The Pandemic continues to throw co-op play into a tizzy, except for games available online (like Pandemic on BGA) or those that have been painfully setup and played on Tabletop Simulator (which has allowed continued play of both Pathfinder Adventure Card Game and the D&D Adventure Games for us). But here’s a look at one of the games that got the most play for us in 2019, before the pandemic set in.
TIME Stories by Peggy Chassenet & Manuel Rozoy
Publisher: Asmodee (2015)
Cooperative Style: True Co-op
Play Style: Adventure, Campaign, Deckploration, Narrative, Puzzle
Something is wrong with time! The players take on the roles of temporal agents who travel back in time to piece together a puzzle that will allow them to put right what once went wrong. This is done by exploring a deck of cards sorted into locations, most of which contain narrative about the historical situation, and some of which include challenges that the players must overcome to resolve the scenario.
It’s not unusual for a card deck to be the triggering mechanism for a co-op challenge system, but TIME Stories’ conversion of that arbitrary trigger into a deckploration method is entirely innovative.
With deckploration, players choose when to move to new locations, and when to visit specific places within that location. The challenge system then activates when they look at a card — but this isn’t a typical “arbitrary” trigger because the cards are sorted into a set order as part of a a scenario. And, saying the challenge system “activates” is really an overstatement. Most cards contain narrative information, puzzle pieces, or at worst a skill test that players can choose whether to roll. In other words, there’s not the danger that you associate with a challenge system.
The only cards that actually looks like a challenge system are those that contain “locks” that keeps them from moving, especially if the linked skill test that can damage the characters; this actually puts them in danger.
So where’s the challenge in TIME Stories? It mostly lies in a timer that relentlessly ticks down as the players take actions. It’s probably too little time for the players to solve the mystery of their scenario, which means that they’ll probably lose.
Does that sound defeatist? Well, the other interesting element of TIME Stories is that players can repeat the game if they fail, jetting back in time once more to put right what they did wrong. Though the players can’t carry objects from one time loop to another, they can carry knowledge, some of it in the form of maps or other special cards, some of it in the form of what the players remember. On the new loop, players can then sidestep dangers in the challenge system and ignore irrelevant details. Instead, like in any Ground Hog Day–influenced story, they move straight on to the important bits. This repeating challenge system is otherwise unknown in the cooperative category, and something that’s only possible because TIME Stories’ arbitrary cards have entirely set effects.
Challenge System Elements: Action Activation; Exploration Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Set Trigger; Timer; Story; Task Threat.
The cooperation in TIME Stories is generally unstructured and unsupported. The only real cooperative choice is when to go to different locations. Once players arrive at a location, they’ll probably split up and visit different cards, and even if they face a skill test together, their only option is to attack it sequentially. This has the same problem as Arkham Horror’s family of games: increased effort doesn’t decrease the danger, it only increases the speed of resolution. (Mind you, the speed of resolution is crucial in TIME Stories.) There is still a fair amount of actual cooperation in TIME Stories, but it mostly comes about through conversation, as players solve a puzzle or figure out how to repeat a “run” more efficiently.
TIME Stories has one very interesting limitation to its cooperation: players can’t show each other the cards they visit. Since many of the cards are illustrated, sometimes with fine details, this is a serious limitation, and one that makes the game that much more intriguing.
TIME Stories has a fully featured adventure system with characters who have skills and special abilities as well as the ability to undertake skill-test tasks. It generally feels like a simpler and more elegant descendent of the Arkham Horror family of games.
The skill-test system is elegant. Players uses successes to remove “hit points” from a task, but the hit points are cleverly represented by cardboard components and they can also feature specific icons such as skulls and hearts that give them special “riposte” powers if the player fails to complete the skill test. This provides some nice variability within the skill-test system without adding much to the complexity.
However, the most notable adventure game element of TIME Stories is definitely its narrative. Each scenario focuses on a specific story in a specific time period. Players learn about the story by their exploration of the deck of cards, where they meet people, find items, and see sites. Throughout this, they learn the plot of the story, as part of what’s effectively a multiplayer choose-your-own-adventure novel.
Expansions & Variants
TIME Stories was immediately supported by a “white cycle” of scenarios that ran from The Marcy Case (2015) to Madame (2019). Each one told a new story and had a new deck to explore, but they ultimately fit together into a larger arc. It was followed by Time Stories Revolution, a new “blue cycle”, which began with The Hadal Project (2020).
With its deckploration system, TIME Stories brings a whole new type of challenge to cooperative game, one that’s also been exploited by a variety of escape-room games. Though these games all tend to be focused more on play and less on structured mechanics, it’s nonetheless an innovative new direction for cooperative gaming.
Beyond that, TIME Stories is a fine example of a game with strong adventure mechanics and strong narrative.
Peggy Chassenet & Manuel Rozoy
This was the first game design by Chassenet and Rozoy. Chassenet confined her work to the core game, while Rozoy worked on several (though not all) of the supplements for TIME Stories in both the white and blue cycles. He was also one of the developers for the cooperative Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood of Venice (2021).