((Okay. Take a big breath now. Annnnnnnnd:))
If you have a Special Gaming Friend and the two of you are into thematic abstracts AND you love the idea of an abstract legacy game AND you have a sense of humour AND you value variety and replayability THEN run-don’t-walk and buy That Time You Killed Me from Pandasaurus it’s up there with 7 Wonders Duel and Imperial Struggle as one of the best two-player games EVER!
((pant pant pant))
I really mean it. There’s so much I want to gush about this game but can’t because it’s a legacy game. So I’ll try to make up for it with backstory.
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Until the age of about 10 I was mainly all about the abstract games. In the introduction to the Game Changers podcast I talk about my childhood obsession with chess and go, and elaborated on them in this article from 2017. Sure I loved Stop Thief! and Tank Battle and other games which get sloppily grouped together under the “Ameritrash” umbrella–but abstracts had intellectual heft, baby.
To me, abstracts were austere, cerebral. They didn’t need gimmicks like theme to prove their worth. Their demands on sheer brainpower were all they needed. Chess had its own clubs–often taught by Soviet ex-pats who were cashing in on the post-Bobby-Fischer popularity of the game. There were no Payday or Careers clubs.
Arguably, the 70s were the last big heyday for abstract games–at least in the West (Go still commands huge audiences in Southeast Asia). Not only was chess often in the news: several new games were introduced during that time which have gone on to become classics: Othello, Mastermind, and Pente just to name a few. Well into the 80s, GAMES magazine game reviews included at least one abstract every issue; then Trivial Pursuit came along and suddenly abstracts were replaced by party games as the popular go-to.
By then though I’d been introduced to wargames and D&D and my Tabletop life had changed utterly. Over time, although abstracts occasionally popped up on my radar (for example the GIPF project), I found my tastes shifting. Placing and moving generic “pieces” around didn’t do it for me any more; I wanted games that embedded their mechanics in some kind of narrative context.
But then last spring Pandasaurus games invited me to try out an upcoming “mystery project” from designer Peter Hayward over Tabletop Simulator.
I’ve only met Hayward twice in person, at BreakoutCon here in Toronto, where he used to live (he’s now LA-based). Australian by birth, which predisposes me to like him (since my mother is from Melbourne), he’s your typical Aussie in that he’s very outgoing, funny, and projects an air of not giving a fig for what people think of him–an aura aided by the fact that all the hair on his head is dyed bright blue. He also seems to have tapped into a font of limitless creative energy, always having several projects on the go, and not just game designs: he’s written erotica, a pilot for a radio comedy series (which he also produced), science fiction, and collaborated on a book of esoteric sudoku. I can’t decide whether I admire him, envy him, or want to stay away from him for fear of being hustled. In the end, I think it’s a bit of all three.
His tabletop c.v. leans toward the light/party end of the spectrum–but only on the surface. 2019’s Bugs on Rugs, for example, looks like a harmless family game about insects using drafting and set-collecting. But actually it’s a fiendish little game with plenty of strategy hiding under the cartoony art. 2016’s Scuttle adapts a classic proto-CCG using a regular deck of cards with a Pirate theme. And The Lady and the Tiger and Jabberwocky are two Pyramid Arcade-type compilations each of which draws from a fixed set of components for an array of charming mini-games.
What I’m saying is, under all that hoopla and blue hair Peter Hayward is a very creative mind, so I was very curious what he was up to with this mystery project. All I knew was that it was an abstract, and that it involved time travel.
Now time travel is one of my pet themes, along with civ- and city-builders. If there’s a time-travel game, I’ve probably played it:
Upon opening the box for That Time You Killed Me (TTYKM hereinafter) you see a mysterious note from the future which immediately embeds you and your opponent into a story: one of you has invented time travel, the other jealously wants to use it to try to whip back in time and kill the inventor and claim the glory for herself. As far as time-travel tropes go it appears disappointingly simple–but Hayward hasn’t even begun to ring the changes on it, just take it from me.
Along with the three gameboards (representing Past, Present, and Future) and a central well with the surprisingly-detailed player pawns there are four enticing tuckboxes–don’t open them! Just open the rulebook and start reading. Read everything–yes, including all the flavour text. Hayward’s dry wit will begin to pay dividends.
