Session Report is a monthly series that explores the intersection of narrative and broader themes of game design by focusing on a specific tabletop game each month.
Somebody has created an analog analog to the meticulously rendered, puzzle-driven adventures games that defined my youth. And it’s about time.
T.I.M.E Stories, from French designer Manuel Rozoy, describes itself as “a narrative decksploration game,” which probably sounds better en français. It’s one of a new wave of tabletop games that require spoiler alerts, so I’m going to issue one now: this article will contain images and descriptions of the first three “missions” issuing from the T.I.M.E Stories system. If you haven’t yet felt the thrill of Tachyon Insertion and feel that foreknowledge of the time conundrums that await would somehow tarnish your experience, now’s your chance to jump ship. Sam, the protocol drone, will see you out.
Still here? Good. The universe needs brave men and women of your caliber. And punctuality.
When T.I.M.E Stories talks about decksploration, here’s what it means: beyond a few all-purpose components included in the luxuriously priced core set ($50 MSRP), everything that makes T.I.M.E Stories tick is to be found in the deck, or decks, of cards specific to the scenario being played. The core set includes one scenario, “Asylum,” set in 1920s Paris, but other decks will take you to a small American town in the 1980s, a far-flung planet where magic made technological innovation redundant, 12th-century Egypt, and, coming soon, a doomed Antarctic expedition launched during the Great War. Adding nothing but a new set of cards, these expansions promise radically different experiences, from the art style to the gameplay activities on offer. The expansions, by the way, are also priced like luxury goods, but you do receive what you pay for, namely tarot-sized cards covered from edge to edge with stunning, unique art.
On the cost/time metric, however, T.I.M.E Stories doesn’t measure well. These scenarios are, like their computer-hosted predecessors, part puzzle and part interactive story. Neither part offers much incentive to keep playing once you’ve seen and solved everything, which, considering you’re looking at a deck or two of cards, can take anywhere in the neighborhood of 1-3 hours. Even the expansions, at $30 MSRP a pop, are less cost-effective than a trip to the cinema, unless you can convince 3 friends to pay their “share” of the up-front cost.
That’s where replayability comes into it. (Incidentally, most spell-checkers still label “replayability” a non-word, despite its ubiquity in gamer parlance.) Most games have it; T.I.M.E Stories does not. In video games, “replayability” has been one of the strongest factors in the eclipse of single-player, narrative-driven games by multiplayer-focused titles. Single-player experiences, which provide a sense of closure, often show up on the secondary market within the first week of release. Multiplayer games, particularly competitive ones, last for as long as there is a community built around them. The only single-player games that inspire the same degree and duration of devotion are those that favor quantity over quality, offering near-limitless content in a sandbox environment, games like Grand Theft Auto, Fallout, and The Elder Scrolls. You often hear the argument that “you wouldn’t read a book again after you’ve seen how it ends,” which most literophiles will recognize as bovine excrement.
As a single-player gamer, I will gleefully read a book, watch a movie, or play a linear, story-driven game–even and especially a “short” one of 6-10 hours–more than once just to relive the experience, but I’m in the minority. Statistically, most people who begin a single-player video game never even complete it the first time around, dropping off whenever the new shiny comes out, which these days happens once every couple of months. (At the time of this publication, the new shiny is No Man’s Sky, preceded by Pokemon GO in July, Overwatch in May, and Dark Souls III in March.) Yet game length and “replay value” continue to factor heavily in most gamers’ purchasing decisions, with anything lasting under 20 hours and possessing a tight narrative derided as “rental material.”
Now board games are beginning to spark the same debate. In exchange for a sharp dip in replayability, games like T.I.M.E Stories, Pandemic Legacy, and Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective offer a more tightly reined experience that is just as much story as it is game. But does the payoff pardon the price?
