Wednesday, 23 March 2016

T.I.M.E Stories

Plays: 4Px3.

Warning: First things first. This blog post will be spoiler free, so if you have not played the game, you can read on. If you want to comment, please don't reveal any spoilers. However I will be showing photos of some game components, the game setup of the first scenario, and also characters and a scene you will see at the start of the scenario. By my definition these are not spoilers, since you will see these at the start of the game anyway. If you don't even want to see these, then you may want to stop here, or skip to the Thoughts section.

The Game

T.I.M.E Stories was one of the hot games of 2015. Also there was a controversy about the content of the base game, because it only contains one (1) scenario. A scenario is not replayable after you solve the case. After you win the first scenario, if you want to play the game again, you will need to start buying expansions.

Here's the premise of the game. The time machine has been invented. You are employees of the Time Agency, and your job is to travel to the past to investigate and prevent time crimes. When you travel back in time, you take possession of the bodies of characters in that time period. You have their skills and abilities, and also their weaknesses. You know the date and location you are sent to is where a time crime takes place. You have limited time to find out how to prevent the crime. When time runs out, you will be recalled back to the present. You will have to go again to try to solve the case. Equipped with what you have learned from the previous run, you should ideally do better, and eventually you will be able to prevent the crime. It is only a matter of how many runs you need. Once you beat the scenario, there is no reason to play anymore, since you already know the correct course of actions to solve the case.

This is the game board. The four spaces at the top left are for placing the map of the place you are traveling to. The spaces at the top right are for placing cards and card decks you will use during a game. The track in the middle is the timer, or countdown track. When you run out of time, the mission ends in failure. The card deck at the bottom left is the main card deck for the scenario. A scenario, or a case, is basically one very thick card deck. The deck contains all the information you need to play the scenario.

In the card deck there are many sets of cards, and some of these sets represent locations on the map. When you travel to a location, you take the corresponding set of location cards and make a panorama using the card backs. You and your team will then need to decide which sections (i.e. cards) at that location you want to investigate. You place your pawn above the card you want to investigate, and you will get to see it. You can describe what you see to the others, but they don't get to see the card. Sometimes you'll glean new information. Sometimes you collect equipment. Sometimes you encounter danger, and you need to resolve it using your skills. Sometimes you are given a dilemma and you must choose what to do.

The first case happens in 1921 at an asylum. The first card of the deck reminds you to read the rules before opening the card deck.

The card deck is very thick. In addition to the many sets of location cards, there are also equipment cards. During the game, every round spent at a location costs one time unit. When you go to a different location, you roll a die to determine how long it takes. Usually it is 2 time units, but sometimes it is 1, and sometimes 3.

This bald guy is your boss, and you can tell he's not exactly a people person.

Since the first scenario happens in an asylum, the people whom you can possess are all patients who are mentally ill. That's why none of them look welcoming. Well, except for that hot lady on the right. But she's crazy too. Don't be deceived by looks.

During our game I picked this old hag. In this scenario, the characters have three types of skills - dexterity skills, negotiation skills and fighting skills. Ms Doume has all three skills. She is quite sturdy and won't be injured unless the attack is of at least strength 4. However she only has a health of 1, so she can only take one hit, and it's K.O. for her. Well, what can you expect from a frail old lady?

This is the first location in the first scenario. This is where you start off. The panorama has 5 cards. We had decided to split up into two groups to approach the people here. Two of us went to speak to the girl who was painting, and the other two to speak to the weird man sitting on the sofa. We could have split up to check out four different parts of the room, but we decided to go in pairs, just in case one of these nutcases decide to do something crazy. When you arrive at a location, there is a location card which describes what you see. From the narrative you can try to guess which parts of the location might be dangerous, or which parts might offer useful equipment, or what kind of challenges might be waiting for you. Then you can assign the characters with the appropriate skills to explore these sections of the location. If you see a safe box, you probably want to send the locksmith.

This is the map for the first scenario. Named locations are the locations you can go to. As more information is found, the map may be updated with more details and new locations. The white pawn indicates your current location. This die here is the time die. When you move to a new location, you must roll this die to see how much time it takes.

These are the player pawns.

These are the action dice. You use them to resolve challenges. When you encounter a challenge, it will specify the skill required to resolve it, the difficulty level, and also whether it will hurt you. To resolve it, you roll a number of dice according to your skill level. Each star rolled reduces the difficulty level, and when it drops to zero, the challenge is resolved. If you roll a skull, it triggers damage. Depending on the damage rating of the challenge and the resilience level of your character, he or she may get wounded or even killed. .

The basic mechanisms are straight-forward. You are going around to different locations trying to gather information to help you solve the case. You need to execute a series of actions that will stop the time crime, and you need to do it within the time allocated. If you fail, you will have to try again next time, but you will have learnt something from your current game to help you do better. Eventually you will be able to solve the case. It is only a matter of how many attempts it takes.

