Wednesday, 24 February 2016

It's just a step to the left

Busy week at the Tun this week - but not because of a flood of interested people who had read last weeks newspaper or seen us on TV. Fickle and funny fate saw fit to feature ( say that quickly 100 times ) the Tun have one of its busiest Tuesday nights that we've seen, some sort of self help group turned up out of the blue and a fairly busy smattering of non gamer pub goers also competed for space.

Which meant space was critical. And upstairs was off limits due to Salsa noise. And I had issues with some serious people juggling. Something I've not had to do since the Ribs. This makes me unhappy. This gives me a meh face. It looks like this.

So yay. Are we back to running out of venue space ? Our once possible extra space has evaporated, and meh. For the record NoBoG numbers were pretty consistent again at 46 so, not us per se, just everyone else.

Maybe a new NoBoG folded table or two round the corner, hands off, plus some chairs is in order if this is the shape of things to come ( there is some spare ground space if not table space available ). I think the current folding table has done a fantastic job and is a pretty nice size for most games... what do NoBoG goers think ?

Anyway. Just a blip. Probably. Nothing to worry about - Famous last words as the ship sank beneath the icy waters.

On with the games !

The game I was most excited about seeing this week - and got to play - was Time Stories a curiously minimalistic looking deduction/narrative game that has you jumping into time to Sort Stuff Out. This game has been on my radar for sometime, and the very quiet word on the street from those that had experienced it was that Time Stories was one of the best board gaming experiences ever... ever... when you factored in the expansions for it. So, low hype, high performance - sounds almost like the opposite of most kickstarters... burn !

The minimalist box of TIME Stories. The Minimalist future aesthetic is kept up on the contents inside too.
This is going to be quite the waffle about TIME Stories. To my eye there's a lot of if not exactly new things going on here, then a very much pushing of the envelope in what it's doing, a lot of clever things, and arguably a very distinct take on story telling that... hasn't really been done before in a board game ? In short, a lot to talk about. Consider yourself warned.

So what is T.I.M.E Stories exactly ? It's just a step to the left... and then a jump to the riiiii-iii-iii-ii-iii-iiight. No. That's something else entirely.

Thematically the game is something of a Quantum Leap, Time Cop, Back to the Future any of those time travelling sci fi shows where Future People jump around in time to Fix Things, Break Things, or generally unwisely dick with the potential for some universe destroying time paradoxes by taking their own mom to the prom. You'll play one of a number of scenarios, with each scenario given the benefit of a time jumping premise being set pretty much anywhere anytime in any kind of reality. Expect swords. Or guns. Or Zombies. And just plain boring humans in a nuthouse.

Mechanically the game is a narrative exploration through a deck of location cards. And for a given scenario / story, you'll have a different deck of cards to investigate. So, cards are laid out to represent locations, and on visiting those locations you get to pick up the card and read the narrative on the back. A bit like some Choose Your Own Adventure or Fighting Fantasy book, but in card form. If you've ever played Holmes and Watson or any of those deduction detective games that have you travelling to locations and reading things, then you'll get an understanding of what's going on here ( and to a lesser extent something like Tales of the Arabian Nights ) . This isn't a game about harvesting cubes or setting up some euro production engine, nor about mass invasions of armies or politicking, it is instead a light RPG type game, where the roleplaying is non existent and confined to the elements of your character card, and the emphasis is on a collective experience of a story.

Where TIME Stories really starts to excel beyond all those other narrative and deduction type games before it however is in its rich and ( for what it is ) complex setup of a story and your journey through it, where you can pick up items, discover new locations or even change what's going on at a given location entirely. The game has mechanics that can empower a story to be highly interactive - if it so chooses, it's entirely dependent on the scenario - wherein even just looking at a new card alters the fabric of something else, either opening it up to discovery, or locking it away from your grasp. How the game pulls this off mechanically is very clever - story tokens ( just abstract shapes ) indicate what knowledge you have of events - and those story tokens allow you access to things or places you might not have been able to in the past. The simplest example of this shows how you can push narrative along - talking to a person in one location has them whispering to you that they know a secret, and come talk to them later in the Dormitory - and you get a token for that. On visiting the Dormitory one of the locations has that token, and on doing that, you get to talk to that person who whispers you their secrets.