You start with the standard scenario. It looks pretty basic. It is–but there’s no obvious strategy and you’ll find enough there to whet your appetite. Besides, it also means that you can teach it in 5 minutes and hence won’t scare away those friends who won’t play anything with more than one page of rules.
At the other extreme, some of you “we don’t need no stinking basic game” tabletop snobs will be tempted to say “screw that”, read beyond page 12 of the rules, and start opening the tuckboxes. Don’t. Just–don’t. Play the standard scenario two or three times to get a sense of the strategic play-space.
That play-space consists of three 4×4 gridded boards representing The Universe existing simultaneously (as I said above) in the Past, Present, and Future. Players start with one pawn in each Era and others sitting offboard waiting to be spawned in by your shenanigans. The only asymmetry comes from the fact that one player’s Focus (represented by their Focus Token) is in the Past while the other’s is in the Future. This makes all the difference, because on your turn you can only take actions with a copy of you that exists on the board where you are Focused. Even if that specific pawn travels forward/backward in time, that’s the version of you taking your two actions this turn.
Furthermore, once you’ve taken your actions, you must move your Focus Token to one of the two other boards.
What actions, you ask? Well, you can move orthogonally in your era for an action, or you can time-travel by hopping forward or backward one era to the exact same-numbered space on the next board. You murder pieces (possibly including your own) by being adjacent and pushing them–either off the edge of the board or into copies of themselves (which wipes both copies out and is very evil).
If you travel backward, you spawn a copy of yourself in the space you leave behind to represent the branching timestream. This is the only way to repopulate–which is crucial, because you win if, at the end of your turn, your opponent has been wiped out in at least two Eras of the board.
It takes a couple of plays of even this admittedly basic scenario to unlock some fundamental strategic concepts–which I am not going to give away because in TTYKM the fun is in the finding out. But if this is all TTYKM had to offer then I’d write it off as a cute abstract with extremely well-written rules (I couldn’t find a single nit to pick) and limited replayability.
But TTYKM reminds me of The Witness, that amazing 2016 video game by Jonathan Blow. In that game you spawn onto a Mysterious Island and are introduced to an elegant–even simplistic–template of a path-tracing puzzle. Then wander around solving increasingly-difficult iterations and variations. Each variation adds a new complication to the template–and then different variations get mashed together into even harder variations. There are Easter Eggy puzzles stashed in secret hallways and caverns. There are mysterious records and movie clips. And once you solve the puzzle that you think unlocks the end of the game, you find out that you’re less than halfway done.
So it is with TTYKM–alas, I can’t explain why without spoiling, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. But where The Witness‘ genius is almost Vulcan in its serenity, each new piece of TTYKM‘s gameplay–accompanied by Hayward’s narration–is fresh, whimsical, and simply delightful. And if my description of the standard scenario left you worried about replayability, believe me when I say that by the time you’ve opened everything in the box you’ll have a game that will always present new and interesting challenges.
That Time You Killed Me is not for everyone. It is after all an abstract at heart and not everyone likes abstracts. It’s also two-player-only, which is great for couples and gaming buddies but not so much for gaming groups, especially because of its legacy format which really requires committing to an ongoing series of duels to get the most out of it. It’s not impossible to introduce it to someone new if you’ve played through everything and want to start right in with the more complex variants–but it’ll be a steep learning curve for the n00b (less so if they’re an abstract aficionado).
Thematically TTYKM really is the time-travelling game I’ve always wanted. Chrononauts does the branching timelines but it’s pretty random (as most Loony Labs games are–perfect if I’m in the mood but otherwise not so much). Legacy and (especially) Anachrony are definitely thematic but come with a much larger cognitive load. TTYKM hits all the F.O.M.E. goals: it’s fun, original, mindful in its execution (the usual Pandasaurus excellence), and enlightening. It’s going to be on my best of 2021 list and it’s going to be on my recommendation list for two players from now on.
You did it, you beautiful blue-haired bastard. You made a classic.
Many thanks to Pandasaurus Games for providing a copy of That Time You Killed Me for this review.