I normally devote this space to some sort of narrative description of a specific gameplay scenario (hence the name “session report,” which derives from the role-playing practice of keeping in-character “campaign journals” or out-of-character “actual play reports” to prevent ongoing narratives from running off the rails whenever circumstances necessitate a large break between game sessions). However, T.I.M.E Stories presents such a guided narrative that writing it up in this way would reveal little. Instead, I’d like to step through some of the game system’s more inventive moments, starting with “Asylum”‘s anchoring puzzle.
I shouldn’t have to include a spoiler warning here, but I will anyway: the following paragraphs show a complete solution to the base scenario’s only real puzzle; read with caution.
The T.I.M.E Agency is 90% dicks. You won’t get one paragraph into the first scenario without an AI chiding you for your tardiness, and master instructor Bob’s constant lectures manage to rob the traversal of realities and eras utterly of magic. However, they are right about one thing: to solve each scenario’s enigma, you must “pay attention to what you read, what you see, and what you are told,” and that begins in “Asylum”‘s very first scene. After a brief tutorial from Bob, the T.I.M.E Agents leap into the bodies of four psychiatric patients in the Day Room of Paris’ Beauregard Asylum.
Here, you have the chance to interact with your fellow patients. A pantsless man in a plague doctor’s mask palms you a key. Another man, wearing dark glasses and two gigantic earhorns, warns you, “They’ve taken the crazies! All of the crazies! … Only the tears of the manticore could have saved them!” But it’s the young woman in the dressing gown, painting in the afternoon light, who provides the most crucial clues without speaking a word. In the white space of her painting (a manticore, coincidentally), you can find a five-pointed star, the phrase “Southeast, then clockwise,” and a series of mathematical symbols: “++++-“.
Aside from a newspaper clipping corroborating the nearly deaf man’s story, that’s all you’ll find in the Day Room. Nurse Josephine helpfully directs you to the next stop of interest: the Infirmary, where an assistant nurse arranges a covert meeting with you later in the Dormitory and Josephine herself reminds you of your group session with Doctor Hyacinthe. You’ll want to visit the dorms first. Provided you spoke with her previously, the assistant nurse will pass you a note with disturbing implications about the doctor, but the primary reason for visiting this location is the first of four “pentacle scraps” found inside the lockers housing the patients’ belongings (if you are deft enough to spring the lock). The scrap, covered in arcane symbols, numbers and letters, is indecipherable for now, so it’s time to visit Hyacinthe in his office.
Before speaking to the head doctor, however, you’ll want to check out the art on his wall, specifically a portrait of the asylum staff, marked by the same arcane symbols as those found on the pentacle scrap. By this point, you can probably put the clues together and guess that the good doctor means your receptacles harm, and in fact you are given the option to beat him to death (in the process, revealing the hidden entrance to an underground labyrinth linking the office to the asylum’s grounds), but the more efficient (if less satisfying) path is to simply play along for the time being–the doctor leads you straight through the labyrinth, and you don’t have to get your knuckles dirty. Either way, you will find another pentacle scrap in the corner near the labyrinth’s exit.
A short detour to the groundskeeper’s shack, while not necessary to solve the puzzle, provides some additional hints to the enigma driving the story, namely that a man named Desmarteau has been collaborating with Doctor Hyacinthe to unlock a crypt hidden beneath the asylum’s grounds. “A riddle which only knowledge of the esoteric arts could pierce was hidden in that damned gate,” Desmarteau proclaims. He also mentions “recruit[ing] five new patients” to complete the ritual and provides a helpful, but not essential, clue to the transcendent final puzzle: “We had to subtract its number and not add it. All that was then left was to add it to the password.”
As one might expect, a pentacle riddle requires five pieces to solve, and the T.I.M.E Agents have only gathered two by this point. Two additional points to the damned star are to be found in the asylum’s immense greenhouse, patrolled by a ravenous–you guessed it–manticore. With a little care, you can avoid a direct confrontation with the beast, but you’ll definitely want to explore the rest of the greenhouse. Behind a waterfall flutters the final pentacle scrap, while the gutted corpse of Desmarteau himself bears a heavy key engraved with a similar five-pointed design, needed to unlock the secret tunnel beneath the park kiosk and bring you to the spot where all these clues finally come together.
