Spoiler warning: I’ll try to not reveal particulars but this is technically a campaign game with sealed material so fair warning.
I want to recommend That Time You Killed Me (TTYKM) on the merits of its rulebook alone. I’m not joking. This is the single funniest, most entertaining rulebook I’ve ever read. Vlaada Chvatil and CGE should take it as a challenge because the title of “funniest board game rulebook” has just been snatched from them.
It starts with a note that greets you when you first open the box: “To Whom It May Concern”. It turns out that one of the players invented time travel. Great! The other player wants to murder them and take credit. Not great! Of course, since there’s time travel involved, being killed is a slippery concept. When you travel in time you create split narratives and if one of you is killed there might be other versions of you out there.
In the game this is represented by three boards, representing past, present, and future. The job is simple: eliminate all of your opponents pawns from two of the three boards. Doing this is simply a matter of pushing their pieces into a wall or into another copy of themselves (creating a paradox). One limitation: you have to use both of your actions with a pawn that’s on the timeline space you’re currently focused on, and after each turn you have to shift your focus to one of the two other boards.
This by itself is not a good game. Fundamentally it has what I’m spontaneously dubbing the “initiative problem”, in that neither side wants to put themselves into a position to attack, because doing so means that they’re necessarily putting themselves in a position to be attacked, and then handing off the initiative. I first noticed this with Star Wars Armada, which has this sort of dance where, often, the biggest ships try to keep away from each other until they can find an opportunity to dive into firing range and mount an assault. There’s enough variation in ship types and abilities to overcome this challenge in Armada, but it always lingered in the back of my mind while playing.
I suspect, but don’t know, that the optimal play for anyone going 2nd in TTYKM is to simply follow the other player around undoing any gains they make on their turn. Being able to time travel between boards adds a necessary layer of complexity to keep the game from being so easily stalled.
I have to pause here to explain a hesitancy I have with reviewing abstract games. See, I’m bad at them. Like, really bad. I guess I’m okay at Tak. But Chess, Go, Santorini, this game, and others I’ve played throughout the years have eluded me. And since the appeal of this genre is rooted in the pursuit of mastery more than in perhaps any other genre of board games, I’m always fearful that I’m missing something critical to the experience by continuing to suck at them.
All of that to say that I don’t know if truly optimal play in TTYKM results in a mostly stalled state, but if someone smart told me that was the case I wouldn’t be surprised. Fortunately this is a campaign game of sorts, with boxes to open and new twists to discover. Without spoiling too much, the first three boxes add new elements to interact with in the game, helpfully crowding the board a bit, nudging the players together. They play with the concept of time travel in light and amusing ways but don’t shake up the proceedings too much.
As I played through these different scenarios I started to wonder where it was going. Each one added a bit more interaction, but none of them felt like the full game. There were still boxes to open and secrets to uncover. What’s the end game, though? What’s the true game of TTYKM the designer, Peter Hayward, wants me to experience? I still don’t know, though I enjoyed box 3 the best. It was there the game opened up a bit to something new: something I might want to spend a bit of time with.
The problem is that I had to go through the rest of it to reach that point. If I had followed the rule’s instructions to play each level three times before advancing to the next I wouldn’t have reached this place until my seventh game. If a game’s going to make me spend a couple of hours of my time before it begins to engage, that payoff better be really good. Instead, TTYKM simply gave me more variation. I’ll try not to spoil what’s in the final box too much, but it made me wish I could turn to the designer and ask “what game do you want me to play? What’s the peak experience here?”
I think many will have a reaction 180 degrees opposite mine. They’ll see the abundant variation the game brings and delight in exploring what it has to offer. I can’t get past the genre dissonance. It looks and quacks like a game that wants to be mastered, but pulls the rug out from under you every chance it gets. Am I supposed to spend time studying how to get an edge or just casually poke around each game?
My frustrations have, perhaps, a lot to do with myself and less to do with the game, but when unlocking a wealth of material makes me say “nope” and pack everything up I don’t know what else to write. I don’t want to play TTYKM anymore even though I did have fun during my limited time with it. A couple of games were dull, but most had those moments of discovery where one side figures out a little time-traveling trick to sneak around and stab the other side in the back. My score was going to be higher before I opened that final box.
I’m reminded of My City, another game that uses unlockable content for iterative purposes. I enjoyed it greatly because each individual game was interesting in its own right, and I didn’t feel like I had more to discover when the game moved on to something else. It found a balance that allowed the discovery process to be continually engaging without becoming frustrating.
I’m also reminded of Charterstone, which, in an effort to ease the players into the game, made the first couple of sessions inanely dull. Only the promise of an actual game eventually emerging sustained anyone through those first couple of hours.
TTYKM sits somewhere in the middle. It’s got promise, and I know that if I continued on I’d eventually find some versions of the game that are actually great. But I’m done. I’ve had my fun with it. I’ve enjoyed the top-tier production from Pandasaurus and a few clever bits of abstract-game surprise. But I don’t want to dig through and find the fun amongst dozens of variations. I want the game to find the fun for me and serve it up on a great big silver platter.
Alas, while I didn’t explore all of the variations in the end game (or post-tutorial?) I made sure to hunt down and read all of the flavor text. That’s a first.