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SPOILER NOTE: the following contains light spoilers for Expedition: Endurance and all the previous adventures in T.I.M.E. Stories, with a focus on gameplay rather than narrative. If you want to go into Expedition: Endurance or any other T.I.M.E. Stories adventure without any foreknowledge of the game mechanics--some of which are nice surprises better experienced for the first time as you play--please STOP READING NOW.
Has T.I.M.E. Stories lost its magic? That was the question I and my group of T.I.M.E. Stories regulars started asking after finishing Expedition: Endurance, the fifth adventure (fourth stand-alone) in the widely-acclaimed and revolutionary game that addicted us back in 2015. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be alone in this sentiment: Expedition: Endurance is, as of the time I write this, the lowest-rated official expansion on BGG. After a long discussion, my group agreed that this expansion in particular suffers from a few issues that need to be fixed if T.I.M.E. Stories wants its expansions to continue to be a must buy for us.
(1) Puzzles (or lack thereof)
The first disappointing aspect of this expansion is that it lacks any “puzzles” to solve, other than the standard time and action optimization puzzle underlying every T.I.M.E. Stories scenario. By far the most fondly-remembered moment in my group’s T.I.M.E. Stories journey was solving the final puzzle in Asylum. Why?
In Asylum, solving the final puzzle required more than just visiting the right locations and collecting the right items. Instead, you had to take information you learned from your journey and the clues you collected and talk together as a group about potential solutions. This was certainly frustrating, but also (I think) vital to the gameplay—because it encouraged deep exploration rather than wide exploration.
In other words, in Asylum, no matter how quickly or efficiently you got to the final puzzle, you were sunk if you hadn’t studied and remembered things you had seen earlier in the game. You could not merely “brute force” the puzzle—you had to earn it. This did two things. First, when we initially encountered the puzzle and could not solve it, it encouraged my group to revisit previously visited locations to study previously-seen cards and to see the backs of cards some players had not seen. As we studied those cards, we had a lively discussion about the background of the scenario and how we thought each potential clue might play into the solution. Second, the puzzle made the details matter: the back of a card didn’t merely become some flavor text and then a dice rolling skill test—the story information on each card became more significant because it might have some relevance to the final puzzle.
Ever since Asylum, the designers seem to have to increasingly abandoned this vital aspect of gameplay. For example, in The Marcy Case, while there was a “final puzzle” to be solved, that puzzle could be solved by “brute force.” Anything that can be solved by brute force can also be solved by accident, which left many people on BGG (and my group included) somewhat disappointed in this scenario. While Prophecy of Dragons had depth, there was no final, gatekeeper-type puzzle. Finally, while Under the Mask was promising, and had a final puzzle, the puzzle was not difficult and (unless we missed it) did not rely on reviewing any prior clues to solve. More importantly, though, it was possible to “brute force” the puzzle by guessing differently on subsequent attempts, meaning that it was possible to accidentally stumble on the right solution without thinking it through.
Finally, we get to Expedition: Endurance. Here, there is no final, gatekeeping puzzle. There is a puzzle, but it can be bypassed with the right item and (more importantly) can be “brute forced.” It is also not an especially difficult one, and not one that relies (as far as my group could tell) on using clues gathered in playing the game.
The real problem is not that the lack of a complicated final puzzle makes the game too easy: it certainly makes things easier, but my group has still enjoyed the game and its other challenges and decisions. The problem is that eliminating the final puzzle kills the replay value of each “run,” once it becomes clear that there is no final puzzle to solve. Since Asylum, my group’s “runs” typically involve (1) a first, fact-finding run where we try to explore as widely as possible to determine where our main objectives and the important items may lie, (2) a second, more focused run where we pick up key items identified in the first run and try to get to the final location (often running out of time as we enter the final location), and (3) a final, optimized run where we collect the important items, go to the final location, and (hopefully) beat the bosses. However, the final “run” is usually rather boring up until the point where we face the bosses, because we have seen most locations at least two times and know what items are important and what is not. In fact, we usually speed through the last run not looking much at backs of the location cards. (Of course, when there is some dice-rolling luck involved, we often need a fourth run or even a fifth: but on those runs we pay even less attention to the story and mostly focus on the skill tests we need to continue on to the final location).
Don’t get me wrong: the process of figuring out the optimal items/locations to visit is still fun, but the game becomes more and more like a theme-light Euro as we focus more on optimization and less on the story. Of course, we could slow down and focus more on the cards, but the gameplay as designed hasn’t given us a good reason to since Asylum. Since then, the game has encouraged wide exploration: visiting as many places as possible as quickly as possible; rather than deep exploration: focusing on the story and the narrative because there may be important clues you will otherwise miss. My group plays T.I.M.E. Stories for the story: we enjoy trying to role-play the characters and learn more about the overarching “campaign”-style story going on in the background of each scenario. We think that the game is at its best when the story is not just narrative fluff, but important to the end goal of each scenario—this way, there is a good gameplay reason to get more invested in the story. (Of course, the “threat” of a final puzzle still keeps us interested in collecting potential clues, but that threat diminishes every time a new expansion comes out without puzzles.)
