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Game Previews: Time Stories (Again) & Black Fleet

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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Board Game Designer
From gallery of s.pauchon
What's that, you say? We're previewing Spiel 2015 already? Aren't we still a handful of hours away from Spiel 2014 opening to the public?

Oh, wait — that opening isn't going to work this time. Some backstory: I've previewed Manuel Rozoy's Time Stories twice already following playtests during Spiel 2012 and Spiel 2013, and it's easily my most anticipated game of the past several years (even though I've already played much of what will be in the base game — details below). I'm a huge fan of time travel stories, and Time Stories does everything right from what I would expect in a time-travel game. To start, I'll drop in the BGG description:

Time Stories offers a unique blend of role-playing and boardgaming experience. The players are agents in a futuristic TSA (Time Survey Agency) that detects time discrepancies and sends you on missions, usually to prevent temporal rifts. Each mission is different, being set in a different atmosphere and illustrated by a different artist, with each mission having a core mechanism that differs from the next.

In game terms, Time Stories is a decksploring game, and each deck of 120+ cards is a new story to explore. You usually take possession of local hosts to navigate in a given environment, but who knows what you'll have to do to succeed? Roam a med-fan city, looking for the dungeon where the Syaan king is hiding? Survive in the Antarctic while enormous creatures lurk beneath the surface of the ice? Solve a puzzle in an early 20th century asylum? That is all possible, and you might even have to jump from one host to another, or play against your fellow agents from time to time...
From gallery of W Eric Martin
Setting up for the first of four games

In those earlier sessions I played the scenarios based in an asylum and a med-fan city; most recently I attended a convention where I played a scenario set in the 1990s when the agents needed to find...something. Current plans from publisher Space Cowboys call for those three scenarios to be included in the base game, which it anticipates releasing in December 2014/January 2015, but that schedule still depends on more playtesting, art being completed, etc. I cannot fathom how much work has gone into playtesting and editing these scenarios as they are all hugely involved, in essence three separate "choose your own adventure" board games that must work no matter how people move through the worlds.

The core of the game system is simple: You start with a certain number of time units, as determined by the scenario. When you move to a new location, you spend 1-3 time units (as determined by a die roll), and when you take additional actions within a location, you spend 1 time unit. Each location consists of a number of cards laid out in front of you, some accessible immediately and some accessible only if you have the right tools/information. You visit locations to learn things, put tools to use, or explore a new area. Sometimes you find new objects, sometimes you encounter characters or things, sometimes you discover a region of the world previously unknown, and sometimes things are just weird. Players move as a group from one location to the next, but while in a location, you're free to explore particular areas based on the skills your hosts have and the skills you think might come in handy.

If you run out of time, your team pops out of their host shells and returns to the present day; in other words, you lose. (You can also lose if someone dies as death sends you back to the present day.) The cool thing about Time Stories is that you act just like a time traveler because you can play again immediately, returning to the exact same starting point, while also remembering all the information that you discovered previously. It's a board game version of Groundhog Day or 12 Monkeys – i.e., time travel done right, with you carrying over information and reacting to what you already know while everyone else is repeating the same things they did previously (because, of course, they're not repeating these same things from their perspective but rather doing the thing they're supposed to do at that time). When you return to a world, you can explore new paths, revisit familiar locations to see what you missed previously, and (ideally) do things faster and more efficiently because you know which paths might prove fruitless.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
Space Cowboy Sébastien Pauchon watches us fumble from place to place

Some might view this set-up as a downer because unless you're extremely lucky, you're not going to win the game on the first playing, but instead you'll merely be setting things up for game #2 (or #3, etc.) — and if you don't play with the same people in subsequent games, you'll need to (a) remember what you learned the first time and (b) lead those new players to some degree because you're privileged with information unavailable to them (which is why I've been so cryptic and minimal with my scenario descriptions). So be it — I've been fortunate to play with the same people in every scenario, and we've played multiple games in each sitting. Playing with those same people over and over is great because every experience builds on the previous ones and makes the game playing itself more enjoyable because you're collectively building and exploring the world, while also referencing stuff that's happened in previous game. In short, you're role-playing in a board game. (I made the trip to this convention in part to play this scenario with these people. Thankfully, they were all able to attend, too.)