The brilliance of the pentacle riddle is that, even holding all the clues and standing in front of the “damned gate,” the final solution is not immediately obvious. After all, not even the educated conspirators guessed it right away, as Desmarteau’s note suggests. You have five stars, five symbols, and five numbers. The letters at the stars’ points make it pretty clear that there is a hidden message to decipher, but how, and what to do once you have found it?
It helps to break down what you know. The arcane symbols marking each pentacle correspond to the five symbols doodled over the staff in Hyacinthe’s office portrait. Unfortunately, you’re allowed only one pass through Hyacinthe’s office each run, so unless you were smart enough to copy the symbols down, you’ll have to draw on collective memory or forego this clue. There’s also a red herring (or red manticore, if you like) to the symbols around the star, which all appear at differing points on each pentacle. Orienting the pentacle scraps so that their points “align” renders the solution gibberish. The numbers in the centers of the stars indicate orientation; the presence of the symbols is an important clue, but their location is a false door.
That leaves us with only the Day Room girl’s painting. You might not notice, on first view, her drawing of a star in the painting’s margin, but the other two notes stand out as obvious clues, and experienced gamers will recognize that no clue this blatant can go unapplied. (You might stop to wonder how the mute girl gained such knowledge, but many will simply write it off as Adventure Game Logic. As it turns out, there is an in-universe explanation for her behavior, keyed off of another enigma: the notes and newspaper clippings concerning the ritual all mention five missing patients, while the T.I.M.E agents only inhabit four receptacles.)
If one were to assign cardinal directions to the five points of the stars, the bottom-right point would align with “Southeast.” The letters on this point of the first star read “RE.” Continuing to the next clockwise arm of the second star, we find the letters “AD,” and so forth. If you’ve forgotten the details of the Hyacinthe portrait, as I had, you can simply shuffle the order of the cards until you find a legible message.
Which item, though? Here’s where Desmarteau’s note might come in handy: “We had to subtract its number and not add it. All that was then left was to add it to the password.” Taking “READ ITEM” as the password, “it” can only refer to the numbers in the centers of each pentacle. As the girl’s painting instructs, if you add the first four, then subtract the last, you have the index of the card that tells you what to do next, artfully buried in the Item deck.
The concept of “replay” is paradoxically both a central pillar of T.I.M.E Stories‘ design philosophy and a conspicuous flaw in its foundations. The time travel motif makes this a near certainty. T.I.M.E agents are half Sam Beckett (the time traveler, not the playwright), able to leap into the bodies of “receptacles” native to the chronology and geography of their mission, and half Phil Connors, replaying the same short time loop until they’ve figured out the precise series of actions required to complete the enigmatic task required of them. Thus, a single T.I.M.E Stories deck will typically see two or three partial plays, as players feel out their options and eliminate dead ends, leading up to the triumphant final run. But, in the nature of puzzles, once the most efficient path through the scenario has been discovered, there’s little reason to dive back in. The first three missions offer varying options for alternate routes and random events, but they’re all essentially “one and done” by their very design, and the familiarity bred by repeating certain segments several times over will further quash any desire to dive back in. Nothing kills replayability like repetition.
T.I.M.E Stories‘ potential for revisitation is constrained, in several ways, by its medium of presentation. Cards are great for some things: they are tactile, can be held, slid around, bent gently, and shuffled together for randomization. T.I.M.E Stories only rarely takes advantage of these strengths of the medium: its decks are typically not shuffled, and cards are seldom moved or held after they have been dealt out.
Which is to say that T.I.M.E Stories is more a game using cards than it is a card game. The medium isn’t overlooked entirely, though; cards can also be flipped over to reveal new information, oriented to provide information only to specific parties, and pushed together or partially overlapped to form paneled images, and T.I.M.E Stories uses these tricks liberally.
