Russian Doll is back, baby! After nearly a three-year wait, the elegantly realised time-loop series drops its second season today on Netflix. This season takes a slightly different spin: instead of our main characters being stuck in their own time loop, they find a portal to other times, and spend the whole season in a kind of Bill & Ted-like frenzy trying to fix and un-fuck what got broken in order to create a magic time portal.
Now, I love a time-loop story. And I’ve played a few time-loop games. I’m excited to recommend seven tabletop role-playing games (and one bonus board game!) to play out some science-fantasy time loop bullshit. Anyone who says “why didn’t you include Chrono Trigger?!” will be shown the door. Chrono Trigger is a video game, go read Kotaku.
Directly inspired by Russian Doll, Eli Seitz crowdfunded Thursday during Zine Quest in 2021. It’s an incredibly tight game that relies on the Belonging Outside Belonging token-passing game engine to drive the narrative. As you (and your fellow time-loopers) navigate a crumbling world, you have to learn from your mistakes and learn how to be less selfish and stubborn. This game is a dissection of common tropes seen in millennial slice-of-life sitcoms, and the flavour of the character sheets are the real standouts among an incredibly well-written game.
Once More Unto the Breach
Based on one of my favourite lightweight systems (Lasers and Feelings by John Harper), Once More Unto the Breach by Wouter Eilers is a direct and easily adaptable RPG about apocalypse survivors who slip back in time in order to prevent the end of the world. You have two stats, roll D6 in a clear under/over success/fail system, and are trying to pick up clues in order to prevent your timeline’s Ragnarok… but it might already be happening, or it might not be avoidable at all.
With a tagline like “One last job. Twice,” I really can’t say anything that will be much cooler than that. Time Heist, by Chloe Mashiter as roll / flip / draw, uses a flexible pass/fail system that adjusts based on the difficult of any given task. With detailed diagrams explaining how time criminals can go about committing time crimes, this game is focused and direct, but allows for a lot of interpretation. I feel like the key to time-loop games is a balance of ingenuity and constraint, and Time Heist gives the GM a lot of power to leverage both.
Using coin flips for character creation and a scarce resource pool to show movement, Too O’Clock allows a group of players to control one person through a time loop. Another game directly inspired by Russian Doll, this game also has elements of Groundhog Day and Palm Springs, where moments are played out, but with more and more knowledge every time. I really like that designer Xander Hinners provides a way to collaboratively form both the setting and the person stuck in the loop.
Your Dead Friend
I am always delighted when I get a reason to feature Jeeyon Shim, whose writing and art I find engaging and inspirational across the board. Your Dead Friend is a melancholy meditation on friendship and moving on. This is more of a LARP than a TTRPG, but it’s wonderfully fitting for a time loop list, as you walk with a friend and attempt to warn them about their death until you finally allow it to happen.
I love a campy classic and Weird Age Games’ Retrocausality is a time travel game that takes inspiration from the big ‘80s adventures: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Back to the Future. This game has an extended section on creating the rules of time travel, but it’s written in a way that helps you create those rules — more like a world-building guide for your own game than a piece of lore you’re stuck to. Retrocausality uses a custom card-based system that relates to the kind of problem you’re looking to solve, and specifically encourages fucking with the both the historic and gameplay timelines.
Thunder in Our Hearts
It’s always a flex when a creator hacks their own game to focus on a different aspect of a genre, and Marn S has taken their time-heist game Time to Drop and created Thunder in Our Hearts, a romantic comedy time loop game about a wedding party caught in the endless Big Day. I really appreciate a game that uses tarot cards as a world-building device, and the combination of oracle deck and dice in this game engine is spectacular. Marn’s comic writing is brilliantly displayed, and this is absolutely a game that will have you laughing and pulling your hair out.
That Time You Killed Me
I did promise one board game, didn’t I? Well, look, I’ve lost every game of That Time You Killed Me that I’ve ever played, and I still ask my friends to beat me on a regular basis. This 1-v-1 game takes place across three boards as you attempt to murder your former best friend. As the game progresses you get more and more pieces that complicate the three boards, turning into sci-fi 3-D chess and creating fun and strategic gameplay. Pick this one up if you can; the games are fast-paced, the rules are easy to learn, and eventually I will beat one of you.