A look at the retail version of Tales From the Loop The Boardgame a cooperative adventure game based on the Tales From the Loop RPG, which, in turn, is based on the fantastic world of The Loop created by Simon Stålenhag.
This rather fiddly and difficult board game has you solving mysteries in the 80s that never was.
Disclosure: Thank you to Free League Publishing for sending us a copy of this board game to check out. Links in this post may be affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and helps support this blog and our podcast.
What is the Tales From the Loop board game all about?
Tales From the Loop: The Boardgame was designed by Rickard Antroia and Martin Takaichi and features artwork from Reine Rosenberg and of course Simon Stålenhag, who’s responsible for creating the entire Tales from the Loop world through his art books.
This cooperative board game plays one to five players with games taking anywhere from an hour and a half to three hours depending on the player count and what scenario you chose to play. This very full and heavy box has an MSRP of $56.99.
Note this review is based on the retail version of Tales From the Loop The Boardgame, which you should be able to get from your FLGS of choice or online. There is also a Kickstarter version of this game which came with upgraded components and additional scenarios.
In Tales From the Loop The Boardgame, players play kids in an 80s that never was, working together to solve mysteries which all centre around The Loop, a missive large hadron collider that is causing all kinds of interesting phenomena that parents just don’t seem to recognize. Choose a scenario, pick a kid and move around the Mälaren islands, investigate rumours, go to school each day, complete your chores, hack robots, and solve mysteries all while trying to make it home in time for dinner.
For a look at the excellent component quality in this game, even in the retail version, check out our Tales From the Loop The Boardgame unboxing video on YouTube.
The component quality here really is nice on all counts. This game comes with some great looking miniatures for the robots, standees for the kids, dual-layer player boards, custom D6 dice (which can also be used with the Tales from the Loop RPG), lots of counters and tokens, tons of cards, some wooden cubes and even a lore book introducing you to the world of The Loop.
The rulebook, while well laid out, is not great for learning the game or referencing. This game has a lot of rules that are scattered throughout the book. When reading it be sure to pay close attention to the various sidebars and callouts as they contain some of the most commonly missed rules.
All of this content comes in a nice plastic box insert with spots for all the things, though there are no actual directions on what goes where. While I’ve found a place for everything, I still wonder if I’m using this insert the way it was intended to be used.
How do you play Tales From the Loop The Boardgame?
Tales From the Loop The Boardgame is a rather complex, deep, game with many rules that even I, as an experienced game player, would call fiddly. Due to this, I will only be presenting a high level overview of play here. Enough to give you an idea of how the game works and plays without getting into minutia.
When starting a game of the board game version of Tales From the Loop, you start by picking one of seven scenarios to play. While the rulebook suggests you start with Bot Amok!, I strongly suggest starting with The Light Fantastic, if you want a simplified experience, as it removes a big section of the rules, or with The Passenger if you want the full game experience but with a scenario that is both shorter and easier than Bot Amok!.
Once you’ve picked your scenario, the next step is to follow the set up instructions on the scenario card. This will involve building a rumour deck, finding out which robots are in play and where they start, discovering if any special location tiles start in play, and learning what conditions need to be met to progress the story. The conditions that you need vary by scenario and include stuff like hitting a set insight or enigma level, scanning a specific thing, visiting a specific location, etc.
Players each choose a kid to play as. There are six skills in Tales From the Loop and each kid is really good at one skill and really bad at another. To improve your odds of winning, I suggest you make sure that your group chooses kids with a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Your actual skill levels will depend on the number of players and are represented by a two-sided token that slots into your dual-layer player board.
Each player also grabs their kid’s signature item from the item deck. Items in this game can be used to give you bonus dice or they can be combined with other items for an automatic success through a very cool combo system. For example, you can combine an AV Cable with a Bike to automatically succeed on a Tow check.
Other set up tasks include shuffling the item decks, placing the robot cards for the robots in play and setting their alertness levels, shuffling the school deck and placing it on the board, drawing four rumours from the rumour deck and placing tokens on the board at the locations where these rumours can be found, gathering six time cubes and a favour cube for each player and placing them onto the player boards, and setting both the starting Enigma and Insight to 0.
