SPACE COWBOYS 2-4 Players
Remember way back in time when you were told there was a new game that you must play? The game had no board, no playing pieces, rules that weren’t rules, didn’t need a table to be played on and had a set of weirdly shaped dice that hopped, bobbled, flipped and jumped when rolled. How many of us thought “this will never catch on”? Then in the 90’s we were again introduced to a game that would never catch on, a card game where you bought packets of cards in 60s and 15s that weren’t of any use until you had enough of them to create a deck of one or maybe two suits (colours). Well I think it’s safe to say that both “Dungeons & Dragons” and “Magic the Gathering” did catch on and have lasted the tests of time.
SPACE COWBOYS are now asking us once again to take a leap of faith with their boardgame T.I.M.E. STORIES. This game does have a board and it does have a deck of cards and it does have dice but it doesn’t follow the rules of any other game on the market. The closest I can describe it to being like any other game is that you could perceive the components as a role-playing game GM’s Guide and the Deck of Cards as a role-playing module. If you think of it in those terms then the £30.00 cost of the boxed set and all that is in it is good value for money, especially when you consider that most GM’s Guides cost about £20.00 and Adventure Modules run from around £10.00 upwards.
At Essen Spiel T.I.M.E.STORIES was being heralded as “the game you can only play once” and the designers were worried that this would affect sales, but most people quickly recognised the potential in the game. SPACE COWBOYS have already one new scenario in game stores and have two others in the pipeline for early 2016 release. These scenarios will cost around £20.00 each and for the most will consist of a deck of cards, the number of cards depending on the length of the scenario and whether new characters are introduced – the current game has eight characters (called “Receptacles”) for the players to select from. The game is only for four players because any greater number would make the scenario (aka the “Mission”) too easy.
The players are Temporal Agents, capable of travelling through time, but not with their own bodies. They send their minds through to the time where there is an anomaly likely to cause grave disorder to the world and once there they arrive in the body (the receptacle) of a being already acclimated to the period, so in the ”Asylum”, the first mission, the players are sent to the 1920’s by their handler, Bob, and they arrive in an insane asylum in the bodies of four of the inmates. The mission is to prevent the causing of a temporal fault.
Although thought of by some as a role-playing board game there are very few elements of role-playing and almost as few of board gaming. The board is not really necessary as it is only used to lay cards in rows and set out the map cards on, both of which can easily be done on a flat table surface. The players have pawns, cylindrical pieces with their ID colour on one end, which they place on the board above the card(s) they wish to explore. The dice show Red skulls, blanks and one or two Blue stars and are rolled when directed, the number of dice rolled determined by the skill or ability test being performed – each character has the Deftness, Glibness and Combat characteristics.
The Mission begins at the beginning, a good place to start, with the first set of cards being laid face down in a row on the provided and lettered spaces. Each player positions his pawn above one of the cards then takes the card, reads it and conveys in their own words the message or instructions there. Once all cards have been read and Bob has given his instruction the characters enter their pods and their minds are transported to the mission time. Players select from the receptacles available, each of these having some good points and probably a not so good point which offers an element of role-playing possibility but not really enough to call it an rpg.
The start up cards are removed from the board and the first set from the mission replace them, always face down and in alphabetical order. The T.I.M.E. clock is set (place the token on the designated number on the track) and from now on everything the players/characters do is timed. If time expires before the mission is completed the players have failed and the game is reset, only specially marked cards can be kept for the next run.
The illustrations on the backs of the cards give small clues as to what you might expect the text on them to read but there are some traps set to make you waste time. On your first run, most players will need more than one run, it is best to check as many cards in as many locations as you can and then remember the results and where you found the useful items, maps and equipment. Even with this knowledge there are often times when you cannot prevent a fight or the need to take a test so you go with the flow and hope you make the right choices this time.
