Number of Players: 2-4
Playing Time: 90 min/run
Designer: Peggy Chassenet, Manuel Rozoy
TIME Stories is a futuristic time traveling mystery co-op game that builds in unique settings for each module deck used. The base game comes with the Asylum module, with additional modules available as expansion packs. Due to the mystery and story-heavy nature of the game, I will do my best to avoid spoilers as concerns the story.
Opening the box, you are immediately greeted with a sleek, modern aesthetic that matches well with the theme.
The insert and box are also unique, as they are deliberately set-up to allow a mid-session save game. Basically, you put the game pieces away in a certain (and easy) way so that you can instantly pickup from wherever you left off.
The components are sleek and modern, but also intentionally abstract. Due to the nature of the game, there are two levels of theme – the metalevel of time traveling players, and the in-module theme. You buy the base game, which comes with a base story (represented by a deck of cards) but then you buy expansions and new modules once you complete the base game. The base game’s module theme is Asylum, a horror story, while the first module, The Marcy Case, is about a zombie outbreak.
Thus, given the breadth of different module themes, the base game components are abstract, including various colored cardboard tokens, wooden player pylons, wooden dice, the game board, and the module deck of cards.
Basic Rules & Mechanics
The goal of the game is to cooperatively solve the mystery module before running out of “time.” Time is denoted by a number track, with certain actions or travel slowly depleted this time resource until the meter reaches zero. The game design anticipates that through the exploration and test progression, the players will “fail” multiple times, thus replaying to find the optimal path to uncover all needed clues.
The key to the game is the module deck. Each deck has instruction cards that tell you where to put cards on the board. Some of the cards form a map of the locations you can visit, some of the cards are items you will pick up, other cards are the characters to choose from, and most of the cards are placed together to form a landscape view of each location you visit.
Using the map, you visit a location. Doing so results in the players laying out 3 to 6 cards facedown on the board. Then, each player chooses a room to visit, picking up and reading the back of the card to themselves.
Each card describes the event depicted on the front of the card, and then creates some kind of event for the player exploring that room. Events include gaining items, gaining tokens, or most frequently, encountering some kind of test.
Tests can include combat, investigating, bargaining, or other tasks. Tests have a difficulty value that must be overcome by rolling dice, modified by the player’s character abilities. For instance, a character may have a strong combat skill, and may have a shotgun item, therefore allowing that player to roll more dice, and modify those dice to increase the chance of overcoming the task and receiving whatever reward comes with it.
Some items and information you gain in a run persist from run to run. This makes each run closer to optimal, as players will learn where the traps are, where the critical items (such as keys) are hidden, and how to effectively match the tests with the right characters. Explore, read story, and roll dice. That’s how you play TIME Stories.
First off, it may seem tedious to hear that the game revolves around trying to find the optimal path through trial and error but this is not the case. The progression actually works quite well, with just enough bread crumbs each time to incentivize the players to want to keep going. Combined with some item and map progression, most play groups will likely only take 3 or 4 runs to complete a module.
In fact, you will most likely want to immediately reset the board state after the first failure, as you will have multiple areas left unexplored, and the optimal route will be more fresh in your mind. This is also where the “save game” insert feature can come in handy – to preserve the board state in the middle of the run.
When players are reading a card they are investigating, they are not suppose to read it aloud. Instead, the rules intend that players read the card silently then share their perspective of what is described in their own words. This adds an interesting twist, where the other players will have a filter on the information they do not encounter directly. Some players may find certain details more important than others, and thus give incomplete information.
We played through the base module with two players, and we each controlled two characters. Therefore, there were four in-game characters which made things a little quicker, as you could see more cards per action. I think this is the optimal way to play with two players.
The rulebook does a solid job in communicating how to navigate the story, as preserving the mystery and the exploration aspect is critical to the success of the game. Once again the “save system” can be helpful here.
The puzzle solving and exploration were my great incentivizers (and less so the tests and skills). The puzzles range from easy to slightly tougher ones, but on the whole most seemed fair. Specifically, in Asylum, the big final clue that moves you on to the end stage left me highly satisfied once we actually figured it out.
The theme also comes through in the components and mechanics. The presentation does a great job giving off the sci fi time travel theme. The asylum setting is appropriately horroresque and mysterious, and the intermittent breaks back to the modern sci fi setting weave together. Playing through the game, we both got the feeling that we were future investigators living through the characters and looking to solve the puzzle. The mechanics, accordingly, do not get in the way of theme enjoyment.
While the Asylum story was interesting, and I was invested in figuring out the puzzle, the ending was a bit anticlimatic for me. Without spoiling the ending, I looked back after accomplishing the Asylum story and it was left with multiple unanswered question threads. It felt incomplete in explaining all of the paths.
It’s difficult to tell a full story in board game form, and TIME Stories gives a great effort, but its not without its holes. Some of the characters encountered are simply non-existent in importance, but will then be referenced in a card later. You’ll be left scratching your head as to how or why they were involved.
In addition, the dice rolling mechanic does allow for some control of the variance, but sometimes you can just get unlucky and feel penalized. This is a knock any dice rolling mechanic will run into and not unique to TIME Stories.
But, for instance, when you move from one room to another, you roll a die that reduces the amount of time units you spend to change rooms. Sometimes you will roll the high result several times in a row, without an ability to really alter or mitigate the damage from those rolls. It can feel like an arbitrary barrier that’s out of the players control.
A complaint that I’ve seen in other review of TIME Stories is the time versus value of the base game. The game is a base $50, but is often on sale down to ~$35. The Asylum scenario can be completed in 3 to 5 runs, each run taking perhaps an hour, maybe less for the later runs due to efficiencies you will have at those late stages. So you are paying around $10/hour or less if you can find a sale.
This also highlights the lack of replayability of the game. Once you complete an optimal run, you are pretty much done with the game. To continue playing, you will need to buy a $20-$30 expansion, which will last another 3-5 runs. Thus, if you are looking for a game you can get cheap and play dozens of times (like Hive Pocket for example) TIME Stories is not going to meet that criteria. Despite its price and model, I’m still interested in getting any of the many expansions
Overall, TIME Stories is a solid, fun, well presented and unique cooperative experience that sufficiently incentivizes players to seek optimal runs to solve both the mini puzzles and the larger story. While the tests and skills are fairly mundane, the exploration and mystery will be enough carrot for most players to pursue. Other than the lack of potential value, TIME Stories is worthy add to any collection.
+Fun theme mixes well with the mechanics
+Unique approach to storytelling in a board game
+Approachable puzzles that are satisfying to solve
+Ability to save at any point in a playthrough
-May upset consumers looking to maximize money spent to time spent
-Some misses in wrapping up the base story completely