Tales From the Loop is a board game from Free League publishing based on the art book of the same title by Simon Stålenhag. In it, 2-5 players play a group of kids in the ‘80s solving various sci-fi mysteries. Free League was kind enough to send me a free copy to review.
The games comes with 9 standees, 8 dice, 6 machine minis and sheets, 8 dice, 143 assorted tokens,45 time cubes, 5 favor cubes, 35 general counter cubes, 8 character boards and trait tiles, 9 event tiles, 2 dials, 2 summary sheets, a rulebook, a setting book, the game board, and 248 cards. Of those, 7 are scenario cards, 38 are diary cards, 12 are machine response cards, 20 are school cards, 20 are chore cards, 20 are items, 20 are anomalies, and 111 are rumor cards. There are also various bits that go with other things, such as mounts for the standees, stickers to tell the machines apart, and stuff to attach the dials to the board.
Like another game I reviewed, Final Girl, the insert has so many compartments that I was a little confused at how everything is supposed to fit in the box. I don’t think we figured out how everything is supposed to fit, but it does fit. There is some empty space (some of which is reserved for expansion content) but I can’t figure out if we’ve mismanaged packing it up or if there is generally more space than necessary.
I have some minor aesthetic complaints. In the standard edition the minis come unpainted. While I do enjoy painting minis, I’m not super keen on this. The robots are pretty iconic pieces in the Loop art, and I think they really lose something by not being painted.
I also dislike the dice. The color is just not flattering at all. One of my players liked them because they looked like the erasers they used back in school, but I’ve never seen an eraser like that so I can’t relate. I really like some of the specialty tokens though. They all have really nice art and look very good.
How to Play Tales From the Loop
The game takes place in three phases. First is the school phase. Draw a school card and place the new rumors, then the first player resolves the school event. Move the bots and resolve any firmware upgrades or state changes. Next is the adventure phase where each player has six time cubes to spend investigating rumors, hacking bots, doing chores, and trying to get home in time for dinner. Kids who get home in time for dinner maintain favor with their parents, which can be leveraged for car rides, and kids who aren’t home lose favor and risk getting grounded. When everyone is done then play moves to the end phase. Anyone who has more than 4 items has to discard down to 4, then check who was and wasn’t home for dinner, ground anyone who’s lost all parental favor, then heal injuries and resolve chores.
The theme is very well done. Aside from my issues with the robot minis, I think the game captures the Tales From the Loop feel pretty well. However, some of my players had a hard time grasping what Tales From the Loop was. I was the only one in either group familiar with the art book, and I did my best to try and explain it but I don’t think I did a very good job. The game does come with a booklet about the Loop universe but it’s a lot of text to get through and most people would rather get into playing the game than stop and go through it all. I personally think the setting is still really neat and you can still enjoy the theme without knowing the full lore, but enough of my players brought it up that I felt I had to mention it.
A minor detail that one of my players really loved was the dice probability of success table. It tells you how likely you are to succeed at a given task based on how many dice you’re rolling. Most other games with dice-rolling don’t have something like this, and they were excited to see that there was something to help determine which tests would be worthwhile.
The First Scenario
The game recommends that you run Bot Amok as your first scenario. I personally feel you shouldn’t. I tried it twice with two different groups of players and neither went well for a variety of reasons. The two that I’ll mainly focus on are the amount of time commitment it requires and the amount of interaction you need to have with the bots.
The Bot Amok scenario gives you both weeks instead of just one to complete the scenario. While scenarios that limit you to only one week are technically harder, they can give you a better idea of the amount of time it will take you to play the game, especially on your first run when you aren’t as familiar with the rules. The box has a stated playtime of about three hours, and it generally took about 3-4 hours just to get through one week.
A lot of that time is going to be spent going to the rule book to look something up. It’s an intricate game with a lot of moving parts and it’s hard to keep track of everything. It can be particularly confusing to people who don’t play board games much. The summary sheets help but they don’t have everything you need. There are also certain rules that seem like they should work a certain way, but there’s no direct confirmation in the rules to iron things out.
The bot interaction issue is twofold. One, the scenario starts with 3 robots instead of 2, and due to certain plot events, the robots are harder to maneuver around. In our second attempt, one of our players basically could not go home because there was an angry robot parked outside their house and the consequences for failing the avoid check was to get pushed out of the space. Two, pretty early on in the scenario you’re encouraged to start trying to hack things. Hacking is a mess, and I feel it’s responsible for a good chunk of the problems with the game overall.
Hacking and You
In order to hack, any number of players nearby a machine can spend at least 1 time each. The player who spends the most is the lead hacker who will take control of the robot if the hack succeeds. Each robot has a certain number of firewalls that must be passed for the hack to succeed. Firewalls are randomly drawn and placed on the robot’s board, then players begin to hack. Flip the leftmost firewall token and resolve the one or two skill checks (or special firewall action). Any participating player can make the role or help with the roll. In a 2-3 player game, the lowest amount of firewalls any bot has is 2 and the highest is 4; in a 4-5 player game the lowest is 3 and the highest is 5. If a player fails the firewall while the robot is in routine mode the robot becomes alerted, if it is already alerted the hacking attempt fails and they have to deal with the machine’s response.
In our second attempt at Bot Amok, my character was focused on dealing with rumors and generally not involved with dealing with the machines or hacking attempts, and it was almost like I was playing an entirely different game from the rest of the group. My other two players were frustrated, constantly looking at the rule book to make sure they were doing things right, trying and failing various skill checks. They also had to deal with getting close enough to the machines to try hacking them in the first place, which meant not only spending time to get there but also struggling through even more skill checks to see if they could even enter the spaces near the bot since they were either erratic, alerted, or both. There were so many hoops and hassles that it ultimately ruined the experience for them. We didn’t end the game by winning or losing, we gave up because it had been 4 hours but we were still only halfway through and the other half of the table wasn’t having fun.
In our third playthrough, we tried The Passenger, and generally had a better time, up until we got to the end and we had to go somewhere you could only get to with a machine ride and had to hack a machine. It didn’t feel great and contributed to a general feeling of a lack of player agency. It didn’t come down to what decisions we made or how we organized ourselves, either we succeeded at a repeated series of dice rolls or we did not. In the fourth game we tried Mysterious Islands, which is a much more rumor-focused scenario that we got through without interacting with the machines much at all, and it too was a generally better experience.
So What Should You Run First?
We ran Mysterious Islands again for game 5 with a group of 4 players, 3 of which were new players unfamiliar with the game. They lost halfway through, but they still had fun. It was by far our most successful game. Yes, it is difficult to win, and the lack of direction might put some players off, but I still feel it’s one of the better scenarios for testing the waters and learning the rules due to how straight-forward it is. It can serve as the base for a light-hearted practice run before you get into a bigger mystery.
The game can feel really punishing at times. The consequence for failure is usually taking a condition, which is ultimately a loss of time. Not only is that time locked off, you often have to spend more time to get rid of it. Losing time makes it harder to meaningfully contribute and still get home on time, which punishes you even more by causing you to either not help the team or get grounded and lock off 2 more time cubes. I imagine you’re intended to mitigate this by helping each other with rumor tests and by hacking the machines to make moving around faster, but depending on what rumors you get you might be forced to spread out and not help each other much, and we’ve already discussed the issues with hacking.
I give this game 3.5 out of 5 cthulhus. I think Tales From the Loop has a lot of potential, and there were parts I really liked, but there’s a big learning curve and parts of the game can be really frustrating. You can check out Tales From the Loop on the Free League website.(3.5 / 5)