(2) Tough Decisions (or lack thereof)
The second major problem my group had with Expedition: Endurance is that it seems to lack many tough decisions in the gameplay. I think T.I.M.E. Stories is at its best when it forces players into “lose-lose” decisions: i.e., “I really could use that item to get past the upcoming adversary, but going to get the item will take x time units/other items/resources, which we could use to get this other item/weapon, etc.”
These sort of decisions are usually created a combination of the two basic tactics the game uses to challenge players: what I’ll call (1) “soft-locking” items behind skill tests (i.e., opening a safe with dexterity to obtain a necessary weapon) or behind fungible resources (i.e., paying gold to obtain an axe), and (2) “hard-locking” items behind non-fungible prerequisite items or statuses (i.e., using a gasoline item and a matches item to obtain a fire item) or by making them only available at a specific location (i.e., visiting the police station to pick up the keys).
It’s my hypothesis that it creates a better and deeper play experience when the scenario design relies more on soft-locking than on hard-locking, because soft-locking is less determinable. This increases variability between runs, which in turn creates a larger and more natural decisionmaking space for the players.
As an example: imagine that on your initial run, you discover that by taking one time unit (TU) you can perform a dexterity-type skill test to pick a lock on a safe (a “soft-locking” mechanism). Based on the number of shields, you estimate that it would take your character, if acting alone, two actions to pick the lock. You decide to pick the lock, and a particularly good dice roll allows you to pick the lock on the first try, giving you a powerful shotgun. You learn later in the run that the shotgun is particularly useful (though not necessary) for taking down a strong adversary in another location.
Alternatively, imagine that the the same shotgun is available only if you first visit a separate card at the same location, where you collect a key for the safe by visiting the card (a “hard-locking” mechanism). You again learn later that the shotgun will be useful in fighting the adversary.
On subsequent runs in both scenarios, you will have to perform a balancing decision: deciding whether it is worth the TUs to obtain the shotgun. But in the former scenario, you have greater choice about how to obtain the weapon. For example, your group might decide to have multiple characters visit the lock-picking card at once to devote more resources to obtaining the weapon. You might take a risk by having only one character visit the card, or having a character low in the applicable skill visit the card while the character with the higher relevant skill does something else at the location.
The first scenario also increases variability: depending on how the skill check is rolled, it may take 2 or even 3 TUs for a character, working alone, to obtain the shotgun, or it might be as little as 1 TU. This prevents the best solution (if designed correctly) from being “solved.” It might be most efficient to first obtain the shotgun to fight the adversary if obtaining the shotgun only requires 1 TU, but highly inefficient if it requires 3 TU, so there is no single “right” answer for how to do a subsequent run.
As another example, giving each character a fungible resource, and then having a “store”-type area with a number of items to buy with the same resource (as was done in Prophesy of Dragons) increases player choice (especially where the resource to purchase the items can be gathered in multiple other locations) by allowing players to obtain the items through different paths of resource collection. If designed well, it also increases player options, because it gives players choices between a wide variety of potentially useful items rather than choice between one or two items. Using a fungible resource as currency also allows designs where the resources can be used to help skill-checks or to get to certain locations, again increasing options for players. Non-fungible resources, however, often lock players into a specific path and decrease the amount of decisions a player must make in subsequent runs.
Soft-locking is also more “natural” because it creates better story moments and connects the player to the character. A character’s particular strengths and weaknesses become more relevant when players have to consider each character’s efficiency at passing a skill test when making decisions about what items to acquire in subsequent runs, and players become more invested when a character has to pass a particularly hard skill-check. Likewise, allowing players more choice (through fungible resource management) in outfitting their character and making decisions about spending a resource connects the player to the character more than does the rote pick up of items at pre-determined locations.
In Expedition: Endurance, the designers had a great idea for a soft-locking mechanism, using sanity, rather than money, as the locking resource. However, I think this fell flat because (1) the sanity tests were not incredibly difficult; (2) as far as we could find, there was no way to restore or gain additional sanity, making the resource less fungible; (3) sanity was not used widely enough to play a significant role in players’ decisionmaking. I think some of these problems could be solved by increasing each character’s starting sanity value, increasing the difficulty of the tests, and having items that would increase a character’s sanity or restore sanity, similar to Mansions of Madness: Second Edition.
