If you’re an Indie Gamer, Untold: Adventures Await is what you breeze past on your way to the RPG rack when the new IPR order comes in. With its reassuring palette of blues, and its cute little Adventure Time-like creatures, it practically screams “fun for the whole family!”
But you’re in luck, dear Reader. I am here to take you by the hand, and walk you back to the front of the store, and show you what’s good and great about Untold: Adventures Await…
Honestly, I can’t blame you for cruising past Untold. I’d have done so myself except for a couple of key factors. One, I’m a parent of a young child. And if you’re a gamer parent then you are always looking for things you will enjoy playing with your kid. (I don’t mean games you will endure, that’s a whole other thing entirely.)
The other factor will take some explaining… a few years ago my wife surprised me by deciding to develop a course based around narrative and story-telling games. She’s a theatre professor, and has gotten interested in how games, performance, and authorship intersect. My role was to help select games for the syllabus and occasionally come to class to facilitate. We started the course with simple games like Story Cubes and built all the way up to playing Hillfolk.
We spent a lot of time looking for a game or set of rules that used Story Cubes as a narrative engine, but back then Untold didn’t exist. When it finally hit the market, and we discovered that it was: (a.) a story-game game driven by Story Cubes, and (b.) playable in an hour, we jumped right on picking up a copy. When my wife offers the game course again, Untold will slide right into the mix.
Before we dive down into the game’s procedures, I want to give you a couple of nuggets to encourage you to stick around…
1. People like the hell out of this game. Whenever I get it to the table folks invariably say, “I want to play that again!” Kids or grown-ups… or even kids and grown-ups… the reaction is always the same.
2. Since the game uses Story Cubes for narrative prompts, you can load any set of Cubes into the game and go. Batman, check, Dr. Who, unh-hunh, even the upcoming Star Wars set. How great is it that you can swap out part of the game engine just by switching the dice?
The Game as Object
The Untold packaging nails it. The box isn’t any bigger than it needs to be, and everything fits snuggly, but not too snuggly, in the insert. Also, the components have a great feel. Heavy enough for handling by little kids without seeming like a kiddie game. There’s a Story Board with slots for each of the game’s Scene Cards to fit into just perfectly. Each player also gets a Dashboard, made out of the same thick cardboard as everything else. It has a key that translates all the symbols on the Scene Cards, a place for the various player tokens, and a Play/Pause Card.
This last is essentially a safety tool in the vein of Script Change by Brie Beau Sheldon. The game pitches the Play/Pause Card as something you can use if you don’t like the direction the story is going, rather than for tricky emotional content, but Untold quite rightly presumes family-friendly stories.
Taken together it’s just a pleasing set of objects. And it makes a great focus for the table. If you forget what’s going on, you can always look at the board and know where you are in the story.
Setting Up the Episode Guide
The first thing you do with Untold is decide what kind of tale you’re going to tell. Whether you’re only planning to play once, or do a series, you always fill out an Episode Guide. It’s like a tiny series bible for your show. It requires the table to decide on all the things you’d expect (When? Where? What tone?) along with asking you to think about unusual things that the setting might have (high-tech gadgets, magic, superpowers, etc.).
There are several things I like about this. Just for starters, you get everyone on the same page right out of the gate, which is particularly good for maintaining tone. Also, it means that the entire premise is in the hands of the players. Typically it’s hard for a game to adjust to any audience, but Untold makes that effortless by putting control over the content right in your hands. If adults want to get play a Game of Thrones knockoff, then they can do it… likewise, if kids are obsessed with PJ Masks, then they’re off and running.
Character creation is dead simple. You make up a name, job or role, and the thing that “compels you” to go on adventures. Asking for character motivation upfront is genius, of course. You can’t reject the premise if you’ve already explained why you’re craving adventure!
As I’m teasing the procedures apart, I’m realizing that there’s something interesting going on around scene framing here! It’s actually a two part process…
Each act of the five act story you’re going to tell has its own Scene Card, and each scene gets its own catchy little name (The Truth Revealed, The Final Showdown, etc.). Also, in order to provide a lot of variety in what I’ll call the meta-story, each act gets its own stack of 6 Scene Cards. (So, it’s 5 acts with 6 possible scene cards for each act.)
For example, the first act, A Dangerous Dilemma, has 6 possible cards, with 4 unique set-ups. You pick one of the cards at random, put it on the Story Board, and begin. The icons on the Scene Card tell you how your story starts. It’s always some variation based on this structure: “The episode begins at [this location], where [this threat], [is pursuing/is attacking/is accusing/has captured] someone or something.”
Each of the Dangerous Dilemma cards has this structure encoded in it, please have a look at them below…
The icon at the top of the card indicates a location and gets filled in by a Story Cube. The next icon down with the lightning bolt indicates the threat and also gets a Story Cube. The third icon down presents what the threat is doing: the target means pursuing, the sword means attacking, the skull quote means accusing, and the spider web means has captured. That leaves the meeple/block combo to represent “someone or something.” (If this seems confusing remember that all the symbols are printed on each player’s Dashboard.)