The futuristic TIME Stories. Where you meet Bob. The chief
time technician. I'm not joking. Bob, holds the fate of
the universe in his hands.
You'd think he'd at least be called Robert
with such a serious responsibility.
The permutations for this can escalate quickly - particularly when entirely new areas of the map are revealed to you, and finding a key lets you through a door, the map changes, and now you can visit the previously off limit gardens for instance.

Given that the starting scenario has some 30 odd items to discover and perhaps a dozen different tokens on top of that, this is a pretty big deal. It allows a static game to actually track a progressing narrative, tracks what you know and dont know explicitly - and also implicitly via the players just figuring out WTF is going on, and the environment you are in changes and adapts to the unfolding story.

Those that play RPGs that mostly narrate a story directly into the imagination are well versed in a rich and evolving environment that lives around them - the GM tirelessly shifting scope to adapt to the infinite possibilities of the players. Doing something of the same in a board game is quite the mean feat where you have static setups and no GM. Don't mistake what something like a "light RPG" game of Descent does with its narrative being driven by new areas on a map to stick your minis and new foes to kill. This is an entirely different beast driven by story - not your location on a tactical battle map. Indeed going back to the RPG analogy, if the melee table top fights in a pen and paper RPG are directly related to games like Descent and Mice and Mystics - which are all fights and very little story, then the narrative story elements in an RPG - that have no table top part - are directly relateable to what Time Stories does. And don't mistake that for something like Tales of the Arabian Nights either which is a super simplistic Choose Your Own Adventure setup. TIME Stories is more Scotland Yard, with multiple paths, a dynamic environment and a rich narrative.

Is TIME Stories in fact one of the first board game versions of the story side of an RPG experience ? I'm struggling to come up with any other game that has done that - something like Pathfinder Adventure Card game doesn't even come close to what Time Stories achieves, even though component and stuff wise, they are probably in the same ballpark. PAC to me tries to simulate a tabletop melee heavy dungeon crawl in card form without a tabletop, it has little to say about story. I'm thinking that TIME Stories could be something of a unicorn here - the narrative bit of an RPG and something never really done (so well) before.

The game above and beyond all that also has the TIME element which feels similar to the time setup in tragedy looper. You get to play through the game once - almost certainly fail - reset TIME and try it again. You're time travellers right. However, somethings can stay the same between time jumps - as time agents you already know what happened before, and this time around, you can maybe shortcut something. Or fix something. You know where that hidden cupboard is. No need to spend time searching for it this time. And so on. You can argue here about whether this is an interesting mechanic to allow you to do meta things and get foreknowledge between runs - or whether its a cynical element to make you run through the same content more than once, eking out new content in a controlled fashion - or whether again it allows a designer to put truly hard scenarios into place knowing that you will get several cracks at the problem.

TIME Stories - who will you quantum leap like jump into ?
The game also features something which might be arguably superfluous - the characters themselves and their capabilities, the usual-ish simple setup of melee, charisma and agility. The stats however are a little vague in places - I suspect because like the rest of the game it means a given scenario can actually choose what those stats mean, so instead of strength, glibness and agility, maybe this time its fighting, intelligence and research. Locations can have you doing the whole by the numbers melee fights - just like your Fighting Fantasy books - zomg, here comes 2 orcs, they start fighting you, roll to hit - as well as dice rolls against your stats for stealing items, persuading people, breaking down doors and yada.

