When reviewing a game, I generally play the game enough times till you feel like you know it. It’s important to have seen everything the game can offer before committing your thoughts to the internet. But in the case of TIME Stories I'm writing this review after just one play through because I now can't play this game again until I buy the first expansion. It results in what could be the most controversial game of 2015, but could also be one of the best games of 2015.
In TIME Stories you play as a TIME agent, and you have to travel back in time to fix temporal anomalies. Something is buggering with the natural order of the events, so it's your job to police the past. You'll do this by leaping into the bodies of people at the period and location of the event and then will then have a limited amount of actions to solve the mystery before the run ends and you are forced back to the start.
If you've seen a Source Code then you will get the idea as this game follows a very similar concept. You are in a Groundhog Day loop, where each time you run the mission you know a little bit more, can avoid the potholes and hopefully save the day.
The mystery itself plays out much like a point and click adventure game in cardboard form, with the game Myst being the best analogy. You'll move from location to location, gaining clues, keys and other useful items, as well as persuading people to help you or fighting off the odd baddy. The game itself is mechanically a very simple game, even the conflict mechanism is straightforward and easy to understand.
Every action costs a Temporal Unit, or TU, and you have a limited amount of TUs available until you have failed and the run ends. TUs are the main cooperative push behind the game forcing you to consider your options carefully, split up to cover more ground or concentrate your skills on difficult challenges. It leads to some tense situations, as you want to leave an area to complete the mystery but are stuck fighting a villain or trying to hack a safe.
The TIME Stories game is more of a console than a full game. It provides the bare mechanics and components and the intention is to plug in Missions which come as a deck of large format cards. Included with the game is the Asylum, a visit to a lunatic institution in 1920's France. I won't say any more about the details of the scenario as it's very easy to wander into spoiler territory. All I will say is that there are plenty of fiendish clues and narrative dead ends that will satisfy your sense of adventure and keep your brain running in top gear.
It’s a rather intense experience, and one of the best cooperative experiences I have ever had. Because the missions are cerebral in nature it’s not just about being able to see the optimum path because you have no idea where each path leads. Is talking to the Day Nurse going to give you a vital clue or send you back to your ward? Is the scary looking man without any trousers justifiably scary or just a bit eccentric? We found we were discussing our strategy much more that we would in another cooperative game, because the clues where in front of you and it was down to how you interpreted those clues.
We ran out of actual time (as in the pub was about to shut and we were getting kicked out), so we've had to save our progress mid run, something the box insert design allows you to do. It's cleverly designed insert, however it’s very flimsy and some of the counter wells really aren't deep enough. But back to the adventure, I can't stop thinking about it, and even as we all walked to our cars after the evenings session everyone was discussing the adventure and where we've gone wrong, what have we missed, what we know. The conversation even continued for several days over instant messaging and texts.
It burrows itself into your head, if the pub hadn't shut, or if I didn't need to get up for work in the morning we would have played this scenario to its conclusion. The calling sign of a good game is one you can't stop thinking about long after you've finished. Mulling over the strategy when you should be paying attention in an important meeting or messaging your players to suggest a theory, TIME Stories has got under my skin more than any other game I have played.
It’s not without flaws and the scenario based nature of the game leads to a few potholes in the road. The first problem is that even though there are very few rules to the game, the rulebook does a poor job of explaining them all. One of which leads to two interpretations of the rules for being moved to locations that can drastically change how a run progresses. Being originally a French developed game I believe there are some translation issues. Again, I don’t want to give any spoilers, but one of the words used to describe a particular outdoor structure is totally the incorrect word and led our team to completely the wrong direction.
The main issue we had though was with the scenario itself, and how it broke the main rules of its own game. Just like all good cooperative games, central to TIME Stories is a mechanic that builds a sense of urgency and tension, a limited resource that forces you to make difficult decisions. TIME stories uses this well, creating pressure that forces stress upon you as the player. The problem is that the Asylum Mission suddenly releases this pressure, taking away the main mechanic of the game and completely destroying any sense of urgency. You go from frantically trying to choose the optimum solution to plodding through the mission at your own pace. It would be like playing Pandemic and two thirds through the game being told not to draw any infection cards, or playing Arkham Horror and being told to stop opening new gates. I hope this is just an issue with Asylum and that other missions don’t suffer this problem, in fact I am hoping that future missions add more penalties for failing a loop, adding even more pressure.
So let's address the elephant in the room. TIME Stories comes with one scenario, which you can finish in 3 to 4 hours. To play again you’re going to have to buy expansions, one of which, The Marcy Case was available on the day of release. Many people have equated this strategy as being similar to day one DLC for video games, and with some of the game’s designers also working for Ubisoft it’s an easy analogy to make. The problem is that Ubisoft are currently seen as one of the villains in the video gaming world, with annual franchises and huge amounts of expensive DLC, and let’s not forget the buggy and unfinished Assassin’s Creed games of recent years. The criticism being levelled at TIME Stories is that it’s a cash grab and that the entire game has been carefully orchestrated to suck as much money out of the board gaming community’s pockets.
It’s a very emotive issue and has caused a lot of discussion. With a base game that costs £35 / $50 and each expansion retailing for £20 / $30 it’s a hard criticism to shake. For me I do not regret my purchase. I might have only got just three and a half hours of enjoyment out of the base game, and I cannot play that again because I now know the solutions, but I’ve spent less money on a game and regretted it much more. Those three and a half hours where one of the most intense and enjoyable cooperative experiences I have ever had playing a board game.
However, I would have been happier if three or four scenarios had been included in the base box. Only having one scenario is a bit of a sting but I also understand there’s a cost associated with the development and manufacturing of those components. Obviously a lot of work has gone into developing these missions and the cards are beautifully rendered so it’s hard to criticise the price point from a purely component level.
It’s up to you to decide if you feel that cost is justified or whether TIME Stories is a rip off. I’ve given you my thoughts but reviews are all about opinions and opinions differ but let me close this review by saying this, I do not regret buying TIME Stories or The Marcy Case and I will be buying the future missions. Why? Because I thoroughly enjoyed the TIME Stories experience and think that this is one of the most unique and innovative board games of the year.