Enigma and Insight are two “resources” that you track while playing the Tales From the Loop board game. How exactly they are used depends on the scenario you are playing. In general, Insight is good and Enigma is bad. In general, you gain Insight for investigating rumours and completing tasks that help solve the mystery and you gain Enigma when you fail at attempting to investigate a rumour, or when a Rumor slides off the board due to being ignored, or for a wide variety of scenario specific events.
In many scenarios, gaining Insight is integral to continuing the story and eventually winning the game, while letting the Enigma track get too high will cause you to lose the game.
The final step you take before starting to play is to deal two chore cards to each player. They pick one to keep and discard the other. Chores cards list tasks you should try to complete while playing. These include a wide variety of things, like having to spend time at specific locations, having to go to certain spaces, interacting with specific board elements, scouting robots, going to restricted areas and more.
All chores need to be completed by Friday in the first week of play and you get a significant bonus for doing so. On the other hand, failing to complete your chores by Friday usually results in a severe penalty. When playing a scenario that is two weeks long, kids get new chores on Monday which then need to be completed by Thursday.
Got all that? Now it’s time to actually start playing.
Each round in a game of Tales From the Loop The Boardgame starts with all of the kids in school. The active player draws a school card which does a few things. First, it indicates how many new rumours are added to the board, based on the number of players. Next, there will usually be some kind of check to be made which might be a check that is just made by the active player, or a group check where other players can help or an individual check that everyone has to make on their own.
Checks are made by rolling the included D6 dice. Every check will list one of the six skills to be used to attempt to complete it. You gather a number of D6 dice equal to your level in that skill, or three dice if that skill isn’t listed on your character board. If allowed for that specific check, up to two other players can help, adding one additional die each. Most of the items in the game are colour coded to match the skills and can be used to provide more additional dice, though non-signature items get discarded after use.
Then the entire dice pool is rolled and you are looking for at least one six on at least one of the dice. The dice have a special symbol on the six side to make this easier to spot. If you get at least one six you succeed, if you get no sixes you fail. When failing you have the option to push. Pushing uses up a time cube which is placed into one of the four condition spots on your player board (Exhausted, Upset, Scared or Injured), and lets you re-roll all of the dice.
When you succeed in your check you do whatever you were trying to do and get rewarded. When you fail you take a penalty as indicated on the card that called for the check. In addition, anyone who helped also takes a penalty though often this is less severe than the one for the player making the check.
Some checks will list a combo type on them. As mentioned above kids can combine items and potentially automatically succeed at these tests if they have the right combo.
These are the rules for all checks in the game, not just for the school card checks. Keep in mind that players have to be in the same location to help each other.
The final part of the school phase is to move the robots around on the map based on symbols at the bottom of the school day card. This may change the alert status of the robots depending on if they end up next to restricted areas.
There are four different robot types included in the game. Each is represented by a miniature and a card that shows how the robot acts during play. The main thing robots do is get in the way. When moving into an area with a robot you have to make a check to see how the robot reacts.
In addition, you can hack robots, which involves pulling random hacking tiles which show various checks that must be passed as part of a group hacking action. If your kids do manage to successfully hack a robot it then follows them around and can be used to complete checks (each robot comes with a unique combo action). Robots can also be used to move quickly around the map with each robot being able to hold a different number of kids.
Now that school is out, your kids can go out and try to solve the mystery at hand. They do this through the use of time cubes and a number of actions, each of which uses one time cube to perform.
Actions include walking between areas on the map with moving to a restricted area taking more time represented by two cubes. Your kids can also ride the bus which connects a string of locations on the main island. As long as your parents are happy, you can also call for a ride and move to any non-restricted area on the map. Doing this does frustrate your parents though so you will have to move your favour cube down one (if your favour with your parents ever drops to the third spot you get grounded losing two time cubes a turn until you make them happy again). One final way to move is to ride hacked robots as mentioned above.
When not moving you can scout adjacent locations to flip over their rumour cards or scout a robot to see a couple of its hacking tiles. When at a location with a rumour you can investigate that rumour which will involve making some kind of test to see how well you did. Investigating rumours is a big part of the game and is required to gain Insight and prevent getting too much Enigma.