There was a bit of debate at the table as to whether the whole dice roll thing added anything to the core game - in a purist sense it does not, but in a lets roll some dice and experience some epic misses, epic hits and skin of the teeth saves, it probably does. But. There is an element there of if some encounters are hard, does it make you stop and tool up first - visiting locations and spending time. Do you risk it, or play safe ? And of course, as Alfie pointed out, everything takes time, and those melee encounters and otherwise all serve to burn extra time at a location. When you run out of time your jump finishes and you have to reset. I think on balance the characters and dice rolls add that smear of necessary light RPG-ness to the game. It gives you a different element to hold onto. But I can totally understand that someone appreciating the narrative, deduction or puzzles could be somewhat perplexed at the need to roll a dice at X location. I think its appealing to more than a niche of one kind of player.

Because of the nature of the game and its clever setup it has a great deal of scope about what it can throw at you. Not only in the stories it can present to you. But also game wise what it can do to you -  It can give you deduction problems to solve. It can give you outright mental problems to sit and solve at the table - like some mid game Sudoku or labyrinth solving exercise. It can threaten you with melee and force you to gear up and find healing stuff, or give you moral dilemmas about whether to beat someone to death or chase them away ( and the consquences can be different for each ). It can give you choices about the dreaded Splitting The Party, or which character you should Sam Beckett Quantum Leap style jump into this visit. And offer challenges of working out what the story is doing - the motivations of the characters, do I release that chained up nutter or leave him be, do I trust that mad capering idiot with the top hat when he says he has something awesome to show me.

All in all, it seems like the game is pretty capable of serving anything up to you. Which is pretty amazing.

Of course. All of this is entirely dependent on just how well written the scenarios are. How cleverly they make use of the tools available of the game mechanics.

We played the base box scenario - you get one, and only one scenario with the game.. which is... rather mean, but given how much is in it, it probably is the equivalent of several scenarios of a more static deduction type game ) - and the story was compelling and the elements nicely clicked. Without giving spoilers away, a visit to a mental hospital in the1920s to investigate something Bad Going On. You can probably imagine what kind of field that gives you to work with - its not an unfamiliar trope.

I can see why TIME Stories is picking up a devoted following. The game IS a one shot affair however - play it once and that scenario is then dead to you, so, there is definitely a big issue of replayability here, a one hit wonder with a vengeance. This is not entirely unknown territory for such narrative games though, and others before it have had similar problems - albeit, TIME Stories with its single scenario is really testing the limit of whether a one play one box thing is a good deal or not. Of course, as of writing, there are another four scenarios you can go out and buy, and get a cool experience all over again. But yeah. Unfortunately there's really no other way it could be with TIME Stories - because the scenarios are so interleaved and carefully crafted, there's not much you could do to approach the game as a high replayable scenario without destroying many of the elements that make the game stand out ( the puzzles would immediately go out of the window ).

For  me, it's debatable whether you'd want to buy TIME Stories. Its limited replayability is a big issue. On the other hand the experience it gives - for my money - is second to none, other than actually playing an RPG, and even then, it manages to bang out what an RPG can do in probably, I don't know, a tenth of the time. Oddly enough, I think TIME Stories is probably the ideal club type game, where a single copy of the game could be played by many different groups of a single club. It'd be a great experience, get a lot of use, but still abide by its you can only play me once deal.

Overall - Highly Recommended. A must play for anyone who is even slightly interested in narrative things, deduction type games, or any form of RPG. I'd go further and say it's probably a must play for any kind of board gamer, at least once, just to see the clever tricks the game manages to pull off and use an inspiration springboard.

I got to play as some cute but wild eyed and committed cannibal girl, followed by an attractive lady with an erotomania problem, and learned just how sexy plungers ( the kind you unblock toilets with ) can be. I won't spoil it. But it's definitely all in there. Ask any of the players about The Plunger.

Alfie stuck with his coke head character who could snort cocaine at will to gain dice power ups - but using the last dose of coke meant a permanent health hit, Hal flipped between a hardcore soldier who was a secret pacifist and couldnt abide anyone dying, and Darren played some glib mouthed shyster who needed to be escorted everywhere otherwise we lost time. Time doing what ? Don't ask.