However, there are many things that cards don’t do well, even tarot-sized mega-cards like these. They have no memory and can’t alter their nature in response to stimuli, the way a computer program can. Even heavily scripted games like ICO and Uncharted run on an input/output engine that adapts the details to the commands you feed the controller, even as the overarching story remains fixed. Playing cards also can’t hold near the amount of information a book can. I don’t have an eidetic memory, so when I reread a book or rewatch a movie a year later, I might recall the general shape of the plot and some key moments, but there will be a wealth of stylistic details and small moments I get to experience afresh.
An entire book could be printed on a deck of cards, but the convention is for cards to contain a few lines of text, at most, plus artistic and stylistic elements. The entirety of a T.I.M.E Stories scenario spans fewer words than a Raymond Carver story. There’s an artfulness to this brevity, but it does nothing to bolster the game’s already threatened replay value (and to be frank, the prose, at least in translation, is functional at best). There’s just not enough volume to allow for those little surprises that make rereading a book so enjoyable.
Where T.I.M.E Stories excels is in the aforementioned stylistic and artistic elements. In fact, its primary mode of storytelling is visual. The “decksploration” aspect of the design breaks up the majority of the cards into a series of locations. Each location consists of an A card, a textual description of the room or scene the T.I.M.E agents discover, and up to 6 additional cards, labeled B through G, that come together to form a panorama. While combining seamlessly into a larger image, each card also frames an item or person of particular interest. Using their intuition and the details pictured, each agent decides individually which card to visit and secretly reads its underside. Sometimes, this is another image, a close-up or a perspective shift. Sometimes, it is a textual description. Some cards allow agents to draw cards from the Item deck (which contains knowledge and other secrets as well as physical objects), while others offer or require them to make a skill check, spending extra time at that location to retrieve an item, reveal a previously inaccessible card, or fend off some danger. Agents can spend Time Units to check out different cards at their location, but mostly you will be relying on the details your allies noticed and deemed important enough to remember and communicate to the group.
To understand how the medium affects the experience in this case, you’ll need to imagine playing a graphical adventure game like Myst in which four different players are clicking different areas of the same screen and seeing different pieces of the puzzle, but they’re all seated around the same table, amping up each other’s emotional reactions via the same sort of social feedback loop you find at movie theaters.
And then there’s the Time Units concept, figuring out how to beat the scenario in 20 clicks or less. Your first play through the game consists largely of feeling out these options. Which cards and locations are necessary to move the mission forward? Which ones are traps, dead ends or other red herrings? Which offer optional but useful side-content? Without a wild degree of luck, you won’t complete your objective on the first run.
The second run proceeds with a sense of purpose. By this point, you will know some of the locations to visit and to avoid, which receptacles are best suited to which tasks, and be starting to put together an action plan. However, this run, too, may involve some experimentation, trying out different choices you didn’t have time for the first time around.
The third run is typically your victory run. At this point, you know what to do and approximately how to do it. It’s no longer about experimentation; it’s about putting together the data gathered in the first two runs to form a coherent strategy, then executing and refining that strategy.
Even if you need to make additional runs beyond the third, the general shape of your final, victorious run is largely set in stone by run three. Everything else is trimming the fat.
October, 1992. A young girl, Marcy Cullingan, has gone missing. She was kidnapped in June, 1992, and brought to the small town of Rhineland, Wisconsin, USA. The future depends upon the 17-year-old girl surviving the incident that has brought mayhem down upon the small town.
“The Marcy Case” shifts gears significantly from the sepia tones and quiet dread of “Asylum.” Illustrated in a cartoonish style, its atmospheric details hearken back to ’90s classics like The X-Files and Twin Peaks. There’s even a guest appearance by Twin Peaks‘ “Log Lady” in the town’s church, delivering a dire warning: “Death has been lurking here for longer than what people would like to believe. I found this log while wandering in the forest–and it’s been talking to me, every day. Its first words were a date: August 1st, 1990. That’s when it all began.”
Mostly, though, “Marcy” draws on sources like Dawn of the Dead, Resident Evil, and the Walking Dead comics. Rhineland is in the grip of a full-scale zombie apocalypse, and to succeed in your mission, you’ll have to not only locate Marcy, but also figure out a way to extract her from the ghoulish chaos. Worse, you come across several delirious girls who might be Marcy, and all of them are ticking time bombs of infection.