If at the same location as another kid you can trade items (but not your signature items). There is also always the option to hack a robot which will usually require multiple kids and multiple checks.
Earlier I mentioned losing time cubes to conditions. You can get those cubes back by resting. Also, when done everything you want to do for the day you can spend a cube to make it home in time for dinner, which improves your favour rating with your parents.
Even when you don’t spend a cube to go home for dinner you are expected to end your turn at your home or else you lose favour with your parents, which could result in being grounded.
Along with these standard actions there are lots of other ways to spend your time, like working on your chores, interacting with specific locations, doing tasks required by the current scenario, etc.
When taking these actions players are allowed to act in any order. There aren’t any player turns or any initiative system here. You can even interrupt one player’s actions to have another player do something in between, which I found to be very freeing.
Once all kids have taken all of their actions you end the day. You check to see who made it home for dinner, move the calendar marker ahead one day and start a new day at school. Most scenarios give you a set time limit for figuring out the mystery which is in increments of one or two weeks.
As for what you are trying to accomplish when taking all these actions that totally depends on the scenario. You may be investigating haywire bots, trying to stop out of control parents from having a drag race downtown, moving around town planting alien seeds, or just filming the strange stuff happening in your hometown. Each scenario in Tales From the Loop The Boardgame plays very differently.
In general, you will be splitting your time between investigating rumours, trying to keep your parents happy, completing chores, and doing tasks specific to the scenario on hand.
The actual win and loss conditions are specific to each scenario, with most of the scenarios featuring branching paths and multiple ways to both win or lose.
While there’s definitely something to be said about playing a new scenario fresh for the first time and discovering the mystery bit by bit, all of the scenarios in Tales From the Loop are designed to be totally replayable.
Is Tales From the Loop The Boardgame fun?
Before I get into my thoughts on this Tales From the Loop board game, I want to point out that I’m a huge Tales From the Loop fan. I first got to experience this world at Queen City Conquest in Buffalo and after playing just one game under a wonderful GM, Ange, I immediate walked over to the retail area and bought a copy of the roleplaying game.
Since then I’ve also gotten and reviewed The Tales from the Loop RPG Starter Set, and have played in a few more games of the RPG.
I love The Loop setting. As someone who grew up in the 80s and was one of those “kids on bikes” in that time period, I instantly connect with the setting. While I never thought that roleplaying as a kid in the 80s would be fun, it’s the unique alternate history version that sucked me in. This is also a setting that will appeal to fans of 80s movies like E.T., Stand By Me, The Goonies, etc. as well as modern shows like Stranger Things.
This love of the Tales From the Loop genre is what immediately drew me to this board game, and as a fan, I’m always happy to have more Loop content. I also really dig that they included a background book for people who aren’t as familiar with the setting.
What this board game does best is to get you into The Loop setting. Thematically this game is on point. You really do get the feeling that you are a kid in a strange town with strange things going on and the parents just don’t get it. You never have enough time to do what you want to do and things like having to do your chores or be home in time for dinner are a real burden.
The sheer number of options while playing also helps the game feel more immersive. Do you go wander around town checking out rumours or do you work on solving the main mystery? Do you focus on getting your chores done quickly for an early bonus? Do the kids travel together, getting the most out of the help mechanic, or do they split up so they can cover more ground?
Despite not being an actual roleplaying game, each of our plays of Tales From the Loop The Boardgame have resulted in some great roleplaying moments. Things like having a player not able to help out on an important check because they have to be at hockey practice, or having a kid get scared because they tried to help someone climb a fence and they got hurt. We have told some great stories while playing this board game.
The thing is, it’s this ties to a roleplaying game that can be a problem for this board game.
As a fan of the Tales From the Loop RPG, the first thing I noticed about this board game is that it is very much a board game version of the Tales From the Loop RPG. Instead of creating a totally new game and system, the designer of this board game used the statistics and core mechanics from the roleplaying game of the same name. While I understand why I feel like it may not have been the best decision.
The Tales From the Loop board game really feels like someone tried to turn an RPG into an RPG like experience that needs no games master. Like an RPG, this board game is filled with idiosyncrasies, lots of little rules, sub-processes and other fiddly bits. This is not an easy to learn board game and definitely not something you are going to be able to pick up and play right away, especially for groups with little hobby board game experience.
