t speak to that, except to say that I was in a “spoiler-avoidance” mindset going into the movie, and that I first played a scenario in T.I.M.E. Stories in the same weekend. The commonality is that this is a game centered on the thrills and perils of discovery. So, avoiding spoilers is also a “must.”
In the spirit of not robbing you, Dear Reader, of your own experience with the game, I will say nothing of the story. I will outline the contours of the game system, as well as giving my first impressions and hopes for the future. Let’s turn now to the basics of the game system, including the premise of the game.
Fair Warning: If you have purposed in your heart of hearts to truly know nothing about how the game mechanics work, please navigate away with my blessing.
When I initially heard of T.I.M.E. Stories, I was apprehensive, as I wasn’t sure if the one-off playability of each scenario deck would be a problem for my enjoyability. Yet I eventually broke down, because of my high hopes for the game in theme and game play.
To explain the potentially glorious versatility of the theme, I’ll rely on a comparison to one of the best cooperative shooting games of all time: Time Splitters 2.
In Time Splitters 2, hostile aliens have stolen time crystals and are causing all sorts of temporal havoc throughout time (past and future), allowing the shooter game to tackle–and spoof–any genre and time period of shooter. The game felt elegant, and generally fresh in each level. Tired of being in prohibition-era Chicago? How about a futuristic robot factory? Or an Indiana-Jones-esque abandoned jungle temple complete with a rolling boulder trap? Or how about fighting off zombies in the crypt of Notre Dame?
The theme is virtually identical in T.I.M.E. Stories. You belong to an agency devoted to stopping temporal mishaps or sinister schemes–wherever and whenever in time they take you. The only difference is that you don’t know who or what is messing with the timeline in each scenario–or how or why.
This scenario deck set in 1921 came in the base game; it’s the only one I’ve played. But there is also a medieval adventure with magic (A Prophesy of Dragons set in 7553 in some alternate timeline), and a more modern adventure in a small U.S. town (The Marcy Case set in 1992). And, I’m sure there are more adventures in the works.
The elegant thing about the game system is that there are components that could stand for anything–all the yellow, blue, green, and brown tokens pictured have no set significance in the game. And thus, as you explore the time and place you are in, you may find or even start with items that help you on your quest.
For example, in a hypothetical case (not found in the scenario I played), I might discover a stash of apples. Perhaps, I would take three green tokens to represent these items.
The other tokens are shields (representing the difficulty of various tasks) and blue hearts (representing the health of the people you are inhabiting–at least in this scenario). The dice are what you roll to determine the outcome of your attempt at a task. The larger die tells you how much time it takes you to travel from location to location. And the tall cylinders are your characters themselves.
Location, Location, Location
What are these locations? Well, all but one effectively falls under the spoiler category, in each scenario; and who knows? Maybe even your starting base will change over time, depending on what’s going on in the meta-plot of the T.I.M.E. Stories universe–if there is such a thing.
But, since the premise is that you leave from this base to go through time to solve problems, it’s not really a spoiler.
On the back side of these cards are spoilers. If you take a look at the whole board , you can see that there are spaces above this area of cards where you can place your character tokens–above B, C, D, E, F, G, and H.
Spot “A” on the board is the one exception to this rule. The “A” card for a location always gives you an overview of the location. So, if we took a hypothetical panorama of a room of my home, embellished, you might read this on card “A”:
In one corner, a man looks up from his computer to see you, plucking out his headphones. You catch the sound of a child to his right screaming, as a mother tries to calm her. In the far right corner, a disused keyboard sits in the closet, covered in dust. You see a note on the keyboard.
In this case, cards B, C, and D would be images matching the scene described. In order to find out if there was anything of note about a particular part of the scene before you, you would place your character(s) above the spot of interest to you. Only players with a character above the spot are allowed to look at a card; but they may communicate what they learned.
So, if you placed your pawn above the hypothetical card with me on it, you might flip it to read:
The man looks at you expectantly. Before him on the desk is a book titled “Fallout Protection: What to Know and Do about Nuclear Attack.” Perhaps you could persuade him to let you see it.
And then it would give you the details of what you would need to roll or otherwise do to persuade me. The items or people you encounter may or may not have relevance to your main objective of fixing whatever’s going wrong with the timeline.
You can travel to different locations with your characters, using their skills and stats to solve challenges. The rules hint that these stats might vary in kind from adventure to adventure; so, for example, if you have strength, dexterity, and wisdom in one game, maybe you’d have magic, charisma, and stealth in another.
If you run out of time on the time track to spend on actions, it’s generally game over. Dying isn’t good, either. There might be other losing conditions as well, specific to the scenario you are in.
However, losing is not the end. You can be sent back in time again (which, depending on your tolerance for repetition, could be good or bad), but it will lower your overall score on the adventure. In short, being efficient at discovering what you need to do is the name of the game–at least in the scenario I played.
If you’ve played a role-playing game–whether a video game or a pen-and-paper one–you’ll get much of what is going on in this game. There are skill tests related to a set of character attributes that determine the outcomes in various scenarios.
There are also choices similar to an RPG: do I try to smooth talk my way through something, or do I use force? What room should I explore? Whom do I talk to?
Generally, unlike an RPG, there is a countdown timer in the game that keeps you moving. If you’ve played any number of relatively recent games from the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game to Mistfall, to Pandemic to Forbidden Desert, you’ll understand the sense of time pressure in this game.
It’s not the novelty, but the versatility of the game system that is winning here.
And, if you’re looking for an immersive game, this could be for you. Other games have a thinner story that accompanies their gameplay. Not so, here. The story is foregrounded–and while some in-game puzzles can slow down story progress, over all there’s nothing quite like it.