That said, the sanity mechanism was probably my group’s favorite aspect of the expansion. In general, though, Expedition: Endurance seemed to rely far more on hard-locking than previous adventures, which gave the expansion a very railroady feel.
(3) Innovation vs. Perfecting What Worked
One final disappointment with Expedition: Endurance is that it introduces some cool new mechanisms, but abandons some of the better innovations from previous expansions. I and my group enjoy having something new each time, but it seems as though the designers are prioritizing innovation over perfecting what worked in previous expansions.
Under the Mask introduced what I think is one of the best mechanisms so far: the concept of changing characters in the middle of runs. If done right, this can add a whole new level of depth to the game by requiring players to factor in additional considerations when deciding which locations to visit and in which order. While the concept fell flat in a few places in that expansion, overall I think it added some necessary depth to the basic gameplay. But rather than take that concept and improve it, we are once again back to the simple character selection mechanism in Expedition: Endurance, probably because the designers wanted to highlight other mechanical ideas. But why remove this option—especially when the designers could have tied sanity to the character-hopping (such as allowing the option of hopping into an already-insane character, or having the character-hopping device have an effect on sanity)?
The Marcy Case introduced the idea of random encounters/enemies when moving between locations that penalized players for using certain resources too frequently. Again, the implementation was not perfect: the difficulty of the encounters seemed a bit too randomized, and they didn’t really advance the story. But rather than take what worked with that mechanism and improve it, Expedition: Endurance abandoned it, and didn’t replace it with anything better. We are once again back to simply rolling the time dice between locations. Why not have more story-oriented encounters that are based on each character’s sanity level (for instance, if sanity falls too low, that character would have to pass a resilience-type test or cause the group to lose time getting to the next location)?
Prophecy of Dragons introduced what I think is a vital component of gameplay: buying items (something that was also implemented to a degree in Under the Mask). This added depth because it allowed players to experiment with a wide variety different character “loadouts.” My guess is that Prophesy of Dragons allowed the greatest variety of character/weapon/item combinations of any adventure to date. Once again, Expedition: Endurance cuts back on the number of character options and eliminates the “buying” feature. This cutback is largely understandable due to narrative reasons, but it remains part of a trend of decreasing depth.
(Relatedly, Prophecy of Dragons had a tremendous diversity of characters, and the characters were all very different, with different strengths and weaknesses. While Expedition: Endurance had one cool character idea (the dog), the remaining characters seemed very similar to each other, and didn’t have truly varied strengths and weaknesses.)
Expedition: Endurance was able to add a new and very cool innovation, the “exploratory run,” something I think really enhances gameplay by preventing the typical first-run tactic of visiting as many places as possible (and spoiling most of the story) with no intention of winning the game until subsequent runs. The problem with this innovation is that it requires a ton of one-use cards and prevents those cards from being used for something else. My guess is that implementing this required the designers to cut other locations and items so that the expansion could come in under budget and fit in one box, and I’m not sure that the tradeoff was worth it. That said, I and my group would love to see this innovation carried forward so long as it doesn’t crowd out the other innovations above. (Maybe in the future we can see some “big-box” expansions with much longer adventures?)
Another cool thing that Expedition: Endurance added was the role-play items/cards that suggested or instructed players to behave in certain ways (and some even persist to future games!!! Awesome!!!) I think these really help in moving the focus away from action/time unit optimization and to the story. This is something that my group will really want to see re-done and perfected in future expansions.
Okay, that was a long rant that probably went off course a few times, but I think it summarizes my and my group’s concerns with the direction of the game. Overall, I think that the failings of Expedition: Endurance are easily correctable: it is just a matter of using mechanisms already implemented in prior expansions and focusing on adding more depth to the gameplay—rather than focusing only on creating something new and forgetting what worked before.
It’s possible that the designers are trying not to overwhelm new players who may not have played all the previous expansions, but I don’t think that’s a wise decision when I suspect the vast, vast majority of people buying Expedition: Endurance are people who have played and enjoyed the previous expansions.
Overall, give Expedition: Endurance a 6/10. It introduces some cool new gameplay mechanisms, and continues the tradition of great artwork and theme, but fails in not having any memorable puzzles, relying too much on "hard-locking," and omitting previous game enhancements. These design choices all reduce gameplay depth and will likely frustrate long-time players who have seen much better from this game.
The identifying and evaluating the core issue on EE is the key.
Everyone is blown away by the false start.
It's brilliant, but it's not the centerpiece of the module.
The fact that the mechanic that makes everything else work well and be compelling is so easily dismissed and glossed over for other aspects of the module is the most condemning facet in reviewing EE.