The Play

Jeff arranged a separate session outside of the regular Friday night sessions to play this game, and Kareem, Heng and I joined him on this adventure. We picked a public holiday to do this, and up front we decided we would play till we won.

The core mechanism of the game is quite simple. The main content of the game is that deck of cards which contains all the information about the scenario. You are basically exploring this deck and trying to extract as much useful information as possible within the limited time given. Sometimes you get information directly. Sometimes you are presented with choices and your decision affects what happens next. Sometimes you get equipment which is needed for accessing information at another location, or for resolving a challenge. Not every piece of information you get is useful. Not everything that you can do will help you solve the case. Your job is to find out what needs to be done and what need not be done, to allow you to complete your mission within the allocated time. Each time you fail, you should learn what you should have done differently, or not done at all, or need not be done anymore because you already have the information now.

Our first attempt (i.e. our first game) went quite well. We gathered much information. We didn't have enough time to resolve the case, but we felt confident we were on the right track. We went in to Game 2 with a plan. And... we did horribly. We wasted a lot of time doing things which in hindsight we should not have done. Throughout the games we discussed and debated a lot, not only on what should be done, but also on what should not be done; where to go and where not to go. Time units were precious and must not be wasted.

The cards tell the story. It is like reading a novel, but the difference is your decisions affect how the story goes. You are exploring and experimenting, poking around to see what the quickest path is to solve the case. The many decisions you need to make form a huge maze, and your job is to work out a path through this maze as quickly as possible.

Each time you play the game, you evaluate whether you have chosen a suitable character. If you think you have made a poor choice and it is causing you to fail your mission, you can pick a different character next time. If you think you will need to do a lot of fighting, then you had better pick the gangster to be your surrogate.

Every time you start a new attempt, there may be some things you no longer need to do because you have already learnt the associated information from a previous attempt. However there are things you still need to do, e.g. going to a specific room to speak to a specific person to convince him to give you a specific tool that you need to solve the case. Every time you do a run, you need to judge what is necessary and what is not. You need to keep in mind your time limit. You should do the absolute minimum so that you can complete your mission within the time limit. This is a lot like the Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow.

Sometimes you need to solve riddles. At one point we got stuck with a particularly tricky riddle. We knew we would not be able to proceed without solving it. We all stood around the game table pondering the information we had, sometimes solemn as statues, and sometimes debating like we were trying to end world hunger. We brought out pen and paper and even calculator. We tried to recall all the hints and clues we had seen previously, wondering whether we had missed something, or misinterpreted something. We really had to put our heads together to solve the riddle. When we eventually did it, it was very rewarding. I think it took us more than half an hour just for this one riddle.

We only managed to solve the case and save the day on our third attempt. Excluding a lunch break, we played for about 4 hours.

The Thoughts

The core concept in T.I.M.E Stories can be distilled down to just being mice trying to find the shortest path through a maze. That's basically what you are doing. You have a time limit. Within that time you explore the maze and try to remember the most efficient path. If you can't work your way through the maze this time, there's always the next attempt. Next time, you will be equipped with what you learn this time. Looking at it this way, the game mechanism sounds rather mechanical. To me personally, the core mechanism is not particularly impressive. It is unusual and refreshing, since there aren't many boardgames like this, but it's not the type of design which makes me admire its cleverness or ingenuity.

What makes me enjoy the game is the story the scenario tells. To me the meat is all in the stories - the characters, the puzzles, the choices you have to make, the challenges thrown at you, the consequences of your actions. It may all be effectively an elaborate maze, but how the subtle clues guide you and how your choices affect the storyline make it all feel realistic and relevant. They pull you into the story. You are there in that asylum facing these choices. You really need to imagine yourself in that situation in order to feel what the right thing to do is. If you only think of the whole thing as a maze, you're missing the point. The text descriptions and the drawings all give you clues. They help you solve the case. All the details of a scenario give you a context to make decisions. You will still make many bad moves. Sometimes there is no hint for whether you should take Door A or Door B. However you do need to remember the era and the environment you are in, and the people you are dealing with. The game is immersive. I truly enjoyed my time travel with my fellow players. What we saw and what we told one another we saw all mattered. Our imaginations ran wild. Is that sound an indication of danger? Is that guy who he claims he is? The scenario designer puts us in a hostile and strange world, and we need to put our heads together to decide how best to explore it.

Once you solve a case, you will not be able to play it again anymore. You already know the answer. There is no point to play again. Normally it will take a few attempts to solve a case, so technically playing a scenario does not equate playing one game. A scenario gives you a few games. One good thing about this is you are actually going through a campaign. This series of games are all part of a greater goal. Each game should be thought of as one step in an overarching mission. You try to remember what you have learned from previous games, and if the current game is not looking hopeful, you start considering what you should try instead in the next game. It's an amazing feeling. A game of T.I.M.E Stories is not an isolated 1.5 hour game. It is part of something bigger. Not many games give this kind of experience. This is one thing I like about it.

If I get a chance to try another scenario, I will jump in with both feet.

No comments: