That Time I Spoiled That Time You Killed Me
Time travel is like paprika. There’s a huge difference between a little and a lot. And I say that as a time travel apologist.
Peter C. Hayward’s That Time You Killed Me is all about time travel. If we stretch our metaphor to the breaking point, it’s an entire mountain range of paprika. Fortunately, Hayward has the good sense to dole it out in pinches and scoops rather than shovelfuls. And there’s really no way to talk about it without some minor spoilers.
Let’s talk about the linearity of time.
In That Time You Killed Me, there are three eras: Past, Present, and Future. When the game first opens, you’re introduced to three core ideas. Call them the rules of this universe’s time travel. The First Rule is that you’re trying to kill yourself. No, not yourself. A different self. The self played by your opponent. This is done by eliminating other-you from two of three time periods. This causes some unintentional hilarity when you send yourself to the Future — a task as simple as waiting around for a while — only to realize you’re now trapped in the Future without occupying the Past or Present. Oops. You lose. Why? I dunno, man. Them’s the time travel rules.
In a sense, we’ve already introduced the Second Rule: time moves forward, but only by adhering to a form of simultaneous logic. If you plant a seed in the past, it’s just a seed. You can walk over the top of it. You can pretty much forget it’s there. In the Present, however, that seed has turned into a bush. Not any old bush. A murder bush. If someone shoves you into the bush, in the exact fashion as shoving somebody into the boundary of a board, you’re squished and killed. And the Future? Well, now the bush has become a tree. A top-heavy tree, perhaps a Monterey Pine or an Acacia, which can be pushed over onto somebody’s head. Who knew becoming a time traveler wouldn’t protect you from such everyday dangers? But here’s the good news: if you’re one turn away from being crushed by a tree, you can command your past self to unplant its seed. No seed, no murder bush, no top-heavy Acacia.
Except here’s the rub. The Third Rule means that you can only control yourself in one time period at a, um, time. After every turn, you move your marker to indicate which era you’ll act in next. There are benefits to each of them. Acting in the Past tends to affect the Present, which in turn affects the Future. Moving from Future to Present to Past creates a duplicate of yourself, both at your origin and destination. Oh, and hopping between eras lets you continue moving at your destination. It’s the equivalent of popping out of a time rift and snapping your other-self’s neck. Provided you still have a leftover action, anyway.
I mentioned that That Time You Killed Me adheres to a form of simultaneous logic. Let’s say you plant a seed in the Past, which grows into a bush in the Present. If somebody is standing on that exact spot in the Future, it doesn’t grow into a tree. Not now, not ever. Not even if the pawn steps off the space at a later moment. Their presence in that space, no matter how temporary, is enough to ruin the bush’s prospects of growing taller. Even though, if you think about it, there would have been a bush in that spot already. Maybe this is a species of bush that temporarily descends into the ground before sprouting anew. Or perhaps it’s the act of stepping on that space on that turn, not one turn earlier or later, that ruined the tree’s growth.
Or maybe none of this makes any damn sense.
But here’s the thing. Although That Time You Killed Me offers a sausage chain of fridge logics, it makes absolute sense in the moment. When you “pull” a statue in the past, its future iterations are also pulled. There’s no upkeep. You aren’t required to, say, keep notes on where the future forms of the statue were or will be. When you train an elephant to trample your other-self to a bloody pulp, and the elephant’s future versions recall that training, and then you train a different elephant, which causes all the prior elephants to forget their affection for you, that’s only logical. Not the kind of logic that will get you through a course in physics. Instead, it’s the kind of logic that feels adjacent enough to whatever Erwin Schrödinger was trying to tell us about his cat. It’s the logic of suspecting physicists of using their imaginations to keep the grant money coming in.
Most importantly, this spares the game from falling apart, either because it’s too interested in “accurate” time travel — whatever that is — or because, as a positional abstract game, it’s subject to boring tit-for-tat exchanges where neither player is willing to inch toward the other for fear of permitting a good move. Such moments still occur, pawns carefully eyeing each other across just enough spaces to prevent getting crushed against the wall. But they’re far rarer than they might have been.
This rarity has everything to do with the toys Hayward has packed into this box. It’s such a devilishly silly thing, and only grows sillier as modules are added and eventually commingled. In that sense, it’s an abstract game for people who don’t like abstract games. Or for folks like me who lack the lobe of the brain that makes them come naturally. One can imagine professional chess players tackling This Time You Killed Me and becoming deeply peeved at its bullshit. Paradox murders. Disloyal elephants. Bushes not becoming trees as God intended. Peeved, too, at its persnickety set of rules, its exceptions, the way turns should be assessed rapidly rather than with great care, the way its traps are… well, there are definitely traps, but they’re Escherian contraptions with hinges and contradictions and pawns farting into existence via some act of creatio ex absurdio. This is not a graceful game, is what I mean to say. It’s an obese swan diving for a fish and smacking the water with a whip-like crack, then surfacing with a baby suspended by a diaper in its beak. It’s a big damn hoot.
It helps that Hayward is an actual honest-to-goodness professional author. His prose is genuinely funny, which isn’t a compliment I get to pay rulebooks often enough. This is one of those rare times it pays to read the flavor text. The effect is holistic. Either you think of games as these elegant playthings, in which case That Time You Killed Me will not serve at all, or you’re here for the joy of opening boxes and reading jokes and putting bowler hats on pink elephants. There are any number of reasons to enjoy board games, and while elegance and absurdity rarely fall on the same side of the line, they’re equally legitimate.
That Time You Killed Me crosses into the absurd and keeps on going, basking in saturated purple glory. It’s a game about embracing the medium’s playfulness, about pushing an idea as far as it will go with a few plastic pieces and some snappy rules. It calls to mind legacy games when they were still novel. When they were about making Risk funny instead of making obligations. When a session felt snappy instead of a drag. There’s a reason we have yet to play That Time You Killed Me only once in a sitting. When death comes courtesy of a sliding Tiki head, payback is a pleasure.
There are countless reasons why I love board games. Here’s the one that made me laugh.
A complimentary copy was provided.