Another aspect of this RPG to board game transition that we found really did not work well is the dice pool system. The dice odds in this game are terrible. An average character making a standard test on something they are okay at, but not good at, only has a 42% chance of success (64% if they push). With four or five players even a kid who is using the skill they are best at only has a 60% chance of success without any help and before pushing.
While those odds work great for an RPG, where failure is something interesting that happens and that pushes the story in a new direction, they are pretty terrible odds for a board game where failure usually means just that. You don’t do what you wanted to do and on top of that, you often take a penalty as well.
Another big problem with this game is how the game is balanced at higher player counts.
When playing with four or more kids (not necessarily players as players can play more than one kid), the game gets extremely difficult, to the point of making some of the scenarios seem impossible. When you have this many kids every kid’s two highlighted skills are reduced by one level. In addition, the robots become more powerful and more difficult to hack. This is combined with an increase in difficulty for many of the things required to complete scenarios, especially in regards to Insight and Enigma trigger points. For example, one scenario requires only 8 Insight to win with two kids but needs 18 Insight to win with four or five.
While it may sound logical that more kids means more ways to get Insight, it doesn’t actually play out that way. Due to skills being lower, you need help more often so you can’t have kids go off on their own, and no matter how many kids you have there are only four rumours up maximum per round.
A bigger problem with four or five players though is that rumour system. With five players you are going to be adding three or four new rumour cards each round, with four being the most common. This means that every round you need to investigate every rumour in play or else you risk cards getting bumped off the end of the board. When cards get bumped off, you take a high Enigma gain. After multiple plays, at five players we found it impossible to keep up with the rumours. We even had one game where we had accrued 48 Enigma, and the tracker on the board only goes to 18 (we were using a scrap piece of paper to keep track).
However, none of these problems were present when playing the game with three kids.
Sadly all of our early plays of this Tales From the Loop Board game were with four or five players and that really soured some of our regular group on the game. I have one friend who refuses to even give it another try. Honestly, Deanna and I were close to saying the same thing but I’m very glad we decided to give the game another shot at lower kid counts.
With four or more players, Tales From the Loop The Boardgame is an exercise in frustration and futility. While it’s quite fun to explore the world of The Loop and the breakout roleplaying moments are awesome and memorable, the ultimate feeling of just getting beaten down by the game counteracts all of that goodwill and leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth.
On the other hand, playing with only three kids or less (the game is surprisingly good solo), this board game can be a very cool way to interact with the world of The Loop. While scenarios still aren’t easy to win, they feel much more manageable and winnable. Most importantly they don’t feel impossible and they give you more time to explore and experience the scenarios you are playing.
Overall, what I find we have here is a board game designed by fans of the Tales From the Loop Roleplaying Game, potentially designed for fans of the Tales From the Loop RPG, and that comes with some problems. This is a hefty, fiddly, complicated board game that is also overly difficult at high player counts. Things like bad dice odds, a high random factor, and multiple subsystems that you have to learn and understand, make this a game that is not very approachable.
All of this combines to make me think that this isn’t going to be a board game for your average hobby board gamer and it’s definitely not a game for an inexperienced group. I can’t see anyone who isn’t already invested in The Loop franchise being willing to take the time and patience needed to learn how to play this game.
On the other hand, for fans of The Loop, especially for fans of the roleplaying game, this could be a good investment. The one thing this game does great is to get you involved in a Tales From the Loop story. Once you get over the fiddly rules and complexity you really can feel like you are playing a pack of kids in the 80s that never was solving all kinds of bizarre mysteries. For some gamers, like me, this is going to be worth the effort. For the average gamer though (and for many of my personal gaming group), this game is just too much to be enjoyable.
Tales From the Loop The Boardgame is going to appeal to a very specific audience and that audience only. More than any other game that we’ve reviewed, this one is very much not for everyone. That said, for the right group, this is going to be a big hit.
I had high hopes for Tales From the Loop The Boardgame. As a fan of Tales From the Loop, in all its forms, I found a lot to like in this game. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for the rest of my regular game group and I fully understand why.
What’s a game you enjoy but that just didn’t go over well with the people you usually play with? Let me know about it in the comments below!