After opening the box and reading the rules we played for about 90 minutes before our time ran out and we flipped over the “Mission Failed” card. Needless to say, Bob was not pleased with us, but as we were rookies he decided to be lenient and send us back again. Our next session we switched receptacles, well 2 of the three of us did, and played about an hour getting through almost to the end; but an unfortunate event saw us waste too much time and we ended up back at Bobs. This time he gave us 5 more TIME actions and we journeyed through dodging the wrong moves and with about 8 TIME units to spend we had the final three cards in front of us. One we discarded immediately, leaving us two to choose from, both viable and with illustrations that didn’t point to one or the other being the correct one. We had a group discussion and all agreed which card to flip. “MISSION SUCCESS” and with 7 TIME units available, so we didn’t need the extra 5 after all. In some ways it was good that we worked our way cooperatively to the finale but the flipping of a card didn’t give quite the same feeling of achievement or physical relief as you get when you roll the die and it spins and spins before coming down to show you have defused the bomb and the world is safe thanks to your efforts, or when you are playing “World of Warcraft” or similar, and the dungeon run ends with the group finally defeating the end of level style monster after a 20 minute real-time hack and slash all action affair.
As you travel through the Mission you will come across various coloured patterns. These can be found in clues and on tokens and on some of the cards. These are State tokens and icons. Some locations have cards for the different rooms or sections of rooms only and other locations also have bland cards with one or more of these icons on their backs. To be able to read what is on these cards you have to either have the appropriate tokens or have access to them on one of the already explored cards at that location. Cards often direct you to other locations, suggesting you search there or find someone to speak with nearby, but they also might give you an item by its deck number, allowing you to look through the item deck to find it.
Combat is simply rolling the correct number of stars to equal or beat the opponent’s number of shields. You roll the number of dice according to your statistic in the given ability. Other members of the group who are in the same location as you can also join in by rolling their combat dice and totalling the result together. If all players are on the same card it only takes one Time unit. If players have to travel to the card then it will take them a TIME unit to get there which means if you are on your own there you have to fight for one round without their assistance, you cannot wait for them to arrive before beginning combat. There are skull head shields that may cause the characters damage if they are not resolved on the first attempt, but cooperative play and reasonable die rolling generally negates any serious problem for the players.
Moving around costs Time and to move from one location to any other location on your map costs the amount of Time rolled on the Time Die, 1,2 or 3 units. This is possibly a little illogical as it may take you one unit to move from the Kitchen to the Bedroom, for example and then cost you three units to move back. There are also minor inconsistencies such as when you enter a specific room the door locks behind you but a search reveals a secret door out through a tunnel. Once you leave the room it is sealed from you forever (on this run) meaning you cannot go back along the passage – role-players would naturally have ensured the secret door was blocked open, but that’s just a game mechanic versus a minor quibble from an experienced role-player; in other words the GM said the room was sealed so the room is sealed.
Despite the thinking that the game can only be played once, which in truth is all you can play a Mission once you have succeeded, thirty pounds for the rules, components and four hours entertainment for four people isn’t really expensive. As it is a cooperative game four players can all put in £5.00 each to buy the new Missions as they are published and get another 4-6 hours fun.
Some stores and online shops are advertising that the game comes with the first Mission free. That is a bit of a misnomer as without the first Mission there wouldn’t be any game. Unlike role-playing games where GMs can easily, even off the cuff, make up their own scenarios it is highly unlikely that any player will be able to do the same for T.I.M.E. STORIES although it is possible, I suppose, to write a scenario like one of the “Fighting Fantasy” style books but with more to do in each location before being offered the option to move on – too much hard work.
The only way I can see T.I.M.E. STORIES not catching on is if the Missions dry up too quickly, by which I mean SPACE COWBOYS do not produce regular expansions, and by regular I am perhaps talking monthly or bi-monthly at the least. Let’s be honest, how many times did you play “Settlers of Catan” when you first got it? However if it does catch on as I believe it will, then I would expect to see other companies producing Missions for it, the way other companies create games for the Sony Playstation or Xbox etc.