Well there were three major hype trains in 2015 - Blood Rage, Pandemic Legacy and Time Stories. Now you know I love meeting these trains head on and seeing what's what. Blood Rage disappointed me and Pandemic Legacy was good, but not #1 on BoardGameGeek worthy - so as for the "spoiler-free" opinion on this hype train. . . I love it, end of review. . .
OK, OK, I'm not leaving it there, but that alone should have shocked you like crazy. I don't often come out of these hype train reviews positively, Blood Rage and Pandemic Legacy were probably the nicest I've been because they were decent games even if definitely over-hyped. But this game is blowing them out of the water, though not without some important caveats.
So even though I've spoiled the verdict, I'm not spoiling the game so have no fear, I won't reveal anything beyond what you already see/read in the main rule book or set-up - it would be a crime for me to do so!
Wibbly Wobbly, Timey Wimey
What? I'm a Doctor Who fan, don't be so shocked! In Time Stories you play the roles of a rookie group of Time Agents who protect humanity by preventing temporal faults and paradoxes from destroying the universe and all that jazz. Basically what Doc Brown said. The game is essentially a template for different modules that represent the missions your team goes on. To begin with there is one supplied with the game called The Asylum in which you travel back to the 1920's. . . yeah can you see where they are going with this yet?
The agents possess a character of their choice, with different abilities and stats, and use a specially constructed deck of cards to progress through the scenario. These cards show panoramic depictions of locations you can travel to, items you can acquire, clues to solving the mystery and the outcomes of interacting with other strange residents that you come across. Of course sometimes some combat skills are required, but there will be times where a bit of deftness or some social skills are necessary to get what you need.
The actions and movements of the players use Temporal Units (TU's) which are spent as you interact with people and objects or travel to other locations. Once the TU reach zero, the run resets and you have to conduct another run from the beginning again, except this time you have previous knowledge from your earlier run to guide you to make more efficient decisions and avoid past mistakes. You are aiming to solve the mystery at the heart of the scenario, one way or another.
You've Done Some Re-Decorating...Hmm...Don't Like It!
Well this review may be a short one as I can't spoil anything, but let's talk components first. The basic board is functional and fits the profile for a futuristic setting nicely, even if there's not much on it. However once you open up that deck, the artwork is kicked up a significant notch. Every panoramic picture (which is a cool idea for creating locations out of cards) is gorgeous to look at and seeing alternative viewpoints of an area when you interact with certain things adds to the immersion.
Everything else in Time Stories is fairly standard with the use of various tokens to mark everything else that are deliberately designed so that the creators can give them whatever purpose they feel like based on the scenario, be it ammunition for example.
The insert though has some very odd designs. It's purpose is to allow players to save the game in between sessions, in case you don't have a spare three or four hours to finish the game in one go. For the cards it works very well, but for the tokens, oh dear. Not only are the trays for each player not deep enough to hold many tokens (same problem with the actual storage trays for the tokens as they will overflow like crazy), but the track that shows the TU count beggars belief how it got through quality control. The token shown in the book doesn't fit at all and the one you actually are meant to use fits so tightly in each hole that you need nails shaped like talons or in my case, a handy knife or paper clip to get it back out again.
The rule book looks very nice with some handy pictorial aids, however there are some issues there too. It's not horrible, but it's very ambiguous in a lot of its phrasing. I think this is the issue with translating the rule book directly from French. As such, it is absolutely vital that you check out the unofficial FAQ on BoardGameGeek before playing this game.
It's Bigger On The Inside!
The best way to describe how Time Stories feels is by going back to nostalgia and referencing those Fighting Fantasy books (I think that's the name, could be wrong) where you chose your adventure path as you read through it. For example, a bandit jumps in your way, if you choose to fight him, turn to page 58. This is that kind of experience solidified in a board game and the immersion is just as strong here as it was then.
For people like me who like theme in their games, this is as good as it gets. Every location fits the setting perfectly and as you discover new areas, you feel the scale of the overall plot. This is helped not only by the amazing artwork, but also the story text written on the cards, which only the person who interacts with it can see. They then communicate their own abridged version to the rest of the group, essentially you've been told a story and you're telling it on and hopefully not word for word. A bit of role-play is encouraged, though not essential, but with the good selection of varied characters you can take over you can't help but do it to some extent, I know we certainly were.
And all this immersion in Time Stories is achieved with just a deck of cards with specific rules on exploring it. It's a remarkable piece of innovation and you have multiple paths to the end that you can take so every groups story progresses differently.
The puzzles themselves can be quite challenging also as you piece everything together, but being a co-op game you can work with the other players and should be able to solve them providing you've collected everything you need. The biggest puzzle of all though is time efficiency. You have only a limited amount of time in each run so you have to agree with your group on the best course of action or the route you're going to take to succeed. Once you reset the run, you retain your own knowledge, but lose your collected cards and objective markers. As a result you'll need to revisit areas, which may seem like too much re-treading at times, but it fits with the time travel theme and at least you can avoid interactions which wasted precious time before.
The Asylum is definitely going for a horror feel and some of the imagery and story elements are actually quite disturbing. Therefore you may want to take one step back and think about whether your children will like it before jumping in. Generally though I'd give the game a 12 or PG-13 rating.
Time Travel Is Expensive
Now we have to tackle the elephant in the room. And have you ever tried to tackle an elephant, let me tell it's a losing battle from the mere mention of the idea! The biggest complaint that Time Stories gets is the fact that it's a "finite" length game. Meaning that once you've played the scenario, which takes the average gamer around 3-4 hours, that's it. You can never and I mean NEVER play it again. Others can, but you can't. Full stop, unless you have the memory of a goldfish.
Once you've played the module, even though it will be incredibly entertaining and immersive, it will also be the last time you play that module and must therefore wait until the next one gets released, but at least you've currently got five extra modules to grab already if you're new to the system, the rest of us have to wait.....and wait.....and wait.....
But all of these modules have a cost. You're effectively buying an expansion every time that you know will only keep you entertained for a few short hours. A few, short, amazing hours, but even so. I'd be hesitant to fork out the cash myself alone if it wasn't a review copy.
That's why I'd highly recommend that if you have a regular group that's going to play this, get everyone to chip in for it. That way it's no more expensive than a trip to the cinema and that only keeps you entertained for half the time unless Peter Jackson is directing. But you have know that this won't be a cheap experience beforehand and that does hurt the game's appeal to many.
Final Thoughts On Time Stories
Hmmm, wasn't as short as I thought! Time Stories is one of the most immersive experiences you will get in a board game, however it will also be, at least temporarily, one of the shortest as well. For anyone who enjoys puzzles or was a fan of the old "choose your own adventure" books, this is a game you have to try.
Most of the time I take on the hype train and end up a little disappointed. Not on this occasion. The artwork is excellent, the story is engaging and the innovation that went into this is mind blowing. If only the rule book was the same top quality, however check out the FAQ to assist you with that.
However, it's going to be a concentrated burst of fun and an expensive one at that. Unless you aren't short of money, get your group to chip in if they're going to be playing this. The value then becomes more than justified, but if you're buying everything by yourself, be warned that it's going to hurt your wallet.
For me, Time Stories has continued to entertain me through all the subsequent modules, even if some are better than others. One of my best gaming experiences of 2015 and for once, a hype train that justified itself. From me, that is high praise indeed.