Board game design, Learning

What T.I.M.E. Stories can teach us about board-game design

Introduction

The box of T.I.M.E. Stories
The box of T.I.M.E. Stories
I recently had the chance to play the second T.I.M.E. Stories game: The Macy Case. I don’t want to go into the exact story (don’t worry, no spoilers!) but I do want to use T.I.M.E. Stories as an example that I think all board-game designers can learn from.

We played the game with quite a diverse group of people, going from hard-core gamers to people who will pick up a game if it doesn’t take too long. And they all loved it! After the first play they were all clamoring to go a second time (and then a third).

A game that can do this surely must have something to teach us?

What is T.I.M.E. Stories?

T.I.M.E. Stories is a cooperative board-game in which up to 4 players take on the role of a “temporal agent”, which get sent through time (and potentially even to a parallel universe) to “solve a mystery”. Before starting the game you have very little information on what the mystery is or how to solve it. During play you visit different locations to gather clues, objects and other characters. There are tests which you need to beat using the skills of your characters, which is done using die rolls.

In general you won’t succeed the first time you try to finish a story, but you can try again after each failure (it’s nice being able to travel through time!). Of course any clues you gathered you will still know (though objects you picked up you will have to gather again).

Pieces of awesomeness

There are a number of reasons I think T.I.M.E. Stories works so well. Here I’ll highlight a number.

It makes sense

There are some rules in the game that are a bit difficult to wrap your head around, but the basic premises are very intuitive: You play a human being and that means you can do whatever a normal human would be able to do in the circumstances: Pick stuff up, open something, fight, move to somewhere else.

In many board-games you are more than a human being; control an entire family in Agricola, direct a budding colony in Catan. We have an intuition about what a human can do; not so much for an entire civilization.

Empathy for your character

Because you’re playing to be a human being, you can be emphatic to him / her. Getting hit hurts. And dying is bad, not just for the game, but because you feel it.

Simplicity through abstraction

A simple die throw is sufficient to resolve most actions
A simple die throw is sufficient to resolve most actions
The actual things you do are abstracted: To break open a container you throw some dice, to go to a different location you move your pawns. Once you’ve decided what you want to do, it’s simple to actually do it. This leaves time for the interesting bits of the game.

The joy of the puzzle

T.I.M.E. Stories is in essence a puzzle game. Try to find a solution to the problem that has been posed, by exploring the (piece of the) world that is presented to you. It’s a great feeling to see through what you need to do, to get that object that will change everything.

Fear of the unknown

What happens when we go into this location? Will there be treasure or monsters? Every time lay out the cards for a new space, every time you flip over a card to read what it says, there is the anticipation: “What is going to happen? Will we survive?”

Meaningful choices

There are a lot of choices that need to be made. Do we open this door? Do we trust that character? And your choices have very interesting results. You might miss a clue by not going in, or you could be bypassing a horrible trap. But you won’t know until you try.

Time pressure

For each “run” you get a limited number of “time units”. And once they are gone, your run is over (though you can try again). This puts a very interesting pressure on the game. Because you need those clues. But you don’t want to spend too much of your precious time, only to find out that it was a red herring.

All is forgiven

If you fail (you run out of time or you all die), you get to try again (I want to be able to travel through time in real life!). So even though you failed, there is a way to make things right. Of course, finishing in fewer runs is better (as the game itself also indicates) so do be careful!

Excruciating randomness

The game uses dice quite a bit. And usually I don’t like the randomness of dice, but here it makes perfect sense. When everything hangs on the roll of a die, everybody is engaged in the game. The player rolling is aware of all the eyes upon her, breath is held. A victory results in high-fives, while a loss hurts but can be overcome (see above).

Take-aways for developing your own board-games

The board-game equivalent of going to an action-movie
The board-game equivalent of going to an action-movie
T.I.M.E. Stories presents us with the Hollywood equivalent of a board-game: Characters to relate to, set in a believable world, action driven by a need to succeed under pressure, not knowing exactly what is going to happen next.

To that it adds one very important element: Being in control.

So how can you use all of this in your own games?

What do you control?

It’s hard to care for a corporation or an entire civilization. A single person or perhaps a set of characters is much easier to relate to. And the more human they are, the easier it is to identify.

Many games are not about a single character, they are about a corporation or civilization. But it most certainly is possible to have a figurehead for that otherwise faceless company: This is you and it’s your conglomerate that you’re trying to lift to dizzying heights.

And once you have a figurehead or character that you can identify with, make them as human as possible. What is their motivation for doing this? Are there ways of introducing real human activities (that still make sense within the game)? One example I love is your family members in Agricola: Feed them or they will have to go begging. That for me changes them from pawns to be manipulated at will into something much closer to real people.

Add pictures of your figurehead or group. A house is a house, but if it also shows the person living there, it suddenly becomes much more real.

Where is the pressure?

Why does the bomb always get disabled with just 1 second on the clock (and why would it have a clock in the first place?!?) instead of with a few hours to go? Because this creates pressure: It’s now or never!

You can create a similar pressure in your games. Trying something that has severe consequences if failed is much more interesting than if there is nothing particularly bad happening. Of course the risks and rewards need to be balanced, but a high variability adds a lot of tension. Having said that, no failure should mean that a player is effectively out of the game. Perhaps they will need to take even more risk to get ahead again?

There is also something magical about succeeding at the very last moment. A lot of games already incorporate something like this, with some points accumulated during the game, but then a large scoring round at the end of the game. Can you think of something to have more of these moments? A number of rounds in which something needs to be accomplished, with both the risk and the rewards rising as you get closer to the deadline?

How do you surprise your players?

Because everybody likes surprises!
Because everybody likes surprises!
Not knowing what is about to happen adds to tension and anticipation. This can be through a mounting pressure which gets relieved (as the previous section describes), but it can be also in “milder” variants, where you get to discover what the game has to offer. For T.I.M.E. Stories (or a movie) this is relatively easy, as it will (presumably) be the first time you encounter any of the elements.

(Normal) board-games on the other hand are meant to be played time again, making it much more difficult to continuously surprise your players. The best way of doing this is by adding a lot of “depth” to your game: Interactions between elements that are not obvious, strategies that only become clear after having played many times.

No, I don’t know how to do that exactly. Perhaps being able to do this consistently is the mark of a truly great game designer. So in this case I don’t have the answer, but I’ll happily point you (once more) to the question.

Conclusions

In this piece I take a look at what (in my opinion) makes T.I.M.E. Stories a great board-game and I try to extract some general ideas that might be useful for designing other games.

The meta-lesson however is that by analyzing existing games you can learn what makes them tick and use some of the lessons in your next design.

Next steps

One thing that got me thinking while writing this piece is the emotions that board-games engender. For most these are the triumph of winning, the despair of defeat and the joy of the puzzle. But as T.I.M.E. Stories shows, there are many other emotions that can surface. A future post then might be about these emotions and how to call them forth.

Watch this space!

Feedback please!

I’m very open to your ideas and thoughts, let me know if you agree and where you think I completely missed the point!


Bastiaan_smallHi, I’m Bastiaan. The goal of this blog is to learn about game design. That’s hopefully for you as the reader, but just as much for me as the writer.

Help me to learn? Leave a comment or connect with me on Twitter?

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