Another downer might be that once you solve a scenario, you're done with it and not able to play again. Well, maybe. We played the asylum scenario three times at Spiel 2012 and didn't finish it; after 18 months (and more than two years once the game is finally published) I have no idea how much of this scenario I'll remember when I play it again. The med-fan scenario has randomizing elements that take into consideration the characters that you embody, so the game won't play out the same way if you're playing an elf instead of a wizard.

As for the 1990s scenario, we played four games in roughly six hours and finally managed to finish a scenario! How 'bout that! I might indeed recall enough about this scenario in early 2015 that I could play the role of spoiler in subsequent playings — but at the same time I'm so eager to play this game with local game friends, to see what their reactions are to all that awaits within, that I'll happily take the back seat while they make most of the decisions about what to do. (My favorite memory from three trips to BGG.CON is a 2.5-hour game of Lords of Vegas that I observed after teaching everyone how to play. That performance by the four players involved was better than any play I've seen!)

I'm not normally a theme guy — mostly because theme usually carries with it lots of things to memorize or reference outside of the game as you're playing it — but given my love of time travel and how well this game embodies my idealized time-travel experience, with each game building on the previous one in a natural way and with few rules that you need to internalize before jumping into the game, I can't wait to try out Time Stories scenario #4 at Spiel 2014, then finally get my hands on this game whenever it does appear in print.


Board Game: Black Fleet
While at this convention, I also tried Sebastian Bleasdale's Black Fleet, due out at Gen Con 2014 in August from Space Cowboys. This game is a far different beast than Time Stories, with both of those being perpendicular to the company's first game, Splendor. I'm not sure what the company's philosophy might be when it comes to organizing its publishing schedule, but perhaps it's nothing more complex than "publish stuff we like".

In any case, your goal in Black Fleet is to pay for five advancement cards, with four of those cards providing you special powers during the game — once you pay the cost on a card, you can reveal and use that power — and the fifth one representing a ransom for the governor's daughter, who's being held by pirates. Pay this ransom before anyone else, and you win the game. Everyone has the same daughter card, but the powers on each card are unique, with the more expensive cards providing more powerful powers.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
My advancement cards; sorry about the glare!

During the game, you command three types of ships, each of which brings in money in different ways: Your merchant ship earns you doubloons by conveying goods from one port to another, your pirate ship by attacking and stealing goods from merchants and burying them on islands, and the two Navy ships (which are not owned by anyone but which can be moved by all) by sinking your opponents' pirate ships.

You start the game with two movement cards and one fortune card. On a turn, you play a movement card, which shows a movement value for your merchant and pirate ships as well as one of the two Navy ships, which are color-coded; in addition, this card might have you draw one or two additional fortune cards or discard one card that you already hold (with better movement on the card translating to a fortune card penalty and vice versa). You can play any number of fortune cards on your turn, with each of them providing some bonus or special ability.

The game plays quickly, with you trying to scoot your merchant ship from one harbor to another as quickly as possible while avoiding the pirate ships that enter from the game board corners to hunt you down. Each merchant ship loads three goods at a harbor, and a pirate ship can steal and hold only one good at a time; the pirates need to bury those goods in certain locations, as indicated in the image below with numbers next to a shovel, with the number indicating how many doubloons the booty earns. You can't steal from yourself, so you can use your own pirate ship to run interference for your merchant since the channels between many islands are narrow enough to hold only a single ship at a time. Since you share control of the Navy ships with other players, you might want to set someone else up to take down a pirate ship to enable clear sailing for your merchant. You get the idea — sail quickly, steal goods, make deliveries, power up, win!

In our game, we took advancement cards at random, but the finished game might distribute them in other ways. I used mine randomly, too, without a plan for which one I wanted to finish first, and not surprisingly I was crushed by someone who did have a plan, with him creating a super pirate ship that could attack and sink other pirate ships, even without being in an adjacent space. Curse you, Yu!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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