Recently I had the opportunity to play a very interesting boardgame called T.I.M.E. Stories. The primary publisher, Space Cowboys, calls it a “decksploration” game, and that invented word actually describes the game play fairly well.
The premise of the game is that the players are temporal agents of the T.I.M.E. Agency (the acronym stands for Tachyon Insertion in Major Events), an organization that protects the time steam from alterations and “time faults” that could destroy the continuum. The time stream itself isn’t just a linear sequence of events, however. There are also an infinite number of alternate realities that also have major events that affect the entire continuum.
The agents do not physically go into the past or these alternate realities. Rather, only their consciousness is sent and they inhabit the physical bodies of individuals who live in that time/reality. And there are some rather interesting characters that you get to play.
The game is played on a board, but the key element of gameplay is the mission deck. The deck is divided up into “areas” (an area could be a room in a building, an outdoor space, or any defined place that could be encapsulated in a single picture). The cards for that area are laid out on the board and together they display a picture of the area. Each player moves his or her agent to a particular card, representing that the agent is examining something in that part of the area, or interacting with a person or creature in that part of the area.
For example, the area might be a kitchen in an insane asylum in the 1920’s. One card shows the butcher cutting up meat, another card shows the dishwasher cleaning dishes at a sink, another card shows a couple of staff members whispering to each other, and the last card shows the door to a walk-in freezer. One player may assign his/her agent to check out the freezer, another might assign his/her agent to speak to the butcher, and the last player might assign his/her agent to speak to the whispering staff members. (Note that I’m not describing exactly a room in the base mission for the game, I’m just using it as an illustration of what you might find in an image across a bunch of cards.)
Then, the players turn over the card that they picked and read the information on the back. The freezer, for example, might contain a large slab of beef hanging from a hook, with strange claw and bite marks on it. The text on these cards provide clues to the situation, which the players use to figure out what is going on and how to fix it.
There are a great number of reviews of T.I.M.E. Stories already available out there on the internet, which go into more detail about the gameplay, the many awards this game has already won, and more. What I do want to mention is that the rulebook for the game asks the question if this is a roleplaying game or a boardgame.
The rulebook states, “Neither one or the other — or rather both! Our first desire was to capture the feeling of the roleplaying games of our youth, but in a more compact and less time-consuming format as the era of self-contained campaigns in bomb shelters is unfortunately over …”
And it’s true that you can certainly choose to roleplay the person your agent inhabits during the mission. There are little behavioral cues that a player can use to help them get into “character”. And when the I played the game the first time, I certainly enjoyed getting into the role and speaking in character when it was my time to act.
But by the second time we played—most missions will take more than one session to complete—I found that I had stopped playing the character and focused solely on playing the game.
Ultimately, roleplaying in T.I.M.E. Stories is exactly like roleplaying your investigator in Arkham Horror, or roleplaying your hero on Castle Ravenloft, Wrath of Ashardalon, or any of the D&D Adventure System boxes. You can do it, but it has absolutely no bearing on the game itself.
This is because, unlike most traditional roleplaying games, no one is playing the opposition. This is a cooperative game in which each player is playing a T.I.M.E. Agent. So you while you can roleplay among yourselves while making decisions, at the end of the process you are just reading clues and instructions off the card you’ve selected. And that severely limits the options you can take.
It’s like trying to roleplay while reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
But is it Fun?
The game itself was enjoyable enough, and it’s a very well-designed game. It provides an experience that is unlike any other boardgame I’ve ever played, and there is a definite story that you play through during the game. The cards are evocative of the time anomaly in which you find yourself, the artwork is great, and the entire thing is impressive in its clever use of the various elements to work together.
But I have to admit that by the end of the second session, when we successfully completed the mission, I did feel like, “finally it’s done.” Keep in mind that I’m not a big puzzle person, so part of the basic premise of the game—that you’re investigating and putting together clues to figure out what is actually going on—is not one that I particularly enjoy. If you like mysteries and puzzles, you’ll probably have a very different take on this game.
For me, though, I felt like the game was interesting, but not compelling. I compare this to Blood Rage—after playing that game I wanted to run a Viking RPG and use thematic elements from that game in my campaign, because I was excited by both the flavor and the gameplay. After playing T.I.M.E. Stories, I was happy to have gotten to experience this game, but that’s it. It didn’t get my imagination fired up and I wasn’t thinking of ways to take those elements into my preferred form of gaming.
Would I play it again? Yes, I’d be willing to try another, different, mission if my friends wanted to give it another go. But there are more games I’d like to try than I will ever have time to play, so if it turns out I never return to T.I.M.E. Stories, I’m perfectly happy with that.
Should you try it? My advice for anyone wondering if they should play a particular game is to read reviews, both positive and negative, and see if that gives you a better idea if you’ll enjoy it or not. I think it’s an interesting experience to have, and I was lucky in that some close friends invited me to play their copy with them.
Have you played T.I.M.E. Stores? What was your experience like? How many runs did it take for you to complete the mission? Tell me about your own stories in the comments.