There’s something very enticing about the mix of nostalgia and sci-fi that Tales From the Loop taps into. Simon Stålenhag’s art book, with its mix of towering robots and teenage rebellions, evokes it with enough power that it’s spawned multiple media spin-offs. That now includes a board game where you can solve your very own Stranger Things-like mystery on your tabletop.
The Loop itself is a particle accelerator built beneath an ordinary slice of ’80s Swedish suburbia where people raise families and kids go to school. But all is not what it seems: The Loop causes odd things to happen in the area and the players, cooperating as curious teens, need to slip away from parental supervision and find out what’s going on. So, is it one of the best cooperative board games?
What is it, and how does it work?
– Game type: Cooperative strategy
– Players: 1 – 5
– Difficulty: Moderate
– Lasts: 90+ mins
– Ages: 12+
– Price: $74.09 / £71.99
– Play if you enjoy: Stranger Things
Each mystery in Tales From the Loop is represented by a scenario. There are eight in the base game, and once you’ve solved them all, you can buy additional scenario packs. What scenario you pick will influence how you set up the board as well as give you some narrative text and a starting goal. You won’t know how to win until you’ve worked together to unpeel several more layers of the puzzle.
Players also pick a kid each, with a different strength, weakness, and starting item. As well as delving into the terrors of the cosmos, your kid will also have to contend with a weekly chore to complete and occasional school assignments. The juxtaposition of Scooby-Doo style sleuthing and the humdrum demands of everyday life make a great narrative mix.
Mechanically, movement is interesting with normal movement being point to point. You’ll have a stock of action cubes per day which you can use to move around the island by foot, bus, or, if you’ve been doing your chores, parental lifts. This allows you to look into rumours of strange goings-on. But beware: your cubes are reduced if you get hurt or scared. It’s also worth pointing out that the board is overlaid with a grid used by antagonists that permits faster movement.
Enemies in the game mostly take the form of robots that have, for one reason or another, gone amok. But they’re still robots, and that means if you can approach them safely and hack them, you can hitch a ride and use the grid to visit farther-flung locales. While this two-tier movement system adds an interesting layer of strategy, in practice it can be quite confusing to read the board correctly and plot your moves.
If you don’t investigate rumour cards, which are drawn at random into various board locales, they’ll pile up and cause you to lose. Rumours often help you unlock the mystery too, so checking them out is a good idea.
Doing so, like most things in the game (including robot hacking), requires a series of dice rolls. These are modified by your items, strengths, and weaknesses, and you’re looking for sixes to succeed. If you fail, you can “push” the task, risking injury to get a reroll. You can also spend an extra action cube to scout out a robot or rumour first, so you can prepare for what’s coming. It gives a little bit of extra decision-making to what’s otherwise a rather random, repetitive process.
Gameplay – is it any good?
From the rules summary, you have hopefully got a general sense of the shape of the game. Unfortunately, that’s probably all you’ll have after reading the rulebook too. While the broad mechanics are clear enough, as soon as you dive in and start playing, you’ll find a wealth of omissions and edge cases that aren’t covered. A careful flick through the included player aid and online playthrough videos from the publisher will make things clear, but it’s startling that a premium-price game like this can’t explain it in the first place.
When things do start to come together, the standout concept in the game is the branching scenario path. It’s been done before but rarely so well as here, combining well with the drudgery of school and home life to create an engaging slice of sci-fi ’80s life. Not knowing your final goal might feel frustrating at first, but it soon leans into a delicious sense of mystery as your objectives begin to fall into place one by one. However, at the same time, it does lessen the replay value of each scenario, even if you fail.
And failure is a very real option. Getting around much further than your hometown, the local shops, and the school with your measly allowance of action cubes is difficult. Hitching lifts on robots and solving rumours often requires two players to help each other with the tasks, meaning they have to be in the same locale. At the same time, the demands of chores, school, and home life will push players in their own individual directions. Getting the balance right as the time ticks down and robots rampage around the map is the meat of the game, and it’s a fun challenge.
What’s not so fun is actually seeing if you resolve the challenges as they turn up. Almost all of them use the same mechanic of rolling a pool of dice and looking for a six. You will end up doing this a lot and it gets rather tiresome. Other cooperative games – and many of the best board games, for that matter – do use similar systems, but they tend to have a bit more variety in terms of how you build the pool with different stats and one-shot items, not to mention interlacing with other mechanical aspects. Not so in Tales From the Loop.
There’s also a lot of administrative overhead in keeping the game ticking over. Different paths through each scenario mean digging different cards out of the box. It’s the same for the various robot enemies, of which there will be several types in play at once with different behaviour cards you’ll need to keep checking, cross-referencing, and changing. The number of variables helps to keep the game interesting, but it also stops you from learning the routines and getting into a groove, meaning the annoying overhead stays annoying.
Overall – should you buy the Tales From the Loop board game?
With its poor rulebook and clunky play, it’s hard to recommend Tales from the Loop from the wealth of much better cooperative board games for adults on offer. That said, there is a much better game with some fun, novel narrative and strategic elements buried inside the cruft, struggling to get out. If you’re a fan of the wider Loop franchise, it’s probably worth your time and effort trying to dig it free.
2.5 out of 5
Tales from the Loop – The Board Game
In spite of a compelling mystery, some clunky mechanics and repetitive gameplay let down Tales From the Loop – The Board Game.