|Components & Design
All photos in this review include the expansion “The Gore Years”. This does not change the way the game plays, it just adds a few more events at the end of the timeline and more IDs and missions.
After our recent blast to the past with Tombouctou and Quarto, it’s time to fast forward again to a time when I was legally allowed to drink and drive – not at the same time, obviously. What? Fast Forward doesn’t work like that, you say? Oh believe me, it does, because this week, we’re going time travelling! Can I even be time travelling this week? If I time travel this week, doesn’t that mean I will had been time travelled-ing all the time? Douglas Adams was right – time travel does make grammar very confusing.
For obvious reasons, I’m just going to review the game as it is now, so any changes you make to the rules in the past by travelling back there may not be reflected here.
Chrononauts is a fast-paced little card game by Looney Labs, more recently loved – or hated, depending on who you ask – for their various incarnations of Fluxx. Compared to that one, Chrononauts is a slightly more predictable playing experience. Funny, if you consider that part of the game is creating time paradoxes.
In Chrononauts, you are a time traveller. Not just any time traveller, but a time traveller that stepped on the wrong bug, killed the wrong grandfather or maybe accidentally dropped his sandwich into the primordial soup. Either way, you’re a time traveller that got lost and is now stuck in another time line where weird events happened and the whole of history is mixed up. Actually, it’s a timeline that looks suspiciously like our own. But we will soon fix that.
The timeline is a grid of cards that is set up in the middle of the table in – believe it or not – chronological order from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 20th (or the 21th if you’re playing with the The Gore Years expansion).In the timeline, there is two different kind of events: linchpins and ripplepoints. A linchpin is an event that can be changed through player interaction. To change history at a linchpin, you turn over the card and find the alternative outcome on the backside. So if, for example, you change history at the Titanic Sinks linchpin, the backside of the card tells you that Titanic avoids Iceberg. Of course, time travel is not that easy, and as all the great time travellers in history had to discover actions have consequences: Every linchpin tells you the event that are effected by it’s ripples. These ripplepoints are then also turned over (at least in most cases, some ripplepoints require to linchpins to be changed before), but they don’t show you a tidy different outcome on the backside. Instead, they have a paradox. We’re destabilizing the timeline, but I’m sure nothing bad will happen because of that … .
So, why are we doing all this? Zooming around history, melting icebergs, saving presidents? Well, mainly in order to get home. The first way to victory in Chrononauts is to get back to your own timeline. To start the game, every player receives one ID card. This card tells you who you are – please do read the short background story on the cards, they’re awesome – and, more importantly, where you came from. Every time traveller originates from a timeline that shares one important event with ours and differs in two others. When you manage to recreate this timeline, you’re home and win the game. The state of the rest of history – all the other cards in the timeline – has no effect on your victory. I guess you can’t be picky once you messed up your own history.
But what if you can’t get home? No matter how hard you try, someone always changes history in ways that are unfamiliar to you. Being home may be nice, but being filthy rich in any other timeline is a close second. The second way to victory is completing your Mission, and get paid for it. Your mission is a list of 3 historic artifacts that someone is very interested in and willing to pay handsomely for. When you have those artifacts on the table in front of you, you win.
Third, you can win by having 10 cards in your hand, not counting ID and Mission. In all our games, no one ever won the game in this way, but it does put an ending condition on the game since you are more likely to acquire additional cards during the game than lose them.All the victory conditions only apply during your turn, so try not to look to happy when someone else restores your home timeline or you can be sure it won’t survive to see your turn.
Next to your Mission and ID, you start with 3 cards on your hands. A turn of Chrononauts is ridiculously simple: you draw one new card, and then you play one card from your hand. With only four cards to chose from, making a decision is not rocket science, so the game keeps moving at a nice pace. Playing cards from your hands has different effects, depending on the type of card:
Inverters: playing an Inverter changes one linchpin in the timestream. There is different kinds of Inverters with different linchpins they can affect. Reverse Fate can turn any linchpin, Restore History can only restore a linchpin that was previously changed to it’s original state and others like Prevent Assassination can only make very specific changes to some linchpins. When inverting a linchpin, remember to flip the rippleploints affected by it.
Patches: When changing linchpins of history, you will invariably end up with some paradoxes. Remember when I said that I’m sure nothing bad will happen because of those? I was lying. If, at any point, there is more than 12 paradoxes in the timeline, the whole space-time continuum tears apart under the stress and the game ends immediately with no winner. To prevent that, you patch paradoxes. A patch is an alternate event in history to prevent a paradox. It smoothes out the ripples that come from flipping a linchpin and makes the events compatible with later history. Reusing our Titanic example: when you save the Titanic from hitting an iceberg (flipping the 1912 linchpin), you prevent the Black Tuesday stock market crash, causing a paradox (you flip the 1929 ripplepoint – if this connection doesn’t seem obvious to you, Andrew Looney has posted an explanation of some of the more unlikely temporal relations). To fix the 1929 paradox, you apply the patch Titanic Explodes. The ship is gone again, the stock market presumably crashes and the movie Titanic follows an altogether different plot. Besides preventing the gruesome end of time itself, there is two more good reasons to patch up the timeline: the events on your ID card refer to patches. To restore your own timeline, two specific patches are needed. And also, the T.R.A. (Time Repair Agency) pays a reward of one card for any patch you successfully apply. This is the way to grow your card hand to an eventual, slow victory by ten cards.
