C.O.O.L Story, Bro
As a kid, I was never any good at those Choose Your Own Adventure books. For one thing, I wanted to see every twist and ending the book had to offer, even the ones where my character died a grisly death or suddenly woke up and realized the whole thing had been an elaborate dream. Unless I read every single page, I didn’t feel like it had been worth it. The problem was that I wanted to accomplish this without having to reread anything. And so I dog-eared those books until there were more pages bent-down than in their original shape, and kept my fingers wedged at crucial junctures, and eventually resorted to drawing crazy-person diagrams with arrows pointing between important decisions. Anything to keep from reading even a single page over again.
Years later, T.I.M.E Stories has earned the distinction of being the first board game to prompt the resurgence of my childhood neurosis.
Unfortunately, there’s scant little I can say about T.I.M.E Stories. Even to go into too much detail about the rules might ruin some of the debut story’s best surprises. It’s a problem that even extends to the manual, which is so wary of giving spoiler-laced examples alongside its rules that your first run can feel somewhat aimless.
And there I go using words like “run.” Even without meaning to, I’m telling you what T.I.M.E Stories is about. So, in order to make this bearable for all parties, I’m going to talk about the tiniest bit, but no more than the manual or box reveals.
You work for a Time Agency — I’m sure there’s a T.I.M.E Acronym in there somewhere, but I’m already sick to death of stuffing a bunch of periods between each letter, so I’m calling quits on that. You work for a Time Agency, there’s a disturbance in the timegush or something, and thus you’re sent back in time to fix the problem. It’s sort of like the plot of Timecop, but not crap.
Where TIME Stories gets interesting is that you can only visit the past by inhabiting “receptacles,” people who were alive during the time you’re visiting. By jumping into a receptacle’s body, your teammates inherit their particular abilities and weaknesses. I’d give examples, but part of the fun is seeing how each receptacle might be useful or disastrous in different situations. Even cooler, your job is to pick your way through a positively towering deck by moving between locations, passing skill checks like combat or conversation, and solving puzzles. Failing to solve the central riddle in time (pun!) will kick you back into the future. Nicely, this is functionally impossible on your first run. For one thing, the scenario that comes in the box does a fabulous job of giving you hilarious misdirects to stumble across and brow-furrowing puzzles to solve. For another, the Time Agency doesn’t even know what the problem is. “There’s been a disturbance in the timedrizzle” is pretty much your only lead.
Which is why your first run will almost certainly end in failure. Bzzt, back to the present you go. From there, you’re free to make another run, selecting different receptacles for your team if desired.
Now, this is where TIME Stories starts to both feel brilliant and a little bit like a slog. See, the only thing you can bring along is your memory. So if someone told you the code to a keypad — and don’t worry, that never happens in the base scenario — that’s knowledge you’ll bring on your next visit to the past. You’ll never have to waste time figuring it out again. On the other hand, if that door required a key, you’d still have to go to the trouble of laying hands on it.
This is where the game hits that point of divergence. For my group, TIME Stories was at its best when each new run felt fresh and exciting, using our slivers of knowledge like sledgehammers to blast into previously untouched areas. It was thrilling. Then we hit our third run and had to traverse many of the same challenges and locked-off areas we’d previously explored, which was neither fresh nor exciting. It began to feel like work, frankly.
Fortunately, TIME Stories is largely saved by the strength of its writing. Narrative games can be murdered dead by sophomoric prose, but TIME Stories actually presents a pretty darn good mystery. It ain’t precisely an Agatha Christie joint, but it still manages to provide clues with multiple applications, and a keen eye can mean the difference between a failed run and earning one of those beautiful a-ha! moments that make you feel like a genius immediately after feeling like the world’s biggest rube. There was one puzzle in particular that took us a good fifteen minutes to solve, but totally meshed with the logic we’d been taught across two earlier runs.
Overhyped? Certainly. Even so, as a narrative game, this is really good stuff. The gamey portion, with its withering time constraints and the possibility of being halted in your tracks by various obstacles, adds a healthy kick to the head while still giving the story the room it needs to breathe. Reaching the end of the story was one of most fulfilling gaming experiences I’ve had in a very, very long time.
That said, TIME Stories presents its most difficult decision right from the start. With a buy-in cost of around forty bucks, the fact that it only includes the one scenario — which lasts, at its absolute longest, perhaps four hours — suddenly makes the package seem a little overpriced, especially since it isn’t the sort of mystery that can be replayed until the ravages of time have erased its more vivid solutions from your memory. What’s more, apart from the lavish deck, everything else is somewhat unremarkable. The board has spaces for putting cards and a time tracker, the player markers could be anything, and the cardboard tiles are, well, they could be pretty much anything too. As in, you could buy the deck alone and probably still get the game to work with cannibalized Risk pieces and some markers.
Not that this would be an ideal solution, but what I’m saying is that I totally understand why some people are nonplussed with what the starter box provides. Sure, there’s already a second scenario available for purchase and surely more to come, but for some folks this won’t be worth the price of entry.
For others, it absolutely will be. Me, for example. I’m content with the time I spent, and completely thrilled at the prospect of this game getting new expansions. The system is fluid, clever, and drop-dead gorgeous to watch in action. And I can’t wait for there to be another disturbance in the timeguzzle.