It’s 1954. A large crowd has gathered to witness the execution of Frank Darling. Since the successful Nazi invasion of the UK, things have been difficult for our hero. No more so than right this second, as the resistance spy hangs suspended from his feet, swinging precariously above a transparent box filled with flesh eating insects. In the crowd, Frank’s only hope: two members of the tiny resistance movement in this small town, whispering to each other, trying to work out a desperate plan to save their friend.
That was our setup for our first game of Untold, the first ‘episode’ in our own weird television series. Our version of Nazi England is utterly ridiculous. The Nazis use truth bees to extract information, nobody does anything without some sort of comic book style evil plan, and one of our characters starts the game with a watch that can stop time lifted straight from late 90s kids television show, Bernard’s Watch. It’s less ‘Man in the High Castle’ and more ‘Dr. Who Christmas Special fan fiction’.
Untold is a game about making up your own story. None of the above is mentioned in the rules. The jump straight to Nazi occupation is more a sign of our own inner darkness than something designers John Fiore and Rory O’Connor suggest in the box. One of the best things about Untold is that we could just have easily used the far future, or the American revolution as a setting. This is one of the most open ended narrative experience you can play right now.
There’s only a few simple systems at play here, mechanically. The first, you may already be familiar with: Rory’s Story Cubes. The Story Cube system has been around as a standalone game for more than a decade, with a very simple premise. You roll a set of dice with icons on them, and then you use the icons to tell a story. There’s no stats, no movement, no pieces, just you, some dice and your imagination.
Untold expands on Story Cubes by adding some structure to the experience, and providing a few tools to tell more complex stories. You’ll get the usual nine dice that you’d find in a normal box of Story Cubes to power the storytelling, but you’ll also get scene cards and tokens to mould and expand that storytelling experience. Untold uses TV shows as its main reference, asking players to set the scene, draw up basic characters and jump straight into telling their own story.
Then, it’s all about telling the story. Each scene has a certain number of actions and question tokens. Questions allow your group to set up detail in the scene. For example, in our story we could be asking something like “What types of shops are nearby in the town?” and then rolling the dice and using the symbols to work out an answer. The game encourages you to play fast and loose with the symbols themselves, so you rarely get stuck coming up to an answer to any question you can think of.
Actions also involve rolling the dice, but instead of asking a question, you’ll propose something your character does. For example, “I’m going to try to create a diversion by turning on the sprinklers”. However, as well as working out your actions, you also draw a card at random that will tell you if you succeeded, to varying levels of success and failure. You then describe how everything plays out, whether you did exactly what you wanted or you somehow totally messed up and got in even more trouble. When actions and question tokens run out, you move on to the next scene.
There’s a few other mechanics - reaction cards drawn to show how characters may react to a situation, and some tokens which let you have a ‘flashback’ scene or modify a dice in your favour to come up with a better story, but for the vast majority of the game your turn will involve rolling those dice and coming up with something to advance the story in some way.
Group storytelling isn’t for everybody. It’s a strangely intimate experience and it’s not something most people do on a regular basis. Enjoyment of this game has everything to do with the attitude of your group and their willingness to embrace the storytelling. Untold has a ‘pause’ card that you can flip over when you’re felling uncomfortable with the direction the story is heading, it’s a nice touch, but if you get that far it’s probably a sign you’re playing with the wrong group of people in the first place.
With the right group, Untold can be a great deal of fun, but it’s not without some important caveats. Untold is less of a game and more of a system for telling stories. It may have a board and tokens and a rule book, but it has more in common with Dungeons and Dragons than it does with a regular board game. Even as a system or platform, it’s very light. The lighter a system like this is, the more powerful your imagination has to be. It comes with the advantages of having less rules to learn and easier ways to express yourself, but it’s not without flaws.
Here’s an example of where light mechanics can disrupt as much as aid an experience like this. When you take actions in the game it’s entirely random if you fail or succeed, which can feel a little thin. My character, a 6 foot tall butcher, is as likely to be able to beat up a Nazi guard as anyone else. You can give your character ‘abilities’ and items at the start of each episode, but there’s no mechanic in place to use them to be more likely to actually succeed at something. Losing can be fun, and having an amazing plan fall apart can be much more enjoyable than everything going your way, but after our third failure in a row on our first scene, we felt less like heroes and more like bumbling idiots.
A similar problem happens with the scene cards. Midway through our game, we were still in one area, because we had tried to use our actions to rescue Frank but kept failing. We flipped the next scene over, and it asks us to establish a new location and tells that us we’re being pursued. Well actually, we’ve all been captured and are in the middle of working a way out, so what are we supposed to do with our story? You don’t see the scene cards before you flip them, so the game is expecting you to be vague enough with your plot each time that you can suddenly completely change it’s direction on a moments notice.
That’s the biggest flaw of Untold. It’s simultaneously infinitely open ended and annoyingly restrictive. It wants to help you tell a story, but sometimes it’s structured plan gets in the way of doing just that. There’s easy ways around this. For some of our actions in later games we put in a certain amount of success and fail outcome cards based on how likely we thought a specific character might succeed, for example, but we can’t review a mechanic based on our own house rules.
If it sounds like all this ruined Untold, I’ll caveat every mechanical problem by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the majority of time playing this game. It’s open ended nature may have flaws but it also provides you with a vast amount of replayability and scope to do your own thing. A lot of board games that use the word narrative to describe themselves are really just an exercise in group reading. Untold really is about creating and experience something, and while mechanically flawed, the stories we’ve told and enjoyed would not exist without it.
The question and action tokens usually work really well. You start with more questions than actions, allowing you to really think about setting up the scene and the detail and world before you start trying to jump straight into affecting that world. The scene cards, when they work, allow for enough direction to tell a grand story without getting digging yourselves into a whole or spending too long in one particular area. Compared to basic Story Cubes, there’s so much more here to make something that feels like a real, epic television show and not a one off quick story. Just make sure you’ve got a group with a big imagination, and be prepared to treat Untold’s rule book as a guide, not the law.