The reason EE has no 'hooks', no puzzles, no real culminating conflict, is because it really should have been the Madness taking center stage.
You have to fight crazed NPCs, you may even need to fight crazed PCs!
The mechanic is, however, very easy to bypass.
One character can't go insane, and another character can resist better and can receive a get out of jail free item.
One of the two is fine, but two can result in 50% or more of the players not caring about insanity.
Too few things force Madness with no check, resulting in not enough player decision making for risk/reward when encountering potentially traumatizing situations (for themselves or to inflict on others).
This is where EE comes alive, when some players could be acting counter to the group.
The fact that there is a another rogue time travelling group out there sabotaging you, that even your own agents can be plotting against you, and that there are modifiers that could carry over from this module to the next can plant many phenomenal seeds, but they really didn't get their time to shine in EE due to crafting everything else like a color by numbers.
The difficulty of EE should be it's unique take on PvP, but it never really gets there.
Instead we get some interesting threads, but very oddly balanced encounters.
The other thing EE could have done well was 'Hero Moments' because some characters can greatly help in specific places, but the pacing is odd.
I don't mind the two ways to get into the mountain, but one of the conditional cards completely negates a 'Hero Moment' by presenting a boring alternative.
Another 'Hero Moment' is just an optional Item on the false start.
Chopping the character roster down to four probably would have helped emphasize these moments more for the players.
EE minus the extra two character and alternate cards could have left room for what people really wanted, a proper epilogue to the module.
- Last edited Wed Apr 26, 2017 5:08 pm (Total Number of Edits: 3)
- Posted Wed Apr 26, 2017 5:01 pm
I think Expedition would have been a better first scenario than Asylum but it would of probably left a lot more people indifferent towards the series. The Lovecraft theme of insanity was not maximized as none of our characters ever died which meant the 666 location was never explored, the shift between the 26th to the 24th was slightly superficial: the dead 1st run was just flavor instead of information you could use on your second run. Missed opportunity.
- Last edited Wed May 3, 2017 5:18 am (Total Number of Edits: 3)
- Posted Wed May 3, 2017 5:16 am
...the dead 1st run was just flavor instead of information you could use on your second run. Missed opportunity.
I disagree here, you can learn something about the location of several items and get some useful information about the plane.
After my group had played through EE we had a discussion about it and came to basically the same conclusions as the OP. Good review!
- Last edited Sun May 21, 2017 2:28 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Sun May 21, 2017 2:25 pm
Me rocking out with my band, which you can hear at www.raindriver.com
These are all really good points, well stated and reasoned, and for the most part I agree with them.
That said, I would rather have TS put out a variety of adventure styles than just go with a puzzler (Asylum) every time. E:E feels like a choose your own adventure, where revelation is the important literary element.
Not every adventure is going to make everyone jump up and down with joy, which I'm also OK with. It's a bit like Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga, where one book is a biotech thriller, the next is a comedy of manners, the next a how-done-it.
We played this adventure last night and enjoyed it. The false start was great, completely unexpected. The rest of the story was fine, it was cool to be able to use some of the info from the aborted run, but not know if everything was going to be where it is later. Perhaps the fact that I played the dog, and role played the hell out of it, helped quite a bit with my enjoyment, and I was a big part of why we won on the second run.
Also, as this is a Lovecraft story at its heart, I guess I wasn't surprised to have most of the story happening to us rather than us happening to the story. It's about regular people discovering incredible danger and having to fight against impossible odds. Location 666 never got turned over, although the group sure wanted to when we were done, but it did give us an incredible amount of tension because no one wanted to die and send us there. Sort of a "Abandon All Hope" sign on the road to Red Lobster.
I guess I'm saying that there is a lot of fun to be had with this module, and that my personal take is that the mechanisms fit the overall story quite well, but that it did feel like we were on a rail after a certain point, and the environment wasn't as decision rich as I'd maybe prefer. All depends on what you are expecting and your tastes.
Finally, I'll note that puzzle-based adventures aren't always great. I've played Asylum with two groups, the second I was active but gave no input on group decisions.the second group had a LOT of trouble following specific directions, for example how to deal with the tiled maze puzzle (they kept moving the damned tiles, so I just assigned the penalty after the third person did it despite constant reexplanations). I guess my point is that sometimes puzzles aren't going to be what a given group wants.
That said, I will use EE as a teaching adventure for this system in the future. Still a lot of decisions about how to get places, but not so much memorization of elements that started to get overwhelming with Marcy (which we did not care for) or Asylum. It's a fun story and enough variance that it will still be entertaining for me while allowing new players to understand TUs and the sequence of play.
Thanks again for such a good review.
Santa Cruz de Tenerife
Best analysis ever. Pleas, review all time stories expansions.