Fab game anway. Really pleased I got to play it, quite the unique experience, go play it !

Dead of Winter. And no sign of Jon Snow.
Dead of Winter was back on table this week, one of the most popular NoBoG games of 2015, but seemingly the steam has run out of this title and it's dwindling in its replays and I dare say it wont feature in the top 10 for 2016. I saw Elliot having a bash at this - I think it might have been his first foray into the game, and it seemed to go on for quite a while, barring a heavy 5 player Imperial Settlers game, it was the longest play of the evening ( over 3 hours ). I didn't get a chance to really ask if everyone enjoyed it - I kinda got the sense it went on a bit too long.

Elsewise, after some squeezing onto a larger sized table, Lewis got Epic Wizards to the table, whilst at the other end of the table Star Wars Carcassonne shaped up to possibly be the most interesting of all the carcassonnes - it certainly looked hella funky.

We also had some lovely old school gaming going on with Judge Dredd, a real blast from the 80's
Judge Dredd. IIRC the Ape Gang are in this. Awesome.
past, and a game from the - in my estimation - first golden age of gaming, when board games were busting dice out left right and centre, Games Workshop was still.. well... about Games and not just miniatures, and companies like Avalon Hill, GDW and TSR had yet to go financially tits up.

Luke and his more than 100 games of Betrayal at House on the Hill ( isn't it about time someone made him the official mascot of the game or something ) led a table around another dance on the hill ( really, more stories required !), whilst down on the ground what looked to be a great game of Imperial Settlers was shaping up, Ben had so many prestige buildings as Japanese it was bewildering ( but apparently he wasn't winning ???? ), and Ewan got the lovely second edition Mission Red Planet out again, with a mostly gentlemanly first round of scientists, followed by a much less gentlemanly round of secret agents, followed by some positively dickish Femme Fatales. If you've never played the game you won't have a clue what that means, suffice to say, increasing levels of dickery.

Also David lead his merry band of Star Wars people through the romp of another Imperial Assault - albeit Rebel Chloe was absent, presumably off training on Dagobah with Yoda. David reports that they are just about half way through the campaign, but, I think Stormtrooper fatigue is beginning to kick in, as their cannon fodder Red Shirt nature is starting to tire Darth David out. Uh huh. Maybe there should be a bad guy rota thing from week to week. . .

As ever the evening finished with the game du jour - Secret Hitler, Lewis finally tumbled off his winning streak, for once being a liberal and also marking his first loss. Richard IV managed to take a few snapshots in game of the characters in play with his super secret smart fascist detector mobile app ( which I suspect is just him drawing things on the screen ). Awesome !

The Smart Fascist app detects its first positive

Imperial Assault

Epic Wizards Spell War Thingies. Rearrange words to make sense.

Carcassonne Star Wars.

Betrayal at House on the Hill

Imperial Settlers kicks off

Mission Red Planet 2


Elliot Symonds said...


Is this the longest NoBlog ever? Well written and detailed and not I definitely want to play a game as an autoerotic plunging time leaper.

It was indeed my first foray into Dead of Winter and I think it important that I have now popped my cherry in that field.

Need to be Hitler as well now.


Minitrue said...

Heh quite long, TIME Stories kinda demands it - and I edited it, cut specifics, kept it high. But I'm sure that with a table thats played it you could sit down and have a pretty good chat about what it's doing, this clever bit, that interesting thing - just from a design point of view if nothing else. Definitely King of the Hill for me for that kind of game. Nicely done. One shot one play, limited scenarios. Ugh. It'd be nice if there were half a dozen in the box. . . .

Minitrue said...

The plunger was funny. At least our table found it funny. And. I. Cant. Say. More. Ha ha. You have to experience it :p

What did you think of Dead of Winter ?

Darren J said...

the stories worth playing just for the plunger