The arc puzzle in “Marcy Case” is therefore in two parts: plotting your escape route, which involves grabbing the girl, radioing an escape helicopter, and fighting your way through the horde surrounding the rendezvous point; and figuring out which girl to grab in the first place.
First, the escape route. There are actually several possibilities here; “Marcy Case” is much more flexible than “Asylum” in this regard. After your first run, you can begin in any discovered location, which opens things up surprisingly in terms of the logistical possibilities. All locations have some variation on a lock-and-key puzzle, where a useful but nonessential item can only be collected by visiting some other location first, but which of these you prioritize is largely up to you. Both paths converge in the Bunker hidden in the hills, where you must call in air support and pick up the antidote needed to allow your chosen girl to survive the ordeal. As for the actual extraction, you have two options: you can leave through the Hotel’s roof (which necessitates picking up a key-ring in the Police Station), or you can take a Deliverance-style trip down the River to another hidden compound (for which you will want to enlist the aid of the fisherman and pick up a gallon of gas in a can, both of which can be found at the High School). You will also need to be armed heavily enough to survive the horde that has been drawn by the helicopter’s noisy rotors, so you’ll want to spend as much time as you feel comfortable picking up gear and distractions.
Once you have fought your way to the choppa, you get hit with the bad news: there’s only room for one passenger. Yes, that means your receptacles aren’t likely to survive a minute after you’ve leapt out of their bodies, but more importantly, you need to figure out which of four drugged-out girls is actually Marcy. Let’s start with their locations:
Subject H12-C18-Z34, chained to a cabinet in the Police Station, next to a green cassette tape.
Subject B52-37A-V42, crying on a bucket in a cabin in the woods, next to a red cassette tape.
Subject V15-C12-H14, in the hallway of Rhineland Hotel (established August 1, 1990), being menaced by a gargantuan mutant brute.
Subject R14-W13-K23, chained to the wall in the Bunker, freed using a key found on a scientist’s corpse in the Forest.
The subjects all have reddish hair, which is just about the only thing we know about the real Marcy, so we’ll have to base our choice on some other criterion. There are actually three options:
THE RESEARCH: This is most likely the path envisioned by the game’s designers. It involves uncovering the location of the secret laboratory where the experiments on the girls took place. In this lab, you can find a cassette player, allowing you to play back the contents of the red and green cassettes:
April 27th 1992
Despite five years of tests and promising beginnings, the subject is not following the curves hoped for. Follow-up will be necessary.
June 23rd 1992
No more hope is to be had for this subject. Its transfer outside the region is to be scheduled.
Maybe via the hotel’s helipad?
Note that the girl referred to in recording is not the same girl found with the cassette. Based on the information here, specifically that Subject R14 has been subjected to five years of tests, we know that Bunker Girl cannot be Marcy, who was kidnapped mere months ago.
June 18th 1992
The subject has excellent predispositions, its results are quite good.
The fact that the subject is an orphan is causing a few issues, however, notably for a family medical history.
June 25th 1992
The subject must be sent back to the bunker immediately, vital signs seriously impaired.
Here, we learn that Subject V15 (aka Hotel Girl) is an orphan. One of the receptacles states in his bio that he has been hired by Marcy’s parents to bring her back, so no orphan, she. It’s interesting to note that, while both cassette tapes mention the subject’s destination, these appear to have been transposed, as V15 is found in the Hotel whereas R14 is found in the Bunker.
The corpse of a hanged man in the upper floor of the Hotel also holds the following Internal Memo:
Internal Memo 06/22/1992
Subject H12-C18-Z34 confirms my hypothesis: 19 years old is far too risky because the subject is not reacting to the treatment at all. As suggested, we must begin medical protocols before the subjects reach the age of 18.