There are two years that are special in regard to patching. While all other ripplepoints have one patch that fixes them, 1945 has several. World War 2 was a giant mess, and depending on which events were changed, different patches can be applied. One of these patches is World Peace, so if you want an extra challenge for your game, you can always try to restore your own timeline with the addition of that. What good is being a time traveller if you cannot improve stuff sometimes?
The other special year is 1962 – The Cuban Missile Crisis. If you prevent the missile crisis from happening, the only way that history can keep going is World War 3, and with the nuclear arms race in full swing, humanity is wiped out. This makes all of human history after 1962 inaccessible, no one can change history, apply patches or retrieve artifacts from there until the Cuban Missile Crisis is restored and World War 3 averted.
Artifacts: artifact cards are placed on the table in front of you, so everyone can see what you’re currently carrying around with you. These artifacts are what you need to complete your mission, and there is a wide range of different things to steal from the timeline. You can have different species of live dinosaurs with you, religious artifacts like the Ark of the Covenant or more mundane things like tomorrow’s newspaper or a sport’s almanac from the future – Hello McFly… . Or you could steal one of the Mona Lisas. One of them? Yes, there is three Mona Lisas in Chrononauts: the original, and two forgeries of widely different qualities. The best one that is currently in the game is considered the real one, so it’s entirely possible to give the obvious forgery to your mysterious buyer.
Gadgets: like artifacts, gadgets are placed on the table in front of you. Unlike artifacts, gadgets are useful. The Very Fast Time Machine, for example, lets you apply a second patch on every turn.
Actions: action cards are resolved as you play them and then discarded. There is a wide variety of actions, and while some are useful – like Get There First to pick up an artifact that another player thought they had found already or Your Parents Never Met that forces a player to change their ID – some are downright chaotic and give the game a very uncontrollable and Fluxxish feel when they come up a lot.
And finally Timewarps: Timewarps are actions, but more powerful. Timewarps let you play more cards on your turn or search the draw or discard pile for a specific card that you want. The difference from action cards is that you can pick timewarps when going through a pile in this way. One timewarp that deserves special mention is the Memo From Your Future Self that you can play at any time to prevent any action as it is being taken.
The game ends after about 30 minutes (or sometimes after five, if someone didn’t realise how many paradoxes his actions would cause) and in games with more than 3 players, the victory is usually a very close one. There will always be someone that only needed one more artifact to win, or to patch one more paradox to be home. This photo-finish ending is not surprising when you think about the victory conditions: there is not much that you need to do, three artifacts or two patches are always close, the bigger problem is to actually find that one card that you were missing, so being close to victory is relative here. This illustrates the biggest downside in Chrononauts: it’s a luck game. You can do some planning ahead, and with a bit of thinking, you can figure out what your opponents want to do and try to stop them, but if you don’t draw the right cards, there is nothing you can do. Luck is not quite as big a factor as it is in Fluxx – a game that is usually won by accident and by someone else – but making plans is still mostly a waste of time.
But in a game like Chrononauts, this emphasis on luck is not a bad thing. It is designed to have fun with a bunch of friends when you don’t want to commit all your attention on a heavy game but want something fun to do while talking after dinner. For that need, Chrononauts delivers perfectly: it keeps everyone involved, but no one brooding over their next turn, it gives you chances to mess with the other players, but everyone has a fighting chance to win until the very end, and if you didn’t pay attention what the other players did on their turn because you were talking about something else, you don’t lose the game because of that.
The light gameplay also meshes beautifully with the silly theme on everything. The illustrations are cartoony and the flavour text on the cards is quirky and fun. Some of the patches will have you scratch your head how they are supposed to fix history, but someone around the table will come up with a sufficiently unlikely story to explain that.
The manual has two rules variants for Chrononauts which, unlike the game itself, didn’t do much for me. There is Solonauts, a solo variant to bring five or more time travellers home to their own timelines. This may actually be fun, but I really don’t enjoy solo boardgames. I play them to play with other people, if I want to play solo it will be on a screen with blinkenlichten. So I withhold judgement on this one. The other variant removes IDs, patches, the whole timeline and only plays to complete the mission. This variant just seems empty, you take out most of the game and draw cards until you have a set of three. The manual says that one possible reason to play this variant is to make the game suitable for younger players, but even for very young players the ruleset “draw one, play one, when you have those three the game is over” seems to simplistic. If anything, what Chrononauts could use is a variant that makes the changes in the timeline more elaborate, like cascading changes through ripplepoints, more ripplepoints that require a set of prerequisites to flip and so on. But that would add a lot more bookkeeping to the game and make it less lightweight, so I’m happy with Chrononauts as it is.
Apart from the expansion The Gore Years, which we use all the time, there is another expansion called Lost Identities that introduces 13 new IDs to the game and a separate game called Early American Chrononauts that works the same as regular Chrononauts but is set in the 1800s and can be merged with it for a longer timeline to mess up. We didn’t have the chance yet to try Lost Identities or Early American Chrononauts, but we certainly will, given the opportunity.