Here’s what it looks like in play. When you’re ready, you flip over the randomly selected Dangerous Dilemma card and put it in the first slot on the Story Board. Then you roll the full set of Story Cubes. Now the table gets to decide what Story Cubes goes where on the card. Metaphorical usage is highly encouraged. The location and threat get filled in, and using these as prompts, along with the rest of the information on the card, you establish your opening scene.
Now that play has begun in earnest the characters find themselves in the thick of the action. (I like to think of this first scene as a teaser that piques everyone’s interest.)
Below each Scene Card on the Story Board are small piles of Question and Action tokens. These are carefully calibrated to the part of the story you’re telling. In general you have more Question tokens early on and more Action tokens later.
Question tokens are interesting because they allow you to continue to focus the scene framing process once you’re already underway. For example, we know the Kaiju are threatening the Martian mining camp, but to find out why, you use a Question token.
Anyone can pick up a token to use it. You take the token and then state your question. In the example above might say, “Whoa, what’s up with these ornery Kaiju, why are they attacking the mine?” Then you roll the 7 Story Cubes that haven’t been put on the Story Board yet. You use 1 to 3 of the cubes and formulate your answer. Whatever you come up with becomes true in the scene. Question tokens equal story agency.
Up to now we’ve seen how Story Cubes represent the places and threats in the episode, and how they’re used as a prompt to answer Questions. Actions bring us to the game’s resolution mechanic, the Outcome and Reactions Cards.
You initiate an action by picking up an Action token and formulating out loud what you want to do in one of two ways:
1. I try to _______ by _______, or
2. I want to _______ by _______.
Again this is excellent game tech! How many times have you been in a session where someone says something vague like, “Oh, I hit him.” And then you have to figure out what they really want in that moment. Is this an effort at intimidation, a real attempt at physical injury, etc.? Untold takes that right out of the equation by asking for intention up front.
After you’ve stated your action, you draw from the Outcome deck. It contains a range of possible results, variations on bad (which are red), and variations on good (which are green). Most of the results are tempered, although it’s possible to triumph or go down in flames. The focus on these mixed results reminds me of the 7-9 Move result in Powered by the Apocalypse games. I don’t know if PbtA is a direct influence here, or if it’s just an acknowledgement that pure success or failure is seldom the most interesting narrative gesture.
Some of the Outcome Cards trigger the Reaction deck. These are all simple emoji faces with a definite emotional valence. When you draw a Reaction you decide who that reaction belongs to in the scene… it’s usually used for an opponent, but it could also be a third party.
As Play Continues
When you run out of Action tokens in a scene then you immediately move on by flipping over the next Scene Card. You can always move on earlier if you’re satisfied a scene is resolved, but kids don’t seem to want to do that. They see those tokens sitting there and they must not be wasted!
In any case, each Scene Card reveals its own story cues. You roll the ever dwindling pile of Story Cubes to use as new players in the story and new locations. One of the coolest things in the game is how it handles reincorporation. The later cards have bands of color in the dice slots that allow you to pull dice from early scenes into new ones, calling back an old foe or location. Again, just excellent design here. My wife and I discovered that it was surprisingly hard to teach reincorporation in her class, and get people to use it at the table. Her students knew what it was, but in the heat of the moment they would forget. Untold gives you a literal pathway to reincorporate earlier elements.
As you might suspect the last Scene Card, The Final Showdown, puts the characters between a rock and a hard place… and if the Outcome deck doesn’t cooperate, you might end up captured or even defeated. But that’s okay! You can always find out what happens in another thrilling episode of Untold: Adventures Await.
Other Cool Things
There are a few other neat wrinkles that I’ll mention here before wrapping up. Each player gets a set of tokens that allows them some additional narrative control. You get one Flashback token, which allows you to insert a flashback at any time during a scene; there’s one Modify token that allows you to change the face of a Story Cube before you use it; and you get a pair of Idea tokens that allow you to lobby for your suggestion when someone else has story control.
At first I disliked the Idea token concept. It just felt like a great way to encourage players to butt into someone else’s spotlight. But then I realized narrative games often suffer from a bit of this, especially depending on the group. And Untold is okay with you doing that–exactly twice.
Gateway or Go-To?
I’m not sure how Untold will hold up over repeated play, but I’m certainly going to find out. Planet: 3000, the Kaiju vs. Space Colonists series I have going with my wife and son looks to be a keeper. I suppose it’s always possible that the structure of the endings will start to feel repetitive, but perhaps not. Perhaps the journey through each episode will have enough variation that we won’t even notice.
In any case, you should consider the possibilities of adding Untold to your line-up. You could take it to your next causal game night and play it with your friends, the ones who never get around to trying Fiasco. Or you could throw it in your bag for your next vacation.
Who knows, you might even find yourself walking your friends or family down the story-game path without even trying. And then, then!, my job will be complete.
If you think you’d like a copy of Untold, I encourage you to go over to Hub Games and pick one up. I receive no financial considerations for sending you there… just the satisfaction of connecting gamers with the folks that make games.