This indicates that the girl in the Police Station cannot be Marcy, who is only 17. It also implies that Marcy’s kidnapping (which occurred in June, 1992) may have been a direct result of Subject H12’s negative response to the treatment. Process of elimination pins Subject B52, the log cabin girl, as the only logical candidate for Marcy.
A little plot speculation: since the final subject’s response to the treatment is never mentioned, we can infer that it was a success. If not, it is most certainly related to her importance to the future. Not that we know what that importance is; it’s possible that Marcy’s reaction to the treatment caused the zombie outbreak to begin with, so she’s just as likely to be used as a bioweapon as as an antidote.
THE CHEAT: This method, while not strictly within the rules, supports T.I.M.E Stories‘ general Bill Murray-esque attitude of learning-through-repetition. Once you’ve handed a girl over to the helicopter’s co-pilot, he whips out a fancy DNA scanner–definitely not 1992 technology–and verifies your pick.
If you’ve chosen correctly, the colored bars at the bottom of the scanner card and at the top of the chosen girl’s card should line up exactly. If you’ve chosen incorrectly, you get a Mission Failed result. At this point, you have a few options:
- Try to solve the puzzle legitimately using the aforementioned method.
- Cheat a little by trying to memorize or sketch the pattern of bars at the bottom of the DNA scanner card.
- Cheat a lot by holding up the other girls to the DNA scanner card until you find a match, then offering that girl on your subsequent run.
THE META: The simplest and sneakiest method of all is the one I took. If you don’t discover the secret laboratory, you have little to go on but instinct and trial-and-error. However, the designers did leave one hint so huge that it’s easy to miss.
This is the box art for “The Marcy Case,” a red cassette tape. Which is odd, because the red cassette tape isn’t particularly important to the story. But wait, which girl was found with the red cassette tape? Could it really be that easy?
As you progress through the T.I.M.E Stories scenarios, you’ll see a design team that’s itself is doing a bit of exploration, feeling out the boundaries of the system they have created. “Asylum” is a basic flip-and-read introductory scenario that centers around one scenario-spanning puzzle taking clever advantage of the game’s physical presentation (although similar tricks have been pulled off in digital games, e.g. Metal Gear Solid or The Lurking Horror). “The Marcy Case” plays around with multiple paths to victory and semi-random events, finally bringing some limited shuffling to this nominal card game. It also shifts the focus away from puzzles (there are a few, smaller in scale than those in “Asylum”) and toward combat, which increases the variability and “meatiness” of the game systems but does overstay its welcome.
“Prophecy of Dragons” is a joy of experimentation. Mechanically fitting for its swords and sorcery setting, it evokes a sense of magical discovery with each new twist on the formula, each playful push at the boundaries. A particularly whimsical feature is a Where’s Waldo-esque hidden object sidequest that tasks the players with tracking down a fairy queen’s attendants among the various panoramas representing the medieval city of Algueria. There’s also an elaborate labyrinth built by shuffling together its component cards, a fully stocked merchant district with over 30 items on sale, random encounters, temporal faults that tease at future installments, a mini-economy for magical herbs, paths that only open to specific characters, and much more. There are also hints at a larger storyline connecting the missions, making this an effective teaser for the future of the system. With all this innovation comes a little more ambiguity, unfortunately, marring the overall experience, and the climactic battle is a little too big.
So, is T.I.M.E Stories worth the price? Sort of. It’s, in many ways, an entirely new experience in tabletop games, and with that comes some growing pains. When you purchase the core set, you’re getting the shortest and most linear scenario, but you’re also buying into a system that’s proven itself capable of telling all sorts of stories with varying degrees of “game” attached. While familiarity starts to breed contempt after the third run, your first moments of any scenario are a mystical experience of limitless possibilities, and there are enough details and side-paths to allow you to craft scavenger hunts and new challenges in the old scenarios, should you wish.
It’s almost impossible to describe the T.I.M.E Stories experience, so I’m going to show it to you. This series of videos covers my entire experience with the third scenario, “A Prophecy of Dragons,” from the moment I first removed the shrinkwrap on the cards.